First chapter of work in progress fantasy novel
The rain lashed down in sheets as he rode through the wooden gates to the town. It had been raining solidly for four days now, a fact he had miserably become used to. It was a cold rain, that hypothermic rain that not only dampens your clothes and spirits, but seems to chill to the very core essence of the soul, leaving you as numb as the very stone that lined the road his horse walked upon.
He looked up, peering through the cascade of water pouring from the brim of his hat and running down his neck and chest so that, not even the considerable protection from his sodden riding cloak could keep him dry.
Slowly, the sign swung on its fixing. On it were carved the words GELSENBURG.
Keeping his mount to a slow walk, he continued into the main street of Gelsenburg. To his left and right shops and houses were shuttered and boarded up. What are they keeping out, he thought. What are they keeping in?
Past a tavern, a smithy, and a bakery, past a fletcher and the town crier’s lodgings, he proceeded until he came upon the great hall, the amber glow from the fires within doing little to bring cheer to the gloom that surrounded the communal building, the sounds from within a mere echo of the happiness from years gone by.
He dismounted, tethered his horse, and whispered in its ear before turning on his heels, and walked up to the entrance.
Twice he knocked on the door before a hatch opened and a suspicious, untrusting eye peered out.
“Who goes there?” whispered the occupant of the building. The rider said nothing.
“Who goes there?” the voice rasped a second time, “State your business, or else be on your way.”
“I’m just a traveller, on my way to Gunfeld. I require shelter for the night, and water for my horse.”
“Wait there.” Grumbled the doorkeep, slamming the hatch shut. The rider waited patiently, as much because it wouldn’t be possible to get any wetter as because that was his disposition. After a few short moments, a bundle of waterlogged clothes, topped by a wide-brimmed hat came stumbling from the side of the building, nodded at the rider, mumbled something, and held out a slim hand. The rider took a leather pouch from the belt within his cloak, untied the top, and took out a coin. Wide eyes peered out from under the hat as the silver glinted in the faint firelight.
“Mm...thank you sir..” gasped the lad, “That’s more than I could hope to earn in a year!”
The rider just studied him. The boy started to feel eyes probing the very centre of him, and shifted uneasily.
“Your horse, sir?” The boy held his hand out for the reins. The rider shook his cloak from one shoulder, and a gloved hand passed the leather straps over.
He still said nothing.
The boy hesitated for a second, unable to move from the stranger’s unseen gaze, then led the horse to the stable. The door to the hall opened. Smells of freshly roasted pork combined with the pungent odour of ale assailed the rider’s nose, whilst his ears were met with the sounds of drunken revellers.
Strange that I didn’t hear from outside, he thought. Could the poison have reached so far so quickly?
He stepped inside and was quickly met by a broken twig of a man who motioned for his cloak. The rider removed his cloak, passing it to the old man’s outstretched arms, but when the man indicated to his hat, the rider declined, simply moving across to a table in a shadowed corner of the hall. He pulled out a chair, and sat around the small table, positioning himself to take in the whole room.
The hall wasn’t especially deep, but was quite wide. To the right of where he sat, in the centre of one wall, was a blazing hearth, heating the room. Over the hearth, a winsome, colourless girl sat on a stool, turning the handle on a spit, upon which was impaled the most anorexic looking pig he had ever seen. The girl looked up at him, and immediately looked away. But for the stranger travelling to Gunfeld, that brief glimpse told him all he needed to know about her. Her eyes appeared lifeless.
He allowed his eyes to continue their drift around the room.
The rest of the room contained more tables, around which were the townsfolk. Some sat, some stood, some danced, but despite the merry-making, there was a definite melancholy atmosphere. The smiles seemed forced, the eyes downturned at the edges.
On the left hand side, opposite the hearth, was a simple ale serving area. Three barrels on end, bridged by wooden planks served as a bar table, behind which stood a ferret-faced man, all beady eyes and rat-tailed moustache. The rider observed this was the man who had greeted him so warmly at the entrance. Ferret Man scurried over to his table, wiped it quickly with a dirty cloth pulled from his apron, and enquired as to his order.
“What’s good here?” asked the rider.
“Ale.” replied Ferret Man, “S’all we got here. Not particularly fresh, but it’s cheap. Most folks ‘round here’ll drink anything.” With that, he scurried away to the bar table to search for a relatively clean mug. He returned with a full tankard, the head slipping over the top to slug its way down the side.
“There you go, two shillings. You can settle in the morning. I assume you’ll be after a room for the night?” The rider nodded.
“Well, I ain’t got any.” Ferret Man continued without waiting for the reply, “But for a shilling more you can bed down in here. It’s dry, and I think I can find some old blankets. I’ll get Tarl to bring some in when I kick this crowd out.”
The time for the townsfolk to leave soon came, and as Ferret Man escorted the last few reluctant revellers out into the rain, the bundle of ragged cloaks that the rider assumed was Tarl spoke with him, and hurried off to fetch the blankets. The old man who had taken the rider’s cloak was clearing tables and stools away, and the girl by the spit was busying herself collecting glasses and mugs whilst the fire died down to the embers that would be left for the night.
Tarl returned and handed the blankets to Ferret Man, who scuttled towards the rider. With a curt “Here you go” he dumped the bundle on the table, and hurried away to the far end of the hall, and into a back room.
“Don’t mind him, he’s a bit crude, but you’ll find no tavern or hall as trouble free as Dorek’s.” The rider looked up from the blanket to see the old man and the boy standing before him. “He’s suspicious of everyone, more so these days, what with the....”
“Shhh” chastised the old man, “This gentleman’s had a long ride, and doesn’t want no fireside tall tales from you, my lad.”
“Sorry Grampa, “ said the boy, “I didn’t mean to speak out of turn.”
“Please excuse Tarl, s’not often he gets to speak to outsiders.” said the old man, “It’s true to say the town’s seen better days, but our problems are our problems, and it’s not fair to burden you with them.”
Tarl and his grampa moved over to their bedrolls by the fire, and started bedding down for the night.
“You can sleep over by the fire!” called the boy, with a look in his eyes suggesting that no sleep would be had if the rider did. This boy would want stories and tales to ignite his imagination, and the rider had a few to tell, so many that the night would pass without a wink of sleep.
The rider said nothing, preferring to stay in his corner of the hall, and started laying out his blankets. When he was done, he sat down, and studied the room again. There was something nagging at the back of his mind, something that wouldn’t let him rest until it had been addressed.
His gaze rested on the boy and the old man. Clearly, if they were not family, as they had suggested, they were very close. He could see that from they way the old man fussed over the boy as he fell asleep. There was something about that boy. Something the rider couldn’t quite put his finger on. Maybe this was the feeling the librarian had alluded to a month ago when he set out on his ride. The sense he would know when he was in the presence of one of the seven. Then again, he thought, maybe that ale wasn’t really that good at all, some over-ripe hops, or perhaps the yeast hadn’t been allowed to ferment properly. The librarian had said the signs would be clear, but the rider had expected perhaps a glowing aura, or even a huge arrow pointing at them from above, but as the doubt as to whether this was one of the Seven cemented itself in his mind, his thoughts spread to the rest of his charge.
But doubt, even at this early stage, was a thought process he knew he could not afford to entertain. He had to remain firm of purpose, else all could be lost.
Then, from across the room, by the bar table, he felt someone’s gaze touch him. It sent a chill through his being. Looking over, he saw it was the girl who regarded him, with a stare that left him feeling warm, comfortable, relaxed. So why, he thought, do I not trust her?
As the boy, the old man and the girl lay down for the night, the rider allowed himself to relax, and slowly, his eyes closed and he fell asleep.
He woke in the middle of the night to find the girl had slid under his blankets beside him.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she whispered, “There have been so many strange things happening in Gelsenburg lately, and since my brother disappeared a week ago, it’s been so lonely for me.”
She started to loosen her shift, allowing it to fall from her shoulder revealing her slender neck. Her skin in the low firelight was milky white and inviting to the touch. She slipped the shift to her waist, exposing her slim shoulders and small breasts to the cold of the night. Can’t be more than fifteen winters old, thought the rider, trying to pull away from the girl as she offered herself to him. He found himself unable to move, frozen as if in some perverted dream from which he couldn’t wake. Yet he was awake, his presence of mind strong enough to tell him this, strong enough to recognise that, no matter how hard he tried to move, he was paralysed, helpless to do nothing but watch the girl move against his body.
“Please sir, let us share our warmth, share each other, let me sink into you, and let you feel what you’re longing to feel. The girl took his hand, moving it across her chest to caress her collarbone, up her neck to her mouth, where she gently kissed his wrist.
It was all he could do to regain enough movement to snatch his hand away. There was something pleasurable about the way she touched him, but also, something that repulsed him, something that made him want to be as far away as possible from this bewitching girl.
“What is wrong?” she purred at him, “Am I not pleasing to your eye?”
She took hold of his hand again, more forcibly this time, with strength her muscles had concealed, bringing his wrist to her mouth.
“Just one taste, good sir,” she opened her mouth, revealing needle sharp teeth. Her breath carried the stench of decay. “Just one small taste...”
She bit down, and screamed in pain as her teeth chipped upon the metal lying underneath his skin. She flew back from him, into the air and hung there, her hair billowing, completely unashamed of her nakedness. Free of her touch, the rider was able to scramble to his feet, pulling his sickle from his pack that lay beside his blankets.
The wight girl screamed. “If you will not love me, then you will feed me!” and she swooped towards him, holding out her arms towards him, finger talons dripping with poison. The rider ducked as she passed, holding the arm she tried to bite above his head. The poison burned his skin where it touched his hand, through to the silver metal underneath.
She hung in the air before the hearth, unnatural winds whipping the hearth ash around her in a tornado of splinters and embers.
“Too bad you chose to sleep here, traveller, for it seems your first night in Gelsenburg, will be your last!”
She dived at him again, screeching talons ready to sink into his face, but as she neared him, he spun to his left, swinging his right arm down in one clean, fluid motion. The sickle passed through the wight’s neck as though there was nothing there, the body flew into the wall behind him, the head falling to the floor. Immediately, the body and severed head began to decompose so that, within seconds of the wight’s decapitation, there was nothing but dust to mark it’s passing.
The rider brushed off his sickle and replaced it into his pack. It would need a proper cleaning before he’d be prepared to put it to it’s intended use, that of gathering the wild vegetables, roots and herbs that comprised his meals.
Why did the old man or the boy not come to my aid, or even wake, he thought to himself, replacing a stray hair behind his ear. Are they somehow connected to this? He glanced over in the direction of where the old man and his grandson had slept. Both bedrolls were empty.
A clatter came from the small door at the back of the hall. Gathering his pack, hat and cloak, the rider crept swiftly to the door, pressing his ear against the cracks in the wood, straining to hear where the noise had come from.
He could hear footsteps scuffing in the room beyond, a door opening, and being left to bang shut. He tried the door handle, but the door was stuck fast. Bracing himself, he barged his shoulder against the door, which gave fairly easily.
Inside the back room, there was no light, except that which came in from outside. I t was enough to see by. It was a small room, sparsely furnished, with a simple table and chair in one far corner, straw covered with blankets for a bed opposite the table, both of which to the left of the rider as he stood in the doorway from the hall. To the right, was the door to the street outside, through which someone had obviously just left.
Having quickly scanned the room for anything of importance or worth and finding nothing, the rider left the hall by the back door, and into the darkness beyond.
In the street, the rider was drawn from the town gates to a nearby copse of pinewood trees, from which emanated an amber glow and the sound of chanting. As he drew closer, he found himself on the edge of a clearing. The sight he saw within the clearing nearly stopped his heart.
Five huge fires burned. Between the fires stood the townsfolk, the same townsfolk who, hours earlier had played the part of drunken carousers, and now took on a very sinister air, as they completed the pentagram noded by the bonfires, their hair whipped by winds only they could feel. Whatever it was that had possessed the serving girl in the hall seemed to have possessed them too.
The rider crouched down and scanned the crowds, taking measure of the spectacle before him, when he spotted the ferret-faced proprietor of the drinking hall taking position. His thoughts turned to that of the boy and his grampa. Were they a part of this too? Certainly the rider had felt some sort of feeling in their presence, but, if he were honest, it wasn’t quite the same as that of Dorek and the serving girl.
From out of the trees to his left, two of the townsfolk, the blacksmith and a woodsman judging by their clothing, marched towards the centre of the pentagram, dragging behind them a sack that appeared to be attempting to fight back. A third man followed him, with someone slumped over his shoulder. The rider edged closer, peering at the cargo the three men carried.
Over the third’s shoulder was slung the old man from the drinking hall. He was unconscious, but judging by the bruises around his eyes and head, he hadn’t gone easily. The man that carried him also appeared bruised, which at least suggested to the rider that not all of the townsfolk were exactly the same as the creature he had faced in the hall. The old man was carried over his assailant’s left shoulder, because his right arm had been broken at the elbow. The boy had never looked capable of inflicting such an injury, thought the rider, Grampa must be real tough.
The two men in the lead entered into the space cleared between the five fires, and dropped the sack, which let out a groan. The rider then knew what was within the sack. For whatever reason the boy was necessary, he was required alive.
From between the lines of vacant onlookers stepped forth a man in black, red and purple robes, with a pendulous silver chain around his neck, and the skull of a kroxus upon his head, the teeth still intact and blood-stained. Hopefully not the boy’s, thought the rider. The man proclaimed to the gathering, and the blacksmith untied the thong at the top of the bag. The boy tumbled out. The third man had caught up by now, and dumped his passenger on the floor next to his grandson. The old man started to come to, and tried to get to his feet. The robed man waved a hand, and Grampa found he couldn’t move, save for to kneel before this dark priest.
The blacksmith placed the boy upon a wood altar on his back, and spread out his arms and legs, whilst the woodsman slipped rope around the boy’s wrists and ankles, tying them to pegs that had been hammered into the ground.
The robed man then started chanting anew, and as the crowd chanted in unison, he raised his hands to the sky.
The sky overhead then clouded over, a billowing, churning storm in miniature, localised within the pentagram. The robed man appeared to focus on nothing, appeared to shape thin air, then within the space his hands created, a mist formed, fighting to be free of it’s ethereal prison, screaming, straining against unseen bonds to be free to inhabit the prone child.
So this is what’s got into this town, thought the rider.
The mist sank lower and lower toward the boy, struggling with the robed man for control of the possession.
Now the rider made his move. With sickle in hand, he slowly rose to his feet.
“This stops now.” he said, not shouting, but loud enough to be heard. Several of the townsfolk turned to face him. There was a blank vacancy in their eyes that looked right through him. Still, he knew he had their attention. They started towards him, some revealing the same needle teeth and poisoned talons he had faced in the hall, those newer to their possession brandishing all manner of farming and household utensils, the corruption of their bodies not having taken full effect. All lusted for his blood and flesh.
They were almost upon him before he moved, and when he did, it was with such lightning quick accuracy, most never saw him move upon them before seeing vital limbs dropping to the ground. Some of the older possessed managed to rake at his skin and clothes, gouging deep, burning wounds to his arms and face, burning through his clothing, yet still he careened through them, slicing this way, slashing that, parrying cleavers and spades, severing arms, legs and heads. The more he fought, the more there were to fight, as more of the possessed brethren joined battle. All the while, the mist sank closer to the boy.
On and on he fought, beginning to tire as wave after relentless wave of mindless attackers clawed their way through to him, taking hold of him, dragging him down under the weight of their superior numbers. The rider closed his eyes, preparing for the inevitable ebbing of his life, when, to his surprise, there was a way clear ahead for him, and a gnarled hand reaching towards his.
The old man helped the rider back to his feet, and the two stood back to back as the possessed closed rank about them. The rider had no idea how the old man had regained his senses, or how he had fought his way through the mass of bodies, and now was not the time to allow his thoughts to deliberate. With a simple shared nod between the two, they braced for the charge, which came swiftly as the brethren howled for the blood of these two who sought to disrupt the dark ritual taking place.
The rider raised his sickle, holding his ground as the rush came toward him. But for the second time that night, the old man surprised him, by running directly into the crowd! With nothing but a simple staff the rider thought no more than a crutch, the old man spun between that startled townsfolk, tripping some here, ramming the butt of his staff in the stomach of others there. The blacksmith and the woodsman rushed to engage him, and he held his staff before him, barring the way. They danced around the staff, the old man barely able to hold the stronger, younger men.
“What’re ye waiting for?” he yelled at the rider, still staring dumbfounded at the old man’s considerable skill. “I have to take on all these wights by myself?
With the faintest glimmer of a smile, the rider leapt into the fray, slaying three possessed with his first stroke.
“You’re good,” shouted the old man, “But you’ve still a lot to learn!”
With a kick to the blacksmith from the rider, the old man was able to gain an edge over the woodsman, forcing him to the ground.
“His head, sever his head!” screamed the old man, but as the rider leapt to his side, the blacksmith caught the rider’s arm, sending the sickle flying from his grasp. Undeterred, the rider swung a punch at the blacksmith, connecting to his face with a crunch of metal on bone, breaking and severely disjointing the smith’s lower jaw, carrying through the swing in a roundhouse punch that not only broke the neck of the woodsman, but lifted his head clean from his shoulders to land in the grass.
“It appears we both have a few secrets.” Admitted the old man, as they turned to face the robed priest overseeing the possession of young Tarl. The man was chanting hysterically, his mouth foaming with the fervour of the insanely fanatical. As the old man and the rider ran towards the priest, the rider was spun round at the shoulder by the blacksmith, jaw half hanging from his face, tongue writhing and foaming in the gap created by what was his mouth.
The smith came on, huge arms looking to embrace the rider in a vice-like grip, from which there would be no escape, muscles constricting the rider, crushing the very breath from his lungs. The rider’s head fell limp, his face staring to the stars, and the smith, sensing the rider’s imminent death, pulled him closer to his body, in one final deadly embrace. It was then that the rider snapped his head forward, connecting with the remains of the blacksmith’s face, forehead shoving the smith’s nose bone up into his brain. The smith stumbled backwards, releasing his hold upon the rider, dropping him to the ground, where he rolled, grasped his sickle, and with deadly accuracy, sent it whistling into the blacksmith. He stood, walked over to where the smith had fallen, and, picking up a scythe dropped earlier in the fray, removed head from body. The corpse that was the smith crumbled to dust.
The rider turned to see the old man and the priest struggling near one of the five bonfires that marked the space, and the mist that was caressing the nose and mouth of the boy. A quick decision needed to be made, for time was running out for both of them. The old man, quick and learned in the practices of battle though he was, was tiring, and would not be able to withstand the relentless assault from the dark priest for much longer. The boy, however, was entirely helpless, unconscious and unable to prevent the ghostly parasite from entering his body. With unnerving agility, he leapt to the boy, snatching him from the wood altar he was laid out on, bringing the pegs with him. The mist had only started to enter the boy’s nasal passage, and at this sudden wrenching from it’s new corporeal vessel, it emitted a mind splitting scream, unheard by the ear, but deafeningly loud within the confines of the psyche. Summoning every last drop of his resolve, every shred of will power, the rider heaved the boy to an outcrop of large dock leaves, hiding him carefully. He then turned, running back to the old man and the priest.
The robed priest was now sat astride the elder, attempting to bring to bear a wickedly keen ceremonial athame upon the white haired chest bared before him. The old man had both hands around the priest’s wrist, trying to turn the blade back on its wielder. As the rider caught up with the pair, grabbing the priest by the nape of his neck and his waist, the elder mustered the last dregs of strength from his failing, aged muscles to plunge the athame squarely into the throat of the priest. The rider then threw the priest gasping into the path of the enraged demon spirit. Gulping as much air as he could into his dying body, the priest gaped in horror as the mist entered his own body, feeling the spirit begin to take over his own thought. The rider, with no sickle to use as a weapon, ducked and rolled toward the convulsing priest, throwing his arm out in their direction. His metallic hand detached from its mooring upon his wrist and shot toward the priest/spirit, morphing its shape as it flew till it was a razor shard, slicing cleanly through the partially severed neck of the robed man. The priest gazed surprised at his body, his legs then finally his feet as his head fell to the ground, rolling to a halt a few feet from his falling torso. Both body parts then began to melt, decomposing into flesh-coloured soup within seconds, until there was nothing that remained to mark his passing.
The rider picked up the old man, placing one arm around his neck, and helped the elder to where the boy was hidden. Holding the stump of his arm into the air, the shard returned to its resting place, morphing back to the hand that had previously been there, and after picking the boy up and carrying him across the opposite shoulder, herded both grandson and grampa into the relative safety of the surrounding woodland.
At a safe distance, the rider placed the boy upon the ground, and settled the old man against a nearby stump, then set about collecting enough dry wood for a fire.
“A bit o’warmth will do us all good,” remarked the old man, exhaustion sounding in his voice.
The rider said nothing, preferring to set about lighting the wood, which took to the flame hungrily. Satisfied that the fire would burn without much tending, he sat back and began to work upon the ropes still bound about the boy.
“Don’t say much, do you,” said the old man, not so much a question, as a statement. “That’s fine by me. We each have our own story to tell, some of us just prefers to wait for the right time to tell. A man’s business is his own, but I think before we go on, I should at least explain how me and the boy came to be in that demon village.
“To be right, I have no firm idea as to who the boy is. I came upon him one day when I found him in my cabin, making short work of a stew I had on the stove whilst I was out back chopping wood. Dirty faced little urchin he was, looked like he was birthed from the forest itself, so I cleaned him up, fed him, and I guess he just never left.
“After a while, he started talking, a little at first, then more as he became more comfortable. Started calling me Grampa. I tried asking after his family, but he’d not say nothing to me, just go silent and sullen. I made a few enquiries in some of the nearby trading posts and villages, but no one had heard of the boy, so I took him as my own, gave him his name.
“I took it upon myself to teach the boy how I live my life, and about the forest lore. Taught him how to defend himself against some of the creatures that live in the forest, how to use a quarterstaff, hunting bow, what pulses and roots are edible, that sort of thing.
“But, eventually I suppose, he started asking questions, where did he come from, that sort of thing. I told him that no one in the local area knew anything about his parents, so we decided to pack up and search further afield. Then the rains started, and we sought cover in the first village we came across, seeking refuge until they stopped. That was two moons ago, and we’d been working at the hall ever since, looking to earn enough coin to pay for horses to get us as far as Gunfeld.
“Didn’t you realise something was wrong within Gelsenburg?” asked the rider, “with people acting so strange?”
“We did, but we couldn’t afford to leave. Maybe they had their eyes on us from the start, and short paid us, I don’t know. But there’s something odd about Tarl, an’ no mistake. I’ve never seen anything like it, the way he is with the forest creatures. All he does is look at them. It’s like, he’s on their level, you know?”
The rider said nothing, seemingly debating something within his head. He looked at the sleeping boy, then turned to the old man.
“I heard a rumour, some years back,” he said, “of an order of holy men that could commune with the beasts. A strange, secretive order, keeping to their temples high in the Trybarad Mountains, some ways to the north of here, the Brotherhood of Darr”
“I’ve heard such tales, aye,” agreed the old man, hazy memories stirring, “But I thought them naught but a myth.” Both men looked back at the boy.
“Not all myths are solely fiction,” replied the rider, “Most have some basis in fact. Maybe this boy was on his way to the Trybarad? It’s not uncommon for caravans to be set upon by brigands in this country. This is why I must now take my leave of you.”
“What? You’re leaving us out here? We have no supplies, and we’ll be set upon by thieves for certain. With nothing of worth to take, they’ll kill us!”
“They’d kill you even if you did,” stated the rider, “Which is why I must return to Gelsenburg tonight, to retrieve my horse, and secure rides for you and the boy. We must be on our way tonight.”
The old man was even more surprised at this cool statement of what they were to do.
“What makes you think we’re all travelling in the same direction? You have no idea where we’re headed.”
“True, but we’ll be safer travelling together. That means you’re coming with me. Besides, the boy needs training in the use of his birthright. Our roads are the same, into the Trybarad Mountains, to find the Dwarves.”
The old man was dumbstruck.
“The Trybarad? At this time of year, in this weather? The boy won’t last a day! Dwarves? And who’s going to train him, you?”
The rider stopped walking away from the little camp, and turned his head slightly.
“Well, yes. You’re looking at the last surviving member of the Brotherhood of Darr.”