A cool breeze washed over the line of troops as they made their way along one of the many winding roads of Dargon, moving in ragged formation like some giant caterpillar. Their unpolished helmets and pike-blades shone dully in the red light of the setting sun. At the head of the column rode the company’s commander, Lysander of Connall, followed closely by a standard bearer with the vibrant, if somewhat tattered, banner Duchy Dargon. Riding beside the commander was a Stevenic priest named Orto D’Outremer, clad in simple black robes and borne by an old pony. Near the centre of the troop three large wagons trundled along behind ageing horses. Within the confines of one of the carts lay a religious manuscript that the priest Orto was transporting to the High Church in Magnus, along with the duke’s annual tribute to King Haralan with twenty-five Dargonian soldiers as escort. At Orto’s request, Duke Dargon had allowed the priest and his tome to accompany the small convoy.
Morgan Derkqvist paid little mind to the item the soldiers had in their care. He was more concerned with the rumbling in his belly and the blisters on his feet. He was glad of the soft wind as it blew across the croplands to the soldiers’ left, however. The day had been hot, and the bells of marching had left him drained and looking forward to setting up camp for the night. The chainmail hauberk, heavy leather boots and gauntlets he wore in addition to the weighty helmet had done much to add to his fatigue. There was still some marching to do before they rested. Being near the front of the column, he could hear Orto D’Outremer conversing with Commander Connall, and he listened out of boredom.
“… It’s really quite amazing, Lord Connall … I am certain that the text was written around the time of the Stevene himself,” the priest said in a deep, husky voice. “But what is most amazing is that it is written in Beinisonian, which leads me to believe the Stevene also travelled in the lands of our southern neighbours. The scholars in Magnus will verify this, I’m sure, and translate the good words that are written on the book’s pages. Would that I could read them myself …”
“Bah!” Morgan spat. “More religious drivel.”
“I suppose we’ll be hearing enough of it this trip,” Bayard Marckennin, the man marching next to Morgan, grumbled. “He’ll make no convert of me, though.”
“Straight,” Morgan agreed. “Religion is what nobles pretend they have and old men grovel in front of. I’ll not follow any such scrud.”
“Be careful what you say about nobles, Morgan,” Bayard said. “There’s one not too far away.”
“Commander Connall?” Morgan shrugged. “I don’t mind him much. As for the duke, he pays my wages, and I’ll fight for him and enforce his laws … but not much more.”
The party stopped to rest for the night only a few leagues further, as the sun was just beginning to disappear behind the thick trees of the forest ahead. The wood in question split the northern half of Baranur from the south. There would be no choice for the troop but to travel through it on their way to Magnus.
“Rest well tonight, troops,” Commander Connall said. “We’ve a long day ahead of us tomorrow. I intend for us to move on through the next night that we may navigate the great forest without having to camp in it. Who knows what bandits lurk in its confines, so be vigilant.”
With that he turned away from the assembled troops and went to brush down his horse. The soldiers broke formation and headed in several directions, some standing around talking, others searching for a suitable place to build a fire.
Feeling the call of nature, Morgan moved away from the rest of the soldiers in search of a suitable place where he could squat and lighten his load a little. Only when he was finished with that task did he move to where the soldiers had gathered.
Morgan sat down next to his friend Bayard, who had already gotten a fire going and was warming some stew in a pot over the flames. The youngest of the troops, Louen, and a few others were also sitting around the fire. Morgan tugged at his heavy boots. His feet felt like they had been branded with hot irons. The relief was instant as the boots came off and the mild evening air caressed his worn soles. He examined the bottoms of them in the firelight, and was pleased to find that no new blisters had developed during the day’s march, and that the old callouses had not fallen off. He wriggled his toes about for a bit, relishing the soothing coolness of the air, then pulled a dry crust of bread from his belt pouch.
As he nibbled at it, he noticed the priest Orto approaching. The Stevenic was quite a rotund man and waddled when he walked. Shaggy grey hair hung from his head, and a thin, stubbled beard covered his ruddy cheeks. He blew his bulbous nose on a dirty handkerchief as he drew near, making an enormous trumpeting sound.
“Cephas’ boot!” The fat priest stumbled over one of the soldiers’ pikes laying on the ground, and knocked over one of the men’s cups in the process. He ponderously bent over and picked it up, patting the man’s shoulder in an act of repentance. “My apologies, son.”
“Oh, scrud,” Bayard said to Morgan. “I think he’s coming over here.”
Indeed, he was. Somewhat out of breath, Orto placed a fleshy hand and much of his weight on Morgan’s shoulder and lowered himself to the ground with a sigh. “Thank you, my son. May God reward you for your kindness to an old priest.”
Morgan just grunted and continued about his business. He hoped that the priest would go away if he saw that he wasn’t welcome among the soldiers. Instead, Orto once again placed a hand on Morgan’s shoulder and attempted to initiate a conversation.
“What is your name, my son?”
“Scrazz, old man!” Morgan pushed the priest’s arm away. “I’m not your son.”
“Hmmmm …” The priest picked up Morgan’s waterskin and poured himself a drink in the tin cup he had carried with him. “That is an unfortunate name, but as the Stevene said –”
“Save your wind for someone who cares, priest!” Morgan’s biting tone succeeded in silencing the priest, out of whose chubby hands Morgan snatched the waterskin. Now he was in a bad mood, and it was all the priest’s fault. Why couldn’t he just leave Morgan and his friends alone? They were all the same: always preaching their religious wind, trying to tell all of the poor souls about how they should live. It angered Morgan as few other things did. As a soldier, he was trained to take orders and obey them. That was one thing, but to be told how to live outside of the duke’s livery was quite another. A man ought to be able to do what he wanted with his life, without a religion controlling him like an overbearing parent.
An overbearing parent like his father. Morgan’s mouth twisted slightly as he thought of his days growing up under the stern gaze of his father — one of the strictest and harshest men Morgan had ever known. He had been especially austere in his religion, constantly quoting Stevenic scriptures and condemning anyone who did not live up to the very letter of them. Morgan remembered beatings for even the smallest of infractions, such as when he forgot his prayers before bed after a hard day’s work on the farm. Morgan was jostled from his thoughts when a hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“Hey Morgan, d’you remember those barmaids back at the Shattered Spear in Dargon?” Leave it to good old Bayard to lighten the mood.
“How could I forget?” Morgan laughed. “The wenches must like the uniform or summat, because they were sure willing to oblige us!”
“Aye, that they were,” Bayard chuckled.
“And young Louen here was too codless to give one of ‘em a roll, eh?” Morgan ruffled the young boy’s hair playfully.
“Do you remember the blonde one?” Bayard asked.
But before Morgan could reply, the priest Orto spoke up. “The sexual act is a sacred gift of pleasure given to us by God, according to the Third Law, and not to be taken lightly, my friends.”
“Fark!” Morgan shouted with explosive fury. “Be silent, you old codswallop! Can nothing be fun with your self-righteous Stevene?”
“No, Morgan,” Louen said. “I think he’s right. I think that there’s more happiness to be found in marriage than in –”
“Be silent, you!” Morgan said.
“Straight,” Bayard said to Louen. “You’re too young for all of this religious scrud. Youth is for having fun and adventure. Go grovelling to Stevene when you’re an old man. You know, I think your problem is that you’re too stiff. Here, have a swig of this; that’ll loosen you up a little.”
Bayard passed the boy a small flask that he carried in his belt pouch, and bade him drink. Louen took a half-hearted sip and contorted his face in disgust. “It tastes bad.”
That brought forth a new bout of laughter from Bayard, but Morgan was still fuming. Why wouldn’t the bumbling old priest leave them alone, and take his religious prattle with him? Him and his ‘the sexual act is sacred’ — was there to be no fun in life? Like Morgan’s father, the priest seemed to forbid anything enjoyable in life, all for the sake of being ‘good’. No, that wasn’t quite fair; this priest seemed patient and gentle compared with the stern reprimands Morgan’s father had meted out. Morgan shook his head. Why was he sympathising with this priest? He was still of the same faith, and just the same as his father. What right did the priest have to judge him for enjoying life? What right did anyone have to judge him? A hand on the back of his neck brought him out of his reverie.
“What’s wrong, Morgan?” The hand belonged to a female soldier named Lara, a different sort of friend to Morgan than Bayard was. “I heard shouting over here.”
“Ah,” Morgan gestured towards the Stevenic priest, who promptly interrupted him.
“Well, I must be off, my friends.” The priest grunted loudly as he hefted himself up and began to totter away from the fire. “May Stevene’s Light shine on all of you.”
“Oh, the priest,” Lara said. “Who cares about him? He’s no better than any of us.”
Morgan was back in the Shattered Spear with his friends, enjoying a tankard of ale and good company. He laughed heartily at one of Bayard’s jokes and slapped his friend on the back in good humour. The ministrations of a pretty barmaid were not lost on him despite the merrymaking. Her long blonde hair caressed the side of Morgan’s face as she leaned over to place another tankard in front of Bayard. The tight-fitting bodice she wore nicely enhanced her voluptuous figure; it was so low cut that it seemed she might fall out of it and into his lap.
The next thing Morgan knew, he was up in one of the inn’s rooms, with the barmaid lying beneath him on a straw mattress. His ale-numbed hands laboriously untied the lace bow that held her dress together. Then he was inside of her, revelling in the ecstasy of the moment. But suddenly, it didn’t feel good anymore. He was in intense pain, as if his manhood had been wrapped in thorns.
He opened his eyes, and instead of a beautiful maiden, a grotesque monster lay before him, laughing in a deep, raspy voice. It had sharp, dagger-like teeth, and a thick purple tongue dripping with thick saliva. Instead of the soft, cream coloured skin of the serving wench, the creature had grey, leathery, scaled skin like that of a snake. Its eyes were completely white and pupil-less, covered in a grey slime that oozed forth like tears. Morgan screamed, but no sound came forth from his mouth. A jaggedly clawed hand shot up and grasped his throat.
A warm liquid splashed in Morgan’s face. The bitter metallic taste of blood met his lips as it dripped down his face. Morgan looked around the room in panic. He didn’t recognise it; it was large and dark, its cold walls and floor made of stone. There was carnage everywhere. His friends, the soldiers from the guard, were strewn about helplessly. A creature like the one before Morgan straddled his friend Bayard. More blood splattered Morgan as the beast tore Bayard’s arms off and tossed them aside. Screams of agony perforated the room as more guardsmen were ripped apart. Blood and gore streamed through the air as they died horribly.
Lara, the bottom half of her body missing and her skin a deathly blue-white, crawled up to Morgan’s bed, leaving a bloody trail behind her. “Hello, Morgan. Want a throw?”
Morgan screamed again as the monster beneath him tore open his chest and grabbed his heart with its tongue.
Morgan sat bolt upright, a strangled scream on his lips. He glanced about wildly, his heart pounding in his chest. But he was safe. The ashes of the dead fire from the previous evening sat before him. All around it, soldiers wrapped in their blankets slept soundly. Morgan’s breathing slowly returned to normal, as he listened to the gentle snores that filled the night.
He looked up to the sky to see a nearly full moon with more stars than anyone could ever count. The cool white light cast by Nochturon allowed Morgan to see for some distance. The forest was a black, ominous shape on the horizon. About a furlong to his left, Morgan could make out the two sentries, strolling lazily about the encampment. The wagon sat serenely nearby, its canvas cover almost glowing in the moon’s ethereal light.
Morgan was calm now, but still disturbed by the dream. He slowly grew restless as he sat on the ground, however, and decided to get up. He stood and put his boots and sword belt on, opting not to don his hauberk until morning. Morgan wandered over to Griff and Jakob who had drawn sentry duty and made smalltalk with them.
“Morgan,” Griff said. “What are you doing up at this time of night?”
“I don’t know,” Morgan replied. “I just couldn’t get comfortable.”
“Ah,” the other one, Jakob, said. “Thirsting for some bandit blood in the forest, eh? I hate to disappoint you, but there aren’t any to be found these days. Commander Connall’s just worrisome.”
Griff grunted with mirth at the comment. “Well, we’ve got our rounds to do, so just don’t cause any trouble while you’re up, straight?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Morgan said.
As the other two guardsmen headed off, Morgan walked towards the forest. He stopped just past Commander Connall’s tent, and sat down on an old log that lay on the ground. Only a handful of furlongs away, Morgan could make out the definition of individual trees against the lighter backdrop of the sky. He watched the forest intently. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t trust it. It was almost as if the trees would uproot themselves and attack the sleeping soldiers behind him.
Presently, his thoughts began to wander back towards his childhood days, living under the severe rule of his father. Damn that priest; Morgan had almost forgotten that period of his life. He had tried to stay as far away from Stevenism as he could, to escape that long past time, which was one of the reasons he’d joined the guard.
Morgan’s mother had died in giving birth to him, so he had been left alone with his father on their farm just outside of Dargon for all of his early life. Work had been hard on the farm, and had never seemed to end. Even when the plowing and seeding was done, Morgan’s father would force him to pray and listen to long recitations of Stevenic scripture. If ever he fell asleep or gave less than his full attention to the work, it meant a beating. He remembered one day, during an especially savage disciplining — Morgan’s reward for looking too obviously at one of the local girls — asking why his father treated him so harshly. The old man had said, “if your hand does evil, it must be hacked off, or an evil foot removed. I am only correcting you for your own good!”
His own good. Morgan felt as if he had a mouthful of meat that had gone bad. He decided to direct his thoughts to the man responsible for them, the priest Orto. Same religious rhetoric, yet somehow different, softer …
He sat there pondering until his breech end began to get sore, and he was about to get up and wander the camp when he heard a strange sound coming from the forest. It wasn’t very loud — Morgan had to strain to hear it — but it was distinct. It was a muffled cracking noise, as if several people were smashing rocks together. The cracks weren’t in rhythm however. They came in random groups, sometimes many at once, other times a single snap. The sounds seemed to move about, coming from several places in the forest at once.
The blood in Morgan’s veins turned to ice when a woman’s scream broke the crackling sounds. She was very far away as her cries were quiet, but they were no less disturbing for it. Morgan looked behind him to see if any of the other guards had been awakened by the noise, but all was still in the camp. He looked back towards the forest and was startled to see a dark, man-shaped figure standing in the grass roughly halfway between Morgan and the forest. It did not move. It only stood there, watching Morgan. He could feel its eyes boring into him. He ran back to the safety of the camp as fast as he could.
In his panicked state, he stumbled and fell several times in his sprint towards the camp. He nearly ran headlong into Griff and Jakob who were once again swinging around the camp.
“Ol’s piss, Morgan!” Griff hissed, grabbing Morgan by the arm. “What’s gotten into you?”
Morgan took several deep breaths to calm himself before whispering, “I saw someone back towards the woods, and –”
Jakob looked over towards the woods. “I don’t see anything.”
Morgan wondered whether or not he should mention the sounds. He decided against it. He didn’t even know how to describe them, and besides, how crazy would such a tale sound?
“Well, let’s check it out,” Griff said begrudgingly.
The three of them trudged over to the log that Morgan had been sitting on. For several long menes they stood there, scanning the horizon intently. Morgan began to wonder if he really had heard and seen what he thought he had. Maybe he had dozed off sitting on the log and dreamed it all?
“Come on, there’s nothing here,” Jakob said.
“Shh …” Griff held up a hand.
Morgan jumped and nearly cried aloud as a pair of deer bounded behind a bush and hopped off towards the trees.
Jakob burst out laughing. “Morgan, those were deer you saw! A little too excited about meeting bandits in the forest tomorrow, eh?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Morgan grunted.
“Well, enough of this scrud,” Griff said. “Let’s get back to our patrol. You get some sleep, for Ol’s sake, Morgan. If you’re all jumpy like this tomorrow, Lord Connall’ll have your balls.”
The day began with the blasting of a loud tune on the company trumpeter’s horn. The harsh music hurt Orto’s ears, and he flinched a little when it began. He could hardly imagine waking up to such a racket every day. Fortunately, he had awakened earlier to do his morning prayers, and now waddled about the camp observing the soldiers. Many of them were still wrapped in their blankets, unwilling to emerge from them into the chilly morning. Others pulled on the grimy shirts that they had been wearing for days and would wear for the rest of the trip, no doubt. Unused to travelling, Orto’s tired body was demanding more sleep, and his eyes itched as if a bug had flown into them. He rubbed his eyes absent-mindedly as the others bemoaned their summons to wakefulness.
He moved towards the group with whom he’d spent a little time the night before. Despite their hostility, Orto felt strangely drawn towards them, especially the one named Morgan. That Morgan, he was the worst one of them all, Orto thought, but something troubled the old priest. The young man was too full of anger for there not to be a strong reason behind it. He hoped that he could perhaps find that reason, and help to ease the pain it caused.
The soldier known to Orto as Bayard scratched himself and let loose with a loud fart in the boy Louen’s direction. “If that won’t get you out of your blanket in the morning, what will?”
“Bayard,” a female soldier — Lara, Orto thought her name was — scolded, “you’re disgusting!”
“Why thank you, milady.” Bayard bowed with an overdone flourish.
Orto chuckled at the brief exchange, and moved past the group and in amidst the others. Ponderously, the soldiers all got up and pulled on their chainmail hauberks and cloth tabards, accompanied by much groaning, yawning and stretching. As Orto moved among them, he offered some words of encouragement for the day, or a blessing. Most of the soldiers were receptive to him, which made Orto very happy. He enjoyed people, almost the way one might enjoy a finely rendered illuminated text. He noticed that Morgan had not been with his group of friends when Orto had passed by there, nor could he see the young soldier anywhere in the immediate vicinity.
“No matter,” Orto said to himself. “I’m sure I’ll see him again later.” Orto hoped he could someday soothe the anger that burned within that lad, so that Morgan would accept Stevene’s Light. Orto could not understand such rejection of the love that God lavished on the people of Makdiar. It all seemed so simple to the priest. God made the world. God loved those that he created. To Orto’s mind this surely meant that God was worthy of thanks and praise for these miracles of life and love. Yes, surely, there was something deeper, inside Morgan, that caused his attitude to fester as it did.
Orto’s thoughts were broken as the dashing young commander of the troop, Lysander of Connall, strutted into view. The young lord carried himself with dignity and pride, his back straight as a lance and his chin high. He wore his brown hair short, with a thin moustache under his angular nose. Unlike his troops, he was clean and freshly shaved. A smile graced his face as he approached Orto.
“Good day, father.”
“And a good day to you, your lordship!”
“Come,” Lysander offered Orto a waterskin, “join me in a drink this morning.”
Orto accepted, and poured some of the wine from the skin into the tin cup that hung from his belt. “What has put you in such a radiant mood this day, Lord Connall?”
“I’m not quite sure …” A mischievous smile curled the young lord’s lips. “I have a feeling about today. You know, I had a dream last night that we encountered brigands in the forest and I dispatched them as befits such dregs. Perhaps we may find some adventure in the woods this day.”
Orto nodded his head sadly and looked down at the dirt. He sincerely wished that Lord Connall did not take such pleasure in bloodshed — even the blood of bandits — for he was otherwise a decent man. Orto sighed.
“Indeed we may, your lordship.”
“Come now, father.” Lysander pounded Orto on the back. “No need to be downcast. Have something to eat; we’ll be leaving shortly.”
Orto bowed and shuffled away from the lord, back to the company of the common soldiers with whom he felt more at home. It was at Lord Connall’s sufferance that he was with the troop, so he felt a duty to spend time with the young lord, but at the same time it was the common soldiers whom he enjoyed the most. The majority of them were now ready for the day’s travel, fully armoured. Orto saw Bayard spit on a flat stone and move the flat of his dagger in circular motions over it, creating a high pitched sound that was rather unpleasant to the old priest. The soldier grinned and spat on the rock again when Louen commented on the noise. Orto made haste to the pony that carried him on the journey. From a bag hanging from its saddle he pulled a dry piece of raisin-encrusted bread which he downed along with Comm ander Connall’s wine. It was far from the type of meal he was used to, but it was the best he could do on such an expedition.
Orto petted his flea-bitten pony before mounting it. “Well, Hubris, we’ve another long day ahead of us.”
To the accompaniment of another blast of the trumpeter’s horn, the standard bearer took up his faded banner and rode past the milling troops. In his wake, the soldiers fell into formation, leaving an opening for the wagons. The soldiers riding the carts snapped the reins of their horses and moved into position. Orto took his place at the front with Commander Connall, and the company moved onto the road and towards the forest.
After about a bell’s journey, Orto decided he would prefer to travel among the soldiers instead of up with Commander Connall. Not that he did not enjoy the lord’s company, but he had spent almost the entire journey thus far with the Count of Connall’s cousin, and felt the urge to spend some time with others as well.
“Your lordship,” he said. “This has been a rather interesting journey, discussing the text I have brought with me and Stevenism as we have, but I wonder if I might spend some time with the soldiers?”
“Well, I see no harm in it,” Connall said. “And I suppose I shouldn’t be keeping you all to myself — you are the only cleric with us after all.”
“Thank you, Lord Connall,” Orto said, and promptly dismounted his pony, Hubris. He found Morgan near the front as he had been the day before.
“Good day to you, my son!” Orto said, but the guardsman did not reply. “It is a glorious day today, is it not?”
“I suppose so,” the soldier said, though he did not make eye contact with Orto as he scanned the tree line.
“Something troubles you my son. What is wrong?” Orto examined Morgan. He was of average height and build, his face tanned by exposure to nature, but otherwise free of any blemish. He had a handsome face; one that Orto judged would attract many a lady, with a neatly clipped beard lining his jaw. Like the other soldiers he was dirty and dusty from the many days’ travel. When no answer came to Orto’s question, he offered Morgan a piece of the raisin bread his pony carried in its saddlebag. “Here, have some of this.”
The soldier took it, but did not thank Orto. He merely continued to watch his surroundings, almost as if he expected something to emerge from them. There was more to today’s behaviour than religion-hating sentiment, the priest thought. Orto slowed his pace, letting the column pass him until he fell in step with a pretty guardswoman whom he recognised as one of Morgan’s friends.
“Forgive me, my child, but I cannot remember your name.”
“Lara.” The woman did not look at Orto as he spoke, but merely shifted the weight of her mace as it rested on her shoulder.
“Ah yes, of course,” Orto said. “Now I remember. That is a fair name. Do you hail from Dargon?”
“No, I’m from Fennell.”
“Ah, Fennell. It is a fine city. I remember the monastery there especially. It is a holy place.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Lara said.
“Oh my dear child,” Orto laid a compassionate hand on her shoulder. “Have you never experienced the presence of God?”
“I’ll thank you not to place your self-righteous judgements on me, priest!” She violently tore Orto’s hand from her shoulder and looked at him with fiery eyes. “That’s why I left Fennell. They’re always saying ‘Stevene this’ and ‘Stevene that’. Always forgiving me for my ‘lecherous ways’! Well maybe I don’t want to be forgiven! Maybe I’m happy the way I am!”
Orto stopped in dismay and sighed. “By Cephas, I am sorry my child. I did not mean –” but it was clear she would have none of his apologies. “What have I done? Would that I were a smarter man, Stevene, that I could teach your light better. But alas, a slip of my ever-wagging tongue and I have hurt rather than healed.” He watched Lara as she continued down the road with the rest of the company. Orto hit himself on the head. “You dunderheaded fool!”
Disheartened, Orto’s pace was slower, and he gradually moved towards the back of the column as it passed him. He had never been the most intelligent of men; he knew this, and was accepting of it, as God did not make everyone to be identical. Still, at times like this he felt a pang of envy towards his fellow priests that were great orators. He knew of one monk from Fennell, who though he spoke with a lisp, could hold in thrall an audience of hundreds, and speak of the Stevene with perfect clarity. Orto was not lacking in faith, but he could never quite articulate it exactly the way he wanted to. It was like the words were in his mind, but were jumbled on the way to his mouth. Sometimes, the results were very bad, as they had just been with Lara. He had not meant to sound judgmental, for he did not judge her, but to be sympathetic. Oh, Cephas, the world was never an easy place.
By midday they were well into the forest. Earlier, Commander Connall had dispatched two soldiers as scouts half a league ahead of the company, travelling in the trees, in hopes that they would spot any brigands lying in wait, and report back to the commander before his troops blundered into a trap.
After another bell’s travel in the forest, the company stopped to rest and eat. While Hubris grazed on some grass off the side of the road, Orto moved amongst the troops once again, swaying as he did so. He put a hand to his growling stomach.
“Be silent, you!” he admonished his belly, as if it were a being unto itself. “You could afford to shrink a little.”
He caught sight of Morgan and his friends sitting in the shade of a tree, and waddled over to them. “Hello again, my friends!”
“Hello, father,” Louen said.
Orto patted the boy’s dirty blonde hair in appreciation. “You are a good lad. May God protect and keep you.”
“Come to forgive me for my earlier behaviour, priest?” Lara asked, a sarcastic bite in her tone.
“No, my child,” Orto said. “It is I who needs forgiveness. I do not judge you, and I am sorry that my words came across that way. Please accept this as a small token of my contriteness.” He handed her some dried fruit that he had bought from a merchant in Dargon. He knew such a treat to be a delicacy among soldiers living off of hard rations.
“Th-thank you.” The girl’s eyes widened in surprise, and the hard lines that had creased her face a mene ago disappeared. There was now a softness about her that warmed Orto.
Using the tree for support, Orto carefully lowered himself to the ground. He let out a deep breath as his rump hit the ground. It was refreshing to be seated after much of a day’s travel despite the fact that Orto had a rather irritated bottom from all of the riding. He was more accustomed to a sedentary life in his church in Dargon, where he walked but a few leagues in an entire sennight. He felt certain he had already travelled as far on this trip to Magnus as he had in his entire time as a priest.
“I suppose all of you are used to this travel,” Orto said. “But it’s a mite harder on my old bones.”
“I’m not *that* used to it!” Bayard said, pointing to a huge blister that covered much of the heel of his foot.
Orto grunted in agreement, but said no more. After a few menes, the soldiers began to converse among themselves, and Orto watched them. They were all young, healthy men and women: a condition that Orto could barely remember. Louen was a slight young lad, who seemed to charm those around him with his superstition and naivete. Bayard was not huge either, and when other soldiers mocked him as being too wiry for a proper soldier, he’d always puff up his chest and say being small made for easier marching. He’d often back this up by saying he’d live longer in a fight since he was a smaller target. Lara, whom Orto was reasonably certain shared a bed with Morgan from time to time, was indeed a fine, well-muscled woman. She had a large scar that went from her hairline across her forehead and down her right cheek.
Orto remembered her telling the story of the scar with great zeal a few nights before. While on patrol in one of the rougher sections of Dargon city, three drunkards had accosted her, thinking to have their way with her. She had dispatched all three of them, with only the one scar of her own to show for it. In Orto’s younger years, such a creature would have caused Orto to curse his religious values to remain chaste ’til marriage. Now such lecherous thoughts seemed mildly humorous to the old man.
Above all, Orto wished to befriend these people. He sensed they were as good souls as could be found, despite their vehement resentment of Orto’s faith. After all, Stevene wasn’t the only path to God, but a good one, Orto reckoned. He only prayed that it would not be too late before these young soldiers found their way …
Once the company resumed its journey after the late afternoon break, darkness descended quickly, and a thin fog rolled in. Morgan cursed; remembering the previous night’s encounter, whether real or a dream, he fervently desired as much visibility as he could have. The fog was not one unbroken mass, but wispy, like long tendrils of some ethereal plant that wrapped themselves about the trunks of trees and the soldiers’ ankles. It swirled about as a gentle breeze made its way through the trees, cooling the air all the more now that the sun was gone. The mist clung near to the ground, allowing the moon to light the way as the wagons and their escort trundled along the forest path.
Morgan felt as if a small creature were scurrying about in his stomach. The soldiers around him likewise fidgeted and glanced around anxiously. Bayard was uncharacteristically quiet, making no jokes as he usually did, and Morgan could see Louen was shaking as if chilled under his hauberk. Morgan himself gripped his sword tightly with fingers slick with sweat, and he could feel a cool dampness on his forehead. His heart nearly exploded within his chest when the loud cracks of several rocks banging together sounded not far to the troop’s left.
“Ol’s piss!” Griff exclaimed. “What the fark was that?”
Morgan frantically clutched the hilt of his sword with slippery fingers. He had told no one about the sounds in the forest the previous night, but he wished he had now. More crackling emanated from the right of the path now. Murmurs emanated from the soldiers, to the accompaniment of the metal on metal music of swords clashing.
“Look there!” Jakob pointed into the trees. Morgan caught a glimpse of a dark shape disappearing behind a large tree. He searched the woods feverishly, and saw other faint objects moving about in the mist, deep within the forest.
“Calm yourselves!” Commander Connall said, wheeling his horse about and moving alongside the contingent of troops in front of the wagons. “There is nothing out there! The scouts will let us know if they –”
The young lord was interrupted by an impossibly loud, pain-stricken scream from ahead.
“Cephas’ boot!” Morgan could tell that his commander wanted nothing better than to charge headlong towards the screams, as Connall drew his sword and his horse danced.
“My lord!” The priest, Orto, clutched at Commander Connall’s tunic. “We must be careful. There may be much more afoot here than we think!”
Lord Connall nodded in agreement, his jaw firmly set. More screams shattered the ghostly night, which had become a nightmare. “I must remain here. Morgan! Take three men and find the scouts!”
“Your lordship?” Morgan felt chilled to his very core with fear.
An impossibly long cry echoed among the trees. “Get moving!” Lord Connall shouted.
Morgan felt a hand on his shoulder, and heard Lara’s voice, shaky with fear. “I’m with you Morgan.”
“Straight.” Morgan steeled himself, and drew his sword. “Jakob and Konrad, you’re with me, too.”
Leading the way, Morgan crashed through the bushes towards the tormented cries up ahead. Who had been sent as scouts? He couldn’t remember, but more screams told him where they were. Whoever it was that had been sent, they were dying slowly. Morgan’s fear slowly gave way to anger. Whoever was doing this would pay.
The screams stopped with a sickening gurgling sound just as Morgan and the others burst through the foliage into a small clearing. In it, two soldiers in Dargonian livery hung from pikes driven into the ground, a pool of blood quickly gathering beneath them. Both of their heads were missing. In the pale moonlight, it somehow didn’t seem quite real. Morgan wished it wasn’t. But where were their attackers?
“Oh, fark …” Lara gagged and nearly vomited as she beheld the grisly sight.
Morgan looked about the clearing desperately, searching for any sign of their assailants. Had they been scared off by the arrival of Morgan and his friends? He tried to quiet his breathing, and listen for any sign of them. He could hear nothing — not even an owl or a cricket. Suddenly a cold gust of wind rushed through the clearing, bringing with it a deep sound like that of bellows in a smithy.
The bushes behind Konrad exploded as a dark figure mounted on a massive horse emerged from the forest. Morgan was frozen at the sight of the horrific creature, silhouetted against the moon, with huge horns protruding from its head and flowing robes flapping about it. The creature drove a lance clean through Konrad’s torso and lifted him, screaming and flailing, off the ground.
“Konrad!” Lara swung at the creature with her mace, and though she connected mightily, the brute appeared not to notice.
Suddenly, more of the beasts were in the clearing, riding about the beleaguered soldiers with dizzying speed. Morgan barely blocked a blow with his shield, and nearly fell to the ground. Another mighty blow came crashing down from above. He lashed out with his sword in all directions, unable to focus on his attackers as they swirled around him. He hacked the air many times before he was knocked to the ground by a glancing blow to his back. His hauberk had saved him, but as he rolled away from his attackers he knew he wouldn’t live long if he didn’t escape. He tried to get up but was knocked down again by a giant horse hoof that struck him in the chest. He lay on his back, winded, and saw one of the creatures’ faces for the first time. Amidst the flowing black cloak that covered its body was a white skull with great horns protruding from it. Not the skull of a human — more like that of some large lizard. Within the deep eye sockets only a frightening darkness lay.
Morgan scrambled away from the beast, which after a brief pause, turned and headed back to the centre of the clearing. Morgan followed it with his eyes and saw, to his horror, Lara pinned to the ground by several large stakes. She was screaming, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Morgan!” he thought he heard her cry. “Morgan please help me!”
Morgan couldn’t even think. His mind was frozen with terror. All he knew was that he had to get away, to run! He got his feet under him and continued to run. His heart pounded within his chest like a hammer on an anvil. He didn’t look back as he tore through the bushes, but knew Lara was dead when her screams suddenly stopped with a sickening crack.