February 8, 2015 - Short Story

Harperston – A Fantasy Short Story By Kelly D. Tolman
I have always found it odd how a person never truly gets used to discomfort. I didn’t like starving any better after having starved, eaten, and starving again. I didn’t like fighting any better after having learned to do it properly either. In fact, I would go as far as to say I just don’t like being uncomfortable in any way, but in particular I don’t like being cold and wet and hungry while hunting a pack of vicious beast-men. My companion, a small, yet unnervingly vicious, boar-dog (what else do you call a failed wizard’s experiment), seemed equally annoyed at both the weather and the mission. “You must warn the King,” my master had told me, “the Horde is moving.” That was before we discovered this scouting party, and now I had two missions to accomplish (discounting the part about staying alive).
The tracks were easy enough to follow in the light snow of early spring. Two years of hunting these beasts from place to place had trained me well to know their marks. “Do you smell them, Grunter?” I asked. She raised her tusked head in response, and let out a soft whining grunt. “I know, they aren’t far now. We’ll catch them tonight, in the light of the moon.” Grunter wagged her squiggly tail with excitement, and dashed ahead along their trail. We had not gone far when I spied a lone buck scouring the hillside for food. My first instinct was to draw my bow and get some food, but I knew that it would only slow me down, and that I had to stop the scouting party before they reached the mountains proper. I knew better than to chase the horde into the mountains, in their own festering realm; that would be a task for another day.
True to form, I found them just after sundown. Two days without sleep, and nothing but a night of violence to look forward to. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, I wasn’t able to catch them in the wild as I had hoped. We were close to a village, and the beasts had discovered one of the outlying farms. I found them by the light of the fire where the barn was burning, and the sound of the violent screams, of torture and battle.
From their tracks, I knew that there were at least six in the group, and from experience I doubted there were more than ten. Grunter saw the fires and noise, and charged into the fray before I could stop her. I hesitated only long enough to loosen my sword and string my bow. Darkness was my ally at the moment. I could see their black shapes easily in the firelight. Two were busy slaughtering animals as they fled the barn. I could hear the others in the farmhouse. I lodged an arrow in the nearest beast-man’s breast, and hit the second in the left leg as he charged. These beasts are vicious when cornered, or in numbers; but wounded and alone they tend to flee, as this one did, to wander off and die alone and painfully in the cold hills.
I ran to the house. Inside I could hear Grunter’s barking and grunting as she grappled with her foes. I heard the sounds of metal clanging, and knew that someone was putting up a fight. I cast my bow aside and drew my sword as I entered through the already destroyed farmhouse door. Inside I found the farmer and his two children, a young man and woman fighting with the four beasts. The good wife was already lying on the floor, and the humans had sustained several wounds. The nearest beast had a large gash in his arm and leg, and was not able to turn and react as I finished him. In his shock at seeing my entrance, the farmer’s son dropped his guard, and a beast-man tackled him, quickly rending out his life with his claws. The two others turned to face me, and used their weight and strength to force me back out the door, where we could fight on open ground. Pasav, my master, and Borlock, my good friend had taught me through daily drills over the past few years how best to deal with both beasts and men, and stiff experience had confirmed their teaching on several occasions. I felled the first as he stepped from the farmhouse, and the second put up only a meager fight before I removed his claws and head. I re-entered the farmhouse to find the daughter struggling to keep the final beast at bay with a broken chair. He either didn’t see me enter, or didn’t care, as I was able to dispatch him without effort.
The farmhouse was the shambles, a mess of blood and broken clutter. The barn burned freely, although we managed to save a horse and an ox, and most of the chickens escaped alive. We worked hard to save the livestock and grain before I remembered to ask her name.
“Alandra,” she said, stifling back both grief and fear.
“I am Kyven,” I told her. “I am sorry that I did not catch them sooner.”
“So am I,” she replied. Her face was covered in soot and dust, hiding the fading freckles of youth and covering the soft highlights of hair that would have been a soft blonde; but even the tattered and dirty rags could not hide her girlish figure just on the brink of womanhood.
“Where is your shovel,” I asked.
“We have a shed for tools and things, I’ll go and get it.”
“Take your time. Just get it and bring it here. I will bury them behind the house.” She left for the shed, and I began the gruesome work of dragging the bodies to the back of the farmhouse. The beast-men I simply heaved onto the burning timbers of the barn, unceremoniously removing their weapons and boots as I went. I found Alandra weeping near the farmhouse door, and my heart felt about to burst with grief and sorrow. I knew the pain of losing a father, and I would never forget the day I left my starving mother to join a war I still don’t understand.
“I don’t have a tent or other shelter,” I told her, “and it would not be wise to leave here tonight.” She looked at me with glazed eyes, hardly hearing or seeing. “I noticed the house has more than one room, why don’t you get some sleep. I will bury your family, and if you have a god, you can reverence them in the morning.” She did not seem to want to move, so I lifted her and helped her into the house and past the violence to a room with a bed. I had tried to clean the blood and mess, but nothing I could do would ever remove all the signs of violence.
I spent several hours in the night digging graves. The ground was hard and my limbs worn, but I knew that we would need to leave the farm in the morning. Kindness does not come easily to me, I lived a hard life, but I knew that I must help Alandra, if only in part to repay the kindness my master had shown me. Some few hours before dawn, I collapsed next to Grunter, wrapping my cloak around me for warmth near the still warm embers of the barn.
The day dawned bright and clear and warm, the first of the true spring, the spring that brings the flowers and new life. As luck would have it, the farm was still rather well stocked for the winter, and I enjoyed a good meal. I often fancied myself a cook (after all Pasav couldn’t cook edible food to save his life) but Alandra showed me that I would need more than a campfire to rival the great chefs of the world. Grunter was cheerful; still exhilarated from the events of the night, and continuously bounced and sought affection. A night’s sleep had done a great deal to calm Alandra, and she and Grunter became quick friends. But the uncertainty of losing her home and family loomed heavily on her mind. After the morning meal she went to the graves and commended their souls to eternity. I watched and waited in silent patience.
“Alandra,” I asked, “do you have any relatives in the village?”
“No,” she replied. “My family was new to this valley. We came here, to Amsterhome, after the last war with the Horde. Where are you going, Kyven?”
“I am taking a message to the King, and then I suppose I will return to the Keep of the Black Crag.”
“Where is that?”
“West, and North, in a pass high in the mountains. The King is to the east, I have never been there before.”
“Me either. Can I come with you?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to put her into danger, and I didn’t want to have to take care of her. The mountains were dangerous, and the going would be hard and slow. She noticed my hesitation, and my eyes must have betrayed my feelings.
“I can cook, and I know how to work hard. I won’t slow you down. We can take the horse, and we can sell the ox and the farm in the village. We can bring the chickens and I have blankets and supplies.” I had lived a solitary life the past few years, and the few women who now lived in the Keep were certainly older than Alandra, but they seemed to share her need to chatter, and the tendency to jabber when they felt nervous.
“We will see what we can find in the village,” I said. She broke a half smile, and I continued. “There may be a place where you can stay and work.” Her smile disappeared. “The mountains are dangerous.” She glared at me and crossed her arms, and I felt suddenly small and weak. “I won’t leave you stranded,” I said at last. “If there is nothing in the village, then you can travel with me until we find something better.”
Alandra did not seem totally convinced at my compromise, but she didn’t argue much either. “Don’t just stand there like dolt,” she said, “help me get my things together, and round up the horse.”
I complied without question. Of all the things I knew, I knew how to follow directions best. The Keep was a large place, and required a great deal of cleaning, especially after fighting off the previous inhabitants, and Pasav made entirely sure that I was familiar with both broom and mop. Before noon we had packed the horse with sufficient provisions to last several weeks, and bound everything else of value to the ox, and were on our way to Amsterhome.
Amsterhome was just a simple village then, not yet grown, and had but one in and a shop that supplied the farmers. We traded what we could for gold and clothes. Alandra had no boots, and she refused to wear those I had taken from the beast-men. Their weapons brought a nice price, a fine horse; and the village constable treated me with great kindness after hearing the story. I cautioned him to post sentinels to watch the foothills since more scouting parties might come from the mountains; a piece of advice he took to heart in the weeks and months to come. Although there were many willing to take Alandra in, she refused to stay, insisting that there was nothing left for her in the village, and that she didn’t feel right about just taking their charity. I must admit I enjoyed having someone to talk to (if only once in a while), and Grunter would have been upset to see her go.
Harperston was several days’ journey east of Amsterhome, but a winding road eventually met up with a winding road that eventually turned into a winding highway patrolled by the King’s guard and repaired by the King’s serfs. We followed that winding road together. I had studied the maps of the northern kingdom, sometimes referred to as the Old Empire, and knew that we would pass through many villages and farms. Since I had accomplished the first part of my journey, this second leg seemed a joy in comparison, and our hearts were light and easy.
Alandra and I quickly became good friends. It seems the gods have always blessed me with good companions. She was merry, even when speaking of sad things, and told me of her family, and the struggle they had fought to earn some bread from the stubborn soil. I recounted to her my days of smithing and of following my master, Pasav, the sometimes haphazard wizard. “I don’t believe in magic,” she said, and seemed disappointed when I told her that I was not a wizard and didn’t know any magic.
“I know how to sweep and clean,” I told her, “and I thought I knew how to cook until I met you.”
“You also know how to fight,” she said, “and that is something very few know how to do.”
“A useless skill,” I replied. “There is no glory in death, and besides, I don’t like it. I prefer to hunt game in the woods, or help with experiments in the laboratory. At least then I know I’m not going to get killed, and usually there is food around.” Alandra laughed wildly at my remarks, but I failed to see the humor, after all I was a simple person.
We reached the King’s Road ten days after leaving Amsterhome. We struck north, and within a few hours the landscape began to change. The haphazard farms turned into well-groomed fields surrounded by low rock fences and crowned with large farmhouses and fine barns. Hedges sported spring growth, and traffic on the road thickened with each step. My eyes darted everywhere to take in the new sights, and Alandra gasped at every bright color and new sound. Neither of us had ever seen a nobleman’s carriage before, nor seen a courtier dressed in their fine clothes. Those who saw us generally gave way, as I sported a sword, and we had horses to ride. The majority of the peasants were as dirty and ragged as those I had always known, and the only horses they used were those on the farm. Grunter drew more than a handful of stares and gasps of surprise, and she seemed thoroughly content to puff out her chest and strut next to the horses playing queen of the road. Once we passed a group of men bound at the throat in steel collars to a line of chain. “Who are they,” asked Alandra, “what have they done?”
“Pasav told me about the slaves that they bring from the southern lands. They bring them here to toil on the roads and keeps, and to serve the mighty warlords. Some, of course, are simply criminals; thieves and robbers.”
Alandra’s face turned suddenly cold and thoughtful. I looked at the slaves, and noted their dirty blonde hair, a stark contrast to the dark browns and blacks that dotted the heads of most people we met. “My grandparents came from the south,” she said, “or so my mother used to tell me. Your hair is light as well, Kyven, she said, although not as light as mine.”
“I come from Craverton,” I replied, “a starving village, crushed by war. I do not know anything else. I am from the Keep of the Black Crag now.”
The paved highway led straight to the wide city gates at the south end of Harperston. Tall, sturdy buildings loomed over us from behind the city wall. From inside the gate we could see a mighty castle rising on the far end of the city. I supposed that if we were to find the King we should go there, so we made our way along the main street until we came to the castle gate.
A balding, stout man in a uniform sat on a little stool in the shade of the archway of the castle gate, and watched our approach with amusement. The gate itself was flung wide open, a large construction of oak and steel. The castle wall was a good four meters tall, build of stone and mortar; just as impressive as the Keep of the Black Crag. A few soldiers wandered the battlements, but in general the fortress carried a calm, sleepy feeling.
When he realized that we actually wanted to enter the fortress, the guard stood up and blocked our way. “Now what would yourselves be wanting in there,” he asked.
I had not often dealt with men, but I knew that most were stupid, and rest easily swayed; and I had a mission to complete. I removed a small medallion Pasav had given me, and showed it to the guard. “Lord Pasav, my master, sends me with a message to the King.”
The guard chuckled, “Oh, Lord Pasav, now. And where from does the mighty lord hail?”
If every guard was going to be this much trouble, I decided, I might just as well go home. “From the Keep of the Black Crag,” I replied calmly. “It is an urgent matter, regarding the continued onslaught of the horde.”
The mention of the Horde seemed to take the guard back a step, and he scratched his head a moment. “Hey Garf,” he called, and a scrawny man in a dirty uniform appeared from a door just inside the archway. “Watch ‘ese two a moment, will ya’. I’m gone to get his Lordship Sirus.” Garn appeared as disinterested in us as we were with him, and he took his place silently on the stool and drooped his head for a nap.
Three quarters of an hour later, the chubby guard returned followed closely by a tall, wiry fellow clothed in a long black robe with silver trim. This new gentleman appeared as sour and stern as a constipated gargoyle, and his voice was both stiff and sharp.
“You have a message from the wanderer Pasav?” he inquired.
“Yes,” I replied, “it is for the king.”
“Then give it to me, and I shall take it to the king.” It was not a question, simply an order delivered to an underling. Grunter barked and growled, and Alandra rolled her eyes.
“My directions were explicit,” I answered. “I must deliver it to the king in person. Not to anyone else, and especially not to anyone claiming to be able to take it to him.”
The stern exterior cracked a little as he placed his fingertips on his temples and closed his eyes. After a moment he opened them again. “Very well, wait here with the guard, and I will speak to the chamberlain.”
Three quarters of an hour later, a man in a fine silk shirt and fine trousers, leaning on a stout oak staff and wearing a thick leather purse made his way towards the gate. He was of average height and build, but his smile was contagious and made his otherwise plain face more attractive than it should have been. “I understand you would like an audience with the King,” he said as he approached.
“Yes,” I said shortly, “I have traveled these weeks from the Keep of the Black Crag to bring it.”
“And your tokens?”
Again I removed the silver medallion and showed it to the chamberlain.
“Very well, if you will give me the message . . . ” he caught my scowl mid-way through the sentence, and quickly changed tactics. “The guard will see to your weapons and your horses, come with me.”
We followed him through the outer courtyard, which was more like a little village in itself, with smithies and various shops inside crafting supplies for the soldiers. The inhabitants seemed oblivious to our presence, despite our frequent staring and wide eyes at all we saw. “There are more shops in this courtyard than people in my entire village,” commented Alandra at one point. Eventually we came to a small room, with a fine polished pine table, a sofa, and four cushioned pine chairs.
“Wait here, and the steward will come and get you soon,” directed our guide and then vanished out the door.
A quarter of an hour later, a young woman with yellow hair and a dirty, long, black dress appeared holding a tray filled with cups and cakes. She seemed taken aback by our appearance, but nevertheless stated, “Would your Lordship and Ladyship care for any tea and cakes while you wait?” Alandra looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t imagine they were trying to poison us, and after the things Pasav had tried to feed me, I couldn’t imagine this would be worse.
I smiled, and said, “yes.” Alandra, sensing a person of her own status, began to bombard the girl with a myriad of questions as she poured the tea and served us. Her name was Anlaw, and she was indeed from the southern lands. Her family was captured in ‘the war’ and she was purchased as a house slave to work here in the castle. Anlaw seemed overwhelmed by the attention and retreated as quickly as possible into the depths of the fortress kitchens.
Three quarters of an hour later, the door opened, and short man with a long gray beard, clad in a silk shirt and fine trousers said, “Come with me please. His majesty is rather busy, but has granted you an audience.”
We followed him to yet another room, not much different from the first, except that the table was much larger, and there were several more chairs. At the head of the table sat a powerfully built man with a short-cut beard, streaked with gray. His head bore a thin gold circlet, and a great sword hung at his side. Pasav taught me to bow when I met the king, and to show respect, so I did.  Alandra followed my lead, and we waited for him to rise and address us.
“Very well then,” he said. “Stand up and give me your message.”
We stood up, and I removed a roll of parchment and handed it to the king. The seal of the Keep was still intact, and the king seemed amused at seeing this. “So, the Keep is alive again,” he asked.
“Yes, majesty,” I said, “Pasav, Borlock, and I have worked hard to put it in order.
“So, Kirien’s steward is more than just a legend. Did you hear that Lars,” laughed the King, “legends are coming to life again. Indeed, the times are changing. Now, lets see what we have.” He cracked the seal and unrolled the parchment. I did not know the full content of the letter, but I know it contained a great deal of important news. The king studied it with particular intent, and then asked, “Did you have anything else to report, Kyven?”
For a moment I was taken aback that he knew my name, but I quickly regained my composure. “I tracked and killed a scouting group for the horde, eleven days ride west of here, at a farm near the village of Amsterhome.” The king raised an eyebrow at my statement, but seemed to brush the information away as inconsequential.
“And do you know the contents of this letter?”
“No, your majesty.”
The king let out a long and loud laugh then. “That is just like Pasav, send the poor boy on an errand he knows nothing about. Very well, we shall make the shock a complete one, for all parties involved. Let us retire to the royal court.” He seemed to muse for just a moment, and then shook his head, “no, better they appear as they are, give all my kin a surprise they won’t forget. Lars, summon my court. Ring the alarm. Pasav has decided to provide us with some entertainment.”
Somehow the glee in the King’s voice did not provide me with any comfort. Lars quickly swooped us together, and pushed us out of the room. As we were leaving, I heard the king say, “Lars, fetch the boy’s sword, he will need it.”
A short time later we found ourselves standing before a dais, atop the which sat a pair of large thrones. A middle-aged woman who would have been stunningly beautiful in her youth, with long black hair now streaked with silver sat in the smaller chair. At either end of the dais were somewhat smaller chairs, filled with young men and women bearing a striking resemblance to the King and Queen. All around us people in finely dressed clothes were forming ranks along the walls. The hall was a great bustle of chatter as people tried to guess what was afoot, and we were the subject of many stares and sideway glances. After a time trumpets rang out, announcing the arrival of the king, and quickly silencing all the chatter.
The king entered, now bearing a larger crown on his head, and dressed with a flowery robe of state, crested with a lion and eagle, the symbols of the empire. When the King spoke, his voice was calm, yet tinged with humor, and the entire hall received his words in abject silence. “My lords and ladies, the time of legends is upon us. Our fathers unleashed evil upon this world, and now we are beginning to remove it. Before you now we have a champion in this great cause. I present Lord Kyven of the Keep of the Black Crag, Knight of the Old Empire.” A stir shook the room at his words, and more than one gasp of surprise. “And as a knight, Count Kyven has exercised his right to accuse my champion, the Lord Dracum and general of my armies of treason to the crown for sloth in the exercise of his duty to eliminate the forces of the horde.” Now the courtroom erupted with shock and anger. More than one foul word reached my ears, and more than once I felt myself becoming angry. I took Alandra’s hand and shrugged. I could see the questions on her face, and the fear, but I had no answers. I gave her the most re-assuring look I could and waited for the moment to pass. A trumpet rang out and the hall became quiet again. A large man, clad in armor for battle stepped out to stand next to me near the dais. He smelled of ale and sweat, and the scowl on his face froze my heart. “A trial of single combat will decide his guilt or innocence,” said the King.
Dracum’s voice was deep and heavy as he addressed his liege. “You majesty, these charges are false and foolish. I have lived my life in service to the crown and dedicated it to the destruction of the horde. What proofs does this boy offer?”
The king took on a slight smile as he replied. “The charge has been stated, and the sentenced passed, but I shall humor you. Three years ago did you not face the armies of the Horde near a village here within my own province?”
“Yes, my lord, of course,” stammered Dracum, “and they were destroyed.”
“Indeed, they were destroyed, and so was your army, was it not?”
“Well. That was that bungling meddler. I warned him not to interfere.”
The king’s tongue turned sharp as a razor. “You were ordered to cooperate with the wizards, were you not?” Dracum made no reply. “Indeed, it is our tradition to fight the wizard’s curse with the wizard’s weapons. He delivered a warning to you that day as well, a warning you ignored. Thousands of men burned that day and joined the horde, and today the Count of the Keep of the Black Crag has come to challenge your allegiance and test it with the sword.”
“Very well,” said the General, “I do not wish to destroy the boy, but if that is your will. My sword,” he boomed, and shocked silence penetrated the court. A page’s footsteps were heard running to the door.
My heart sunk. Was I doomed to always wield a sword? I did not wish to die here, before Alandra, with a sword in my hand, in dirty clothes before people I did not know. I could only trust that my master would not have me killed without cause, although what good my death would bring I did not know.
In a few minutes, the page returned, bearing a broadsword of the finest quality. Lars took Alandra by the arm and escorted her to a chair at the edge of the dais, away from the combatants. “Remove your armor,” stated the chamberlain. “The boy has none, and the rules of etiquette state equal ground. The combatants are granted a moment to prepare their estates and settle their affairs.”
Having no one else to turn to, I went to Alandra and said, “I’m sorry I brought you here. I didn’t know I was just coming here to be killed.”
Alandra cried and hugged me close and whispered, “you aren’t dead yet, Kyven. You saved me once, I’m sure you can save yourself now. What was it that you say Pasav always told you? Fighting is a job best done quickly. Anyone who can kill six beast-men can surely handle one fat dullard.” She gave me a wink and a smile, and I knew Pasav hadn’t sent me here to be killed.
“Combatants approach,” rang the chamberlain’s voice. I obediently took my place before the dais. “No quarter shall be given. Cowardice punished with death.” Two meters away stood my new enemy, gripping his sword and cursing under his breath. A trumpet rang out and the general was on me in an instant.
His blows came like lightning, but I danced away easily, letting my sword direct his energy safely away. “The key to single combat, Kyven,” always said Borlock, “Is patience and cunning. You have to wait for the mistake and wear the opponent down. Constantly attack but never over commit.” As usual I followed the advice I received, never allowing the larger man to use his full arsenal of attacks by forcing him to defend. We fought back and forth for several minutes, neither gaining an advantage, until his face was drenched in sweat and his beard clung to his face and head. Now he kept his guard only through shear determination, but his attacks had become both infrequent and ineffectual. I recognized now the cold calculation I had seen on Pasav’s face in so many past encounters. I understood the endless drilling and why battle after battle Pasav had made me chase beasts from the Keep at sword point rather than using his magic. There was a job here to do, no different than sweeping the kitchen cellars, and no more difficult. I allowed my foe to overextend, and danced aside. Without passion or malice I brought my sword down on his neck, once more realizing how much I hated fighting.

› tags: Fantasy Story / Short Story /

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