Bligh Village to the south of Seagate. First week of the month of Windwreak (mid-autumn).
The lizard’s serpentine neck darted in and out, striking at a human warrior’s armored leg who fended him off with shield and sword. The man stepped behind the bulk of one of the fallen horses to use its body as a barricade. Their local guide, a peasant from the village, convulsed and clawed at his swelling throat, his eyes bulging as his face turned dark, almost purple. A yellow, mucus-like liquid dripped out of the two pinprick wounds on his arm. The tall, slim elf in layered leaf armor danced away from the strike of another of the beasts and then countered the blow. His scimitar cut deep into the lizard’s thinner underbelly and split its scales from its pelvis to the base of its neck. The creature slumped twitching and let out a soft hissing sound like a tea pot cooling from a boil. The elf struck down another of the startlingly quick reptiles that had flanked his companion and then edged back to back with the human. A sea of black scaled slithering bodies surrounded them and moved in waves, the long-legged lizards with cobra bodies swarming to strike and then retreating.
The two dead horses, one a war stallion trained at enormous expense and the other the elf’s riding palfrey, lay on either side of the muddy path that passed for a road - collateral damage of the lizard pack’s rush attack from the cover of the trees. The armored human crouched behind his dead charger with the elf at his back, both waiting for the next attack. On the other side of the charger, the village guide’s fish-out-of-water flopping had ceased, though his foot twitched like a convict in a hangman’s noose. The low ferns to the south of the track had hidden the asp hound’s ambush and possibly their lair. The edge of the pond, the village’s water supply, was several feet to the west, opposite the two rising suns. To the north, several rice fields stretched off for a bowshot and back; towards the village in the east, more of the fernlike saltbush covered the ground.
“We aren’t getting paid enough for this, Ibram!” Breathing hard, the pale-skinned elf dodged again when one of the half dozen lizards struck. One of their hooded heads with gaping mouths zipped in to bite when the others drew back. Their black, shiny scales were tiny and looked wet. Their legs were long and slim, like a greyhound’s. Their bodies looked much like somebody grafted scaly greyhound legs onto a cobra. Tight muscle wound around their bodies, allowing them to strike like the snake they so strongly resembled. Their mouths were small and framed by two long fangs that could unhinge to swallow larger prey.
“Ha, you mercenary, I’m not getting paid at all,” Ibram panted and continued to block with his shield while striking back with his broadsword. The hissing chorus around them made a hair-raising sound that felt like icepicks in the ears. He spitted one of them and then kicked it off his blade, though he narrowly avoided getting bitten when another’s fangs sunk into his boot.
“That is your own fault,” Ivellios responded. “They were willing to pay, and I see no reason not to accept good coin for a day’s work.” The guide on the ground finally stopped twitching and lay still, a ghastly rattle the last sound from his throat. The two small puncture holes in his arm hardly seemed enough to cause death.
“Ivellios, you didn’t ask for enough to take on asp hounds. I hate these things,” Ibram complained. The salt and pepper bearded man in heavy armor smashed one of the creatures with his shield as it struck at his elven comrade’s back. Drops of blood from hacked apart lizards had gotten into his short beard and clotted it like a wound.
The human lunged over his fallen charger and managed to step on one of the lizard’s whipping tails. Pinned, it twisted back with serpentine agility but missed flesh and instead bit the armored greave over the big man’s shin. He rent the offender into two pieces with enough power to send his blade deep into the ground. One of the other lizards hissed loudly at him and exhaled a yellow, noxious cloud.
“Gas!” The human screamed and dove away from the toxin with surprising agility for someone wearing that much metal. The elf turned and began to speak but grasped his throat and fell to the ground choking as the cloud surrounded him. The two remaining asp hounds dove into the poison as though it wasn’t there.
The man picked himself up and took deep breaths like someone about to dive in deep water. Charging into the cloud, he efficiently disposed of the two remaining creatures and pulled his friend free. His old arms masters would have been proud of his efficiency, even with his eyes closed, just hacking at the sound of serpentine hisses. The elf choked and coughed, a spray of yellowish liquid coming from his mouth.
Ibram’s gloved hand turned the elf’s fox-slim face to the side and brushed his long silver-blonde hair out of his mouth. His shield hand dropped the sheet of metal and wood embossed with the symbol of his house, a sword over a white disk. Ibram fumbled on his belt for one of a number of metal flasks. Finding what was hopefully the right one, he popped the cork and poured it into Ivellios’ mouth; he held the elf’s mouth closed, forcing him to swallow, as racking coughs shook his poisoned friend’s slender frame.
After a few moments, the elf’s labored breathing eased and the lung-tearing coughs subsided into merely powerful ones. The much broader but shorter human whistled for the mule, the sole survivor of their pack animals, and it eased towards him, reluctant to approach the dead lizards or the area of the now dispersed cloud.
With a groan, Ibram lifted his companion and laid him over the mule’s back in front of the pack and saddle bags. The mule brayed in complaint but didn’t move. Ibram gathered up their equipment, weapons, and armor. He arranged the elf’s gear on the mule who rolled his eyes at the load. Finally, he took off his sharp peaked helmet with the red silk pennant at the tip; his shorn hair was once black as a banker’s heart, but now it was going white at the temples and speckled all over. His beard was short and square cut in the manner of his people, though the asp hounds’ blood made it appear unkempt and ragged.
The villagers, who had been watching from over a thorn hedge, began to come out of their huts. The bravest approached to lend help. A man who looked seventy but might be in his late thirties came out, holding a carved staff as if it were a weapon. “Are they gone? Did you kill them milord?” he called from a few dozen yards away among the cluster of houses.
“We’ve killed all we saw. I need your help for my friend. Please open the longhouse and call your healers,” Ibram responded. Leading the mule, the man carefully walked towards the low wattle and daub structures with their thatched roofs. One in the middle was the length and width of five or six of the other huts with a stream of smoke coming from a hole the center of its thatch.
“We hasn’t got no healers, lord – just a few old women who works at mid-wifing. I’ll fetch them right away.” The man dashed off, calling for aid. Several more villagers rushed forward to help. Notably absent were any healthy men; most had been killed by the asp hound pack before help arrived.
As the injured elf was carried into the dingy, low-roofed structure, one of the women helping remarked on how much lighter he was than a human would have been. The warrior answered, “Aye, they’re made from water and air, lacking the fire and earth humors that we contain. Dwarves are only fire and earth so they weigh as much as a hot stone.” Ibram maneuvered through the doorway towards the pallet laid out by the old crone waiting for the elf in the longhouse.
They laid Ivellios, still hacking up yellow phlegm, on the pallet. Another older human woman came in washing dirt off her hands from where she was working in the garden. The first woman put a cloth over the elf’s mouth, saying, “Ware that yellow spittle. It makes you sick if it gets on you. We lost Gertie to it when those things first infested the area.” She carefully looked into his dilated eyes and called for more light. Ibram lit the lantern he carried and held it up over the examination.
The two old midwives whispered to each other for a moment before the second to arrive hurried out the door. “I needs a pot m’lord, and someone to stoke up a fire. We’ll steam his lungs and help wash out the poison that way.” Ibram ran to the mule and pulled his cooking pot out of a saddle bag. By the time he made it back, the other woman had returned with a handful of green, platter-sized leaves. When the woman carrying the leaves rushed past him, a cool, refreshing smell filled his nose.
The pot was placed onto a fire one of the men had started and filled with water. The leaves, wintermint and aerdslynn, were bruised and shredded before being dropped into the water. As the water came to a boil, the cool smell of mint filled the cabin. The older of the two women smiled a gap-toothed grin, “We needs to do this in here more often. Smells good, it does.” They both leaned the elf up to hold his head over the boiling pot. These ministrations continued for the next several days as the autumn winds howled across the plains. Ibram seldom left his friend’s side but began training the few men and several of the women in basics of self-defense. As the days passed, Ivellios’ coughs subsided, but the few that continued carried blood with them in a pink foam on his lips.
Nearly two weeks after the battle with the asp hounds, Ibram sat talking to his friend. Ivellios chuckled weakly at a funny story, but still wheezed a bit at the end of his laugh. “I’m tired Ibram.” The elf confessed.
“Nay Ivellios, you were just poisoned. You’ll bounce back from this as you have all the other hurts you’ve taken over the years.” Ibram twisted the bottom of his square cut beard as he spoke.
“That’s just it – there have been so many injuries over so many years. I took up the sword almost sixty years ago when the-never-to-be-sufficiently damned dwarves shattered The Woods Kingdom. I miss having a home and a family. My wife and little spriteling went to the dust so many years ago.” He rubbed his temples with one hand and leaned up on his pallet with the other. After a long pause, he said, “Did you know elven women think scars are ugly?” One long finger traced a gnarled white line across his stomach left by the claws of a troll many seasons past.
“Get you one of those wild plains elven women.” Ibram grinned. “They think scars are the mark of a man.”
“Ha, that would be a bit like mountain climbing as tall as they are.” Ivellios gave a wan smile at the idea. He was quiet again for a while. “I was a journeyman vintner when the war started. I even had a few varietals of my own creation. I miss growing things and creating instead of just destroying. I just think I’m ready to settle somewhere and have a place of my own.”
“Married life isn’t always wine and roses.” Ibram’s grin died away. Ivellios slapped him on the back a little sadly.
One of the village boys threw open the door and dashed into the room, “M’lord, there’s a beast in the fields! Can ye help?” the boy shouted out of breath.
Without a word, Ibram grabbed the shield he had laying by his side and checked the sword belted at his waist. Ivellios stood slowly and took up his leaf mail. Seeing his friend struggle to rise, he said, “No elf, you lay there and rest. I’ll handle this, and if I need help, the boy will come back and fetch you.” He quickly gathered his pieces of armor resting in the corner and began donning his layer of steel. He wore the quilted doublet of most knights to cushion against the armor’s weight and serve as a soft barrier against the loose chain of a hauberk which covered the upper body and hung nearly to the knees. He pulled on a chain coif which covered his head like a hood and created a second layer over the upper shoulders. The warrior held his cuirass of segmented metal strips over his torso which had to be tied tightly in the back by laces. “Boy, can you fasten that buckle there?” Similar to the chest cover but with the metal strips running forward to back instead of side to side, the shoulder pieces were placed and laced in.
Ivellios came over and pulled the laces tight enough that the human grunted. “I can at least be your squire if not your battle companion,” he said, grinning. Seeing an elf smile always surprised those who weren’t familiar with them. Their teeth were like those of a rabbit, and since their race were all vegetarians, they had no wolf fangs .
“It isn’t a corset you daft elf! Loosen the damn thing up.” Ibram waved his arms back and forth to ensure movement. The boy’s impatience at this long, almost ceremonial process was evident; he hopped from foot to foot, trying to rush the much older warrior, and kept glancing at the longhouse’s front doors. A fauld, much like a leather and metal skirt which connected to the cuirass’ bottom laces, covered Ibram’s groin and upper legs. He pulled on his weighted leather gloves, and the feeling of the lead over the knuckles and metal covering the back of the hand and inside of the fingers instantly changed Ibram’s demeanor. He stood straighter, opened and closed his fists, testing for a good grip, and placed a gloved hand on his sword. The thick, leather wrapped grip felt good against his palm – felt like returning home. The gloves had a long leather sleeve which extended to the elbow. Vambrace and rerebrace, both strips of laminated metal, one covering the forearm and one from the elbow to the shoulder, came next. Tooled and water-proofed hobnailed boots were pulled over his feet and laced, though the action was made more difficult with the weight of his other equipment. Ibram stomped twice against the dusty wood floor to make sure the boots were secure. Greaves covered the shins with more strips of metal laid in alternating patterns, and these were laced behind the calf muscles. Ibram stretched, bending his now metal clad body in all possible directions, to make sure the armor breathed properly. Finally, the cherry on the knightly cake, Ibram donned his barbute style helm with a T-shape opening to allow vision and breathing. Its brave red tassel flared out behind him like a flickering flame as he took up his shield in one hand and sword in the other.
Ivellios slapped his ringed hand against the helm, making it gong like a bell. “Go with the gods,” he said, evoking the blessing for battle, and slowly returned to his pallet. Ibram grinned at the elf and pushed open the door, walking into both the first chill breezes of autumn and the danger awaiting him, the boy pattering at his heels. “Now boy, what are we facing?”
“There was a great slavering beast over by the trade path! It ran all the saltbush harvesters off, and nay anyone can get close without being attacked!” The boy ran ahead and back when he realized the knight wasn’t sprinting to follow him.
“Great slavering isn’t really a description. Four feet or two or six? Breathing fire, spitting acid? Flying or hopping? Does it speak the trade tongue? What am I dealing with lad?” Ibram continued to walk calmly towards the trade path but was carefully scanning from side to side. His armor squeaked a bit when he moved, and the tassel blew in the breeze.
“Um, I didn’t see it. Headman Iosef told me to go and fetch you.” The kid slowed down for a moment to look abashed and began walking behind the warrior instead of leading.
“Right. I’ll sort it out. Stand clear, and don’t get injured.” He shooed the boy away with his shield and stepped outside of the thorny hedge that surrounded the village.
Sure enough, two bowshots up the path was a gigantic creature nearly the size of a small horse that looked something like a middle ground between bear and dog. Its fur was of medium length but looked like strands of granite instead of actual hair. It had a mane, not long and glorious like a lion’s but of thick, curly fur that was brown like copper around its neck and head. The creature’s great blocky skull was leaning down, and its hooked fangs tore at something.
Ibram crouched behind his shield as he slowly approached the creature. It had dug up the asp hounds buried by the village and was tearing out their bones and chewing them up. The poisonous corpses were apparently not a digestive concern for the monster. The noise its mouth made when closing sounded like bone shears. It had an oversized rectangular head and you could clearly see its jaw muscles working, even from a dozen yards away. It looked up at the advancing human with dead gray eyes and growled, a noise that sounded like a metal box of gravel being shaken. Up close, the creature was obviously far more muscular than a normal dog, even the mastiff it vaguely resembled, and probably weighed more than the knight in armor. Its hackles raised as it stared at the warrior advancing towards it, drool falling to the ground from its great mouth. “It really is slavering.” Ibram said to himself, “I owe that boy an apology.”
It barked, a metal tearing sound nothing like that of a normal dog, and charged, eating up the ground between them in bounds. The human braced behind his shield and swung his sword, cutting into its side, but was knocked to the ground. Both the creature and man scrambled to stand up and circled each other. Another bark, and it lunged forward, biting the edge of the shield and tearing the oak and metal face of it like paper. Ibram again chopped down with his sword blade, cutting the great beast’s shoulder, but only as much as he would have sliced through armor.
At the longhouse Ivellios had eased himself back down onto the pallet. He heard the weird metallic barking noise and shook his head, getting up again. “No, not without me.” He belted on his scimitar and took up his bow. He walked quickly out to the road, but the sudden exertion made his lungs burn. He stopped, wheezing slightly. The sound of grinding metal drew his eyes, and seeing Ibram in combat, the pain in his chest faded and became inconsequential. He knocked an arrow and hurried to forward.
The beast bit again at the armored warrior. They were tied up closely now, the huge animal trying to fasten its vast mouth on any part of the man who kept jumping, stabbing and rolling away. Another block by Ibram’s shield and the stone ursavus, it could only be one of the earth elementally enhanced ursavus or predatory canine bears, again tore a chunk out of the shield.
Throwing his broken shield at the creature, Ibram took up his sword in the high guard with both hands on the hilt. The monster lunged forward, and he took it in its neck with a powerful cut, and again only wounded it slightly because of the hardness of its flesh and fur. It’s sword-edged teeth fastened on his leg and took him to the ground, shaking the fully armored warrior like a terrier shakes a rat. Ibram was brought down screaming and his sword was flung away from him. He drew his dagger and stabbed at the monster’s face over and over as its teeth continued to bare down into his leg. The sound of armor tearing was drowned out by his yells, his knife plunging with inhuman strength brought on by survival, blood gushing from his wound.
From near the thorn hedge, Ivellios drew back his bow, waiting for the two to separate enough that a shot wouldn’t endanger his friend. His arms shook from the effort of holding it.
The magical beast finally fell to the ground, muzzle and eyes ruined by the dagger strikes. The huge creature mewled piteously and started crawling away. Ibram stood and limped over to his sword and then over to the badly injured monster. He chopped at its neck like a lumberjack at a tree. Finally, the head came loose and it lay still. Looking around dazedly, Ibram began hobbling towards the village. Ivellios let the bow go loose with a sigh.
The village headman came out, his arms held out in victory. “Well fought m’lord! We thought it had you there at the end.”
“Thanks. It was tough. Tougher than I expected. Are the villagers okay? Were many people seriously injured?” He asked, wincing each time he put any weight on his right leg.
“Oh, none of us were ‘urt at all. We saw it and ran inside. Called you quick we did.” The headman tried to help the warrior walk and was shaken off roughly.
“Did that creature menace the village or seem out to harm anyone?” Ibram asked in a low voice filled with menace. He fingered the hilt of his sword and leaned close to the elder.
“Nah, it was digging up those lizards you and the elf killed, but you can’t have monsters roaming about loose.” Headman Iosef smiled with his handful of yellow teeth.
“So, it didn’t threaten you at all?” The warrior had stopped walking.
“No, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure I always says.” The ancient villager continued to smile, missing the glint in the warrior’s eye.
Ibram exploded, “I am Ibram Gelder of House Gelder. I am not a dancing bear to set against beasts as an amusement!” The headman stepped back quickly.
The elf had walked near, “You are hairy like a bear though. It really is off-putting.” The enraged man shot a quick glance at his friend before continuing.
“I take on great dangers for your safety each year when I visit, because I believe it is my duty.” He pushed past old Iosef and stalked painfully back to the longhouse. “My God, Raugoshe the White Flame, commands all warriors to stand between the weak and the evil, and I obey his dictates with two patrols each year, never accepting money or praise for my actions, but I am not an exterminator!”
“It also gets you out of the house, away from your wife.” Ivellios threw in, grinning.
“Stop helping!” Ibram commanded.
They reached the longhouse and the furious man began packing his belongings. “We need to go. Can you make the journey?” he asked his friend as he packed up his remaining possessions.
“I think so, but first it seems you’ve sprung a leak and might want to tend the holes.” The elf smiled wanly while pointing at Ibram’s torn up calf. A small pool of blood gathered and seeped around the edge of his boot, and a trail of one-sided footprints tracked him from the longhouse doors.
“I’ve just seen enough of this village and need to be back home managing my affairs.” He starting throwing the elf’s gear into Ivellios’ satchel. The two walked, leaning on each other to the mule tied up outside the longhouse, and made their way out of the hedge fence. Several villagers came out to wish them well or give them blessings for their bravery. One goodwife even brought them a skin of mead for the road. They thanked her and the others, but kept moving painfully beside the mule carrying all their gear.
Once out of hearing of the villagers, Ivellios could see Ibram’s body shaking in fury. “They set me on a beast that wasn’t harming anyone, and it nearly killed me.” Ibram spat. “We could have left well enough alone, and it would have wandered off. I thought it strange that an ursavus would be attacking folks but didn’t stop to ask the right questions.”
Ivellios smiled, “True. You did take on a full grown ursavus on your own. You’re going to end up passable with that sword if you aren’t careful, and that story should be good for a free ale or two at the freesword’s guildhall.”
“Ha, just because my kind don’t live for centuries doesn’t mean we use our years badly. If you people weren’t frivolous and spent your time working instead of sniffing flowers, you’d be more use!” the two settled into the old argument.
Well past the slain ursavus and out along the trade track, they heard a strange metallic mewling. Looking around in some rocks, they found where a boulder had been chewed hollow and a litter of puppies had been set within it. Their eyes were barely open, and several shattered bones were scattered about where they had fed.
“See! The mother was just gathering bones to feed to her pups,” Ibram shook his head.
Ivellios smacked him gently with the back of his hand. “Do you not see what is in front of us? We’re fated to raise these creatures since you were set against their mother.” He smiled.
“These are magical beasts, elf. A grown one can tear through armor. A grown one just tore through my armor!” Ibram’s heavy brows crashed together in consternation. He leaned down and finally tied a bandage over his bleeding calf.
“I told you friend. I’m tired of the road. I’ve been thinking this way for a while, but this seals it. I’m heading back to the forest.” The elf gently reached into the gnawed upon boulder, took the pups out, and placed them in his pack. Their ear shredding cries became loud as they were handled, and one started gnawing on a leather strap. “Maybe I’ll even become a stone ursavus trainer.” He smiled at the beasts and tapped one of the blind pups on the nose, making it bite at his finger.
“Ah, so you’ll really do it. I’ll miss you when I take my spring patrol. At least winter with me and my family.” Ibram reluctantly pulled loose some of the chain mail pieces of his armor and gave them to the magical pups as chew toys. They happily crunched on the metal and stopped making those horrible sounds.
“It won’t be goodbye, Ibram Gelder; it will just be farewell for now. Let’s walk together to the city and part there. New adventures in horticulture await me!” Ivellios clapped his friend on the back and Ibram winced as the blow made him lean forward and place weight on his injured leg. The two walked painfully up the trade path. In the far distance loomed the great trade city of Seagate and Ibram’s home.