Skydagger Mountains. Third week of the month of Misting (Early Spring).
The two travelers felt themselves sinking into mud more often than they felt solid ground beneath them. The spring rains had only recently ended, and when the floods started to recede, the world turned to quicksand. To their right was the vast brackish lake that was usually the desert of the Salt Flats. To the left was the high hills leading to the Skydagger Mountains. There were several scattered farmsteads out this way, and Ibram Gelder, always on the lookout for trouble, had taken it upon himself to patrol them and see that everyone was safe. The rickety cart rattled beside him and looked as though it would tip over at any moment. The two surly mules pulling it through the muck were even angrier at the ground condition than the travelers. Peleus the Tinker trailed behind Ibram on what was left of the road; he had tagged along on the journey to take advantage of the free security offered by going with the knight. He would sell small items to the farmsteads and repair some of their metal implements, and although the road was normally safe, the rains sometimes brought out nefarious characters looking for an easy target. Having the company made the journey more pleasant for the knight as well as Peleus had a quick tongue with jests. Ibram towered over the peddler on his great charger which trotted quicker than it should have been able to in such thick mud. When the charger pulled ahead of the mules and the cart, it glanced back at the mules, snorted proudly, and then continued prancing forward through the muck; clumps of mud fell from its hooves with each step and splattered back onto the road. The mules shook their short, bristly manes and brayed, objecting to their new view being the charger’s backside.
The day had begun foggy as was common this time of year. The world was just waking up to the spring, and the first handfuls of flowers were scenting the air. Last night, Peleus had caught one of the great armored fish that spawned on the salt flats during the flood, so they had eaten well. He’d cut up and salted the remnants and buried it in the coals of the fire to make something like a jerky for the rest of the trip. He was gnawing on a strip of it as they moved down the way from farmstead to farmstead.
It was nearly lunch, and the next grouping of farmsteads lay just beyond the next hill. Most farmers were happy to host a knight, and tinkers were always welcome for the goods they bore. After several minutes of travel, the first farm came into sight. It was the typical triangle design common to the area with the outer wall of the house, barn and outbuildings built up into a rough palisade.
As soon as the farm came more clearly into view, the two stopped their procession. Dread hung heavy like the fog around them. The gate hung open, not altogether unusual, but it was partially torn off its hinges. Several shapes of what looked like goats were scattered around the damaged gate. It was hard to tell because their bodies were all missing pieces.
Ibram removed the cover of his war lance and put on his helm. Peleus, not a warrior but used to defending himself, drew a great crossbow from the wagon’s seat, spanned it, and securely seated an arrow. Both looked around to see if anything immediately threatened. “You stay here and watch my mule,” the warrior said and then clicked his tongue, slowly ushering his charger forward.
“You betcha. I’ll be right here until it is time to be somewhere else, then I’ll head that way in a hurry.” The merchant licked his lips and continue to scan the area. The jerky had fallen onto the seat of the wagon, forgotten. The crossbow was held ready but not to his shoulder.
The charger trotted slowly ahead, snorting at the smell of blood. The older knight on its back held his lance loosely in one hand and his big kite-style shield on the other. As they approached the scattered goat carcasses, a cloud of flies flew up from them. The iron and sewer smell of recent death was strong.
He studied the first of the goats for a long time as the charger nervously shuffled its hooves in something like a dance. The horse was young, and this was the first time it had encounter something like a slaughter house, and it didn’t know what to do. It took great solace from the steadiness of its master, but still wanted to either fight or run away from the sickening odor.
The pair approached the torn gate and saw that several of the door’s thick timbers had been broken in before whoever, or whatever, had finally smashed the bar holding it shut. There was blood and some dark brown fur on the door. Passing through the gate, bodies of the family that had lived here were scattered about the yard among the chickens and dogs. It was difficult to tell much about what they had been as they had been largely consumed, and many of their bones were scattered about and almost picked clean. Ibram slowly dismounted, difficult to do with lance in one hand and shield in the other. He poked at some of the bodies with the two foot long blade. When they did not respond he moved to the door of the main house.
The front entrance to the house gaped wide absent its leather-bound wooden door which lay, broken almost in twain, in the yard. Spear blade leading the way, he stopped at the doorway and looked inside. He shook his head, swallowed heavily, and spat on the ground. The inside was a shambles, like animals had rooted through it. With a quick inspection, he determined it was clear of danger; he went back to the gateway and waved for Peleus to join him. He began to gather all the bones he could find, not being able to determine if all of them were animal or human.
Peleus arrived after a moment and instantly became violently ill. His sickness added to the pungent aroma of the yard. The mules flatly refused to enter and were tied with the cart outside the walls. After several minutes, they gathered together any parts which might be the remains of the family and burned it in a pile outside the gates. Sober faced, they continued their journey.
Almost four hours and three more ruined farmsteads later, the two were despairing. What had been a convivial trip through farm country had become a nightmare trek. They were on alert and expecting attack from any angle. Each time the path went through a copse of trees, they moved like soldiers assaulting a fortress. Peleus had talked several times about turning back but agreed to accompany Ibram to help where he could for at least the rest of the day.
A column of smoke came from up ahead. It wasn’t the first they had seen, but it was a possible sign of another steading in trouble. Maybe this time they wouldn’t be too late. Warrior on his horse in the lead with the merchant on his cart trailing behind, they made an unlikely pairing and a strange picture, but the clenched jaws and hard eyes told of their determination.
Coming to the top of a hill, another of the triangular steadings was burning. The heavy wooden door was beaten down much like with the other farms they had seen. A few very large hairy creatures were laying in the yard unmoving, looking like great apes. Another of the big simians worried at something on the ground near one of the walls. This was the first time any creature like this had been seen on the trip. Looking back to Peleus, Ibram said, “Trolls” in a flat voice. He seated his lance firmly under his right arm, rolled his helmeted head around once to stretch his neck, and charged forward.
It was fifty meters or so to the one living troll in sight, and the great horse ate up that distance in the blink of an eye. Just a moment before the two foot long head of the lance made contact, the troll looked up, its eyes bulging from its head cartoonishly at the unexpected attack. The lance took the beast in the chest with a savage butchering sound and a loud crack when the pole snapped. The big simian was torn across its middle and thrown against the palisade wall. All was silent for just a split second before it began to mewl like a wounded kitten.
Two more of the beasts knuckle walked out the gateway from inside to see what had happened. One with midnight black hair and armor created from bones tied all over its body roared and charged. The other with almost strawberry blond hair and wearing a poorly fitted, human-sized breastplate over his broad, hairy chest banged his iron-banded club against the palisade wall twice before he ran at Ibram, almost like it was ringing a bell before a fight.
Ibram pulled frantically at his sword to take a guard position before the dark haired troll reached him. As it closed, his charger leaned over and bit it, drawing blood and getting punched to the ground for its trouble. The warrior rolled free of the saddle and finally had his sword up and ready. He took a strike from a fist on his shield; his knees flexed to absorb the blow, and the mirror edge of his broadsword struck like a snake and cut deep on his foe’s forearm. The troll roared again and swung with both hands together. The blow hit his shield but was powerful enough to drive the man backwards. The blond troll approached more carefully, watching the exchanging of blows, when a crossbow bolt sunk into its shoulder. A loud, “Ha ha!” floated over the field from where Peleus was leaning against his cart, frantically winding the windlass to seat another bolt.
Ibram’s charger struggled to its feet behind its human. The horse didn’t like being hit. Chargers are chosen for their aggression and trained to become more so. The horse wondered how the troll would like being hit back. It took the troll’s strike as a challenge, and as big as the trolls are, a three-year-old stallion is still bigger. Ibram and the first troll circled each other, both striking ineffectually. The human was really surprised when, suddenly, the troll flew out of his vision to lie crumpled against its pack mate who had been brought down by the lance earlier. Both rear hooves of a war trained horse in the bottom of the ribs will damage nearly anything, and the troll hacked out its life, spewing a pink froth from its lips.
“Somebody is getting an apple when this is over.” Ibram stalked forward, shaking his head to get some of the salty sweat out of his eyes. It wasn’t a hot day, but combat in armor made even the fittest of people breath like asthmatics and sweat like pigs. He met the blond troll that was bleeding heavily from its shoulder. It only had one arm working, but that arm still had more strength in it than in any man.
Its club thundered against his shield; the heavy wood construction began to crack from the strain, and his bones felt like they were also fracturing. Ibram shook his arm, trying to relieve the numbness in his arm, and ducked under another heavy blow. He stepped inside the troll’s long reach and slashed it under the arm, across the back to the chest. Its other arm fell, useless. The troll made a weird high-pitched growling scream and leaned forward, mouth gaping in an attempted bite. The man stepped aside and took it through the throat with one more thrust. He stood for a moment breathing like a bellows before he noticed more sounds from inside the palisade. Taking one more deep breath and dropping his broken shield, he stepped cautiously towards the gate.
The gate had been strong and well made. There were carvings in it asking the blessings of many gods upon the family’s steading. Even in this situation, the carvings made the warrior pause for a moment at their obvious skill. They were much finer than one would expect for a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. A human man in a chain hauberk lay just inside the gate. He had died fighting; four trolls lying slain around him. His armor was cracked and battered by many blows, and a large dog with blood on his jowls lay beside its master.
An orange tree perfumed the charnel house and a couple of chickens squawked and hid from this new intruder. A huge, light brown-furred troll covered in more of the tied bone armor, much larger than the others, emerged from the house, ducking his head under the doorway, and roared at the human. He had what had probably been a child in one hand, but it was hard to tell with so many bites taken out of its body. In its other great paw it grabbed a carved chair and hurled it at the warrior who stepped out of the way. It threw another of the wooden chairs and stepped back into the gloom of the house.
“Okay, so we’re going to have to come in there and get you. I can do that,” Ibram mumbled to himself. He was already exhausted, but an enemy wanting to fight from the shadows like a coward always renewed his strength. The slain man in the yard had a large axe still clutched in one hand that was black from dried blood. A brazier had been set on the walkway of the palisade wall near the undisturbed barn and was still burning and smoking. Someone had set it there to summon help.
A bucket of darts was overturned in the yard. Ibram reached down and took two of them, one into his belt and one in his off hand. He held his sword in a fore guard position, almost like a spear. Its needle point led the way. Coming to the side of the door, he peeked in and jerked back to the side with weapons ready. No huge piles of fur and rage reached out for him, so he stepped forward again. It had been a well-appointed small farmhouse, but now it was a ruin. Smashed furniture, an overturned stove, and blood covered the central floor. A table with six chairs remaining were to the side of the door. They had been overturned, and it looked like two little girls had hidden under it before being smashed to ruin. He could only tell from the dresses pinned under the table splinters, soaked through in dark blood, and what remained of long strings of hair. Bile rose in the warrior’s throat, but he swallowed quickly and forgot about it. The troll hulked in the back of the room like he was in a cave. A boy lay in a tumble of arms and legs to its side; blood crusted the youth’s head and matted the floor beneath him.
Ibram quickly threw the first dart with an underhand motion. It stuck in the wall several feet away from the troll, and the beast chuffed at him in what might have been amusement. It charged just as he threw the other dart, which also missed and landed in the floor near where the troll had been standing. The man let out an exasperated sigh and took his sword into a two-handed grip in a high guard so the blade almost touched the ceiling.
The troll was carrying a club it used in two hands and swept it towards its foe. Ibram tried to block and interposed his sword but was thrown to the wall by the force of the blow. Shaking his head in a daze, the troll stalked towards him. He clenched his hands against air. His sword was gone, and he was unarmed against a wall. The man tried to get up and dodge to the side, but ended up stumbling towards the back of the room. Another of the huge smashing strikes from the club rang against the floorboards right behind him.
Ibram spotted his sword and dove for it, but the troll’s club rang against his armor like a bell and put him on the ground again. His breath had been crushed out of his lungs, but he tried to keep crawling forward. “Just have to reach the sword. If I have the sword, there is a chance,” he thought to himself. The troll roared triumphantly and stood over the prostrate human.
Suddenly it roared again, this time higher pitched, and it jumped over the man. The boy who Ibram had been certain was dead had grabbed the errant dart that had landed near him and used it to stab the troll in its ankle. The boy stood shakily, blood covering the right half of his face, with one eye swollen shut and several claw cuts across his chest. He held the dart out like it was a dagger before him. The room seemed to freeze for a moment.
The troll roared again and charged. The sound seemed to shake Ibram from his daze, and he jumped forward to grasp the hilt of his sword. The boy stood his ground and thrust forward with his dart as the great creature grabbed him around the shoulders and lifted him to the ceiling. The man’s sword cut deeply into the monster’s belly, and it dropped the wounded child, screaming again. It backhanded Ibram to the ground and knuckle-walked quickly out of the door, yelping almost like a bass-voiced dog.
The room was quiet, save for the two rhythmic sets of labored breathing.
Ibram stood, looking more like an old man than a warrior in his prime. One hand went to his lower back and the other grasped the table edge for support. “Boy, are you still living,” he called into the room’s gloom. After a pause, a long groan answered him.
The man hurried over to the crumpled child. His blood covered face had crusts of scab across it, and you could see several shallow gashes in his chest through his torn clothes. His eyes danced crazily in the irregular light. ”Is… is it gone?” the boy said, struggling with each word. The dart was still clutched in his hand with a death grip.
“Yes, child. It has fled.” Ibram wet a rag from his bota of water and used it to clean some of the farm boy’s injuries. After a few moments, the tanned skin became visible again under the dirt and injuries.
Suddenly the child’s eyes shot open, and he gasped. “My sisters! My sisters are here! Are they okay?” He quickly sat up but grabbed his head when he did as if suddenly in pain. The weary warrior looked over at the ruin of red near the table that had probably been those sisters. The boy followed Ibram’s eyeline and began to scream.Ibram grabbed him and held him to his chest. Standing and holding one hand over the child’s eyes, he rushed to the door and through the yard. “No, child. Do not remember them like this. Think of the sunny days,” he said in a strident voice as he ran to the farm’s gateway. He began to sing in a rough, low voice as they ran towards the cart, “Sunshine and clover, with bees flying over….” It was a nonsense rhyme that his own children had loved when they were young. The boy’s screams were muffled against the thick armor but still echoed off the nearby hills.