FREE short story from The Oraclon Chronicles
The Cragly of Cindereach
He has walked the roads of Dagothar for ages. His people mastered war long before Men invented swords. Haunted by loss, driven by convictions deeper than humans can feel, he wanders through kingdoms on his journey fulfilling an ancient oath. Chief of the First People, of the blood of Ha'akathrals from before the Age of Shadowed Ice, he walks through civilizations in the Old World to the domains of men. Known to the feylorn, to the faeries of the great forests of Dimwood, Splinterdark, Treehelm, Enchandrus, Everleaf and Harrowood and across the wilds by those almost as old as he, Tal-Nik of the Beasthorn walks to a place where he had suffered the greatest anguish of his long life. He is thousands of years old by the time he went back to Cindereach...they should have left him alone.
Tal-Nik and the Kindread are featured in The Oraclon Chronicles.
The Cragly of Cindereach
Hidden in the trees above, watchers spotted him shambling along the road to Sigils Arch. They studied him. A dark hood of brown hair hung across broad shoulders, black eyes shadowed beneath a massive brow. They knew he was too large to be human.
They did not know that the stranger had walked this road before.
He strode silently out of the forest of Dimwood and into the hill country bordering the mountains of southern Devilspire. They noticed he wore a coat of beaver and goatshag pants, enormous boots of thorny hide once belonging to some marine monster, deep gray. They took note of the odd-looking instrument thing slung across his wide back, a two-welled ancient horn with a single mouthpiece.
The watchers saw that he carried no arms. Instead of sword, axe or spear, the lumbering hulk carried a string of four dead ducks.
The size of an ogre youth, the strange figure moved onward through a cloud of agitated damselflies as he traversed the tradeway oblivious to the three who watched him.
The three lubarts waited until the quiet traveller passed the gooseberry brush and wended a hill out of sight. They were big men but not much human, descendants of Dathari human females raped in orc captivity. The lubart clan were highwaymen, bandit families, unwelcome even in the bone-strewn caverns of the Devilspire orcs. An unnatural crossbreed race, many lubarts were misshapen with deformities.
"What is he?" Thulk asked, son of the Great Lubart, Trolg. As the most important lubart of the three, he was the leader.
"An ogre," guessed Odar.
"A troll," said Dit, thoughtfully scratching chin hairs.
"Baint got no beards on trolls," Thulk spat. "Ogre, mayhap, but mayhap not. Comes out th' Dimwood."
"He got bees."
"What?" Thulk glared at Dit as if he'd lost his mind.
"Bees flyin' all abouts him, Thulk. Big, yellow-striped bastards."
"I only saw damselflies," Odar stated as Thulk stared at Dit.
"The damselflies are still there," Dit said, pointing down to the road. "Guess he tooks the bees with him."
"Shut it," growled Odar, leaning on his barbed spear. "I says we take him, Thulk. He's gonna walk into Margog anyway."
An image of Margog's road pirates stalking a Dathari merchant train with soldier escorts painted their mental canvass. Uproad an ambush was planned, to steal elven wares from the Sildari of Sigils Arch. The huge stranger was headed that way. Thulk tore his eyes off Dit.
"Right...let's get o'er the hill an' take him wit' the others at the Gladdow."
The three lubarts trailed over the hill and moved along its crest unseen through aspen beneath an overcast sky. Late in the year the kiss of autumn was felt at night. The road to Sigils Arch looped around allowing them to arrive at Gladdow Pass before their quarry. They positioned themselves amid trees that encircled the entrance to the pass. They did not wait long.
When the tall wayfarer walked into Gladdow Pass the six lubart bandits surrounded him, weapons brandished. Thulk and Odar lowered barbed spears of hardened copper menacingly, standing thirty paces away. Dit and another of his kith approached on the stranger's left flank. Two others appeared on his right, one holding a shortsword.
The traveller stopped.
Lubarts regarded their prey warily.
Dit's gaze took in the dead ducks. A fat bee buzzed off into the trees.
The traveller was like an old statue. Abyssal-deep eyes on an ageless face of sun-bronzed skin buried behind dark brown, thick hair. A muscular hulk, he towered over them standing between eight and nine feet tall. Imposing, thick legs like tree trunks were set into large boots.
He had no weapons...though he had walked out of Dimwood. A leather bag of holdings was slung ashoulder and across his massive back was some ancient animal's unusual double-horn.
A big bumblebee flew out of the left hornwell to vanish among the trees.
Bird song died as the woods quietened. As the noise of the locusts abruptly ceased, the lubarts glanced about uneasily. A breeze ghosted through the trees hardening the silence. Deeper in the trees the buzzing of bees had Dit searching for things he could not see.
"Drops t'at satchel! Pack too." Thulk was loud as he pointed his spear twenty-five paces away. Odar stepped forward with him.
Two heads higher than the lubarts, the stranger raised his enormous fist, offering Thulk the dead ducks.
"Not the ducks, you oaf!" Thulk bristled. "The sack and pack. Now!"
Odar watched as the bearded half-giant now offered him the ducks.
"He's a dolt. Gots to be addled, no weapons at all."
Thulk nodded at Odar's words as he raised his spear to throw.
A bee distracted Dit.
The breeze died away.
The large vagabond lowered the ducks.
Odar lunged for a thrust.
A sharp whistling ended with a knock!
As Odar's head snapped backward enveloped in a red mist, Thulk saw a bee, heard a similar whistling that ended in a thud. Thulk twitched, collapsed to his knees as Odar's lifeless body fell backward missing half his skull. Thulk's own body remained still.
The quiet stranger turned his head. Dit stared into godless eyes as Thulk fell forward in dead obesiance to his slayer. Dit's heart stopped when the stranger then offered him the ducks as another bee emerged out of the hornwell.
Dit opened wide his mouth and screamed, let go of his spear and ran down the road away from Gladdow Pass.
As he ran he heard whistling followed again by dull thuds and a knock. Bodies dropped. The last was a cut-short whimper with the silence filled with the buzzing of bees.
The lone lubart fled in haste as the big traveller slowly followed. He left Gladdow Pass behind, five dead bandits untouched. They had not known that he had walked this road before.
But not in living memory.
It was still early morn an hour later when he strode silently in to the Old Copper Digs. He slowed, seeing the pits for the first time. When last he had passed this way the Digs had not yet been discovered. The mining of surface copper had occurred long after he had left the region. But even afar the story was told.
Humanfolk of Dimwood worked the Copper Digs a long time ago before they were attacked by the orcs of Devilspire. Men and boys were thrown into the pits with molten copper poured over them. As they shrieked in agony their mothers, wives and daughters were dragged into the mountains.
He peered down studying the twisted, blackened skeletons hardened into macabre death throes all fused into a morass of corroded ore and slag. From his shoulder bag he withdrew three knives and a dagger, prizes lifted from those who sought to harm him in the past. With four old coins of various values minted in different time periods he tossed them with the weapons in to a pit. Uttering words from an archaic dirge, he turned away-
-to see a grown brown bear sixty paces away, sniffing.
He slowly moved toward the animal as it quested with its nose. Reaching over he pulled the ancient doublehorn off of his back as large, agitated bees buzzed in circles.
"Still your hearts. You are almost home." His voice was like the deep chords of a bone organ. The bumblebees calmed and flew off to explore as he broke out a chunk of dripping honeycomb.
The bear lowered on all fours and approached, sniffing, bumping the dead ducks with a wet nose before biting the honeycomb. Leaving the bear to her treat the traveller journeyed onward, along the road toward Sigils Arch.
To a familiar place. Hills on either side, he walked a road winding through trees, ducks swinging stiffly with his gait.
Elsewhere, the sun hidden at zenith by the canopy of gray, Dit stumbled breathlessly into the lubart fort. It was a dwarven trading post of old situated to barter with Sigils Arch, a sturdy construction having no walled defenses but served well as the lubart bandit's base of operations. It stood amid a village of fetid hovels inhabited by filthy female and lubart younglings. Outcasts neither human nor orc yet having the worst traits of both.
Gadro Longear raised a hatchet hastily but lowered it at recognizing Dit. Five others watched Dit burst into the chamber and stand leaning over trying to catch his breath.
The Great Lubart, Trolg, sat on a petrified tree stump carved anciently in to a chair. He regarded Dit as he chewed on stringy, half-cooked horse hindquarter. In the center of the room a fire smoldered and horse pieces were strewn about, head charred and half buried in ash.
A slender, dirty human slave girl wearing the tattered remnants of a dress stood holding Trolg's wooden cup of water. By itself in the back right corner was a dusty merchant's chest full of prizes the lubarts had amassed in piracy. Dit sucked in a chestful of air. His eyes were haunted.
"He kilt 'em all...with ducks!"
"Wit' ducks? What the hells," Gadro grimaced.
"Kilt who?" barked Trolg. Dit exhaled with a shudder.
"Chief! He had four of 'em."
"Four of 'em? He kilt four of who?"
"No, chief. He had four ducks!"
Dit suddenly spun half around, Gadro having slapped the spit out of his mouth before choking Dit left-handed while holding the hatchet threateningly.
"Slow down, Dit. Now whos gots kilt and whos gots ducks?"
Dit held his face absently but the panic still in his eyes had their attention.
"He real big. Mayhap ogre. Walked outta Dimwood alone. Gots no weapons but bees and ducks."
"Bees and ducks?" growled Gadro. Six pairs of eyes glared at Dit.
"He kilt Thulk and Odar...dead. W'it ducks! Tried to murder me but I ran faster than the bees. They all kilt. Five dead lubarts at Gladdow Pass." Dit spoke slowly as if his words were of great weight. For a half moment none spoke.
"Kilt my seed, did he? Thulk be one o' mine." Trolg sat brooding.
"Where's he off to, Dit?"
"He walkin' slow towards the 'Reach."
"Comin' this way?" Trolg was surprised.
"Yeah, he should be at th' Digs right now."
"He'll run into Margog. They's stalkin' them Dathari wagons." Trolg quietened again.
"You says he gots no weapons?"
"Gots bees and ducks," Dit replied earnestly. Trolg looked hard at Dit but said nothing for a spell.
"He gots to cross th' Sink, Gadro. Takes yourn to Vagruul's Bridge and ambush him. Margog be hittin' th' humans on this side o' th' Sink. Stay outta th' Reach. Lubarts go missing up there."
Trolg turned his eyes back on Dit.
"Go back on them trails, Dit. Spy on th' ogre. Come tells me what he's doing. Anything weird." Trolg then looked back at Gadro and the others.
"Th' lubart who brings me his head can dig through t'at there treasure box." Hearing this all the bandits grabbed weapons and hustled out of the open stone doorway.
Not far away the large wayfarer stepped off the road at a ravine to trek up a hill of great size. A small mountain. In his ascent his eyes roamed the landscape. The trees were in different places but this was expected. There had been landslides in more recent times, burying other rock slides that had been covered in soil, plants and trees. He saw the layers of history in the terrain, finding recognizable prominences, outcrops and shelves.
He arrived to a flattened area and stood quietly as the images of a bygone age passed through his mind. When last he had stood at this spot the ground was littered with dead and dying cave ogres.
His eyes swept over the now uneven surface of the ancient forecourt. Ahead lied the cliff face. A shadowy chasm led into the interior, a doorway of old ashlars of immense size and weight forming a dolman entrance.
The abandoned holds of the gnomes of Cindereach.
His obsidian eyes matched the darkness of the doorway of this hidden cliffside redoubt, a concealed fortress that had served the gnomes as a sanctuary during the Scattering Epoch so long ago. It had long been abandoned even the last time he had been here.
Carrying four dead ducks and taking a long, deep breath, he stepped under the cliff overhang. Earth, stone and dust now carpeted over what he knew lied below his boots...broken ogre skeletal shards and rotted old bronzewear.
He stopped, having no need to enter. He knew there were many tunnels, chambers, halls and great galleries hewn out of the living rock. Caves turned into the fossils of a once-thriving civilization.
And lying inside one gallery was a row of six piles of ogre skulls ringed in stone debris to keep the bones from falling into disarray, all beside six huge rune-inscribed ashlars marking the burial of his woman and five others.
The brutish figure stood quietly at the threshold, sojourning in spirit back to a wild antiquity when his people warred against roving bands of Devilspire ogres. His hunting party returned one early autumn to discover the horde of butchered ogres. A battle a day over. Amidst the carnage of almost fifty cave ogre bodies were found their dead wives.
She had been a Night Matron, the others were of her household. Fifty slaughtered ogres found that even the women of the First People were mighty.
The athak of the primordial race of the Ha'akathrals hooked the string of ducks to his belt and pulled over the giant doublehorn as large yellow and black bees flew about protecting four drones and a single queen.
"Go, my friends. Your new home lies therein."
He reached into the hornwell the bees emerged from and broke out a wedge of larvae-filled honeycomb. Many bees attached themselves to it and hauled it through the air into the dark of Cindereach.
The tall athak broke out more honeycomb and ate around the parts dotted with larvae, leaving them on the ground. He departed, descending back toward the road to Sigils Arch as bees lifted out of the other hornwell and flew off in all directions. On his back the humming of bees in their industry echoed from the horn.
Back on the road a bee came back from surveying ahead. It landed on his outstretched palm to perform an elaborate dance of half and whole circles, abdomen twisting and inflating, antennae waving-warning of danger ahead.
"Thank you, friend."
As the athak walked onward the bee flew into the horn. He again held onto the ducks as an hour passed along the road meandering to Sigils Arch.
He arrived to another familiar place.
The Sink was prehistoric, a long split in the side of a lower mountain of unknown depth. Tendrils of shadow below deepened like a black kraken in murky waters. A very old bridge of gnomen engineering spanned the chasm. The strange alloys still showed no signs of aging.
The athak mused, remembering when the men of Talan Dathar had journeyed here to make a study of the structure. He looked about, seeing the changes time had wrought. Lots of trees were strewn about. A log longhouse had been built on this side. Someone out of sight was chopping wood. An open doorway before a three-step porch led into the longhouse. A water trough. He remembered the stone well and realized the log house had been constructed around it.
Before him the road stretched across to the other side over the bridge, a metal cord-and-plank construction linking the two sheer cliff faces. The gnomen structure was nine feet wide and slightly over forty-five and a half foot long, moored on both sides to huge metallic posts buried in the rock.
Over the bridge on the opposite cliff was an old stone tower with a tombyard behind it. Wood signposts and big rocks served as grave markers.
The athak glanced at the longhouse wall beside him. Painted childishly in trade common on the logs was Vagruul Lubart Bridge. Brownish stains at the bottom of the wall hinted at the fate of the one who was forced to paint it.
He moved quietly to the stepped doorway.
A bee popped out of the hornwell and flew over the longhouse. Then a seven foot tall boar-faced lubart with a battle-nicked waraxe across his back appeared in the doorway. From three steps high he hesitated, eye-to-eye with the enormous hulk.
Someone stopped chopping wood.
The traveller's deep black eyes regarded him from over a thick dark beard.
The lubart took in the four hanging ducks at a glance. He saw several fat, yellow stripped bumblebees rise up out of the odd doublehorn of bone. They buzzed off in various directions.
Far beyond the stranger the bandit saw movement in the trees, but relaxed. A cloud of yellowjacks fluttered as a swarm through the wood. A lone butterfly followed behind them.
"What's you gots, big'un?" the bandit asked, noticing how quiet the forest was.
"Do I pay to pass?" The athak's voice was a deeply gutteral promise of heavy stormclouds. An unknown, aged dialect.
"Yas. You gots to pay to gits yonder. Or go 'round the Sink." The lubart bit off a chunk of jerky with brown teeth, eyeing the athak.
The traveller retrieved a thin ceremonial knife of tarnished silver and a copper squarx, a square coin minted by the dwarves of Nimbolc of old.
He gave them to the lubart and walked out onto the metal bridge. So many skies had passed since he had stepped upon this bridge. Ancient quests and sorrows, journeys far below the world and across seas lost beneath foreign stars...even to the lands of Aroth Beyond. The four corners of the world of Dagothar had known his passage. Hallowed chief of the First People, the elder Ha'akathral race of the Old World, already an aged race before the creation of Men.
At the middle of the bridge he stopped. The athak stood above the bottomless crevasse, a black maw waiting to devour. Six lubarts with spears and clubs strode out of the tower to block the bridge ahead. Their leader held a hatchet and was first to stand on the bridge. He had one abnormally long ear.
The athak quietly watched five more lubarts with spears follow the big bandit with the waraxe. They blocked the bridge from behind. Twelve pairs of eyes regarded their prey, one lubart grinning stupidly.
The athak took one step.
The lubarts hesitated as the huge vagabond took another step. Their leader raised his hatchet.
A lone bee hummed lazily through the air over the Sink.
The athak stared soulessly at the long-eared lubart. Then he spoke. A voice that stilled the wind.
"Go in peace, friend...or in pieces."
"What?" Gadro replied, tilting his head in challenge, making his long ear appear longer. "What you says to me, freak?"
Gadro instantly sprung forward with his hatchet as all the lubarts burst into a charge with battle cries while the athak raised high his string of four ducks. Dead upside down birds.
Suddenly a whistling knock! blew apart Gadro's skull, only his lower jaw and right eye remaining as bone fragments and brains sprayed out into the dark below. His lifeless body collapsed forward as bumblebees from all directions fell upon the advancing lubarts. Their faces were stunk repeatedly as if attacked by wasps, the bandit's yells turning to yelps.
Two more lubarts fell dead, their heads crushed and broken. A fourth accidently stepped off the bridge combating a swarm of stinging insects. As he fell screaming the bees broke away to swarm another.
Another head snapped forward, skull riven, the bandits now breaking their attack in panic, eyes wildly trying to avoid the witchery of the ducks.
fwaack! thhaamp! ssswick!
The four remaining lubarts watched in horror as the bodies of their kith crumpled lifelessly in bloodied heaps. Seven fallen on the bridge and an eighth vanished into the Sink.
All in seconds.
They stared mortified into the black eyes of the ducks.
A bee buzzed lazily around a knocked-dead lubart that fell limp and rolled off the bridge quietly. Another bandit's head whipped backward with red splatter. He too went down.
An angry swarm of bees negotiated a second victim to plummet to his death as the last lubart ran off the bridge toward the tower.
When the vagrant athak lowered the ducks all was very still. Bees becalmed began flying into the horns. A whirling mass of fluttering yellowjacks drifted like a sheet on the wind over the shadowy deep of the Sink to disappear into the wood on the other side.
The athak went over to the dead lubart with the ceremonial knife and plucked it out of his deathgrip. He walked over their bodies to the tower, passing the graveyard and resumed his journey down the road to Sigils Arch.
High above the world of Dagothar the sun began to burn through the clouds. It had passed from zenith to salutation, now halfway to setting. Patches of the blue vault peeked through breaking clouds. As he strode onward a single bee flew from uproad that hovered to perform an air dance over the hornwells. A buzzing swarm of bumblebees lifted out of the ancient horn and snaked through the trees to disappear up the road.
It was only a moment before the tall traveller heard the faint ringing of metal on metal. The athak did not hurry, but as he neared he raised high the string of dead ducks.
Instantly the woods quietened and the breeze died. The swirling veil of yellowjacks burst out of the thicket to envelope the athak before flying off into the tree behind him.
A scream cut off.
The banging of a weapon on armor.
Angry shouts turned to confusion.
He steadily walked, ducks swinging high, his dark eyes forward above his heavy beard.
A horse whickered nervously.
thhaamp! knock! sswwook!
The forest emptied of all sound.
Six humans with arms drawn stood blinking, awed and alarmed, ignoring a dozen bees flitting about. Two of the Dathari guards were dead, a third wounded. Ambushed by lubarts...bandits all lying dead around them. A silver-haired merchant was first to check the body of the nearest bandit. He kicked the lubart's head.
"What's that, Pabrel?" asked a guard pointing his shortsword tip at the bandit's dented-in skull. A strange cube of dark stone covered in alien runes was embedded in the bone. Pabrel studied the runes knowing that they were not dwarven. He sheathed his own sword. Looking around he understood that they had an unseen ally.
"What's it mean?" asked the guard, clearly spooked. He nervously peered into the trees.
"Means he's dead," grimaced the injured guard, "just like the others." The soldiers by the wagon stepped over to another body.
"Look here, Pabrel. Another cube...and that one over there is covered in bee stings."
"Bees don't sting like that. They die." The men saw a few bumblebees flying about but no dead bees.
"We paid the toll," a guard growled, "and they ambushed us."
"Killed Wardan and Neath," said another.
"Yeah, boys, but what killed them?" With Pabrel they all surveyed the eleven dead lubarts.
"We got a visitor..." the wounded guard spoke low. They turned as one to see the towering, long-haired athak. A giant holding a string of ducks. To the humans the eight and half foot tall stranger was a titan. They had not heard his approach. A strange doublehorn high on the ogrish figure's back seemed to attract bees. Disturbing inner chords strummed a tune at the edge of Pabrel's memory. The merchant furrier saw that the half-giant had no weapons.
"I hope this is well met, traveller." The guards looked uneasy from their employer to the athak.
"Sons of Dat'hari...well met." His voice a heavy boulder grinding gravel. The humans fidgeted. Only in the stories of elder times were humans called Dathari. And only by nonhumans.
The athak glanced at the two wagons noting the Sildari tradewares. The men had come from Sigils Arch after bartering with the elves.
"Go in peace. To Dimwood the road is good." The enormous figure stepped slowly over to the two dead guards.
"We have yet another fight, stranger. The lubarts at the bridge," said Pabrel, the other men stiffening in resolve.
"Nay...they are gone," the ancient chief of the First People said as he pulled out two old knives and two very unfamiliar rounded and clipped bronze coins. With massive, scarred hands he laid the knives on the chests of the deceased as the men exchanged puzzled glances. The coins were placed on the foreheads of their dead friends. The merchant absently stroked his square-cut beard.
"What, friend, is this ritual?" Pabrel asked. His men pressed in with curiosity. Memories without faces, stories unremembered troubled him. The athak stood to his full height and the humans felt small.
"Coin to pay passage at the Gates," he replied deeply, the men stirring uneasily. At his words the air stilled as if his voice commanded the wind.
The four horses eyed him with interest.
"And the knife?" Pabrel noticed that his own voice seemed to have no force. The men watched a sadness chisel the athak's face.
"To fight the others...those who find their coin is not enough."
The merchant's eyes widened. He looked all around at the bodies of dead bandits. None were given knife nor coin. Pabrel set his eyes on the giant.
"You killed all these lubarts." The athak's depthless eyes radiated a haunted antiquity that stirred Pabrel's soul. He turned his massive back and began walking away, toward Sigils Arch.
"I killed no one."
Long passed salutation, the sun hung just beyond the western hills, half the sky in blue fields between white mountains. On the other side of the village of Westenholt at the lubart fort camp, Dit again stood breathlessly before chief Trolg. Beside Trolg stood the little skinny, dirty human girl holding a half-eaten honeydew melon.
"Just likes I says, chief! Thulk, Odar, Gadro, Vagruul, Margog-alls of them wit' theirn be dead! Bees and ducks. Th' murder'r saved them humans. Wagons gone o'er the Sink now. Be in Dimwood 'fore we get to 'em."
The chief wiped his mouth, blinking.
"Go spy ons Westenholt. I sent Big Jubba and Gak wit' theirn to sit in on th' Twilight Eve feast. Th' bastard makes a showin' I gots Jrok and Eblu wit' theirn waitin' in th' trees." Trolg grinned archly and Dit ran out.
Then he frowned, brooding. The whole thing was a mess. Something wasn't right. He had a bad feeling about this murderer. Trolg's eyes studied the horse meat over the embers and the box of valuables in the corner. If need be, he'd run. Should he be the last male lubart alive his own womanfolk would kill him. Real slow too. That's if the humans didn't butcher him first.
Trolg looked around the room as he bit into more melon.
It had been said of old that at the sun set the burning disk does not in truth die to be reborn the next day, but that its sojourn continues brightly across the distant skies of Aroth Beyond. The athak knew the truth of this. Under a darkening sky the woods were swallowed in shadow, the light of oil lamps and blinking fireflies ahead illuminated a clearing between two dark buildings.
Passing between the structures the athak walked out into a clearing full of humans.
Over seventy Dat'hari men and women, their little ones hugging legs, peering out windows. Several log houses and workshops. A very long table with thirty-two stump seats around it was covered in chopped turkey, pumpkin, small tomatoes, water fowl, potatoes, carrots, fruit and hot, baked bread. All males sat on the stumps underneath lightly glowing lamps that hung from six posts built out of the middle of the carved tables. Six males were dirty lubarts, two of the bandits being very large. Women and girls stood behind their husbands and fathers, eating from their plates. The open sky's dying light illuminated the clearing with the lamps.
All eyes, human, lubart, milch goat and herd dog, turned to silently regard the appearance of the colossal stranger with midnight-dark eyes, shaggy hair and wild beard. The men saw his massive knuckles, monstrous boots and string of ducks. The womenfolk noticed his shoulder pack, great bone-gray ancient doublehorn and the yellow and black bees that seemed to emerge from it to disappear in all directions.
Many realized that the herd dogs begging for scraps had not barked. They all sat quietly watching the stranger.
At the nearest end of the long table an elderly human stood and offered the stump, two women hurriedly rolling another to the right corner for the old man to sit.
"Come, friend. Sit. Twilight Eve...food enough for all." Scores of eyes watched as the giant vagabond sat on the end stump. He slowly looked up the length of the long table at two rows of worried humans, the women standing behind, and equally apprehensive-looking lubarts. The athak saw the furtive glances the stronger-appearing humans gave one another. His own archaic eyes noticed the mattocks, hatchets, clubs, work hammers all placed out of sight but near to the six unsuspecting lubarts occupying the center of their feast.
The humans had been about to act but were now uncertain.
They all watched as the athak gave the string of ducks to the old man. He removed his shoulder satchel. Out of the bag he withdrew a four-tusked hog youngling, then dropped the sack at the old man's feet. The elder's eyes narrowed at seeing over a dozen knives, daggers and a longknife. A young man took the four ducks and pig, hesitating at seeing the weapons on the ground. None save the elder, the youth and two women could see the contents of the bag.
"Clean the bag. I have need of smoke." His words were like a boulder slowly pushed away from a cave entrance. As the women took the satchel the athak pulled a carved ivory pipe out of his beard. A woman with a braided bun in a dun dress set down an earthenware pot in front of him, removing the lid to reveal shredded tobacco. Small conversations and eating resumed as the half-giant contentedly smoked his pipe.
Women quickly set out melons, hot bread, turkey, a sausage, peppered turnips, a tomato and a dish of roasted eggs. The woman with the bun hair brought him a clay pot of mead to drink.
Talking continued mixed with nervous laughter and the athak watched the lubarts as the women briskly distributed more food and refilled drinking vessels. Several men glanced at him curiously and he knew the womenfolk were passing out the knives. Just as the old man was leaning in to speak with him, from the woods outside small Westenholt village a scream pierced the quiet.
Heads turned at this unexpected noise and the biggest lubart stood, holding his waraxe. The heavy rumbling words of their new guest had all again regarding the athak.
"Sit, friend...ere something evil befalls you."
The lubart hesitated. It was a command made to sound as a warning. Again, the humans hesitated as the lubart sat down. Biting off a chew of turkey leg the athak looked at the lubart leader.
"The daughters of the Dat'hari have laid out a meal. Eat it." The human remained silent, all remembered the tales of old, bygone histories when men lived in a vast city, Talan Dathar, when all races feared the might of the Dathari.
Then another scream...followed by cursing. A bandit's voice in the woods hollering about bee stings.
The loud complaining of the unseen lubart cut off. The athak swallowed, drank slowly from the pot and then leaned back to draw deeply from the pipe. Many humans joined him but the six lubarts only picked at their bounty while nervously looking about.
A little red-haired girl with a pony tail wearing a green and blue sun dress walked very carefully out of a cottage balancing a wooden bowl full of buttered wheatsticks. She abruptly stopped two arm-lengths from the athak. Round blue eyes stared.
The bearded giant exhaled a stream of smoke like a shaggy dragon. Coal black eyes regarded the wee child. She gazed up in awe at the ancient bone doublehorn and the lone bumblebee clinging to it. The villagers of Westenholt watched as the girl's mother hastened out of the cottage. All could hear the girl's voice in the evening quiet.
"Are you gonna pour honey on my momma's wheatsticks?" She held the bowl of wheatsticks higher. As the elder at the corner attempted to reach for the bowl, her mother put her hands on the girl's shoulders, smiling to the athak.
"I'm sorry. She is such a treasure." But the little girl wrenched away, moved to avoid the old man, slid the bowl onto the long table and adroitly climbed the stump and table to sit on the giant's lap amidst a bluish cloud of smoke and startled people.
Men and women stared.
Out in the woods branches were broken loudly.
A voice, more distant, yelled, "He gots bees an' ducks!"
But the girl was loudest, barking at her mother.
"Papa says Tal-Nik of the Two Horns saves little girls and blesses poor folk with honey because he's Lord of the Bees." The old man flinched as if burned and stared at the athak as if seeing a demon unmasked while the girl's mother froze, a shock jolting her whole body still. She whitened with fright.
"And papa says we're poor," she added. The villagers sat and stood unmoving. Awe, disbelief, curiosity. The little girl leaned back to peer over the athak's beard.
"My papa knows all your stories. We listen at the hearth then go to sleep. He says you killed the Addanc, that you're a friend to bees everywhere, that you saved Talan Dathar and papa says everybody knows Tal-Nik has walked all the paths of Dagothar. I know it's true because you came here.
"Papa says that anyone who comes to Westenholt must be lost. If you talk to my papa he can help you find your way." She fetched a wheatstick and grinned when he took it. Then he spoke.
"Not all who wander are lost." His words were carried in an air thick with no breeze, each syllable weighted like an old stone. Next to him and the little girl the old man broke out of his shock.
"My lord," he breathed with a visible tremble, "I apologize for-"
Another scream erupted from a different direction far in the trees. But all eyes stayed on the athak as he pulled the doublehorn off his back.
"Woman...bring three bowls," his said, the words like granite rolling over cobblestones. The girl's mother half ran back into the cottage as other women moved out of her way. The bearded giant turned his eyes toward the bandits at the center of the long table.
"Lubarts..." he spoke deeply. All six of them eyed him fearfully. "It be time to join your friends. Into the wood." They looked about nervously, confused, clearly not wanting to go out among the darkening trees. But there was no safety in the lamplight. Over a dozen humans standing around them and sitting closest were suddenly holding hatchets, a mattock, knives and daggers, a sharpened hoe. They quickly disappeared in to the outlying forest and the villagers' attention returned to the girl at hearing her giggle.
The athak removed cork from the horn's mouthpiece. Golden honey poured out over the wheatsticks and then filled the three bowls as the girl and villagers stilled in amazement. Seeing the honey an old, wrinkled woman hissed with fright and dropped to her knees, followed by others. The elder near him bowed reverently as men at the table exchanged incredulous glances. For them the knives in their hands now took on a greater significance.
The humble people of Westenholt stared numbly at the legendary beasthorn of the Addanc.
Tal-Nik passed down the three bowls of honey, raised his wheatstick, then spoke aloud.
"May all your trades be true." He ate it and offered one to the girl as men and women tore pieces of bread apart and dipped honey. Two more screams were heard followed by pleading, begging. tthhwwok!
A body crashed through branches from a good height. A thud.
The villagers broke bread with an ancestral hero to early mankind, the chief of the Craglies. Tal-Nik of the Beasthorn. Even of old in Talan Dathar the Cragly was ancient. A hearth tale come to life. He was the leader of the First People who had survived wars with races no longer alive, from distant epochs before the Age of Shadowed Ice.
As they ate the Twilight Eve feast they chattered and laughed, no longer hearing the sounds of terror and violence in the dark beyond the lamplight. The girl laughed and watched wide-eyed as many fat bees flew out of the forest shadows and into the hornwells.
"I prayed at the hearth. Papa went to bed," said the child. The Cragly's obsidian eyes locked onto her glassy blue orbs. "I prayed you would come to save Mabel," she added, chewing on a honey-covered wheatstick. Her mother appeared and gave him a lambskin pouch packed with tobacco leaves. She moved rigidly, scared, but hovered close to her daughter.
The girl licked honey off her fingers.
"The big lubart took Mabel away to the old fort. Mabel's my friend."
The meal over, men smoked as children fed the dogs. A worry-worn woodsman with a gaunt-eyed woman close behind approached.
"Forgive me, lord...but...you are indeed Tal-Nik?" The villagers stilled, listening. Some looked alarmed. The air seemed to grow heavy, thick. The breeze completely disappeared. The droning of bees hummed from inside the horn.
The Cragly nodded. "By many names am I known."
A visible shudder wracked the woodcutter's body. His wife's red eyes were saucer round.
"We, my wife...friends...we've lit candles to the Guardians..." He looked ready to cry, but continued. "I chose Protectors of old but my wife lit one...to Tal-Nik of the Two Horns. My lord, forgive me- I scorned her...did not believe..." He sobbed, his wife too tearing up.
"They took my daughter," he rasped, a hardening chisling his posture. "I thank you. Now many of us will go to the fort and get her back...we have weapons." The athak looked long at the tired woodsman.
"Enjoy your gathering. No weapons are needed. She is safe." The man and woman stared.
"How, lord, do you know this?"
"Because, son of Dat'hari, I am already there." Their eyes widened and the man shook. His wife led him away as the little girl on his lap chewed on the wheatstick.
"My papa says the bees tell Tal-Nik everything."
A short distance away at the old fort used by the lubarts, Trolg hurriedly crammed horsemeat in to a dingy old trail pack. The lubart stopped. It was deathly quiet. He heard a whimper escape the human child in the back corner. He glanced to see her cowering, staring at the open doorway. He too looked, swallowing hard.
Filling the whole doorway walked in an eight and a half foot tall dark-haired, heavy bearded ogre-of-a-man, some large humanoid. Trolg saw that he carried an unusual serpent-decor greatsword. Behind this huge figure came in a second athak holding an enormous battleaxe with peculiar symbols cast into its metal. A third athak strode in dragging a full towsack in one hand and a long, leather war-sling. Across his massive chest was an empty baldric with square depressions formerly holding cubic slingstones.
The three gigantic Craglies seemed to fill the room. Trolg froze as the draw on the sack loosened to reveal decapitated lubart heads. The Big Lubart did not know that he gazed upon the forms of ancient nightmares. The swordbearer was Ulf the Undying, or Mirthblade, archaic Cragly leader of the Dread Reavers. Waldomar Cragly held the axe and the Baphoman mancer called Adayoth bore the runesling.
A fourth athak, and the deadliest, called Atha'dur, stood outside. His weapons were of the Old World- the glacis, witarn, drisc and the glasharn.
Waldomar-of-the-Pipes set his slag-black eyes on the human child as she held her breath.
"Go home, bairn."
The girl leapt up and darted for the door as the athaks opened a way, but she stopped. Hesitating, she glanced at Trolg who remained still. Indecisive, trembling, she suddenly bolted to the other side and rummaged through the treasure box, a cry escaping her as she tossed about articles in her way.
The Craglies watched her.
With a jubilant exhalation she pulled out a hempcloth doll with wooden button eyes and ran out of the old fort, barefoot, to the path to Westenholt, unaware of the ageless eyes in the woods that saw to her safety.
The child gone, Mirthblade grinned nastily at Trolg. The lubart wanted to cry.
"Seems the Sildari want their road back...and we're only one head short of reward."
* * * * *
This has been a tale of Creepy Nick and the
Kindread, an event that occurred thousands
of years before the Poltyrians came to know
them by these names.
Creepy Nick and the Kindread play a major role in The Oraclon Chronicles.
Beyond Dagothar, Book One of The Oraclon Chronicles, Amazon $2.99 ebook/ 6.99 paperback
An unusual warlord has united the underworld. The lead ranger has vanished. Josiah Arrowloft races across kingdoms with enemies close behind spilling forth in a new Uprising.
Far below the world of Dagothar a Barad-ai ranger and his steed traverse the underworld on a quest to find the surface. Liam is one of the Deep Men and with the dragon Sibilan Stonescales he embarks on an unforgettable journey for the Council of Sages and Seers.
Urick Arcanacraft is a 13th degree knight-scholar who leads his crew on a voyage through alien waters filled with perils aboard the ship Seeker of the Ancient Lost. This blademagus possesses a secret deciphered from an old tablet.
Dax Clovenheart is a hulking blue-skinned rhinotar. He claims to be a ranger, uses unspeakably powerful weapons and is from a place very far away. He has been to where the others go but must return in what will prove to be his most important assignment ever.
These four heroes and their friends will meet amidst a holocaust of war and carnage, dark sorceries and curses, prophecies fulfilled, tragedies unforeseen, unbelievable heroics and the shocking presence of future-craft weaponry...a faery apocalypse, disasters culminating with the cataclysmic return of the Broken Moon.
In an epic struggle where offworld interference endangers all the inhabitants across Dagothar, mankind will get help from the most unlikely place...
The realms of Hell.
They sailed around an entire continent crossing half of Dagothar aboard the Seeker of the Ancient Lost. The Poltyrians were no ordinary crew. Led by a 13th degree Knight-Scholar of House Demarsculd, a trained blademagus named Urick Arcanacraft, the heroes Felix, the helmsman, Cassius the sky knight, Jaston of the palace guard, Hannalyn, an ArchRoyal Bowmistress, the veteran Maximin, a priestess of the Order of the Broken Moon named Melisha and a strongly disliked Royal Observer, these eight people accompanied by fifty-one marines embark on a fantastic voyage to an unknown sea. They visit and escape perilous encounters at Kings Bane, the coast of Hinterealm, contend with the Rivensail pirates and the dungeonships of the slavers of Edgehaven in the uncharted waters of the Spawnsea.
Urick is an arcanologist and his mission is secret, none aboard know the true agenda of their expedition to the fabled ruins of Daethalon, ancient capitol of the Caedorian Empire. Urick possesses a secret the faeries will kill to keep, the knowledge of Cavin Knightshade's discoveries in Dimwood and Talan Dathar. As the underworld armies of the Taran Warlord continue their trek across the west, Urick keeps his own crew in the dark concerning the risks they will be forced to take all the while unaware that the greatest danger to their lives is right there on their ship.
Thus begins The Oraclon Chronicles.