Keeping Count

The brush ran smoothly through her hair, stroke after stroke from top to tip. Her maid was diligent in her duty. One hundred brushes, every morning. Sunlight streamed in through the bay windows into the royal bedroom, not yet reaching the full length mirror in front of where the Queen sat. Once possessing an unmarred beauty, her face was now careworn and her wealth of raven black hair streaked through with grey.

“Eighty-one, eighty-two-” She heard her maid counting just under her breath as the paddle slid down, drawing the bristles through her locks.

Waiting for the Queen once she left the room would be stacks of paperwork, reports from the front lines, and the list of casualties. The last one was never a surprise, though.

“How many today?” The Queen inquired as her maid finished brushing. She could see the the young woman’s lips moving as she picked her way through the bristles with delicate fingers.

“Thirteen, your Majesty.” Came the delayed reply in a timid little voice, carefully presenting thirteen strands of grey hair, draped over her palm.

She took them carefully, running her fingertips along the length. “You may go for now.”  She only let her jaw tremble for a moment once the maid was out of the room before steeling her expression into one of regal calm.

Thirteen grey hairs for thirteen fallen knights.

The Assayer

Every year the rickety old cart trundled into town around the time of the longest day. The horse always differed, but plodded along at the same pace as the prior year. No one quite knew who The Assayer was. They just came by, whispered into the ear of the mayor and came to wait in the town square. The children of the village were then paraded past for inspection.

They didn’t know what the visitor was looking for. Under the tangle of grey hair and thick brown robes spotted with the stains of travel they didn’t know if it was a man or a woman. They never spoke out loud. Just a shake of their head and motioning for the next child to step forwards.

Old Garton was seventy-nine. This made him the oldest man in the county, and even he could recall summer days as a child when The Assayer would ride into town and peer at each child, searching for something in a single look. Over the years it had become a festival day, with stalls gathered around the town square and something of a distraction from the usual chores of tending the surrounding farms.

It was a little different this time. Towards the end of the line of children The Assayer was about to move one on before they stopped. Reaching out, they pulled themselves closer to the child, a single blue eye visible in the mass of hair as they stared at the youngest son of the town butcher.

With a nod, they waved the others in line off.

The party that night was like none that had been seen before or since. Singing, dancing, drinking and feasting kept them up till dawn.

When the sun rose, The Assayer and their cart was no where to be seen. Neither was the butcher’s youngest. They sent out search parties, they posted notices, they eventually waited for the next longest day of sun.

Neither were seen again in the land.

Patching Up – Part 2

“You could at least give me a hand.” Des called as his spear drove forwards to puncture the carapace of another fenmite. The large, tick-like creatures could jump fairly far and the piercing mandibles were not something the former farmer wanted puncturing his hardened leather jerkin.

“The quicker we gather these components,” Zaneer replied as his lithe hands working to pluck plants from the edge of the fenland, “the quicker we’re out of here. Besides, the Captain asked you to guard me while I gathered.”

Whirling his spear Des knocked a leaping fenmite out of its jump to the ground only to drive the point of his weapon through it. “And I only agreed because for some reason she holds you in high regard.”

“Why wouldn’t she? My skills are invaluable, and I was friends with her mother’s family.” The elf mage rose to his feet, brushing down his dark robes with a hand. “Oh, and-” With a flourish of his orb-topped staff, a burst of energy surged forth and past the human. The wave caught the leaping fenmite and sent it tumbling back into the bogs. “There’s your hand.”

“Thanks… smart-arse.”

Zaneer stood outside of the dilapidated farmhouse they had sought shelter in, gulping down the cool night air. His brow was furrowed as he sustained a small spell to vent the aroma of cooked flesh from inside. He was uncertain if he would ever queue up for one of the camp roasts again.

That could wait though. Aside from clearing the air and his lungs, he had another reason to be outside.  Drawing another wand from under his bloodstained robe, Zaneer detonated several bolts of red light in the sky above him. As minutes past stood outside in the darkness, fear started to know in his stomach.

The sight of a blue detonation in the sky to the south bought a sigh of relief from the mage. Steeling his will, he fired off several more red detonations. Base camp responded with a white and a yellow. With a flick of his wand, a green flare soared high above the farmhouse. At least someone back at camp knew they were alive.

Hurrying back inside, Zaneer dragged an old hand cart in front of the door, filled with assorted tools to weigh it down. The chances of anything intelligent and hostile tracking his signal lights was low, but only a fool eschewed sensible precautions.

“Dinner smells good.” Des groaned from the makeshift bed he’d been laid on, his leg still propped up. A poultice had been applied to the wounded and cauterized area, secured by lengths of cloth removed from Zaneer’s own robe, the cleanest ones he could find.

The elf couldn’t help but laugh. “That… isn’t dinner. Do not turn maneater on us, Des, it would be most unseemly at meal times.” Settling down near the injured man, Zaneer offered him the waterskin. “You should drink.”

Des took small sips from it, his weathered face still pale from blood loss and the poison.

Zaneer took the time to re-wet the cloth for his forehead before speaking. “Camp knows we’re out here. There isn’t anything they can do until daylight.”

“Leave a little food for me and get some rest, then. You moan something awful if you haven’t gotten a good night’s rest, I’ve noticed. Last thing I need to deal with.”

Pulling what small provisions he had bought for the trip out, he placed them near the farmer’s hand. “I ate earlier, so finish the rest off yourself.” He lied. “I cannot advise on how best to eat after your ordeal, but I’d say eat little and let it settle first.”

“And as for sleep?” Des asked, shifting awkwardly to get a better look inside the pouch.

“You will have to put up with my moaning as I put up with your screaming. There is a chance that the signal flares might have drawn unwanted attention, and should you take a turn in the night-”

“Fair point. Leg still hurts like anything.”

“It is if you stopped feeling pain when we would have cause for concern.” Zaneer stated. “So if anything changes, let me know.”

Nodding, he settled back down and stared up at the ceiling. Silence passed between the pair for a while before Des finally spoke up. “Got two requests for you.”

“Nothing maudlin I hope?” Zaneer spoke carefully, eyeing the human.

“First one might count. Humour me, as alien a concept as that is to the guy with a staff up his back.” Des replied, his speech lacking its usual fire and pace. “If things go south, get back to the Captain in one piece.”

“It does count. What’s the second?”

“Forty one years and still no idea. Magic… how’s it work?”

Taking a long look at the stricken human, Zaneer mulled the topic over before rubbing at his face with a hand. “Why not, putting it into terms that you will understand will be quite the mental exercise for me.”

A low rumble of a chuckle came from Des. “Arse.”

“Quite.” The elf smiled. “So, magic.”

Patching Up – Part 1

“Am I dying?” The former farmer asked, laid out on the ground with a leg propped up onto a barrel. His skin was pallid and clammy, and his voice hushed.

“No. There are two simple reasons as to why you are not dying.” The man tending to his wounds chuckled, working delicately with a pair of needles to remove the poisonous barbs digging into the elevated thigh. “The first is that if you were to die, I would have the satisfaction of no longer having to tolerate your company.”

“I hope the second reason’s better, because the first would also mean I wouldn’t have to put up with you… you prim, pointy-earred prick.” The patient laughed, soon trailing off to lead into hoarse gasps.

The elf’s laugh filled the abandoned farmhouse, his hands keeping steady as each barb was removed with careful motions and placed into a dish. “Oh, much better. While I may be a humble mage-”

“Humble?!” The farmer’s chuckle had him wheezing again.

“Humble and incredibly modest. Possibly the most modest in this entire cursed land.”

“No… more… hurts to laugh…” He gasped, before his carer was up and adjusting his head to make sure the airways stayed open. The addition of a cool, damp cloth placed on his forehead brought some comfort to the fire raging through his veins.

“I’m not a physician, but I am familiar with anatomy. Your leg is elevated, to reduce the bleeding. The trifling amount of blood you have lost was tainted with poison so that is some small blessing.” He spoke, thankful that the poor light in the barn obfuscated the amount of blood staining his robe. “The materials I have been gathering for my own purposes? Well, some of them can be used to help clean and treat your wounds.”

The farmer was quiet as the last few barbs were removed from his leg, the remnants of the attack that had left a large, deep gash on his thigh. “It’s bad, isn’t it, Zaneer?”

“It, well, Des…” Zaneer took a deep breath. “Cleaning the wound will be the easy part. What comes next? You will need to dig deep and harness all of your surly, bastard-esque qualities.”

It didn’t take long for the mage to sift through his component bag, removing the wooden pestle and mortar as well as some small bags of freshly collected herbs. Pinches of this and bunches of that all ground together. A waterskin provided ample clean liquid to wash out the wound.

“That wasn’t so bad.” Des spoke somewhat awkwardly, his teeth gritted.

The elf looked down at the man with a resigned expression. “The wound is too big for a poultice. You’ll likely bleed out if it’s left open.”

“Needle and thread job, then?”

Setting his jaw, Zaneer slipped a hand under his robe to reach for one of the carefully-grown wands in his caster’s bandoleer. “Alas, I have no needle or thread. If it were cauterized? I would say there’s a good chance you’ll see the rising sun.”

“… Ah.”

Taking as deep a breath as he could, Des grabbed the neckerchief laying near him and wadded it up. “Do it. A chance is better than-”

“An unpleasant certainty?” Zaneer finished for him, moving into position to weigh down his body and secure the injured leg. A small wave of his hand brought the candle up to provide better light. “Draw deep from your soul, you boorish and cantankerous pig. This will not be pleasant.” Power flowed through his hand and into the wand, a tiny orb of fire appearing at the tip of the dark length of wood.

Any retort Des might have offered was muffled by the neckerchief clenched between his teeth. It did not do such a good job muffling the screams.

It Tolls For Tea

Her sword arm ached from the raging battle she had been fighting for the last hour. Blows were carefully parried, strikes avoided and thrusts countered. The sun had just started to set when a mighty bell tolled. The warring warriors looked up and around at each other as the sound hung in the air.

Sheathing her blade in the scabbard, the knight pulled the helmet from the top of her head. “The queen needs me.” She declared, before departing the field and heading for the castle.

There was no cowardice in her actions.

Even the mightiest knight could not resist the call of pizza night, and no plastic swords or rubber helmets were allowed at the royal table when it was time for a feast.

Hirsute

The small band of warriors kept their distance from the beast’s fallen form. Taking the moment to catch their breath gave them the chance to watch the creature take its last movements, arrows riddling its sides with the wounds oozing yellow blood.

“Shall I recover the arrows?” The youngest of their troop asked while wiping the sweat from his forehead.

The captain placed a hand on his shoulder. “Not this time. Do not be fooled by its hirsute form, the bristles are loaded with venom.” He nodded over to one of the older warriors. A scarred woman slipped a cylindrical container off her back and pulled a pair of thick leather gloves from it. Rolling the sleeves up to her forearms, she made a slow approach flanked by two spear-carriers.

The youngest member watched as the spear-carriers slipped to the sides to jab with the tips of their blades. No signs of life from the beast gave her the confidence to approach and remove their arrows. With the missiles clear she was free to begin harvesting the choice dark bristles, taking care not to squeeze the venom out as she removed them.

“Captain, why do we gather the bristles if they’re so dangerous?” He asked after several minutes spent watching. The look his captain gave him was one he knew well. It was the ‘use your brain’ look. Musing, he eyed the beast. “To use on creatures our weapons are ineffective against?”

“That is correct. There are other uses for it too, and killing a number of them now stops us from getting overwhelmed in the future.” His captain explained. “A fine balance must be maintained.”

The young man continued to watch as his fellows plundered the caterpillar for its toxic hair. Every so often the fairy’s eyes darted towards the round fake eyes of the beast, a shudder running through him at the almost alien-face marked with warning colours. That face would probably haunt his dreams that night.

Parasite Control

They burst from the walls, horrid creatures of hard exoskeletons and proboscis designed for blood sucking. About the same size as a dog, the term the local tribes coined for them translated roughly as ‘blood-wraith’. Through the streets of Walkingburg dashed Weaver, in his element as an agile swordsman fighting a running battle.

When they leapt at him, his scimitar lashed out to carve chinks in their natural armour. When they curled up to roll at him, he simply danced over their balled forms. And when one blood-wraith surged up at him, it was met with a near-point blank blast from Weaver’s battered sawn-off shotgun.

“Jackass.” The blonde man muttered, ducking under a leaping bug before slicing clean through one of its leg joints. Another blast from his shotgun at the softer underside of a parasite emptied his barrels of ammunition, and started him running again.

Up close to the ruins of the town, it was clear that the sun and sand had done a number on it, without regular repair the wooden structures had been baked and sand-blasted by desert winds. The webbing of the blood-wraiths criss-crossed between broken homes and vacant businesses, and became his scimitar’s chief concern as he raced for the town square in the centre. As he neared it Weaver gathered arcane energy in his free hand, feeling the limb turn heavy and numb as power surged through it.

The torrent of light that shot up into the air hung about, glimmering a soft gold as he engaged his opponents amongst the remains of market stalls and once-picturesque benches. Outnumbered ten to one, sweat soaked his robes as he darted to and fro, sword biting into carapaces, cleaving skittering limbs and separating antenna and proboscis from their owner’s head.

“You’ll find I’m not much of a snack.” Weaver called as they amassed around him. “I’m stringy, tough, and a half-breed too. Not some gamey elf or juicy human.” He glanced up at the fading sight of his signal spell, wondering if he should cast it again. Spells weren’t his forte, and- his scimitar slashed out rapidly at the cluster of long, pointed appendages aiming to drain him dry.

Their behaviour suddenly changed. Some were turning their backs on Weaver in response to something, giving him the chance to press the attack. With both hands on his scimitar, he put power into every stroke as he advanced through his attackers to be greeted by a spear-tip rupturing through the body of a blood-wraith.

“Splendid day for a fight, eh?” A slender man called, his face angular and cheeks harshly pointed. In the desert sun, his pale complexion was made more pronounced.

“You could say that, Saddler.” Weaver grinned, getting into position by his fellow adventurer. “No one told me about the blood-wraiths.”

“And yet you charged in regardless. Most brave. Most daring. Most-”

“Stupid?” Weaver finished.

“I was going to say dashing, but I will defer to your superior judgement in this case.” The elf said with a slight smile, flicking haemolymph from his weapon as he readied it to strike out once more. Glancing across the crowd of bloodsuckers, he looked to his companion. “Twenty two left. Eleven apiece?”

“Take sixteen,” Weaver chuckled, “I wouldn’t want you to think I took your share of foes.”

The dark-haired elf pursed his lips. “Ten chore duties says that I defeat sixteen before you defeat six.”

Weaver’s scimitar flicked out at an attacker. “You’re on.”

Author’s Note: This week’s Three Word Wednesday words are Jackass, Rupture, Splendid, and continues last week’s story, Walkingburg.

Walkingburg

There was only one way to sensibly approach the abandoned city of Walkingburg, and that was head on. Having located it, Weaver guided his steed on a circular course to come at it from the front, timing the lumbering footfalls.

Walkingburg looked straight at him with one cloudy eye, the other a milky-white. Ramps lead down from the giant tortoise’s back, dragging along in the desert sand. They were as derelict as the houses and buildings atop the shell, all its inhabitants long gone now. Pieces of dried wood fell with every step, tumbling down to join the massive footprints in the sand.

Pulling his hood back, Weaver revealed his tanned face and shock of blonde hair to the beast. “It’s me.” He called across the sand, his hands by his mouth to try and channel the voice in the right direction.

Walkingburg blinked once in response, giving a slight bob of its head.

“I apologize for taking so long, but Bluethorn berries are hard to find nowadays; especially in the quantity that you need.”

Another slow blink, its eyelids lazily dragging over dry and sore lenses.

Nudging his horse forwards, Weaver spoke once more. “If you could stop and lower yourself, I could see about treating those cataracts of yours?”

The tortoise shuddered to a halt, its joints creaking as it sank to the ground with a great wheeze. As he approached, he could see the tell-tale signs of parasites infesting the ruins on the shell. Dark scabs hid where they they had been feasting on blood, and thick webbing glinted in the midday sun.

As a caution, Weaver loosened the scimitar at the side of his waist from its scabbard. “I’ll medicate later, actually.” He informed the beast, keen eyes catching the skittering movements in the parasites vast nest. “I think first, we need to deal with the pest problem.”

Author’s Note: This week’s Three Word Wednesday words were: Apologize, Derelict and Medicate.

Tyrant

The tyrant fell, and the heroes lowered their weapons.

As the populous emerged from hiding from the conflict, they waited to bask in their praise. The cruel overlord of the realm was no more.

The people did not deify them. They did not praise them. No flowers were offered or gold tithed, no gifts bequeathed or titles bestowed.

Grief was palpable in the air, tears openly streaming down their face as they pushed past the adventurers to their fallen master.

Men and women, young and old, pushed the party away even as their fellows began to sing an ancient song that reverberated throughout the city. The tears in their eyes shimmered and vanished, their sorrow empowering the spell.

With a tired groan, the tyrant revived.

“You may consider me an evil man,” he said to the adventurers, a human shield forming in front of him as they raised their weapons once more. “But the will of the people will always raise me. Will you slaughter your way through them, just to get to me?”

The civilians were resolute, arm linked in arm, even as the rag-tag group of warriors advanced once more.

Author’s Note: This week’s Three Word Wednesday words are: Bask, Grief, Raise.

The One Named Obituary

Seven men waylaid the lone traveller, their armaments consisting of swords, spears, cudgels and other common weaponry. Clad in leather armour studded with metal, their grizzled and lean forms spoke of a lifetime outdoors, their weapons and garb that of bandits.

The one they faced stood cloaked in black, most of her face obscured by the hood that cast shadows over her features. Looking from left to right, she spoke in a light, disinterested tone.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

“We’re the Ecrador Eight.” One of the bandits snarled, fists clenching his cudgel.

Looking around again, a dry chuckle escaped from under the hood. “There’s only seven of you.”

“That’s because you killed Mirah!” The ringleader spat, his eyes narrowed. “You killed-”

“Mirah of Ecrador, nineteen years old, born under the New Moon of Spring, died under the Full Moon of Autumn.” She recalled, now sonorous instead of disinterested.

“So it is you. Obituary, The Walking Death.” The bandit pronounced, his fellows readying their weapons. “You of the Named are not immortal. You are outnumbered. And we’ll get our revenge on your flesh!”

Obituary was quick to whip her cloak off, flinging it high into the air. Wearing just a linen shirt and a short hose, her long legs and muscled arms were bare to show the names tattooed into her skin. The list of names extended under her clothing, up the back of her neck and across her bald head. The only place free of the ink was her face, instead given over to a dark pattern that somehow accentuated her ice blue eyes.

“I bear the names of every man and woman I have killed on my skin.” Obituary proclaimed, bringing herself into a ready stance. “Their death at my hands stains my flesh. Every life I have taken adds to mine. What they lose to oblivion, I gain in essence. If you think you can end my tale… try.”

“FOR MIRAH!” They chanted as one, lunging towards her as they did so.

The fight was short and painful. Leaping up, Obituary came down with hard swings of her fist, easily caving in noses and breaking ribs with singular strikes. As weapons lashed out at her, precise palm blows fractured blades and snapped poles. When she wasn’t punching, she was kicking, and when she wasn’t kicking she was breaking and dislocating with her practised hands.

A snap of the neck burned a name into her flesh, Damar of Ecrador. A blow to the solar plexus inscribed Hanir on her body. A one-two combo to the head added Fetel to her list. Twin palm strikes ruptured Remin’s lungs, his name soon appearing once he choked from the internal bleeding. Mahx and Vrost both died with their windpipes crushed by solid kicks.

Only Enrewn, the bandit who had spoken for the seven, was left alive with his eyes wide in how quickly this slight young woman had taken out his fellows. On all fours he crawled away, stomach still reeling from the punch that had felled him.

Her bare foot stepped down onto his back, pressing him into the dirt road she was travelling on. “Last words?” She inquired, catching her cloak as it fell.

“We… just wanted revenge…” Enrewn sobbed, fear choking his voice.

“And now none are left to avenge you.” Obituary sighed. “You were Eight. Then you were Seven. And now?” Her heel drove down into the base of his neck, her skin itching as another name was added. “You are none.”

Picking their pockets for change, she added them to the small coin-purse she kept hidden in the folds of her cloak, wrapping the garment around herself before continuing on her journey. She wandered not out of a love of travel, but out of necessity.

For she was named Obituary, and death would seek her out.