Strangers In the Mist…
A bit of a story I thought of while waiting to sleep. I’ve been adding a bit to it here and there and plan on adding a page or so every day as one of my New Year’s Resolutions.
They were formed some time in the far distant past. Just a legend to many, their existence was known to only a few; those who had seen one or more of them materialize out of the shrouded woodland surrounding some small settlement, defend the rights and lives of the occupants, and then melt back into the fog-cloaked forest. No one knew exactly where they lived. Or how. All that was known was that in times of need, they would somehow know, and come.
There were Eleven ‘Watchers’. All agreed on that fact. Though no one knew how their numbers were maintained or where they once called home. They could be identified by their shiny black and crimson armor, though they usually covered themselves from head to black boot-top with thick grey cloaks. Their horses were said to be majestic animals five hands higher than most anything found in your common town or village. They carried sword, axe, and bow and were said to be masters of each. And there was more.
They carried weapons that could kill from a distance with fire, or smoke, or light. They could reach out with their amazing talismans, it was said, and kill a standing man before that man could hear or see the finger of death that took him. They could destroy strongholds in thunder and acrid smoke. They took no pay. Asked no more than an occasional meal or place to sleep. They followed some unknown law or code seemingly known only to themselves. And were to be carefully welcomed wherever they chose to appear. There had been fakes before, it was said, that tried to take advantage of this or that town, but they disappeared into the night leaving any of their ill-gotten gains in a pile at the outskirts of the town they had duped. Few tried to impersonate them.
Every Longest Day in the summer at dusk, each home would light a candle in a window to their shadowy protectors’ health, and recite a verse passed down through untold generations:
“Lonely warrior in black and red,
Lacking friend, home, or bed.
Watch over us and keep us safe,
Protect rich man, poor man, thief, and waif!”
This would be followed by a feast by the household, unmatched at any other time of the year. Bonfires would be lit and families would gather together from great distances to drink to the lonely warriors’ health and well being deep into the night. Even though some no longer believed in these mythical figures of legend, especially in the larger towns, they still lit the candle and muttered the verse under their breath if nothing else. Every mother drilled that Four line ward into the hearts and minds of every child so that they would never be without it.
It was also said that when a steading reached a certain size, one of these legends would appear and speak to the Head man in private and leave him with a way to call for help, though no one would say what that might be. Stories told of wooden tripods set up near troubled homes with something odd on top, but no one would say or really wanted to know what it might be. After all, their lives were hard, and they were content enough to know that such a thing might exist for their protection.
Terrace was such a Steading. Not really big enough to be called a ‘town’, Terrace was made up of a cluster of a dozen or so houses and outbuildings with a population of 43, mostly children. Add to that the three dozen head of cattle, some pigs and chickens, and what used to be several score of cats and dogs. That was the way of things in Oldan these days. People only lived thirty or so years before they were cut down by accident, infection, or some unknown internal ailment. So people, like the animals they herded, had children. Lots of them. Other steadings had grown into proper towns this way. It was not unheard of.
Summer had been good for the steading. Hotter than normal, the rain had come in abundance and the crops and animals blossomed in abundance as well. Harvest was heavy and plentiful. Unlike some years in the recent past, no one would go hungry this winter. The people celebrated the end of harvest with dancing and home-brewed liquor and actually looked forward to the fall and first freeze. The men had plenty of time to gather and split firewood and kindling and by the time the first skiffs worked their way down into the valley, all in Terrace had a warm, well-stocked place for the next two seasons. Morale was high.
But Terrace had a problem. A very serious one. Something was hunting the occupants. It started with a few missing cats. Then dogs, missed more because they were used to keep wild animals and wandering cutthroats at bay and to warn the steading-folk of things moving in the dark. At first folks just thought the animals might have just wandered off. It happened sometimes. But then the cattle started dying. Not in the way one with old age might lay down and refuse to get up, but rather by something sneaking into their pens and tearing them to shreds, leaving naught behind but some pieces of hide or chunks of flesh and pools of blood. One animal was taken every four nights. Without fail.
The men of Terrace set up patrols and guards. It was quickly found that the remaining hounds would refuse to leave their pallets after dusk. If dragged out into the night, they would crawl whimpering against the foundations of whatever building was nearby and refuse to move. Knowing that the loss of their cattle meant the deaths of their families, the men could not do the same, even if many of them wished to. Some families had even taken to sleeping with their cattle in the barns. It made little difference. Every fourth night another animal suffered the same grisly fate.
Then, about two months into the nightmare, the first steadsman was killed. Young Bakerson was a father of only three young boys and had only a few head of cattle to his name and a plain, but loyal wife. He had so little as it was, he could ill afford to lose anything to this beast. Or whatever it was. Night after night he armed himself with his father’s ancient blade, an earthenware pot of hot drink, and stood watch outside his holding. Then, one morning, he did not come in from his self appointed watch. His wife, concerned, looked for him, but only found his jug broken near the cattle pen and his sword covered with sticky black blood on the grass. Not the blood of sheep, goat, cow or man, but something noxious and foul smelling. Something evil. The adults and children searched the nearby fields for him, but there was no sign to be found.
It was just after dawn the next day that the Head Man called the other six men left alive into his home. He sent the women and children out of the single-roomed structure and, when they were gone, pulled a small object out from a small iron-bound chest under his bed. Wrapped in green cloth, it barely fit in his right hand. He brought it over to his rough-hewn table and gently set it down.
“Last fall, during harvest, I was alone in the north pasture checking on the new lambs near sunfall when I noticed a dark figure standing just inside the tree line. I approached and asked what he was doing waiting out in the cold when fire and food waited so close. He said nothing until I was almost within arms’ reach. Then he threw back his dark cloak and revealed his armor and sword. The chain-mail gleamed red and black in the setting sun. On his hip was the finest sword I had ever seen. This man moved with the grace of a deer on the run!
There were gasps and exclamations at this revelation, but the headman continued, “He asked the number in our steading, to which I replied truthfully. He seemed to think on something for a few moments and then he reached into a pouch on his belt and took out this!”
With that, the headman uncovered the object with a flourish. It was a cube, a hands-span wide and tall, grey on the sides and glossy black with faint tan lines on the top.
“He told me that if there were ever anything beyond our strength, beyond our knowledge, or illness that took more than a quarter of us, that I was to mount this on a tripod of six tall poles in a place that caught the sun all day. He said if I did this help would come. It might take time, but it would come. “
Almost as afterthought, the headman added, “ He also warned me about using it for any other purpose. He said each steading was given only one and I was only to reveal it to another only in utmost need or when my own life was in doubt. These deaths, I think, fit what he said.”
After answering their many questions and describing the stranger again, he silenced the others and sent them into the nearby forest to cut down six tall, thin pine trees. They returned a short time later, two to a pair. These were taken slightly out from the buildings and sunk into the earth with their tops bound together. The strange grey box was fixed to the top with a piece of red cloth, left long to wave in the wind.
All they could do now was wait….
Kairn stood in the drizzling rain watching the guttering torches on either side of a building across the muddy street. The rickety staircase over his head did little to protect him from the wind-blown moisture, but the shadow of it made him nearly invisible. Just back from the boardwalk of the street, the stair ran up next to a long, dark alley.
“At least I didn’t have to hide in the mud under the boardwalk.” he thought as his ear caught the sound of an approaching carriage.
The shiny covered conveyance pulled up to a stop in front of the torches and the horses stood, steaming, as a fat merchant, two women, and three burly men got out onto the slick wood boards in front of the lit door. The fat man laughed coarsely and unlocked the door while the men scanned the street up and down and the two ‘ladies’ made crude advances towards the merchant. Finally, the fat man got the door open and went inside, followed by the two prostitutes and one broad-shouldered guard. The two remaining guards took their places on either side of the doorway silently, their looks saying everything that needed to be said. After a few moments, a light began glowing from a second story window.
Kairn watched the living statues for fifteen or twenty minutes, then slid his hand silently down into his belt and removed two small dark tubes. These he brought to his lips and blew forcefully. The darts hit the two guards just above their mail shirts, at the base of their necks. They looked at each other for a comic second, then slumped to the walkway. Kairn crossed the muddy street and climbed the stairs on the opposite side. After removing the darts, he grabbed each man, rolled him off the boardwalk, and slid him up underneath its boards out of sight. He then went silently back up the steps and slipped silently through the unlocked door, shutting it without a sound behind him..
Standing still just inside the entryway, he listened carefully for a few moments while the water dripped off his dark grey cloak onto the floor. He then removed another tube from somewhere on his belt and started up a flight of stairs at the back of an adjoining hall. He stopped near the top and produced a small mirror that he slowly lifted above his head until it gave him a view of the hallway above. It was three meters in length and ended at another closed door with a guard in front of it.
He thought for a second, took a canteen off his belt and lobbed it down the stairs. When the guard appeared at the top of the stairs, he too was darted and left crumpled up on the landing. Once again, outside the closed door, Kairn waited patiently. Laughter and giggling, along with a large amount of suggestive talk was coming from under the dimly-lit door.
Sighing inwardly, Kairn turned the brass handle and flowed across the room. Inside he discovered a lavishly apportioned suite with a sumptuous bed currently occupied by two face-up beauties and one face-down merchant. The girls laughter ceased when Kairn’s sword leapt like a snake’s strike out of his sheath and prodded the merchant none too gently on his exposed flank. The merchant reached back with his hand and felt the tip of the sword, then slowly lifted and turned his head. Taking in the crimson and black armor and the long grey cloak, as well as the exquisite blade nearly skewering him, and turned very pale.
“Put something on and come with me.” Kairn said quietly, lifting his blade.
As the merchant went to the door now wrapped in a thick robe, Kairn turned his helmed head towards the ladies and said, “A word of advice, ladies. Get paid before.” With that he followed the fat man into the hall while the two ladies merely laid looking at each other.
A few steps down the hall, near the body of his guard, the merchant turned. Regaining some of his arrogance, he said, “What is all of this about? Interrupting an honest merchant at his rest!” At ‘honest’ Kairn grunted. His blade flashed forward and gently stilled the fat man’s moving chin.
“It has come to our attention that you have taken over the accounts of Landsvin, Earthroot, and Pineglen. It seems that over the past 12 months, there has been a discrepancy about the value of their crops and what you sell them for here in the city.” At discrepancy, the fat man moved back slightly and said in a petulant voice, “I can’t help it if they send me rotting crops!”
Kairn’s sword retook its place under the merchant’s now sweating chin as he continued as if nothing had been said.
“Last week I watched as 400 full bushel loads of grain were loaded in Pineglen. I accompanied this shipment here to Lunin, and watched as it was unloaded on the wharf and sold for Seven-stone five a half bushel.. I intercepted your message to the landsmen of Pinecove telling them that half of their crop was foul and that you were only able to get Three-stone four so would be paying them half of that amount for only 230 bushels.”
Kairn stopped speaking and began poking the now ashen-faced merchant on his amble belly, thighs and chest.
“Wha-what are you doing?” the merchant asked in a quavering voice.
“Deciding if even your portly frame has enough flesh to take that much larceny from. I suppose if I take my time, though…” With that Kairn brought his sword back over his left shoulder in anticipation of the first trimming stroke.
“WA-WAIT!” the fat man cried out, holding his hands out in front of himself and falling to his knees.
“I’ll pay it all back. I promise!! Every stone of it!!” he cried out.
“All four hundred bushels?” Kairn said quietly.
“Absolutely!!” gushed the merchant.
“And all of the other shipments as well?” Kairn asked.
At this the merchant seemed to balk a bit, but when the sword moved back another inch he merely nodded in terror.
“See that you do. You have 14 days.”
With that, Kairn kicked the fat man out of his way and started for the stairs. On the top step he turned, sword still in his right hand.
In a quiet voice he said, almost as an afterthought, “And don’t EVER make me have to come back here…”
With that he went silently but quickly down the stairs, picked up his canteen, and flowed out into the pouring darkness leaving only girls upstairs and the weeping merchant and his crumpled guards as evidence he had ever been there at all.
Slowly but surely, rumor of the visit spread. Like ripples on a still pond, they reached out wider and wider until it became almost common knowledge. For a short time, the ‘honesty’ of Lonin’s merchants and civil servants was above approach. Confessions and re-payments were common. Burglaries and pickpocketing nearly ceased. No one wanted to be the cause of another visit from one of Them….