[This is a series I began years ago that I wanted to revive and expand upon here.]
8th day of the third week of Arn-monath, 986
“They’re pushing us back again.” The seasoned soldier spoke the words with defeat in his voice, and for a brief moment while he rubbed the pain out of the back of his neck with the palm of his hand, his years of battle experience melted away leaving only an old man aching in the cold draft of evening wind. A tall, solidly-built boy of fourteen with long, golden hair attended to the old veteran’s horse, an animal who seemed just as old and pained as much by the coming winter as by the journey from the Krarth plains. The horse exhaled loudly and lowered its head when the boy took its reins.
“Let’s move inside where it’s warm, Rasit. I want to know everything that has happened in the last week,” replied Laen, a tall and muscular man wearing impressive leathers and a jagged scar along his right cheek. His hair, long, brown and snarled, was pulled back in half in the traditional Mercanian style, to keep the bangs from obscuring his eyes. The beaded leather ties seemed almost invisible in the color of his hair. “Taebryn will look after your horse and see she gets something to eat. Come.” Laen extended his arm toward a stone and mud hall with a tightly woven straw roof and ornately carved wooden doors. The pair entered the hall, leaving the boy to treat the animal to the nextdoor stable. Taebryn stalled the horse and brushed it, setting its tack aside and leaving a bowl of southern oats as a treat. When Bryn finished, he too entered the hall, where Rasit and his father sat at a table near the central fire.
The inner walls were plastered to seal out the moisture, which also provided an impressive reflective surface for the heat of the fire. The change in temperature this time of year always made the boy sweat after a few minutes, and by the time Rasit was finished greedily slurping down the boiled mead hog broth Laen had given him, Taebryn had already shed his leathers. He thought he caught his father smirking at Rasit, but the scene was interrupted by the old man who finally seemed thawed enough to speak.
“Ah, thank you. We cannae get broth that sweet in camp.” He suddenly assumed his role again, as if remembering he had something to say. “My Lord, Krarth soldiers seem focused on one portion of our borders. They’re pressing in the central portion of our southern plains. It seemed like a planned attack.”
“What is it this time? They’re nae content enough with the witchery and evil they create in their granite citadels that they must antagonize and kill us too?” Laen’s words were more than an angry jab at the Krarth. He was probing. Rasit was wise enough to pick up on it.
“Their northern-most citadel remains silent, the moat is without flames m’lord,” Rasit assured him. Taebryn listened intently, while the veteran continued. “Still, they’ve pushed back our warriors who held the position near the wooded border. Seven of our men are dead, and they’ve fortified our previous position with strange, odd-looking weapons.” They could hear defeat in his voice again.
“Weapons, what kind of weapons?” Laen asked at the instant his son thought it.
“Strange wooden contraptions, painted as dark as any Krarth heart. It is some kind of magical trickery, a throwing device, capable of hurling chunks of granite larger than any one man can lift and farther than any man can throw. I counted ten of them emerge from the woods. They appear as beasts in the distance, m’lord. It is only because I rode close enough to see them that I could tell you they are contraptions manipulated by men.”
“A brave chance to take, Rasit. What else happened?”
“Once they hurled their rocks at us, smashing our border house to pieces and pushing us back, they just stopped. They hold the position even now. This counts the third time in as many years they push north in our central plains. Now they occupy a considerable amount of plain north of the woods.”
“What are they doing?” wondered Laen aloud.
“Digging,” Rasit replied blankly. Laen was surprised; his question had been rhetorical, a reflection of his own confusion for Krarth ways, but the old man knew exactly what they were up to. How long had he watched them? The old man shifted anxiously in his stained leather armor; it creaked and scraped against the metal pauldron encasing his right shoulder.
Taebryn, too, was surprised by the veteran’s response. He looked at the central fire and watched the smoke rise toward the smoke hole at the top of the tightly bound straw, as if meditating and trying to make sense of it all. The dark warriors attack, pushing ever northward, digging in the earth. In search of what? Some foul artifact that will reconnect them to dark magical secrets lost to history? He flashed back to the first year he moved to Mercania with his family, and remembered the story that his father’s mother’s mother told him. She sat him down on a stump, and extended a pale, bony finger toward his forehead, marking him with a symbolic motion taught to her by her grandmother.
Take care, sweet boy, that you nae venture too far south, lest the Krarth find you there. Long ago, Krarth was under the absolute dominion of magus-lords who derived their powers from the demonic gods they worshipped. Every seven years they would gather in the eldritch fortress of Spyte to commune with their evil gods in order to practice their sorcerous trickery. Then one day, something went horribly wrong. Waiting beyond the sealed gates of the city, the servants of the magus-lords heard nonhuman voices raised in anger. Screams were heard and strange lights danced on the walls. Running in mortal fear for their lives, the servants looked back to see lightning streaming up into the sky from the smouldering inner towers of Spyte. Some fled into the wilderness, but others waited for their masters at a distance of many miles from the city. Days of silence passed, then the ground began to tremble and crack. A moat of intense flames opened around Spyte, spewing gobs of molten rock far around. As the flames died down, the servants saw that Spyte now stood on an isolated pinnacle of rock, surrounded by a vast fissure that went right into the bowels of the earth. There was no way across, even if any had dared to enter the place. They could see that many of the towers had fused in the heat of the inferno, causing stone walls to twist like candle-wax. They waited long for their masters—some, blindly faithful, until the end of their days. But no one ever emerged. You see, boy, Krarth were born of devils and eldritch kind, and when their magus-lords roamed the land they gobbled up tasty children from the north. They are beasts and full of trickery, they. Never trust a Krarth and stay away from them if you want to save yourself from being gobbled up by their lords. And you’ll stay away from magical trickery too, lest you be gobbled up by the earth!
It was a standard Mercanian view of Krarth, told by ten thousand grandmothers to ten thousand young children. And because of that, all Mercanians had an innate loathing for the Krarth, and watched their movements with great disdain. This lastest encroachment into Mercanian territory was yet another provocation in a border dispute that dated back centuries.
Laen looked over as the idea of “digging Krarth” settled in his mind, and saw his son’s thoughts floating toward the sky on the fire’s smoke. “Bryn, what do you make of this odd behaviour?” he asked, pulling his the boy’s mind back into walls of gleaming plaster. Taebryn’s momentary look of confusion always made Laen smile, which in turn would make Taebryn smile–mainly because the ragged scar on Laen’s face prevented any real movement on that side. His smile always looked like a fishing hook, and that seemed to Taebryn to suit a Mercanian clan head just fine.
“I was thinking of what Grae Gram told me a long time ago,” the boy noted after a moment of contemplation. “Those foul Krarth are always looking for the ancient secrets to their dark trickery. Maybe that’s what they’re looking for?”
“The boy is clever,” noted Rasit. “But they won’t find it on the ice plains north of the great woods. The fabled fortress of Spyte is far to the south past the marshes of the dead… if it even exists.”
“I agree,” added the boy’s father. “You’re right to be cautious, my son, but I suspect these Krarth are looking to reach the Merging Sea for more practical reasons. The marshlands just below the great wood are unable to sustain most crops, and it is likely that pressure from the Tor Magi in the fiefdom within the marshes south are causing the Byl lineage to seek new distractions in order to relieve internal stress.” Taebryn blushed briefly as his father smiled his half-smile. There was great wisdom in what the clan head suggested, and he wished that he had come up with it himself, instead of such a juvenile flight of fancy. Still, there was nothing condescending in the way Laen behaved, only kindness and careful thought, and Taebryn quickly exchanged his wounded pride for pride of a different kind. His father was right. The Byl were a mischevious bunch, but they usually kept to themselves. There must be something putting direct pressure on Aytarn for him to make such an aggressive move north.
Laen thought a bit more on the matter, when the side chamber hallway door opened. A beautiful woman in finely woven robes entered; Her hair was bright-gold and naturally curled loosely, stretching down past her shoulders, followed by flowing robes ornately decorated in the style of Thulish nobility. Her deep, emerald eyes cut through the room with authority, and a loving smile tried to conceal a still-noticeable pained expression. She moved gracefully toward the table, and all the men showed respect by standing in her presence.
“Caridwyn!” Laen said with a smile as she drew near. “My husband,” she replied. He noticed her countenance immediately. “Is it the headaches again, love?” She nodded silently. “Come,” he said, “Let me see you to comfort.” Taebryn approached and offered his hand of support as well, and she smiled and placed her hand lovingly on his cheek. “You are so handsome, my boy,” she said, causing him to blush. “Don’t you worry; I’ll be fine.” A quick glance from his father told Taebryn he was to leave them and see Rasit to the warrior barracks. Bryn nodded to his father and suggested that Rasit follow him.
After they exited the hall, Taebryn badgered Rasit for all the details he could remember of the treacherous rock hurling machines. According to the veteran, they stood as tall as four men and each were based on a wheeled platform. Burden-bearing yaks pulled the contraptions foward and men utilized levers and ropes to angle the trajectory of a stone. The sound of them creaking forward was like the sound of fifty bugbeasts gnawing on flesh. Rasit colored his story to scare the boy, but Taebryn did not scare so easily. He became fascinated with the scene and wondered if he would ever have the chance to see such things up close himself. All the while, the mystery of why the Krarth were pressing northward and digging in the earth filled him with a sense of impending danger. With such powerful and evil trickery, how could his clan hope to defend their borders?