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Origins: Gruff

 

Upheaving Nidola

Origins: Gruff

RAYMOND CLARKE

Text

Published by Raymond Clarke

Copyright © 2015 Raymond Clarke

All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, modified or transmitted without the express, prior written permission of the copyright holder. For permission, contact [email protected]

Cover art

Copyright © 2015 Rafał Gochna

([email protected])

Reproduced with permission.

Licence notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional free copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

DEDICATION

Oddly enough, I’d like to dedicate this short story to my sister, Natasha Minson. Why? Simply because it was Natasha who gave me the idea to write it, by asking me what Gruff’s history was. So, here you are Natasha – as requested :)

CONTENTS

Dedication

A Request to All Readers

Sequencing Notes

B.G.

Sunny’s

Weapons Practice

Tumble n’ Rough

M.G.

A Beautiful Shackling

The Red Rose

K.G.

P.G.

More Books in the Series

About the Author

A REQUEST TO ALL READERS

On behalf of all indie authors, everywhere.

As an indie author (an author of an independently published work), I rely on you, my readers, much more than a “traditionally” published author would. Our books effectively live and die based on the feedback and reviews of our readers.

I have, and always will (if possible) make the electronic versions of all of my books available at the minimum realistic price, which at the time I published my first full-length novel, Equivocal Destines, was $US2.99. None-the-less, the market is flooded with e-books at this price point – of both high and dubious quality – and it can be nearly impossible for readers to sift through the pile for the few gems on offer.

This short story, like all of my short stories, is published as a “permafree” title (in the jargon), meaning it is, and always will be, available for free. Think of it as a freebie extra to add depth and more perspective into my fictional world, and as a response to requests from my readers (one of whom is my sister).

With all of this in mind, I ask you to please review Origins: Gruff, and any other books you read and enjoy, anywhere that you feel it appropriate. You are also welcome to leave a comment. I, for my part, will always read all reviews and comments, and reply if requested or required.

This is all part of the social contract indie authors accept when we self-publish our works.

Apart from your e-book retailer, I recommend adding feedback for all indie books on Goodreads.

See the end of this ebook for links to my various profiles.

SEQUENCING NOTES

This short story, Origins: Gruff, is part of my Upheaving Nidola series of epic fantasy novels. You’re welcome to read and (hopefully) enjoy this story as a standalone work of fiction, but you may not fully apprehend the context of the world it exists in. The events in this short story are set before those in the first novel in the series, Equivocal Destines, but the novel does most of the “heavy lifting” of world-building and context-creating. I therefore recommend you read the full-length novel before this short story. Or at least that you re-read Origins: Gruff after reading Equivocal Destines.

Informal Competition #1

Just for fun, I’m going to run a bit of an informal competition. The chapter titles in this short story are all acronyms. I’ll give a free copy of my whole Upheaving Nidola series to the first three people to figure out what they all mean. Unlike the chapter titles in my full-length novels, and the section titles in this short story, I’m not trying to be obtuse. The acronyms are all very logical and straightforward, if you think like me and understand the goal of the story ;)

Informal Competition #2

Anyone who’s read both Equivocal Destines and Origins: Gruff will be in a position to discover the massive plot hole that appears to exist between the novel and this short story. As with the previous competition, I’ll give a free copy of the whole Upheaving Nidola series to the first three people who spot this apparent plot hole and report it to me. If you’d like, I’ll also add your name to an updated version of this e-book, or you can stay anonymous. This is just for fun as it’s not actually a plot hole, but I can’t say more without spoiling the fun.

B.G.

Sunny’s

Lah Lah stood on the ornately-carved bridge just to the north of the docks, anxiously awaiting the return of her parents, as she did every day, and always would, until they gave up their insane job and found a safer way to pay the rent. The East River was a narrow, ten metres wide and as straight as a board until it met the heavily-fortified locks that separated it from the cove directly to the north, and the Trerronbrel Ocean beyond. The buildings that crowded the city afforded her a direct line of sight out into the expanse of water north of Takelberorl, but only along a narrow stretch of water. If her parents weren’t coming in directly south, she wouldn’t be able to see their tiny fishing boat until it was almost within the locks and safe again. The wait was hell on her finger nails, and almost as bad on the bridge’s burgundy-lacquered carvings of ancient kings performing heroic deeds, and various other gaudy showy displays of nonsense.

Luckily, for her nerves, and the unknown king slaying a nurdiz directly beneath her fingers, her parents were nothing if not punctual, and dead on time, their tiny, single-masted catamaran gently curved into her field of vision, its green flag proudly flapping in the salty breeze. Sight of the flag made Lah Lah weep with joy, for the crest it bared signified that the boat had paid moorings in Takel’s safe harbour, while its colour attested that everything was OK on board. The red flag that all boats were required to fly on departure would have meant trouble.

The harbour guards slowly winched the fortified gates up and out of the way as the boat approached. Their timing perfect, as always. These were serious men and women who did their jobs with great care and precision. There was too much at stake for oversights to be permitted, and as such the punishment was swift, brutal and permanent. The gates crawled open mere seconds before the catamaran slid through their maw and swiftly closed behind her. You never knew what type of earth magic creatures might be lurking in those waters and the guards took no chances of letting one into the harbour.

When the gates closed, the twin rows of archers along the kill box scanned the shallow waters behind the catamaran with the keen eyes of those who knew their lives were forfeit should they fail. Gradually, the catamaran drifted its way towards the second, and eventually, the third set of gates before it could finally emerge into the harbour. When they were sure the channel was clear, the guards relaxed and returned to their rakiol to await the next boat.

Lah Lah wasn’t there to watch them go. She was already running around the great wall that enclosed the harbour in its entirety, towards the gate that led within. By the time she got to her parents’ berth, they were already tying the Lah-Dee-Dah off. It was a routine they all practiced daily. A dance they knew so well they could literally do it with their eyes closed.

Lah Lah jumped up, onto the Lah-Dee-Dah’s decks and threw her arms around her mother’s shoulders while her mother was trapped at the wheel, holding her steady until Lah Lah’s father could finish tying the ropes. “We’re OK, Lah. You can let me go now.” She gave her usual forced laugh that belied the seriousness of their perilous lifestyle choice.

An equally soppy hug for her father later and the ritual was complete. It was time for the merchant vultures to start circling their prey and haggling for the best barrelfuls of fish that were tightly packed across the front two thirds of both hulls of the catamaran. Lah Lah couldn’t stand the smell, even as fresh as they were, and truly detested the haggling process, so she jumped the queue.

“Mooommy?” She didn’t need to say anything more. She only ever talked to her mother like a six year old when she wanted something. “Can I go to Sunny’s with Sara and Lashy before training?” She clarified anyway. It had to be something with Sara and Lashy, and nothing was ever free.

Her mother responded with the kind of insightful, penetrating smile that only a mother could summon. Her father called out to the circling crowd, “My little angel wants to go to Sunny’s, right now. A good discount to whoever buys”, he paused, looked around and pointed to the smallest, most mediocre-looking barrel of fish he could find, “this barrel, right now. You haggle, you leave.”

One of the more common, and less discerning vultures shot his arm up in a flash, in what was sure to be the only real exercise he got that week. “Seven golds”, he offered, product unseen. He knew what to expect at this point in the proceedings. He was almost as round as he was tall, and hairier than any of the stray dogs in Lower, but his money was good and his customers not particularly choosy. Lah Lah’s father nodded and the trader dropped the coins directly into Lah Lah’s waiting palm, her fingers twitching in anticipation. “Love you daddy”, she yelled as she ran from the terrible smell of almost-rotting fish and the far worse smell of the seemingly-rotting merchants there to buy them.

Lah Lah sang a whimsical tune of her own creation as she ran, hopped and skipped along the well-worn route from the docks to the gates in the defensive wall separating Upper Takelberorl to Lower Takelberorl. She was a common sight, and one that the snooty residents of Lower were more willing to accept polluting their pristine world than most residents of Upper. Lah Lah’s parents, after all, had what was by far the riskiest job in the whole of Nidola, and so the lordly types grudgingly accepted Lah Lah in their presence as an unfortunate-but-acceptable consequence of her parents providing the delicacies they craved. That, and the danger-premium her parents charged afforded Lah Lah much finer dresses than most others from Upper could hope to come by using any legal method, so at least she didn’t look like most of those sewer rats.

She was far too happy for a denizen of Upper, and always tried to not let the constant negativity of her friends, and even family, get her down. She lived to sing to herself, even loudly if she thought she could get away with it, as a way to keep the world a happy place. Only her closest friends even knew her actual name. Everyone simply called her Lah Lah, because she was always singing to herself. The name Lah-Dee-Dah was her parents’ nod of approval of the ray of sunlight in an otherwise bleak world that was their little darling. The red dress she wore accentuated, and even radiated, her tune out into the street and she skipped, and into the high-arched windows of the tenement buildings of Lower.

Lah Lah ran into her best friends, Sara and Lashy, just south of the gate between Upper and Lower. The ever-present guards manning the gate were ostensibly there to prevent a horde invasion from reaching Lower, in the event that one breached the defensive wall south of Upper Takel. This was ridiculous, of course, as the main defensive wall had almost never been breached, no matter how big the horde. The guards still served their purpose well enough, every day.

It wasn’t by accident that they met Lah Lah there, they were waiting there for her, as they usually did. Lah Lah may almost look the part in Lower with her new-ish dress and soft, leather slippers, but Sara and Lashy weren’t so fortunate, in their much older and scrappier dresses and bare feet. They knew better than to venture any further north into Lower, as was their theoretical right.

From the neck down the three were almost triplets, sharing differing shades of blue eyes and the same shoulder-length, brunette hair, styled as best as Lah Lah’s mother could manage with a fish-filleting knife and a lot of patience. Neither Sara and Lashy had parents who were willing to risk death on a daily basis to provide luxuries like shoes and soap, however. Sara had owned a pair of hand-me-down shoes once, and she’d loved them, but shoes don’t last forever on the dirty streets of Upper, and can only be repaired so many times.

Lah Lah was the leader of their little group, because teenage girls will be teenage girls no matter what else happens in the world, and the other two idolised her for all the right, and wrong, reasons. She tried to be a good friend though, and always washed her red dress with their grey dresses, so, as hers got ever so slightly washed out with every wash, theirs seemed just a smidge redder each time too. In another year or so, they liked to think, they’d all be wearing equally dusty, pink-ish dresses.

“Lah Lah”, they screamed in mock surprise, as she skipped on past them. She was off with the fairies again, but rallied quickly. “Sara, Lashy, how are you both today?” Strangely, whenever she asked, she actually cared what the answer was. Hordes-be-damned, she’d care.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” Lashy jumped in, “I saw the most yummy guard today, out on the wall.” Most of Lashy’s comments referenced food in some way, which helped explain her fuller figure. Much fuller than either Lah Lah’s or Sara’s, anyway.

Lah Lah abruptly stopped and turned to Lashy, a comically stern look on her face. “He’s not anything like the last one, is he?” Before brightening up and smiling. “Tell us everything!”

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t even talked to him yet.” She seemed a bit sad at that. “And we agreed to never talk about him again”, she added, with a wink. Sara, positioning herself behind and off to Lashy’s side, as she usually did when Lashy got going on her boy-raves, stuck a couple of fingers into her mouth in a mock puking gesture while lifting an imaginary noose around her neck with her free hand. A difficult trick while running along winding streets.

“But he was so tasty. His blonde hair was blowing in the breeze while he stood to attention. His muscles bulging through his tunic. He must be new because he didn’t even smell of rakiol.” She was starting to get excited. Sara raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Wait! You got close enough to smell his breath? I thought he was up on the wall. What were you doing on the wall?” Sara was often a bit jealous of Lashy’s more, open, ways.

“Well… ummm… I didn’t talk to him exactly…” Lashy sort of trailed off at the end, clearly not wanting to tell the full story. Sara rolled her eyes.

Sara was about to start up with her probing questions but Lah Lah interrupted the inquisition by changing to a more important topic. “Guys, guys, guys. Sunny’s!”

Their conversation never stopped them from running from place to place and they were already approaching the infamous Sunny’s bakery. It sat perched atop one of the endless, undulating sand piles that constituted the streets of Upper Takelberorl, on a corner, where it could maximise foot traffic.

Sunny’s was one of the few establishments in Upper Takel that the snooty types of the much richer Lower Takel would deign to visit. It was simply that good.

The girls skidded to a stop and almost crashed into the back of the waiting queue. There was always a queue outside. The poor woman in front of them, attempting to emulate a proper lady of Lower, tut-tutted them as they’d scuffed dirt onto the hem of her tatty dress, before lifting it and flicking the dirt back onto Sara. It was a tactical mistake as it showed off her bare feet – a sure sign of destitution – and the trio immediately started pointing and giggling.

When most of the queue had finally wound its way into the shop and out again and the girls were finally approaching the door, Lah Lah noticed that it was being propped open by a small-but-heavy battle axe. It wasn’t uncommon for the door to be propped open on such hot days. It wasn’t even uncommon for this particular battle axe to be the doorstop in question. It made her smile a conspiratorial smile, none-the-less. She worked very hard to keep it from Sara and Lashy.

There was nothing else like Sunny’s in all of Upper, and few confectionery stores in Lower could compete. Sunny – formally Sunny XII, or maybe XIII, most people weren’t sure – was only the current owner, having inherited it from his father, who in turn got it from his father, and so on, for longer than anyone could remember. It was one of those places that had simply always been there, and no-one could imagine life without it.

Finally inside Sunny’s, the smell hit them like a shovel. They expected it. Revelled in it even. Sunny spared no expense with the sugar and spices to guarantee that everything on every counter was a delectable treat. One that fewer and fewer could actually afford, but business was still booming. Lah Lah’s seven golds and whatever Sara and Lashy could scrounge would go far enough to make all the snarky trolls outside as jealous as hell. Just the way Sara liked it.

Lashy was more of a lover than a fighter and Lah Lah was always off in her own magical, musical world, but Sara kept close tabs on all of the other girls around their age. Who liked whom, who was friends with whom, who was only pretending, and who was stabbing whom in the back. Sara always saw her little clique’s social position as being under threat, and worked diligently to defend their borders.

“Well well, it looks like pretty-boy’s in today”, Sara nudged Lah Lah in the ribs with her elbow, as she liked to do. She may have missed the battle axe, but she couldn’t miss its owner.

“Why do you have to tease him so much?” Lah Lah loved her two best friends, but sometimes they got on her nerves.

Sara stated the obvious. “Oh, you know he’s smitten with you, Lah.” Lah Lah blushed. Sara rolled her eyes again.

“You could do worse”, Lashy interrupted, as she stepped up to the counter, licking her lips, possibly at the food. Her tone changed completely as she came face to face with Grep Charen, the service boy on duty at the time. “Hiiii Grep”, she half-chirped, half-gulped, while planting her elbows on the counter, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin on them. She hoped it would look pretty but it only came off as a tad immature.

Grep was tall and thin, wiry even, and kept his almost-black hair cropped short, which was very unusual under the torturous sun of northern Nidola. It set him apart from the other boys, and made Lashy’s knees falter.

“Oh, hey Lashy” he replied, quickly adding “Sara, Lah.” He nodded to Lah Lah as well. A bit of a bow, perhaps.

“Eeh, tongue off the counter, Grep. It’s unsanitary”, Sara sighed, but Lah Lah only smiled. It was the most beautiful smile Grep had ever seen, and it was, in truth, the only reason he kept working at Sunny’s. The money wasn’t that good, and even being able to take home the stale breads didn’t make up for the stipend he could look forward to if only he’d let one of the lords sponsor him in earth magic and proper battle craft. Lah Lah knew well that the battle axe doorstop was his, and he had a reputation for wielding it with skill and precision.

Sara cleared her throat angrily as the warm-but-silent moment wore on. Grep snapped out of his momentary daydreams of a better life with this girl above his station and put on the best show of professionalism he could muster. “What’ll it be today ladies?”

The three girls all placed their coins on the counter, in three neat, little piles, ready for inspection. Grep knew them all well, at least up to the point of their preferences within Sunny’s walls, and could make good recommendations based solely on the size of their purses.

“Seven golds! Wow, business must be good.” He bypassed Sara and Lashy’s much smaller, much more copper-coloured piles of coins. He knew their money was to be spent collectively anyway, so mentioning the difference would only insult all three of them.

Lah Lah blushed again, Sara sighed a sigh of impatience and Lashy shuffled her proportions within her loose-fitting dress and hoped for the best.

“My guess… today… is that you would all prefer…”, Grep paused for dramatic effect while reaching under the counter, “…Sunny’s brand-new, strawberry and custard tart.” He whisked the tart out from under the counter and presented it to them with a flourish. Three mouths dropped open. And stayed there.

A good ten seconds of staring later and Lah Lah simply pushed her pile of golds across the counter, not even bothering to ask the price or count it out, and most definitely not taking her eyes off of this new treat.

“Stop!” a voice called out from behind them. “Your money’s no good here.” A soft, leather, money pouch was nonchalantly tossed onto the counter, where it slid across the waxed surface and promptly dropped onto the floury floor by Grep’s feet. The three girls giggled, but only briefly.

“Please leave us alone, Dray. You know I won’t accept your money.” Lah Lah chided. He wasn’t paying attention to Lah Lah though, for a change. “Service boy! Why is my favourite money pouch on your dirty, peasant floor?” he demanded. “My father brought that back all the way from Glemiagwoon and I refuse to allow you to sully it with your peasant floor. It shames me enough that your peasant hands are allowed the grace of its soft touch.”

Dray was the son of one of the lordly lords of Lower. His father owned a number of fields closer to the main defensive wall, which, in and of itself, propelled him into the ranks of the rich and famous. Dray, being the lord’s only son, got swept along for the ride and correctly assumed his father’s purse, and the favours it purchased, gushed down onto him too.

Grep knew better than to mess with “Master” Dray, so he gently placed the tart down on the bench and retrieved the purse. He dropped it onto the counter rather than handing it back to the obnoxious, son-of-a-lord though. Getting too close to him was never a good idea as his imbecilic personal guards often mistook physical proximity with mal-intent and came out swinging for no good reason.

Sara and Lashy both liked Dray, but they were the only ones, and for very different reasons. Sara, ever practical, honestly saw him as the sole way forward for her best friend Lah Lah as he could provide safety and creature comforts unparalleled by any of her many suitors from Upper, which existed on the precipitous edge of poverty. Lashy just hoped his presence would free up Grep’s sharply-focussed attention.

Neither thought he was much to look at though. His chunky build was topped with shoulder-length, ginger hair, which was a guarantee that his ghostly, freckled complexion would deepen over time until he resembled his mother, who, after years of sunbathing and not much else, looked more like Dray’s shoes than the young man himself.

“Why, thank you”, Sara gushed, deliberately over-the-top, as she always played the game with Dray. He knew who was in his corner, and rewarded her loyalty in sweets. Grep shrugged and took Dray’s money. Sunny wouldn’t care who paid, as long as the money went in the till, and if Dray paid, Lah Lah didn’t, which made him happy.

Having bought his way into Lah Lah’s good graces, whether she wanted it or not, he had one of his grunts carry the tart, locked arms with an unwilling Lah Lah and almost dragged her out of the shop.

“Bye, Grep”, Lah Lah called out as she rounded the door frame, but it was followed by a mock frown from Sara as she blew him an ironic kiss and two malicious glares from Dray’s roughnecks.

Weapons Practice

A few hours later, with the shadows of the watchtowers maybe halfway through their slow journeys towards the marks painted on the Takelbol cliffs to indicate sunset, it was time for the trio’s daily weapons training. Lah Lah had made a lame excuse to pry herself free of Dray and his pair of almost toothless nuggets, so the girls made their way to the courtyard relatively unmolested but still feeling the unsettling effects of too much strawberry tart.

Everyone over six years old, across all of Nidola, had to attend weapons practice every day, with no exceptions, because of the constant threat of horde attacks. The hordes effectively ruled everyone’s lives, even when unseen.

All of the races had confined themselves within heavily fortified walls, in unnaturally dense cities of thick stones and little-to-no inedible wildlife because they simply never knew when ten or twenty nurdiz would thunder across the desert and attempt to bash their way through said walls and cause death and destruction. They pretty much never got through the walls, but they tried often enough to keep people caged in by their own fear.

Weapons practice was the city’s way of making sure that only the brave and the foolish died, and only on the other side of the main defensive walls. If the meagre crops that grew outside those walls under the blazing sun were trampled and ruined, that would only increase prices to the filthy, disposable scum of Upper, so it was a price the lordly lords of Lower, who owned the fields, were willing to pay.

Lah Lah’s second, daily ritual was as unavoidable as her first, so they got to the courtyard a bit early, to scope out a good spot in the shade.

“All I’m saying is if you were to marry Dray, you’d never have to worry about working again. His father’s loaded and getting on a bit so sure to drop off the perch soon, and Dray’ll inherit the lot, cos his sister’s a bit wrong in the head, if you know what I mean, so there’ll be plenty to spread around on you, you know, and maybe a couple of your besties. That’s all I’m saying.” Lashy’s veiled attempts at redirecting Lah Lah’s affections were transparent, but endearing none-the-less.

“Oh, just jump him and get it over and done with!” Sara most definitely wasn’t the gushy, overly-emotional type, but she did like the idea of Lah Lah being able to spread Dray’s wealth a bit more promiscuously, in her direction.

“Stop it you two. He’s an arrogant little freak and I can’t stand the sight of him. I’d rather marry a patynk.” Lah Lah just wanted it to stop, and a patynk reference was sure to do it. The most feared, and luckily rare, of all the horde creatures, their ape-like bodies had been transformed into oversized, metallic versions of their forebears by The Change, when the elemental magic that ruled their world was warped by a single water wizard’s lust for power. Or so she’d heard. Now the patynk were unstoppable killing machines, and because they were of the metal, presumed to be cold-skinned, to boot.

“That can be arranged, you know.” Jalern was Lah Lah’s only true, male friend. The only boy she could have a conversation with to without him trying to end it with smooching and groping. They’d been part of each other’s lives since before Lah Lah could remember, and she couldn’t even pin down how they became friends. They simply were.

He wasn’t overly tall but he was built thick through the chest and kept his golden locks long and unkempt. The girls found him leaning against the side wall of one of the tenement buildings that bordered the courtyard, not-so-subtly reserving the shade of a wilting lemon tree by propping his massive, granite broadsword over his shoulder. If he wasn’t an earth wizard, like Grep, he couldn’t have even lifted the ugly monstrosity, but he was, and he’d made it at home, with his own hands. To insult Jalern’s broadsword was to insult Jalern, and that simply wasn’t a bright idea.

“Jalern!” Lah Lah cried as she ran up to him and threw her arms around his neck. He lifted her bodily, with one arm, and swung her around before lightly plopping her down where she started.

He gracefully continued around Lah Lah and attempted a short, joking bow. “Miladies.” He tipped his imaginary hat towards Sara and Lashy.

Lashy started up again. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Jalern, I met this sooo yummy guard today on the wall. You must find out who he is for me. Please, please, please, please, pleeeeease.” Jalern was one of the girls.

“Wait, you met him?” Sara’s lie detector had started blaring inside her overly-critical mind.

“ummm…. well, not really. But I want to.” Lashy returned her gaze to Jalern. She knew there was no way he could resist those saucer-eyes when she really laid it on thickly. Sure enough, he relented. “Okay, okay, where and when? I’ll ask around and see what I can find out. What does he look like? Did you look up?”

Sara snorted at Jalern’s obvious reference and gave him a light punch in the arm – her sign of respect – as Lashy filled him in on the details. Sara and Jalern were best buds, even though it was Lah Lah who got the hugs, because she took them. It was Jalern and Sara who took crap from no-one and always stood their ground.

All too quickly, it was time for the gruelling task of pretending to learn how to not be killed by magical creatures the size of horse carriages and stronger than herds of boson. “Form up!” came the roar of Captain Paxton, their drillmaster.

They all knew the drill so they lined up in two rows, facing each other, and waited for instructions. The girls, and their honorary, non-girl friend, all lined up next to each other, knowing that the stern captain of the guard wouldn’t let them face each other yet again in mock combat.

Lah Lah found herself facing one of the nameless gutter trolls that sent daggers their way back at Sunny’s every time she left with, well, anything.

“Move!” Dray’s voice cut through Lah Lah’s attention like a rusty blade covered in plague blood. He had a way of sneaking up on people. It had the desired effect on the gutter troll. “I’m sorry Master Stolvad”, she cried, before scurrying off to find another victim to torment. And with that, Lah Lah knew the day’s training would be emotionally painful but completely wasted. There was no way she could beat him in a fight just as there was no way he’d ever hurt her, lest he lose his chance at nuptials.

Jalern noticed her frown. “Want to borrow my sword?” He swung it out to his side and brought it to a stop directly in front of Lah Lah, and Lashy, and half of Sara, next to him. It had to weigh a hundred kilograms in the hands of anyone other than an earth wizard, so she couldn’t possibly accept, but Dray got the point.

“If you think you’re impressing anyone, Jalern, you’re sorely mistaken. No-one cares for your misshapen sword or stupid jokes.” Dray was mocking, but his henchmen had their hands on their sword hilts and their eyes sharply focussed on Jalern’s wrist. Any sign of movement Dray’s direction and they were ready to pounce. Sara hadn’t taken her eyes off of Jalern’s tensed, quivering forearm muscles and was starting to drool.

“No, but thank you Jalern. You’re a true friend. I think I’d rather a bow and quiver of arrows though. I prefer to hunt from a distance and with practiced skill.” Dray, ever the over-confident, little blow-hard, missed the point completely.

“Stow it, you lot!” Captain Paxton interrupted. He wouldn’t take crap from anyone during his lessons. As a captain of the Takelberorl city guard, he took the training sessions very seriously, knowing that some of these children would eventually be killed by the hordes, no matter how well they trained, and he wanted – no, needed – to keep that number as low as possible.

Jalern repositioned himself between Lah Lah and Lashy to act as a buffer against any of Dray’s more obnoxious or aggressive come-ons. Dray tried protesting but Captain Paxton simply didn’t care. “I said stow it!” was his aggressive reply. That left Jalern squaring off against one of Dray’s sycophants.

Dray leaned into his friend’s ear and whispered, “Make him pay!” His friend sneered in response and gave a slight nod. Jalern wasn’t stupid, and assumed it would come anyway, so the rather obvious nod was merely confirmation that he had to look out for himself. He responded by extending his sword out at shoulder height and holding it there, pointed it at Dray’s unfortunate friend. The full height of its bearer, it reached almost halfway across to Jalern’s opponent, whose legs started to feel warm and moist.

Captain Paxton eventually gave the group their drill for the day, which, luckily for Jalern and very unluckily for Lah Lah and her friends, was sword practice. The captain didn’t care which sword each student chose, as long as it seemed like the right fit for the student. Jalern chose his home-made monolith. He twirled it around as if it was weightless for a while, while his now sticky and scared-looking opponent scanned desperately for anything that could withstand the might of a hundred kilograms of granite broadsword.

As an earth wizard, earth weighed practically nothing to him, so he could just as easily have picked up a one-ton block and thrown it clear across the courtyard at the poor boy. That wouldn’t be sporting though, and the captain said swords, not boulders.

Lah Lah, Lashy and Sara all chose the smallest, most nimble blades they could find in the rusting pile of practice weapons and just stood there, waiting, and knowing they were in trouble.

Dray always carried an expensive, elven bow because he “disdains the muck of fist-fighting”, but on this occasion, he was forced to relinquish it for the small, show-sword that he kept strapped to his waist.

Eventually, the captain gave the order and Dray’s row rushed their opponents. They were supposed to be practicing the glancing, blocking technique that they’d been learning and repeating all week, but the girls’ weapons weren’t up to the task and Jalern’s was complete overkill. If he put in even a modicum of effort he’d just end up taking the boy’s arm off.

Lashy squealed as soon as her opponent moved, dropped the miniature sword and jumped backwards, Sara ducked, rolled and punched her opponent in the groin with her free hand and Lah Lah just stood there, acting bored. Sara’s opponent floundered into a crying ball, which tripped up Lashy’s opponent and Dray had to jump over them both to avoid landing on the ground next to them. Lah Lah gently tapped him on the butt with the side of her blade while he was yelling at his fallen comrades.

Jalern’s opponent was in between Dray and his obstacles but was also the fastest in his group, so he was out in front and preparing the best strike against Jalern that he could muster. At the last moment, Jalern swung his great blade out and to the side, in a picture-perfect implementation of the correct blocking technique, but with the blade sideways. He hit the boy’s sword dead centre, which snapped in two, and his granite sword continued through the shards of blade and square into the side of the boy’s head, shoulder and side. He his the ground hard, as a dazzled mess.

Captain Paxton was there in a flash and gave Jalern a stern look after checking over the whimpering heap on the ground. “What? He chose a bad sword. I didn’t even put any muscle into the swing.” Paxton wanted to chastise Jalern, but he was right, it was within the rules and a nurdiz would do a lot worse. It was better that this boy learn now the consequences of not being prepared.

Dray wasn’t so forgiving. “You’ll pay for that, you little prick”, he hissed as the captain carried his friend off. “That, or more likely your father will.”

Jalern could handle Dray threatening him, because he knew he could handle himself, but Master Dray Stolvad threatening his father really meant that Lord Stolvad, Dray’s father, would cop a load of bitter complaining from his son and be prompted into abusing his position to get Jalern’s father fired from his job, and that could mean real trouble.

Jalern’s father was a master mason. It had been the family business for many generations, and as long as the Lopansk women kept bearing earth-magic children, the Lopansks would be master masons. Jalern was learning the trade, but he preferred his sword. His father was employed maintaining the castle in Lower, which was a very demanding but prestigious job, and he couldn’t afford to lose it because of this pipsqueak.

“Did I just hear you right, boy?” Jalern’s genuine fear-quivering was interrupted by Captain Paxton getting angry. He was back from dropping the stricken boy off in the shade and had heard Dray’s threat. “I’ll have none of that crap on my time, or your father will be hearing about this, from me.”

Dray pretended to be chastened for long enough for the captain to walk back to the centre of the group and resume lessons before replying. “You just wait. You’ll get yours.”

After an hour or so of training, Captain Paxton called it quits and the various youngsters all scurried off to their disparate homes and playgrounds. Dray approached the modestly-bruised Lah Lah and tried to start up a more genial conversation. Lah Lah lashed out at him in a rare moment of anger. “Leave me alone, you evil little boy. You think you can beat on me for an hour and show off to your friends then expect me to actually like you!”

“But I…” he attempted before even Sara closed in to protect her friend and the three girls and Jalern, the honorary girl, walked off together, leaving Dray alone with only his army of minions and guards.

“I’ll walk you home, Lah”, Jalern offered.

“Thank you Jalern. You’re a good friend.” Lah Lah wrapped her arm around Jalern’s waist and Lashy seized the opportunity to hold him from the other side. Not wanting to be left out, Sara put her arm over Lah Lah’s shoulders and the four of them walked and skipped along the dirty streets of Upper, back to their various homes, together.

Tumble n’ Rough

Upper Takelberorl was a densely-packed mess of dirty streets and dilapidated tenement buildings, crammed full of some of the least fortunate peasants in all of Nidola, and to top of off, the whole city was hemmed in between two sheer cliff faces which prevented it from growing east or west while the ocean prevented northern growth and the cost of building a third southern defensive wall effectively prevented southward growth. Lower Takelberorl, to the north of the original defensive wall was a much more open, less depressing place, but you needed much more money to be welcome there.

Running down both sides of the crumbling mass of squalid buildings in Upper were two, nominally-grassy stretches of open land which hugged the cliffs. They were left open to prevent any earth magic creatures from slithering their way up the sides of the city, along the earthen cliffs, and reaching the heart of the city undetected. This was in spite of the effort that was put into obfuscating the paths between the main and central defensive walls, where all of the streets of Upper undulated up and down and arced left and right to create a dizzying maze which, in theory, the hordes that were constantly-if-intermittently attacking from the south were too stupid to navigate.

The following morning, Lah Lah and her friends decided to spend some of her seven golds on a picnic. Lah Lah donned her prettiest dress for the short shopping trip into Lower for vaguely fresh veggies while Jalern went to Sunny’s, flanked by Sara and Lashy, for desserts.

They met up on the eastern grassy area of Lower, their foods wrapped against the desiccating effects of the heat. According to city rules, no-one was ever to use these grassy areas for any unofficial purposes, but the city guard were almost entirely staffed by residents of Upper, and the less fortunate stuck together, so no-one noticed their picnic.

Lashy laid a woollen blanket on the grass, which was mostly a crispy, sandy brown because no-one ever watered it and the sun was unrelenting, and Jalern laid his sword fully across its northern side to hold it down against the wind gusting in from the ocean.

The quartet spent a few solid hours in the morning shade of the cliff, joking around and making fun of Jalern’s habit of hanging out with girls while his other friends couldn’t bring themselves to do it, before the horns sounded, interrupting everything and almost ruining the day for everyone in Takelberorl.

There were six watchtowers atop the cliffs, each with a different horn, tuned to a different tone. Their combined tone, repetition, duration and intensity specified the nature and direction of the horde threat, which in this case was very minor. Nothing to worry about, they declared. Just a few nurdiz on the plains above the city. Nothing the guard couldn’t handle.

None of Lah Lah’s friends were in the guard, so they relaxed somewhat. They started to pack up their picnic anyway, because you never knew what could happen, as Captain Paxton always drilled into them.

A few minutes later, the unmistakable sounds of swords rending horde flesh and the wails of dying nurdiz rang down from the cliffs. The archers stationed in the watch towers would have loosed volleys of arrows into the nurdiz as soon as they were in range, so by the time the swordsmen swung into action, most of the nurdiz should be dead or partially disabled, and easy pickings, if the guard had numbers on their side. The rules were simple when hordes attacked. There was to be no waiting for a captain to tell you to attack. Never allow a horde creature to live. Work as a unit but strike at will.

By the time the cries of battle and echoes of claws on metal started to die down, quite a crowd had gathered along the edge of the grassy area, all eyes skyward, hoping to see something, anything from atop the cliff. Soon enough they were rewarded when the bodies of two adult nurdiz careened over the cliff and came tumbling down the craggy edge, ending in sickly-sounding crunches as the corpses his the ground. Light purple blood sprayed from multitudes of wounds from arrows, blades and the fall itself, eventually spilling out to pool around the nurdiz. A cheer went up through the crowd as another, albeit very minor, horde attack was defeated in a most entertaining of styles.

No-one was willing to approach the carcasses, because you never knew if a nurdiz was actually dead or not, but no-one wanted to leave either, in case they missed the after-show. Everyone stood in anticipated silence, waiting for the guard to come and clean up the mess.

A corpse twitched. The crowd, all eyes already on it, gasped. It twitched again and they started to get nervous. It might actually still have some life left in it and the guard was being a bit tardy.

Nurdiz were once musk oxen, until fire magic, back at the time of The Change, warped the already-aggressive creatures into what constituted the bulk of most horde attacks. They were bigger by far, meaner by orders of magnitude, and just as dim-witted as their musk oxen progenitors, but now they stood on two thick legs and were almost brainy enough to wield a log as a crude weapon. What they lacked in campaign management skills they more than made up for in numbers and sheer brawn.

The biggest of these two nurdiz, at least five metres in height, two across the shoulders and more than one through the chest, raised an arm and pushed a fist into the muck of purple blood and arid grit. Gradually, it raised itself up from the ground and shook itself slightly cleaner before letting out a long, guttural roar borne as much of pain as of innate anger.

When it looked up, its primitive brain scanned the gathered crowd, most of whom were suddenly too petrified to move, and locked eyes on the clearest target – Lah Lah’s red dress. Even with one clearly-broken arm and a leg so torn up it was losing blood in steady rivulets, it locked on target, hefted itself almost upright, and charged. If nurdiz did feel pain, they never let it stop them from attacking. It was a common fire-magic trait, both horde and human.

“Get behind me!” Jalern called out to the crowd in general as he pushed his friends behind him and lifted his great, granite sword into an attacking position that Captain Paxton would have been proud of. If he timed it right, the beast couldn’t help but fall to a single swing of his hefty weapon. If he timed it wrong, he’d die. That was the way it was with nurdiz. Only the best, and luckiest, lived to tell the tales and reap the rewards.

The grassy area was long but narrow so Jalern had only seconds to brace himself before the multi-tonne beast would be on him. Half way across the field, the nurdiz’s limping charge was abruptly arrested as the thunderous crack of breaking ribs echoed off the cliffs and it rebounded onto the brown grass. A very familiar battle axe sat proudly, half embedded in its chest. With the creature downed for a second time, still, no-one moved, save for Jalern, who lowered his broadsword only slightly as he crept forwards. The job wasn’t yet done.

Grep gradually fell in line behind Jalern, as he was now weaponless. He delicately called out, “Jalern, I’m right behind you”, as he approached, to make sure he didn’t accidentally end up the next casualty of battle. “I’ve got you covered”, came Jalern’s reply, to make sure they were both in sync.

When Jalern got close enough to get a good look at the nurdiz, he finally lowered his blade and visibly relaxed. Grep responded by rushing forward to get a better look too. His battle axe was so deeply lodged in the nurdiz’s chest that not even this fire-magic creature could possibly still be alive. Jalern looked to Grep. “Good kill.” He meant it too. The city put a bounty on all horde creatures, and a mature male like this would be worth a small fortune to either Jalern or Grep, but they both took nurdiz seriously and Jalern understood that an axe from a distance, thrown by someone with Grep’s skill, was still a safer bet than any up-close confrontation. They shook arms, hand-to-forearm, in the manner of good friends, then Jalern took its head clean off with a thunderous down swing that buried his blade arm-deep in the soil, because you could never be too sure.

With the nurdiz’s head severed, the crowd cheered yet again and rushed up to prod the now-definitely-dead nurdiz with fingers and sticks. It was almost as good as a carnival to be able to actually touch a nurdiz without having to fear for your life. Ever cautious, Jalern carried his sword over to the other fallen nurdiz and removed its head from it’s massive shoulders too. Two for the kids to gawk at.

Lah Lah, her heart back in her chest for the first time since the creature locked bloody eyes on her, rushed up to Grep and leapt into his arms. “My saviour”, she squealed over and over as she kissed him on the head, neck and cheeks, before finally braving his lips. He had no idea what finally happened to those two nurdiz, or the crowd, or even Lah Lah’s friends, after she kissed him. The whole rest of the day was a blur.

M.G.

A Beautiful Shackling

Like most in Upper, Grep was an only child. Children were so expensive and life so fraught with pain and suffering that most parents simply couldn’t afford more than one extra, unproductive mouth to feed and couldn’t bare the pain of losing more than one. The lordly types of Lower jokingly called the harsh realities of life in Upper population control.

Lah Lah’s father stood proudly next to Jalern as they admired themselves in the full-length mirror of the tailor’s store-front. They both looked smarter than ever in their brand new threads, at the cost of a barrel of their best quality fish apiece. Anything for his little songbird’s wedding.

“Remember”, he jested to Jalern, “if Grep turns chicken and runs for the plains, you’ll have to marry Lah instead. It’s a point of honour.” Jalern laughed loudly and deeply, with only a touch of pain to it. Lah Lah and Grep had been courting for six months now and he knew Grep well. “Best guess, he’s back at his place crapping himself.” Lah Lah’s father joined in with a hearty guffaw at that and gave Jalern a good slap across the back. “You’re a good friend to them both. You deserve this honour.”

Taking on a conspiratorial look, Lah Lah’s father slid a small flask out of his jacket pocket and whisked it into Jalern’s. “It’s rakiol, for when… well, you’ll know when. Not the cheap stuff the guards drink either. This is the real stuff. I got it from the guy who provides the castle with theirs.” He added a wink.

Sara and Lashy had been fitted out for their dresses months before and were back at Lah Lah’s home, crowded into the single room with Lah Lah and her mother. They were all admiring their new, matching dresses. There were frills, plunging necklines for all, more frills and even a trim of sequins. And, of course, they were all matching shades of red. Lah Lah’s dress was a notch lighter than her bridesmaids’ and her mother’s, but the style was the same.

The tailor had had I tough time styling the two bridesmaids dresses to match, as one had to be squeezed over Lashy’s developing figure while the other taken in and fluffed up to add a level of femininity to Sara’s more boyish look. Lah Lah, roughly in between her two friends’ waistlines, rounded out the trio nicely. Like a matched set.

Her mother looked the three girls over once more and gave an approving nod. “You all look so beautiful”, she wept and she dragged the three of them into yet another long hug. It was finally her little songbird’s day of days and she couldn’t be happier with Lah Lah’s choice for her new son-in law.

Choices for scenic places to hold the handfasting were few and far between in the dirty, dust bowl that was Takelberorl, so most made do with an indoor ceremony. Lah Lah’s parents had other options so called in a few favours and liberally fish-greased a few palms until a pleasant, shaded courtyard within one of the less well-to-do manor houses of Lower became available, for a strictly limited time, for the ceremony.

The men all arrived early, as was so very important. The women would be late, of course, but the men still had to avoid seeing the bride before the ceremony at all costs, so they walked straight from the tailor to the courtyard, took up seats under the sunny, yellow pavilion and waited.

There was only a very small, select group, in attendance. The lord who owned the courtyard wasn’t willing to let too much peasant stock in, and Lah Lah’s parents were quietly thankful. It helped to keep costs manageable. Not that they’d ever let than on to Lah Lah. Grep’s parents were the only others invited to the intimate affair.

All five elemental wizards were in attendance, in their official capacity – one for each element. A full handfasting required all elements, but many in Upper sufficed with what they liked to call a Half-Turn, where two or three wizards performed the ceremony, and the couple committed to renew their vows in a year and a day with the other two or three wizards performing the renewal. It was just a way of spreading the cost, but the lord who owned the manor house only agreed to its usage if a full handfasting were being performed, so all five wizards were needed.

The wizards were acting professionally, not bored and grumpy like at so many other handfastings Grep had been to. After all, they were at a true handfasting in a real manor house, so were on their best behaviour. They waited, already in position, with their ribbons loosely hung around their necks.

Finally, a full half hour after Grep started seriously worrying, Lah Lah made her grand entrance. There were no musicians, but the metal hinge on the lacquered, wooden gate helped out by screeching as Lashy attempted to pull it open stealthily.

Lah Lah rounded gate as Grep snapped to attention. He turned to face the first of the wizards, the air wizard, as Takelberorl was an air-magic city, just in time to miss catching a glimpse of Lah Lah’s dress. Slowly and gracefully, she walked up the winding cobblestone path as Sara and Lashy held the edges of her dress up, in spite of the freshly-swept path. Grep contented himself with the oohs and aahs of the small crowd as she approached from behind.

When her soft footsteps were right behind him, he closed his eyes and held his breath. He couldn’t bare to look upon her just yet. He’d waited so many years for this day, and he didn’t want the bubble to burst, should it all be a dream.

He waited there, eyes shut tightly until her footsteps stopped, next to him, but still couldn’t open his eyes. A minute later, the air wizard politely cleared his throat and Grep was forced to open his eyes so the ceremony could begin. Still he wouldn’t look to his right.

The air wizard, a stately, old fellow in a bright yellow robe, smiled kindly at Grep before nodding in his bride-to-be’s direction. Finally, he turned to face Lah Lah. A tear rolled down his cheek as he took in her radiance. He couldn’t help but to smile so broadly his cheeks started to burn. “You look beautiful, my love.” She returned his smile.

The air wizard cleared his throat again. He was used to these types of delays. It’s what made his job such a pleasure. When Grep and Lah Lah were finally ready, he drew the yellow ribbon from his collar and gently laid it over their forearms as they held hands tightly.

“A handfasting is the most solemn vow you will ever make to another person. Do you both undertake this commitment of your own free will?” the air wizard began, getting the legalese out of the way up front. “With pleasure”, Grep replied, so quickly it made Lashy giggle and Sara groan. “Very much so”, Lah Lah quickly added, with a kiss to his cheek.

“Very well”, the air wizard continued. “The element of air is one of peace and wonder. It transports us to a place more magical than mere elemental magics. It gives us the hope that we need to seek peace and fulfilment in these troubled times.” He commanded authority while also sounding genuinely sincere. He then looked more to Lah Lah and added, in a more personal tone, “In your case in particular, the element of air fills your sails and brings your family home safely every day. The element of air blesses this union, and any new life that is delivered to it.”

Finally, the wizard tied a the yellow ribbon in a single, loose turn and placed his hands over Grep and Lah Lah’s. He closed his eyes to concentrate, and infused the ribbon with some of his air magic. When he was finished, he stepped back into line with the other wizards, his task complete.

The water wizard stepped forward to replace the air wizard. Water magic strengthened air magic, so this wizard would symbolically add strength to their union. Water wizards were never respected anywhere in Nidola, and often left out of Half-Turn handfastings completely, so this wizard was more than happy just to be there. While his robes weren’t anywhere near as new as the others, he’d put in more effort to personalise them in his own style.

“The element of water is the true nurturer of all life in the world. It nourishes everyone and everything while easing our pains and our fears. The element of water blesses your union, and the new life which will surely spring forth from it.”

He unfurled his blue ribbon, laid it over their forearms, just above the yellow ribbon, and loosely tied it, like that of the air. He then spent almost a whole minute silently imbuing his ribbon with a significant amount of his water magic.

Earth magic was Grep’s element, and earth magic strengthened water magic, so the earth wizard stepped forward next. He was a younger man, but strongly built, as most earth wizards were. He worked with Grep’s father so had known Grep since he was a toddler.

“Grep, the element of earth is yours. Respect it and use it well, and it will never fail you. Since you were knee-high to a brownie, the earth has known you to be special. We of the earth couldn’t be prouder.” His voice boomed, as was befitting an earth wizard. When he looked to Lah Lah, he worked hard to soften his tone. “Lah. The element of earth welcomes you into the fold with open arms, as I know for a fact Grep is keen to do.” He knew he could take liberties and gave Grep a knowing wink as Grep turned beetroot red.

Finally, he laid his green ribbon just above the water ribbon, tied it and transferred a small amount of his earth magic into it. He felt that he didn’t need to do more as Grep, full to bursting with nervous energy, was already unknowingly infusing the green ribbon with most of his own strength.

When the earth wizard stepped back, a young woman with deep brunette hair that seemed to shimmer with an inner fire stepped forward. She immediately placed her red ribbon above the others, loosely tied it to match the first three and held it there with both hands, pouring some of her fire magic into it as she spoke.

“The element of fire gives us so much, from drive and ambition to pure, carnal heat.” She accentuated that last word. “Take what you need of the fire. It will never extinguish for so long as you live your lives to their fullest.” She looked down at Lah Lah’s slight baby bump and stepped back with a knowing nod to them both.

The final wizard was of the metal. She stepped forward, in her shimmering, silver robe, drew her silver ribbon from her collar and held it out in both hands before them. “The element of metal gives strength of will and fortitude to all. It provides for our protection in these times of need and asks no more than we can give.”

She placed the silver ribbon diagonally across the first four so it’s edges across Grep and Lah Lah’s forearms neatly covered the air ribbon in one corner and the fire ribbon in the other. When she loosely tied the final ribbon, both Grep and Lah Lah felt a charge run through their bodies. Not just a charge of raw elemental power, like Grep was used to, but the charge of the wizards’ words and intentions. It was a charge of elemental power at its fullest, with all of the elements merging into a single, harmonious force and seeming to bring the words of the handfasting to life within them, through the ribbons they bore.

The ceremony over, the five wizards silently turned left, in unison, and walked off to the side, leaving the newly handfasted couple alone before their guests and families. Their parents all stepped forward and each untied one of the ribbons, leaving the earth ribbon for Lah Lah. She untied it before almost discarding it in her haste to embrace her new husband in a long, deep, loving kiss. “I love you”, she cooed, and he eagerly returned the sentiment.

The whole party then moved out, onto the street where the only two, single girls there had the unenviable job of chasing down Lah Lah and their parents to capture the ribbons. Any girl who collected a full set of all five ribbons could demand a handfasting of their boyfriend immediately, and tradition wouldn’t allow him to decline. Neither Lashy not Sara had a boyfriend at the time, at least officially, but full sets of ribbons took time to accumulate, so they diligently set to work, always one eye to the future.

The two rabid hunters were soon joined by practically every girl they happened upon on the streets of both Lower and, eventually, Upper. No rules of grace, decorum or propriety would prevent any girl from acquiring any of her needed ribbons, as tradition joyfully demanded.

The Red Rose

Handfasted though they may be, know each other they may not. Takelberorl was never the most conservative of cities – the sweltering heat put paid to most notions of over-formality – but practicalities still reigned supreme. The simple fact of the matter was that they had no privacy. Grep still lived with his parents, Lah Lah with hers and they were having trouble finding a few dwelling to call their own. Sure, there were rooms for let, but the prices made Grep cringe, and Lah Lah steadfastly refused to let her parents overly subsidise her new life with the man she loved.

It was Jalern who’d ended the awkward impasse by dragging Grep out for a true man’s night out on the town. “Jal, if you take Grep to a house of ill-repute…”, Jalern didn’t need to hear the rest of her threat. He knew she was good for whatever punishment she claimed, and he’d rather face a nurdiz in a bare fistfight than Lah Lah and her father. “We’re only going to a tavern. Promise. He’ll be back before sunup.”

Lah Lah thought it over for a minute before poking a dainty finger in his toned chest and issuing another stern warning. “Nothing by the docks.” She paused to think. “And not that place you keep talking about with Lashy when you think I’m not listening.” Not that he and Lashy had anything going on.

“What, the Red Rose? Nooo. Grep’s not ready for a place like that.” Naïvely mollified, Lah Lah stepped out of the doorway to let them pass. “Before dawn!” she called out as they raced down the stairs from her parents’ room.

When the two young men burst through the solid door of the tenement building Lah Lah lived in, they almost tripped over the three steps that led down to street level before careening around to the left and off down the street. Finally out of earshot of Lah Lah, Grep yelled out to his friend, “Where’s this Red Rose then?”

Jalern slowed to a brisk walk before replying. “Do you think you can handle it? It can get pretty rough. It’s a hole in the wall for barge crews, desert runners and the odd, disgraced guard.”

“So, the beer’s cheap, is what you’re saying?” Grep was out to try something new and the Red Rose seemed like the right type of place. Jalern laughed and slapped his friend on the back before making a hard turn right up another dirty street to head north, towards the docks.

The Red Rose was not the sort of place gentlemen attended. It wasn’t even the sort of place their henchmen visited. Grep eventually found himself led to a dingy tavern abutting the defensive wall separating Lower from the docks, on the eastern side of the city. Jalern stopped in front of a rusty sign, swinging in the breeze on a pair of chains nailed to what used to be an anchor. The anchor had been cemented into the first floor of the tavern so the sign was just above head hight. It read, “The Sea Breeze”, and judging by the rancid smell emanating from beyond the mouldy, wooden door that refused to stay closed, the name was best assumed to be ironic.

“I thought we were going to the Red…”, Grep almost finished his query before Jalern shushed him quiet. He whispered back in response, “It’s only a legend. If you so much as say the name outside, they’ll never let you in.”

Jalern breathed in deeply, held his breath and pushed the door to the Sea Breeze fully open. Grep was unprepared and the Sea Breeze hit him like a wagonload of nurdiz carcasses left out in the sun for a day, which, in sweltering Takelberorl, was a true test of strength. He almost heaved on the street before struggling to get enough air into his crying lungs through his mouth alone while holding his nose closed.

Jalern pushed the door closed as he burst out laughing. “Sorry… maybe.”

When they were both better prepared, they ventured into the Sea Breeze. It was a single-room tavern with a bar along the right wall and a thick layer of smoke hiding the soot-covered ceiling. A range of scarred faces turned from their mugs to the door and quickly back down again after confirming they didn’t care about the new patrons.

“You’re kidding me, right?” was Grep’s uncomprehending query.

“Just wait…”, Jalern whispered. There was very little noise in the Sea Breeze, with the bar flies preferring to drink to excess and talk to their bubbles. The proprietor didn’t think a musician was worth the coin.

Grep tentatively edged towards to the bar behind a much more confident Jalern. A large, hairless man with all too many tattoos stared at them but didn’t bother asking for their orders. Jalern learned forward. “Two Flaming Nurdiz”, he half whispered. The bartender just stared back, expressionless. Jalern added, “It’s Grep here’s handfasting day, so we need to get him good and sloshed.”

Finally, the bartender grunted his version of a laugh and nodded sideways, towards an old door beside the bar. For the few in the establishment who would read, there was a crudely-painted sign on it, misspelling, “Yootilitees”.

Grep trailed Jalern as he casually strode up to the door and stood there with his hand on the ring of rusted metal that seemed to count as a handle. He looked to the barkeep who moved a half-step over and kicked into one of the metal legs of the bar. It ground in on slightly rusty hinges and a shallow click was heard from behind the door. Jalern, smiled, nodded and pulled the door open.

The utility room was long and narrow, filling the side wall of the main room, along the length of the bar. A simple, wood-framed wall separated the main room from this area, and an eight-level, sturdy, wooden shelving unit had been constructed along the brick, outer wall opposite it. The shelves were all fully stocked with the tools of the barkeep’s trade, ranging from pickled eggs and gherkins to stale peanuts. The wooden partition had barrels of cheap beers and ciders stacked along most of its length. The slab floor was slick with alcohol and rotting eggs, and everything was generally a mess. There was nothing interesting about any of it.

Jalern gave Grep a knowing look, then asked, “Are you ready for the Red Rose?” Grep just stared back at him.

At the far end of the utility room, one of the slate slabs that comprised the floor seemed to be a bit loose, as Grep could finally tell in the diffuse light after Jalern dragged him past everything foul-smelling. Jalern took a hooked, metal rod that seemed to have been discarded under the last set of shelves and prised the slab up. He revealed a tunnel, off into the darkness that began with a surprisingly well-built ladder of sturdy oak and abruptly ended in pitch black after around four steps.

Jalern motioned for Grep to climb down the ladder before he followed, gently lowering the slab back into place. He’d already replaced the crowbar, ready for the next customer.

At the other end of the long, descending passage, Grep’s world officially changed. As far as he knew, there were no laws to specifically disallow places like the Red Rose, but he couldn’t imagine anyone officially knew of its existence, and very much doubted that the owner paid their fair share of taxes. He recognised enough faces around the various tables to not ask any questions.

The Red Rose, utterly true to its name, was owned and run by Rose, the voluptuous, red-cheeked firebrand behind the bar. She tended the real bar while her bitter, old husband ran the front business upstairs. Her three sons, all nurdiz of men themselves, provided the muscle that was necessary to keep the customers hands steadfastly away from where their eyes and minds were drawn.

The cabaret performance on the stage was flanked by a dozen large, circular tables where various other forms of entertainment abounded. Anyone gullible enough to pay too close attention to the scantily-clad damsels on the stage were sure to be fleeced by the card sharks in the chairs, or by the house itself. The games were all rigged, but the wealthy clientèle didn’t usually care as long as the drinks kept coming and the floozies never appeared bored.

“Welcome to the Red Rose”, Jalern beamed as he slapped Grep hard on the back. “How did you find out about this place?” Grep’s lower jaw was slack. He had to know. Surely it was supposed to be a secret known only to those in positions of power, wealth or rank.

“Knowing rudas has its benefits”, came Jalern’s reply. “Ruda Kel took me here a few months ago after I bagged that big nurdiz and saved his hide.” Jalern was very proud of the day he was the guy in the right place at the right time, with the weapon big enough to take down the nurdiz just before it gutted the celebrated ruda. The bounty on the beast paid his family’s rent for a month, and Ruda Kel had shown his appreciation with a night of debauchery in the most famous place in Takelberorl that didn’t exist.

A few hours, and many pints, in and the two men were feeling an intoxicating combination of happy, unruly and borderline ill. “I keep tellin’ ya’…”, Grep slurred, over his cider, “… sh’s too good fa’ me. I’m tha’… tha’…”, he hiccuped, “… I’m tha’ luckiest guy in… in… in all a’… where are we anyway?” Jalern just laughed. He could hold his drink better than Grep, but Grep sure was getting much funnier as he got progressively more pickled.

By this point, most of the room knew it was Grep’s handfasting day. One of Rose’s more enterprising business plans was to announce it to the room at large. It worked a treat as all of the single men bought the lucky bastard a drink of jealousy while the married men bought two, to commiserate with him. Two out of three were getting pushed across the table to Jalern when the well-wisher had moved on, and the two of them had barely spent a bronze between them since finding a table. Rose, meanwhile, was making a killing out of them.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the lucky, little peasant”, a hauntingly familiar voice mocked from behind Jalern. Grep looked towards the noise, through fuzzy eyes. “Dray. Sit. Buy me a drink. I’m a man.” He tried to stand and offer Dray a chair, and almost fell over it.

Jalern, much more alert than his friend, moved his hand to the handle of his broadsword. He stopped halfway when two of Dray’s bodyguards closed in on him. “Now now, young Jalern, we wouldn’t want you to do anything stupider than usual”, Dray taunted him. A meaty hand from each thug came to rest on each of his shoulders and squeezed tightly.

Grep struggled to his feet. “Dray, Dray, Dray Dray Dray…” he lost his train of thought, and his balance, and stumbled forward to regain the latter. Dray sidestepped him and pushed him on the back, slamming him into the ground, face first.

“Hey, son of a b…” Jalern started to call out but one of Dray’s thugs kneed him in the ribs for his effort. Jalern crumpled onto the table. The other thug planted a boot on Jalern’s back to hold him down.

When Grep rolled over onto his back, Dray spat on him. “This’ll teach you to try to steal from your betters. He pulled his right leg back and brought it forward, hard, into Grep’s ribs. The air fled Grep’s lungs and he let out a soft whine before rolling onto his side and throwing up his dinner and drinks all over the cold, stone floor.

By this point, the music had stopped, the dancers were standing still on the stage and their podiums, just staring, and not an eye in the bar was on anyone but Master Dray and his victim. No-one raised from their seats to help Grep, not wanting to incur the wrath of the little master’s father. A couple of the closer dancers winced at the sight of Grep throwing up blood and booze.

Jalern couldn’t take it any more. Dray was a mini-tyrant and he’d be damned if he let the blow-hard kill his friend. He couldn’t stand, or get to his weapon, because of the two ogres holding him down, but he was still a modestly-coherent earth wizard, so he looked down instead, towards his element.

The floor was composed of sizeable tiles of the more common, deep red ore that made up pretty much everything in and around Takelberorl, and he could feel with his magic that the tiles were about eight centimetres thick and not mortared in place. He pushed the table out from under him, towards Dray. Dray’s thugs took it as an attack and drove him further towards his element.

When Jalern’s palms hit the tiles, he pushed every bit of magic he had in him into them, curled his hands into loose fists and gouged out handholds in the solid rock of two tiles. His captors were too dim-witted to even notice, and the general murmuring of the crowd partially helped to muffle the sounds of his remodelling effort.

By the time the two bodyguards noticed what Jalern had done, he was rolling onto his side and two floor tiles were making great haste towards two slack jaw-lines. The two guards crashed over a couple of tables before hitting the floor a couple of metres back. The occupants of one of these tables, being the fine, upstanding pirates that they were, took deliberate offence at the modified state of their drinks and proceeded to heft one of the bodyguards from the floor and remove a few more of his teeth with their now-empty, pewter mugs.

Rose, behind the bar, motioned for her sons to stand down as they went for their weapons. She wouldn’t abide by violence in her bar, but Dray and his thugs had brought this on themselves, and she’d prefer the pirates take the hits that had to come instead of her little, monstrous, babies.

Jalern was barely capable of standing, because of the late hour, the cider and his magical efforts with the tiles, but mostly vertical he now was, and the tiles were still rigidly in his grip. Earth weighed practically nothing to an earth wizard, even when intoxicated. He shuffled towards Dray with an intense look of loathing in his eyes.

Dray turn to check on his bodyguards, but neither of them was in any fit state to help him in his moment of need. He responded to their absence by drawing his tiny, show sword and dampening his leather pants. He took a half step backwards, raised the puny pig-sticker and started yelling at Jalern. “Now, don’t you come any closer… or, or, or… or my father’ll hear of this.” His usual taunts of peasant and the like seemed to have fled with his nerves.

At this point, finally, a group of three rudas from far off in a dark corner stood and moved towards Dray. Their weapons were sheathed, but their intent clear. These were men of modern legend, chief among them, Ruda Kel, a powerful earth wizard, who, it was rumoured, had once defeated a nurdiz in hand-to-hand combat during one of the recent horde attacks. None could remember which one, but a nurdiz could get as strong as an elf, so Kel was most definitely not a man to be trifled with.

“That boy on the floor there, this is his wedding day. I’ll mind you to not ruin it for him with your petty squabbles.” It was surprisingly well put for the uneducated, intoxicated ruda, but entertaining violence had a way of sobering up even the most devout of tankards.

Dray pointed down at Grep, still quietly sobbing on the floor, covered in his own dinner and blood. “That boy stole from me, and I will be avenged”, Dray managed, attempting to stare down the three rudas on force of upbringing alone. Kel walked right up to Dray, stood mere centimetres away, face-to-chest. He looked down at the diminutive princeling and stared deep into his quivering eyes. “Not today you won’t.”

That was all Dray could stand. He immediately turned and fled to the passageway that led up to the Sea Breeze. A roar of laughter and claps went up from the crowd as Rose motioned for Kel to come to the bar for a free round for him and his two ruda friends.

When Dray was long gone, Ruda Kel turned to Jalern, dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder and looked down at Grep. “Take your friend home. We’ll take care of this mess for you.” He prised one of the disfigured tiles from Jalern’s grip. He then used his significantly more powerful earth magic to reshape the tile and held it, watching, as Jalern picked his friend up off of the floor and struggled to carry him to the door.

A full half an hour later, Jalern knocked heavily on Lah Lah’s door. He could hear talking from the other side, and recognised Sara, Lashy and Lah Lah’s mother’s voices, so knew everyone was still awake.

Lah Lah’s father pulled the heavy door open. “What the hell?” he exclaimed before stooping out and grab Grep before he fell to the floor. Jalern was looking very tired but Grep was broken and bloody.

All heads turned to the door and Lah Lah let out an anguished scream when she saw the state of her new husband. To his credit, Lah Lah’s father dispensed with the questioning and got straight to the healing. To her credit, Lah Lah didn’t. “What happened?” she screamed and squealed, over and over. Jalern just shook his head. “Dray.”

Lah Lah’s parents did what they could for Grep while Lah Lah jumped around frantically, getting in the way and making a nuisance of herself. She wasn’t handling the situation very well. After a quick look at his wounds, Lah Lah’s father headed out to find an elf who’d be willing to help him at such a late hour. Her mother started to clean him up as best she could.

Jalern stripped off his dirty clothing, tossed it in a wooden bucket in the corner with some other dirty clothing and cleaned his face and hands in a smaller, washing basin. When vaguely refreshed, he flopped back on a wonky, uncomfortable pile of old carpets and sighed. Lashy came up and laid down beside him, a chunky hand lain across his sweaty chest. She kissed his cheek and neck a few times and he opened his eyes to look at her. “There’s nothing you can do here anymore. Grep’ll be fine.” She paused to judge his reaction before adding, “My parents are out for the night. Let’s go back to my place. I’ll make you feel better.”

He knew she was right, but it didn’t feel right to leave Grep like this. “We can’t leave now. They might need us. Next time, I promise.” Lashy wasn’t happy with his response, but she knew it was coming, so she snuggled in closer to him and they were both soon drifting off to sleep, in spite of Lah Lah’s racket.

K.G.

The six watchtowers atop the cliffs, overlooking Takelberorl, were always manned for the express purpose of avoiding the situation that Grep and Jalern were in. The two towers closest to the ocean were of no use unless the horde attacked from the north, which had never happened. The two flanking the city were of little more use. The two most southern towers, set south of the main defensive walls, should have seen the horde attack as it thundered down the narrow valley that led north. At the very least, they should have seen the great plumes of dust that the fifty or so pairs of oversized hooves were churning up.

When the horde rounded the last curve of the valley and were finally in sight of the city wall, the horns were belatedly sounded, but with only a kilometre of distance left, the giant beasts were on the city before the defences could be properly prepared. A small collection of heavy equipment was always stationed along the top of the wall, but the sun and heat were hell on the wooden frames of the catapults and ballistae, so most of the better equipment was kept in the stores within the great wall itself. There simply wasn’t time to winch any of it out.

When the horns sounded, every able-bodied man, woman, and almost-child grabbed their weaponry, as was legally mandated to be with them at all times, and headed for wherever they thought they could be of most use. There were no rules specifying where everyone had to go as this would be a logistical nightmare whose contents shifted like the desert sands anyway, so people simply ran about until they stumbled upon someone who seemed to know what they should do.

Grep grabbed his granite war-hammer, gave Lah Lah a quick kiss and pulled back. “Only on the walls. Promise me.” He stared deep into her mesmerising, blue eyes until she relented and agreed. Another quick kiss and he rushed out the door. Lah Lah still had to find her bow, so had time to dither.

Grep met up with Jalern at their pre-arranged point and stopped to catch a breath. “Got your little meat tenderiser?” Jalern joked. “When’re you gonna take to that ugly thing with a shaping stone anyway?” Grep bantered back. A quick laugh was all they had time for as a tremendous crash echoed through the buildings of Upper. They looked overhead to see pieces of timber the size of a child whiz overhead before dropping down as a hail of debris further up into Upper. “Was that the gate?” Grep questioned. “They’re inside the city! Run for your…” A guard called out, before his message was cut short, only to be replaced with a sickly, crunching sound that echoed with finality.

Grep and Jalern were standing at a crossroads, so moved to the centre, put a sword-length between them and raised their weapons, facing south. Whatever was coming, it would find them soon enough, and had to get through them to get any further into the city. There was no way Grep was going to let any nurdiz deeper into Upper. That was where Lah Lah still was, not yet at the wall.

“Good luck”, Jalern called out to his friend. “Back at ya”, his friend called back.

The next minute or so was so intense the air was electric, but the sounds of battle were still far off. They stood, motionless, awaiting the inevitable. When it finally came, it was in the form of a pair of large nurdiz. The body of a guard flew backwards across their shared field of vision. He tried to scramble backwards on his hands and feet, but the two nurdiz were too fast for him. They overtook him and he was kicked aside before being crushed under a hoof almost as big as his chest. He stopped moving and his lifeless body didn’t even slow the brute down.

When the two nurdiz caught sight of fresh prey, they turned and charged. Grep and Jalern were better prepared and much more highly skilled than the poor guard. They simply waited for the right time to strike. Rushing towards a nurdiz was an efficient way to get yourself killed. Let them come to you. You can’t stop them anyway, so you might as well use those extra few seconds to get ready.

Jalern’s sword was half a metre longer than Grep’s war-hammer, so he swung first. The glory came in staying alive, not in choreography. He swung with all the force that a physically strong but modestly powerful earth wizard could put into the swing of a granite broadsword as thick as his leg but as sharp as a razor. Two pieces of nurdiz tumbled bast him, one to either side.

Grep swung a fraction of a second later, with much less force than Jalern but with an implement as blunt as one of Dray’s henchmen. He’d stepped to the side so he could get a good angle at the nurdiz’s chest and impacted dead on. His arms shook with the rebounding force, but his battle axe was also granite, so he could handle it. The nurdiz, it’s momentum arrested in an instant, crumpled to the ground in front of Grep, it’s body twisted in the middle at an impossible angle.

They stopped to survey the scene. One dead guard, two dead nurdiz. It was an unsustainable ratio. “Why the hell don’t they train these guards better?” Jalern asked Grep. It was rhetorical, of course. “How can a non-wizard hope to win against two big nurdiz?” came Grep’s exasperated reply. They might both be lucky enough to be earth wizards, but it was still fairly uncommon, and most city guards had nothing but blade and armour to protect them. Realistically, they should spend their days learning to run backwards as quickly as possible.

“Heads up!” Jalern called out while Grep was looking backwards for Lah Lah. A bigger group of bigger nurdiz had just rounded the corner and were heading their way. There were five, no, six of them. The previous two were younger. Smaller. Three of these monsters were fully grown males, five metres high and almost as wide as the street. The buildings themselves shook as the monsters crashed into them, lumbering from side to side as they went crashing their way up the path single file with those at the rear pushing and shoving to get to the front.

“Back to back”, Grep called out. Their crossroad was a bit larger than most, which meant two or three of these massive creatures could still attack them at once, if up very close and personal. If they got separated, they’d be in serious trouble. They changed positions so Grep’s right side faced the incoming herd while Jalern’s left faced them.

Nurdiz, thankfully, were very stupid creatures. Really, really stupid. They acted on pure instinct, and with so much fire magic coursing through their bodies, their only instinct seemed to be based on anger and the need to kill. The first nurdiz went straight for them, with no sense of a flanking or surrounding plan or anything else. It was slightly closer to Jalern’s side, so he took the swing while Grep repositioned to block the next one.

Jalern’s swing took the nurdiz’s left arm clean off and his sword lodged in its side. It wailed and roared as it grabbed the blade with it’s right arm. Jalern responded by yanking his sword hard upwards, twisting the nurdiz’s arm and partially severing its hand. As he pulled his blade back, to be ready for the next creature, Grep swung in and finished the nurdiz off with a powerful upswing to the face. Its whole head shattered in a spray of blood, bone and tiny chunks of tiny brain.

By that point the other four nurdiz were almost on top of them. They spread out through sheer necessity and Jalern was keeping three of them back with wide swings of his excessively long sword. Grep repositioned and took out a knee of his closest adversary. It went down with a crash but was still too dangerous to ignore. Injuring a nurdiz only made it more angry, which made it more dangerous.

As it was now laying on the ground, flailing around with its long arms and stub-tipped but still lethal claws, it was too dangerous a target for Grep’s close-range weapon, so he and Jalern backed up close to each other again and did a shuffling, half turn until Jalern had a better angle. He finished the second nurdiz off with a couple of long thrusts of his sword while Grep swatted away at any nurdiz that got too close.

One of the nurdiz at the back of the loose pack squealed like a frightened pig and staggered forward for no reason Grep or Jalern could see. It then turned and thundered down one of the side streets going deeper into the city. There were two spears protruding from its back, which wobbled up and down each time the lumbering beast took a step.

Jalern had a bad angle but Grep saw the nurdiz fall as a couple of guards slashed mercilessly away at its midsection with expensive-looking swords. When it was almost defeated, Master Dray Stolvad strode forward and plunged his diminutive sword into its right eye socket. It fell into the dirt of the street, dead.

Dray’s personal guard closed in around him again as they pushed forwards, towards the remaining two nurdiz that Grep and Jalern were still battling. They were fully-grown adults and could take one hell of a pounding before they’d finally go down. Grep had already crushed the shoulder of one, so its left arm dangled limply and uselessly by its side while Jalern had inflicted so many deep gashes on the other that it was impossible to work out how either was still standing.

Dray’s guard formed a wedge and thrust forward, between the two nurdiz. They separated Grep and Jalern in the process and pushed both nurdiz back against a wall. In theory it was now three against each nurdiz, with the useless Dray preening himself in between and waiting for the hard work to be over with. It didn’t sit right with Jalern though. The maneuver was logical, but too forceful. They didn’t need to push so far between and past him to separate the nurdiz. And why did the two guards seem to be interfering with him more than helping him? Were they really that incompetent, or was it deliberate? Surely they wouldn’t have been selected as Dray’s personal guard if they couldn’t manage to keep their swords out of the way of the guy next to them.

Jalern made a quick decision. His friend needed him more than than he needed another kill. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, instead of trying to land another strike against his nurdiz, which would only be accidentally misdirected by these two fools anyway, he ducked and rolled past them, his sword far out to his right to not get in the way. He came up in the middle of the crossroad, just behind another of Dray’s goons.

The guard didn’t seem to be doing anything at all, so Jalern shoved him out of the way… just in time to see Dray’s blade slice through Grep’s throat. The nurdiz laid on the ground, dead, while the fourth guard held Grep’s arms behind his back. Dray simply executed Grep. Jalern saw red.

Before Jalern even realised what he was doing, the idle guard was missing his head, as well as his left arm and shoulder, both guards behind him had been run through with a single thrust after trying to protect their charge and the nurdiz he was being prevented from killing mere seconds before was in pieces.

Before Jalern could turn his attention back to his main target, a full squad of city guard came charging around the bend. Jalern forced himself to stop his rage-induced massacre and dropped his sword. On seeing the sword on the ground, Dray jumped out from behind his remaining guard and waved down the city guards.

By the time Dray finished telling them his version of the events that led to the deaths of Grep and three of his guards, he had personally killed every nurdiz within eyesight. Never mind that his puny blade couldn’t have inflicted any of the carnage the city guard could clearly see in front of their eyes. The son of a lord was telling them that he was a hero, he was covered in blood and sweat and they valued their jobs and lives.

Fighting half a dozen nurdiz was a task only the bravest and most foolish would ever consider. Witnessing his close friend brutally murdered in front of his eyes was something Jalern couldn’t even bare to remember. Still, later that night, facing Lah Lah and her parents, Jalern was confronting the most difficult of his arduous tasks for the day.

He desperately wanted to stride into their home full of rage about the injustice of it, but he was depleted of all and remained simply numb as he stood before their door, shoulders hunched, with a sullen look to his features.

He knocked three times before dropping his arm back to his side. He waited for the onslaught he knew was coming. He’d failed to protect his best friend’s husband, and in doing so, ruined her life. He truly loved her and couldn’t bare to see her in pain, and when the day had come, he wasn’t able do anything to prevent her world from being torn to shreds.

The door opened, slowly at first and a deep blue eye poked through the narrow slit. It quickly re-closed and the heavy chain clanked against the frame as it was pushed loose of its latch. The door swung inwards and Jalern flinched, awaiting the imminent beating he deserved.

When Lah Lah’s arms wrapped themselves around his broad shoulders and she fell into his chest, he automatically raised his arms to comfort her. His mind was still elsewhere. She started to cry openly, out in the narrow hallway, and didn’t stop for a full quarter of an hour.

When her sobbing gradually subsided, her father came to Jalern’s unheeded aid and carried Lah Lah back inside. Still Jalern waited at the door, unsure if he was welcome. When his reticence became known, Lah Lah’s mother beckoned for him to enter. He closed the door behind him, but didn’t stray too far from it.

Like a schoolboy meeting his new girlfriend’s parents for the first time, he stood there, by the door, awaiting inspection, and judgement. Lah Lah’s father came up to him. “Master Dray has been telling everyone all over town how he single-handedly killed all those nurdiz while they slaughtered his guards and our Grep.” Our Grep. He was part of their whole family. The father of Lah Lah’s child. “I can’t believe the gall of that… that little… the bastard!” Lah Lah’s father punched the wooden door in anger and frustration, then just as suddenly embraced Jalern and hugged him fiercely.

Later that night, on a long, aimless wander through the meandering streets of Takelberorl, Lah Lah and Jalern finally came to a stop on the bridge between the western and eastern halves of the city. It was a spot Lah Lah knew well from her daily routine of scanning the ocean for her parents’ safe return.

“None of it’s true, Lah.” She already knew it. She’d already said as much, many times, as had both of her parents. None-the-less, he needed to say it. He needed her to hear him say it. “That spineless little twerp killed him in cold blood.”

Lah Lah was already crying before he said his piece, but on hearing the confirmation she equally needed, she turned and ran for home. Jalern stood there, looking out into the waters of the ocean, glistening amber under the fires of the Takels, hovering high above. It would have been a beautiful sight on any other night.

P.G.

The week-long journey from Daidlene back up to Takelberorl was wearing on Master Dray Stolvad’s nerves, but the end was finally in sight, which was making him feel, if not happy, then at least less morose, than usual. His party was on the final stretch, heading up the base of the winding valley that led, at its most northern end, to his city.

He was flanked, as always, by eight of his personal guard. Trailing behind him, his caravan consisted of the four wagons packed high with his personal accompaniments and recent acquisitions in the abundant, open-air markets that Daidlene was famous for, as well as the single caravan that served his guards and various other hangers-on that he was sure had names, in theory.

There was another contingent of four personal guards bringing up the rear and several random support staff were clustered around and between the wagons. He hadn’t bothered to count them but guessed their number at about a dozen. There was his maid, or course, his butler and his personal chef. Beyond that, other peasants were just necessary to keep the caravan working. His butler handled the details.

Dray had been doing these business trips alone since his twentieth birthday. It was one of his favourite things to do, going off and seeing the world. None of those poor fools back in Takelberorl could afford a caravan across the horde-infested plains of Nidola, and every shopping trip on the sidelines of his father’s business dealings only enhanced his prestige back at home.

The trip had be long, sweaty and physically uncomfortable, but in the end rewarding. Any opportunity to go to Daidlene, or for that matter Glemiagwoon, on his father’s purse, was an opportunity not to be squandered. In this case, word was that the king’s latest mistress fancied a new cut of dress that was fashionable further south.

Neither Dray nor his father cared a hoot for the king or his floozies, but they both understood that the path to power was paved with stones of both influence and quid-pro-quo, and it could most successfully be bought indirectly. A crate of the finest evening gowns Daidlene had to offer was packed somewhere on one of this wagons. A maid had handled the purchasing details. They have to be good for something when the sun’s still up.

They rode on, along the well-worn path that abutted The East River as it wound its way up the centre of the valley floor. The day was clear and a relatively cool forty degrees in the shade as they passed three ladies bathing in the shallow waters of The East River. He wanted to look but his father always warned him to act the part of a gentleman when in public, so he averted his gaze. The ladies waved at the group as they passed, their laughter a constant babble as they played in the clear waters.

Dray shook his head. Wasn’t that a bit unusual? He called out to his closest bodyguard. “You, is something amiss here?”. The guard had a name, and if he survived for more than a few months, Dray might even try to remember it.

“What do you mean, Master Dray?” The guard didn’t think so. He was probably more interested in sneaking a peek.

“These are dangerous times with ever more frequent horde attacks. How can there be womenfolk prancing about in the water, this far from the protection of the city?” Something was definitely wrong, but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was.

“Yes sir. You are right sir. When we get you safely back to Takelberorl, I will personally return to ensure those ladies are well taken care of.” The guard smiled at his sudden fortune.

Yes, that must be it. They are so defenceless out here. It was foolish of them to leave the protection of the city’s walls.

As the first pair of Dray’s personal guards rounded the corner and so were no longer in sight of the naked ladies behind them, a tree trunk swung out from behind a strategically-placed boulder and smashed the two of them from their horses. The horses reacted by rearing up as the broken bodies of the two guards fell off, behind them, before bolting.

Two adult nurdiz crashed around from behind the boulder and ran headlong into the next two guards. Bones of both man and horse shattered as the magically-changed creatures brought their full weight to bare and crushed their way through the flimsy obstacles that the guards and their horses represented.

Dray only just managed to rein in his horse before one of the nurdiz reached out a two metre long arm to ensnare him. The horse panicked and ran head-first into the cliff face, where it crumpled to the ground, dazed.

The nurdiz stepped past Dray as they headed for the bulk of the party. The civilians on horse and camel-back scattered and relied on their mounts to get them home safely while the riders of the camels pulling the five wagons jumped to the ground and started running around frantically. The four guards at the rear immediately rode forward to protect their charge but were set upon by three nurdiz from behind. Where’d they come from? What the hell is going on here?

Amid the fray, a horn started blaring in the distance. Someone in one of the advance watchtowers had seen the milieu and was sounding the alert. If they don’t arrive soon…

Jalern was jobless, but he was a budding ruda, and being a ruda was a job. When you were as big as Jalern, and as good with a sword, you didn’t need a job. He could afford to fill his days with whatever activities his heart desired and simply wait for the next horde attack. They were getting all too common, and every attack presented another opportunity for a skilled ruda to enrich himself.

The king’s bounty for nurdiz had recently increased, after many years of stagnation. A single kill would now pay all of Jalern’s living expenses for a full month, and the killings had been good in the dry months before monsoon season.

When the single horn sounded, he was already close to the outer defensive wall. He preferred to stay close to the open fields, rather than be cooped up inside a stifling room in his parents’ building. He could breathe outside, in the fresh air.

Jalern swung into action immediately. He was always a fast runner, and as this was his best option, he simply took off along the path for whatever laid ahead. A minute in, a couple of bloodied and dishevelled servants came careening around the bend on horses with Daidlene markings. He waved the first down but it didn’t stop. The rider was too petrified to even notice him.

He didn’t give the second horse the same chance. He leapt in front of it and grabbed the reins as it reared up in fright. With the poor cook unceremoniously dumped on the ground, he swung a thick leg over the saddle and tugged hard on the reins to send the horse back south, towards the fracas.

Rounding the second turn, almost completely out of sight of the watchtowers, he finally found the minor attack that the horns declared was in progress. He pulled the horse to a fitful stop, jumped down, yanked it back around and gave it gave it a hearty slap on the backside to get it tearing off back to the city. He could walk home when the job was done.

By the time he turned back to the nurdiz, there were three coming at him. He grunted in their direction. “Let’s see what you’ve got!” he called out to them. Nurdiz were brainless oafs. Not smart enough by a league to plan even the simplest of attacks, so they came at him one at a time. Three simple swings of his two metre, granite broadsword and some fancy footwork and they were all on the ground, immobile or in pieces.

“So that’s what you’ve got? Nothin!” He liked to taunt the hordes, now that he knew he could handle most small incursions. He was always very careful, he never got cocky about it, but when duty called and he was all there was, he was pretty sure he could handle a handful of nurdiz alone.

By the time he got back to the wagons, all he could hear was the ever-present grunting and growling of the last remaining nurdiz, and a little girl whimpering. Someone was caught behind the wagons so he rushed for them.

With far too little regard for his personal safety, he leapt up, onto the final wagon and scanned the area behind it. If he was lucky enough, the nurdiz would be conveniently positioned and he could jump down, in the most heroic of scenes, and fell the foul beast with another, single swing.

He staggered to a halt atop the wagon, a look of utter disbelief smeared across his usually stoic features. A single, immature nurdiz was hacking and slashing with its long arms and blunt claws at a single guard. The guard was attempting to do his duty but the snivelling fool Dray was behind him, jumping about and pushing him, and generally getting in the way. Dray was using the poor guard as a human shield, and the guard was suffering the consequences.

Jalern yelled out at the tiny nurdiz, trying to draw it away and towards his much more effective weapon. It turned and went to rush him, but Dray squealed, like a piglet in a slaughterhouse, and the nurdiz turned back with a brutish arm out swinging. It caught the guard unawares and he fell.

“Hurry up and save me you, you peasant fool”, Dray yelled out at Jalern. Jalern paused. Did he really want to save Dray? The man who, as a boy, had killed his friend, and his best friend’s husband? No! he chastised himself. Never allow a horde creature to live. He was a man of honour, and would save any victim of a horde attack, no matter who it was. He leapt down, off the wagon, cried out again, as a distraction, and rushed the young nurdiz. It didn’t stand a chance.

The puny nurdiz fell before Jalern’s mighty, granite sword like a sapling in a hurricane. He swung the weapon with such force as the cleave the creature in two across the midsection. All of his loathing of Dray and the frustration of his impotence to prevent the foolish little boy of that time long past slaughtering his friend, fed his desire, his need, to see the beast fall.

“What took you so long, peasant?” was Master Dray’s reaction to having his scrawny hide saved by the mortal enemy he’d made years past but could barely remember. Jalern looked Dray up and down a few times before attempting a reply. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, wordlessly. He was dumbfounded by Dray’s smug arrogance, even in the face of death. “Is that it then? You may escort me home now.”

“What about your guards?” Jalern questioned, pointing to the various bodies on the ground around them. “Don’t you care about those who died protecting you?”

“What, these people? Don’t be stupid. My father pays them to die for me.” Dray, regaining his usual overbearing confidence, laughed at Jalern’s obvious dismay.

“And what of my friend Grep?”

This time Dray laughed long and loud. “That, peasant, was in my way.” Dray spat at Jalern, with obvious loathing.

Jalern grabbed Dray’s tunic in his meaty fist, lifted his two metre sword, as thick as his leg at its widest point, and ever so gently pulled Dray into the razor-sharp point, piercing his withered heart. Dray was so completely astonished that he didn’t even register what was happening until it snapped his spine, through and through. Jalern kept pushing the sword further through Dray’s now limp, lifeless body until his blood was spewing over the hilt and running down Jalern’s hand.

He gave the sword one last, hard, twisting yank to the side, causing a cacophony of cracking sounds as the rest of Dray’s ribs broke, before slowly withdrawing it from his chest. By the time the sword was free, the hole was at least as big as a nurdiz’s horn. Jalern turned, silently, and slowly walked back to the gates of Takelberorl.

No-one questioned Jalern’s version of the events of that day, and Dray’s servants seemed to corroborate enough of the beginning of the attack that it was simply assumed that the ruda was telling the truth. A tidy sum was dispensed his way from the royal accountants as compensation for his efforts in ridding Nidola of five more nurdiz. He took the coin, all the while thinking that it didn’t matter. He’d already taken something of far greater value from that encounter. He had finally fulfilled his unspoken promise to himself to avenge his friend.

Jalern told not a soul what he’d done, with the single exception of Lah Lah, who he thought needed to know, and was certain he could trust implicitly. She cried endlessly and didn’t thank him, but she didn’t need to. He did it for Grep as much as for Lah Lah. He did it because, in his reckoning, some people within the defensive walls were as beastly as the hordes without.

With the moon at its apex and the only souls to be found on the lonely streets of Lower far more interested in their booze and illicit, nocturnal activities than a meandering ruda, he walked back to the bridge between the ocean and the docks. His great sword was still soaked in Dray’s blood, and he didn’t care. It represented a chapter of his life that was now dead.

He’d made that sword with his own hands so many years before that it was a part of him. It used to be at any rate. Now it was a part of who he was. He dropped it over the edge of the bridge and watched it quickly sink beneath The East River, where the river’s immense water magic would cleanse the blade of blood and power.

He determined never to cry again, and never to love again. Henceforth he was a ruda, and a ruda alone. He would perform a ruda’s duty to defend the people of his city when the lordly types of Lower didn’t deign them worthy. Chief among them, he would protect the girl he loved, after failing protect her husband, and he would look over their son, Taal. A scowl crossed his features, and he was gruff.

MORE BOOKS IN THE SERIES

Book 1 of Upheaving Nidola, my first epic fantasy series. Available now.

If you’ve enjoyed this short story, but perhaps found it a bit confusing (my forte) or lacking in proper context, please read Equivocal Destines, which introduced the world of Nidola. This short story is a mini-prequel to my novel, and introduces some of the main characters in the novel.

Origins: Gruff

This short story… I hope you enjoyed it :)

Origins: Skeazy

Coming soon!

Upheaving Nidola: Book 2

Coming soon!

The story begun in Equivocal Destines will soon continue in book 2. Follow me on your preferred my blog, Facebook, Google+ or Twitter to find out more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raymond Clarke was born March 15th, 1978 in Perth, Western Australia.

Looking for a new way of life and inspiration, he emigrated to Europe, where he eventually landed in Poland. He is currently working as an English teacher, but has also worked in Information Technology.

Equivocal Destines – book 1 of the Upheaving Nidola series – is his literary début, but he is also working on other books and ideas. This short story, Origins: Gruff, is an extra insight into the world of Nidola.

Raymond is regarded as a very creative person with huge sense of humour and has many interests and hobbies. He refers to himself as a “big child” because he hasn’t lost his kids sense of imagination and creativity. You can find all of these attributes in his books.

You will also find him on the following websites. Feel free to contact him, comment and ask questions.

His personal “blog spew” – mostly on the topic of writing

https://raymondclarkeauthor.wordpress.com/

Twitter

https://www.twitter.com/RClarkeAuthor

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/RClarkeAuthor/

https://www.facebook.com/UpheavingNidola/

https://www.facebook.com/EquivocalDestines/

Google+

https://plus.google.com/

Goodreads

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13435242.Raymond_Clarke/


Origins: Gruff

If you've ever wondered what made Gruff gruff, read his tragic tale of lust and betrayal here. Origins: Gruff explored the origins of one of the most beloved characters introduced in Equivocal Destines, book 1 of the Upheaving Nidola epic fantasy series.

  • Author: Raymond Clarke
  • Published: 2016-01-04 17:05:09
  • Words: 19280
Origins: Gruff Origins: Gruff