Friday, November 16, 2007

Chapter 10a: Shannai’s Story

"The party’s over, the night’s done.

Let’s go home, we’ve had our fun."

~A popular bard closing


S
hannai stood in the back corner of the room, arms folded across her chest and her shoulder leaning against the wall while she watched the sleeping woman. She waited in the shadows, not wanting the woman to see her when she awakened. The woman was dangerous; she knew that the moment the witch used magic, throwing her brother thirty feet through the air. Shannai also suspected why the woman had done it, but she needed to talk to her to know for certain, and patch things up if her suspicions were correct.


She couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten. The whole city lost.


She and Marchas, her older brother, had been in Renier for almost a week, entertaining crowds at the local taverns and inns with their music and stories. They were bards, and it was a life unlike any other. She and her brother received coins for doing the one thing they loved to do. Every night they partied, and they didn’t pay homage to any man, god, or employer. They lived a free life and she had thought they held a firm grasp on their destiny; that misconception faded away in the mid morning hours, when they woke up to a city of the dead.


Being bards, they kept late hours and late mornings, usually not getting out of their rented beds until almost lunchtime. The morning the city died was no different, except for the piercing scream that woke her at mid-morning instead of her usual lunchtime awakening.


Her bleary eyes snapped opened, her hand darting to the dagger tucked beneath the pillow as she listened for more noises. Silence. She released the dagger and sat up. It must have only been a dream. Hell of a way to wake up, though.


Marchas lay in the bed next to her own. His loud snoring attested to the amount of alcohol he had consumed the night before. There would be no getting back to sleep with that ruckus filling the room.


If his snoring is gonna keep me awake then he’s getting up too, Shannai thought. Her lips twisting into a lopsided smirk. She reached for the water pitcher on the nightstand. Only a cup of water remained, sloshing in the pitcher, but she slung the water at him anyway. The rhythm of his snoring quickened and grew louder as the water soaked through his blanket, but he remained fast asleep. Her smirk turned down, forming a frown. Guess I’m gonna have to do this the hard way.


Picking one of her boots from the side of the bed, she leaned back and tossed it at Marchas’ head. His snoring became a growling snarl as he sat up. He held his dagger held in front of him, ready to combat thieves.


“Rise and shine, you lazy bastard!” Though the words were harsh, her mischievous smile let him know she didn’t mean it.


Rubbing the back of his head in feigned hurt, Marchas replied, “What did you get me up for? We don’t have to be anywhere until this evening.”


“Had a nightmare that woke me up, and I couldn’t fall back to sleep on account of your snoring. Figured this would be a good morning to actually see why everyone raves about breakfast.”


“Had it once. Trust me, it ain’t all that special.” He grinned back, throwing her boot back to her.


Fifteen minutes later, dressed in their colorful gypsy clothes, they walked down the stairs to see what the innkeeper served for breakfast. Shannai wasn’t fond of the brightly colored clothing, her in reds and purples, and Marchas in his yellow and orange outfit. She often called it his squash clothes. She wore the outfit because the clothing announced her occupation as a bard and often brought unlikely clients to them.


The main room of the inn contrasted with its appearance from the night before, empty of both patrons and noises. The enticing aroma of bacon filled the air, driving her hunger and making her wonder why she didn’t try and eat breakfast more often.


Looking around as he took a seat at one of the small tables, Marchas commented, “Sure don’t look like it did last night, does it?”


“Nope, but it smells better. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”


“Yeah, it’s been a while since I chowed on any bacon. I remember that smell though. Smell goooood!”


Shannai laughed at her brother, then leaned back in her chair to look into the kitchen. She wanted to catch the attention of Bos Talle, the tavern owner. Her laughter stopped and a frown took its place as she saw smoke drifting through the kitchen.


“What’s wrong?”


She shrugged and leaned her chair back down. “I don’t guess it’s anything. There’s just a lot of smoke in the kitchen. I guess they burned something.”


Propping his head onto his hand Marchas replied, “Maybe that’s why nobody’s out here yet to serve us breakfast?”


“I’m sure…”


The crash of metal, grabbed their attention. She jumped in her seat and glanced into the kitchen again, hoping to see what had fallen.


Shannai looked at Marchas and he shrugged, but his eyes only widened in shock. She turned her attention back to the kitchen.


Bos Talle lumbered through the kitchen door, his apron trailing flames along his right side, and a frying pan dangled from his left hand, dripping grease onto the wooden floor. He didn’t care about the flames, or the grease dripping slimy puddles onto his clean floors.


Marchas leaped from his seat and ran to Bos Talle, knocking knocking the portly man to the floor. Shannai remained in her seat, frozen in shock by the flaming innkeeper and by her brother’s actions. When the innkeeper hit the floor her brother grabbed him and rolled him back and forth on his side, putting out the fire. She breathed a sigh of relief as the flames flickered and died, smoke drifting through the room and the smell of bacon tarnished by the smell of burnt cloth.


The relief changed as the frying pan clattered to the floor and Bos Talle grabbed Marchas’ arm, his teeth closing around the colorful sleeve. The material ripped away as he leaped from the ground and backed away, leaving a pumpkin colored tube of cloth dangling from the innkeeper’s mouth. The mouth opened wide and the cloth fell to the floor as the man pushed himself off the ground.


Marchas voice shook as he asked, “Bos Talle, are you okay?”


The only reply he received was saliva dripping from an open mouth and glazed eyes filled with hunger.


“Something’s wrong!” Shannai screamed to her brother.


Marchas’ turned to her, perhaps to give one of his flippant replies when Bos Talle lunged and grabbed him by the shoulders, his mouth darting forward to take a bite out of his neck. Marchas’ hand flashed up, grabbing the innkeeper by the throat, holding his head back; inches away from the bard’s neck. His other hand slapped the bar, blindly looking for a weapon. Before Shannai could run to his aid, his hand grasped the neck of a jug. He swung it around, shattering it against the man’s temple and sending him crashing to the floor.


Her brother screamed, “Stay back!” as the innkeeper tried to stand on wobbly legs.


Marchas’ foot lashed out, the gaudy boot catching the man under the chin, sending him falling over in a spray of blood and teeth. He didn’t try to rise again.


Her brother stepped back, away from the innkeeper’s empty stare, disgust contorting his features.


“Are you okay, Marchas?”


Without looking away from Bos Talle’s ruined mouth, Marchas whispered, “Let’s get our stuff. We’re getting out of here.”


“What happened to him? Why did he attack you like that?”


“Don’t know.”


“Are you okay? Did he bite you?”


Marchas turned to her. His usually happy face blazed with resolve as he growled, “Quit asking so many damned questions, Shannai. We have to get out of this city, and we have to do it quickly, before somebody stops us.”


Shannai’s eyes blurred as tears glazed her pupils. “It was self defense. He attacked you.”


He looked back to the still form of the innkeeper, his voice cracked, “We are roving bards, gypsies as far as the law is concerned. Do you think for a minute that they aren’t gonna punish me for this? I just kills a city Bos, a respected merchant. Now, let's get our stuff and go.”


“But, they can't…”


His voice rose, almost to a shout. “They can and they will.”


He turned, running up the stairs. Shannai looked at the innkeeper, his head lying in a pool of slowly coagulating blood. She then looked up the stairs and shook her head. She had to trust her brother. He always knew what was best for them. She wiped the tears pooling at the edge of her eyes and followed her brother up the stairs to get her things.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Chapter 9c: Training Yard

People poured through the gate like water released from a dam. Many shuffled through the opening dressed in their nightclothes, some with no clothes at all while others wore their everyday outfits for business. A single thing remained common, blood covered their mouths and chests regardless of their attire.

The guards at the gate stepped back, overwhelmed by the mass of clawing flesh, thrown into the thick of battle without a chance to retreat.

The rest of the guards didn’t wait for a command from Stiles, following Ash as he ran forward with sword in hand to help the overwhelmed men at the gate.

Stiles watched Ash slice his way toward the men with the grace and style of a master swordsman. Shame washed over him as he watched the man cut his way to the gate. Stiles had command, but Ash held the men’s respect. He pushed his doubts and shame to the back of his mind and drew his sword to join his men in battle.

He dodged the stumbling civilians, racing to the gate with ease. He wanted to slice through them as Ash did, but he still didn’t have the heart for that sort of violence, nor did he have Ash’s skill with the blade. He knew he would have to kill to get to the castle, but he would avoid killing until he had to.

As he neared the gate he saw how pointless the struggle was. Hundreds of deranged men, women and even children funneled through the opening. Their blank eyes held no fear of the men who slashed and hacked a bloody trail through their midst, a bloody trail where there were few real casualties. Men and women took disemboweling slashes and continued to advance. Arms were severed from bodies, but they continued to stumbled forward. Some lost legs, yet they crawled forward though the blades hacked their numbers to pieces. His guards didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless enemy.

He stopped, looking over the muddy training field for other options. There had to be another way out, something he hadn’t thought of yet. He saw the short wall facing the road, the huge wall protecting the outer courtyard of the castle, and the stony face of Barclave Mountain blocking off everything to the north. Inside the training yard, large stakes stubbed out of the ground like saplings, straw dummies, the guardhouse offices merging into the side of the mountain and the entrance they came from that led to the dungeon, but nothing that would save them.

Stiles turned to join the hopeless battle when he saw them, soldiers running along the top of the castle’s outer wall, ropes coiled in their hands. His world had changed so drastically in the last few hours that he didn’t associate the men with an escape, but when they stopped and began unrolling their ropes down the side of the wall, hope returned.

He turned toward the men, mouth open to sound the retreat, and saw Migel fall. One of the contaminated, stumps of thigh dragging the ground behind him, crawled in and grabbed him by his ankles. He fell forward into the crowd where hands grabbed him, dragging his screaming form out of sight.

“Fall back! Fall back!” he screamed.

The guards stepped back, out of the people’s reach, then turned and ran toward Stile. Only Ash and Horn continued to battle the contaminated, giving the others more time to gain distance between them and the growing crowd.

Gorney also stayed behind, but it wasn’t by choice. He turned to run, made three wobbly steps and fell in the muddy yard. The crowd surrounded him, pulling his limbs in separate directions. The last thing Stiles saw was Gorney’s bleary eyes as they dragged him backwards through the mud and out of sight. He looked sick and dazed, like a man too far gone to care.

The men dashed past him as he stood and watched Ash and Horn. The two guards slashed and cut at the mass of flesh bearing down on them.

He jogged toward them screaming, “Ash! Horn! Fall back!”

They rent and tore into the horde like madmen, blood spraying into the air around them, adding a splash of red to the drizzle.

Stiles had almost reached them when Ash bellowed, “Okay, Horn. That should buy us enough time. Let’s go.”

He slashed at the flailing arms one last time before turning around and running toward Stiles. Horn’s battle with the crowd remained too intense for him to simply turn and run. He backed away a few steps, but a hand reached out of the crowd and grabbed his breastplate.

Stiles froze, his lips silently forming the word run over and over again as Horn turned back to the mass of people. They reached and grasped at him, pulling the beefy man further into their midst. He raised his sword to slice off the arms that prevented his escape, but another hand grabbed his sword arm while more of the wretched beings surged forward, burying him in a pile of flesh. Like ants attacking a wounded beetle, the people grasped and tore at Horn, ripping him apart with their bare hands.

“NO!” Ash screamed from behind Stile. He turned to the outcry as the man raced by. He reached out and grabbed Ash, stopping the guard from throwing his life away.

Ash jerked his arm free of Stile’s grip as a roar ripped through the air.

Horn stood on his feet. People clung to his bloody form, trying to devour him alive. He made two hard fought steps forward before collapsing to the earth again under a mound of thrashing, biting bodies.

“It’s too late, Ash. We can’t save him.”

Ash glared at Stiles. His nostrils flared with anger and battle lust. He didn’t say a word as he shoved Stiles back and ran for the castle wall.

Stiles turned to the heap of bodies covering his comrade, watched his final convulsions as they tore him apart. With the body covered by all the retched flesh that could reach it, the rest of the contaminated swarmed around the pile, like a stream of water flowing around a stone.

He ran for the safety of the ropes.

Most of the men stood safely on the top of the wall. Four others climbed the two ropes while Ash waited his turn at the bottom, glaring at Stiles as he jogged up to the other rope.

“You couldn’t have saved him.”

“Shut up,” growled Ash.

Stiles shook his head as he grabbed the rope and began climbing to the safety of the castle wall.

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