Meet me by the Gallows

I realise I haven’t updated this blog for a while, it’s been patchy at best and I apologise if you were holding your breath in anticipation for my next rant/story/random bit of musing.  I’ve been working on longer form literature for a while and it’s probably going to be a while longer so I feel it’s only fair to expose the internet to the introduction to Meet Me By The Gallows, my current and probably next-to-remain-unpublished-project:

Telfur and Andra heard them first. They had snuck in to the woods far from listening ears when they heard the heavy footfalls and the clatter of armour in the distance. The Eyeless Men and their Prophetess were returned. Flocks of birds spiraled in to the air and the smell of charcoal wafted in front of them as they marched through the relentless heat of the day.

Andra gently pushed Telfur off her as the marching sounds died away and they both lay very still and a little sore on the ground under the forest canopy. Neither of them dared to risk speaking so Telfur held up a fist and drew a semicircle around it with his other hand; ‘I shall go around the target’ in the silent language of the hunt. Andra nodded and indicated she would do the same.

Telfur turned away and began to run as quietly as he could manage. It was a risky task, moving at this speed through untended woodland, but there was nothing for it; the Eyeless Men were coming and their Prophetess had promised to take all the men and burn the women and children unless she received her demanded tribute.

What else could they have done? She asked too much, more than any one could expect to give. They had appealed to the Count for help but he had simply told them to pay, they had turned to the Rothign tribe at the edge of the wastes but they were busy fighting the Eyeless Men already and could spare nothing, they had even sent messengers to the Grand Duke of Nisalia and the Order of the Gilded Rose but they had heard nothing from anyone. They were, after all, a tiny village on the very edge of the civilised world.

Telfur burst out of the treeline a hundred yards from the village. He could see the smoke rising from the smithy and the filthy slaughter pen with its little shrine to the Harvest God. He skidded slightly on a cow pat as he hurtled on, making his way to the well and grabbing the warning bell dangling over it.

The ringing bell and the bellowing started a bustle of activity, they had long been expecting this. Most of the women and children flowed in to the temple, the rest took hold of bows and slings and took up positions by the stout wooden doors shouting prayers and blowing kisses to the mighty, horned statue of the Builder God inside. The men ran to gather other weapons, occasional swords but mostly hammers and farming tools of a dozen different ugly shapes and sizes. By Telfur’s count there were around forty of them, which could be enough if luck was on their side. His throat hurt and his bell arm ached from exertion but they almost had an organised force now and his heart dared to swell with hope.

The Eyeless Men could be seen clearly now, rounding a bend in the forest track and marching in perfect step. From this distance they looked almost normal, like big and well fed armoured warriors, but Telfur knew better. They all knew better.

‘Where’s the bitch?’

He realised he had been staring at them for some time and sighed with relief when he heard Andra’s voice behind him. He turned to look at her, there was a fresh scratch on her forehead from some errant branch and her clothes had taken a battering from her run through the forest but she looked well. She was the best archer in the village and very much in charge of their fighting women. Telfur allowed himself a smile at just how much their odds were improved by her presence.

‘Where’s the bitch? Telfur? She’s always with them, where is she?’

Telfur shrugged, he was scanning the men in the distance again, trying to get the measure of them. He wasn’t that worried about the Prophetess herself, one imperious bitch wasn’t going to make much difference here and the Eyeless Men were almost in range of their arrows. He heard Andra give the orders to knock and draw, heard the bow strings creak and tighten. Everyone was silent save for the occasional whimper of fear, most had never fought in real combat before and this was going to be a damned close run thing. A real damned close run thing.

They were close enough to see properly now, only twenty of them but he could see the scorched hollows where their eyes should be, their imposing size and the molten lips of pinched flesh visible through the joints of their bronze armour. He could hear them clattering and see them shimmer through the heat haze of the midday sun. He shrank back, they all did, as a sudden, unaccountable terror washed over them all.

‘Loose!’

He never found out who shouted the order but he was glad they did, a half dozen arrows and twice that many sling stones hurtled overhead and towards the approaching men. He heard the distant thuds of the missiles hitting home but he never saw them reach their targets, a pitch black cloud of smoke had come from nowhere and was now billowing ahead and around them and obscuring his view. Everything it touched blackened and smouldered and small fires were breaking out on the thatched roofs. Dismay spread through the ranks; Hammerhand the Blacksmith grabbed the full pail next to the well and ran forwads to try to save his home, hesitating for a moment before diving in to the thickest part of the smoke. A cheer began for him but cut short as his muffled screams drifted out. Then they saw him, for a moment, trying to run back towards them before collapsing and once more being swallowed by the advancing cloud. The air stank of sulphur and charcoal.

The smoke ceased its advance a few feet from the forward ranks and some of the archers loosed again with no way to tell if they were hitting home. A silence, total quiet, settled over the assembled village as they all strove desperately to hear anything at all.

‘Surrender now and none will suffer.’

It was a confident voice, a voice used to authority and obedience, and it was strangely terrifying. There was a lilting menace to it which was made all the worse by the sound of several men dropping their weapons. Telfur turned and tried to see where it was coming from and discovered with dismay that it was somehow coming from the temple doors, in amongst the archers. She wore a pristine white robe with a shawl the colour of fire and a delicate white tiara in her pure white hair. Her skin was perfect, unblemished and unearthly pale save for the old, healed burn marks around her lips. When her mouth opened, and that voice came out, gentle coils of black smoke drifted out of it.

‘We are among you. There is no hope. No rescue is coming. You should have given what I asked and now I have to take it.’

It had been too much, no village can do without a quarter of its men. The rest would have starved, harvests failed, thought Telfur, but he had not the bravery to open his mouth and say it.

He heard a noise behind him.

The screaming and the panic started instantly as the Eyeless Men burst from the cloud and fell upon them. They fought with great wooden clubs and left their swords in their scabbards and their shields on their backs. Blood arced over the crowd and the meaty sounds of violence added to the cacophony of panic. Telfur drew in a breath to shout for order but it died in his throat as he realised how hopeless it all was. The village of Helmara was well and truly burning and his neighbours were dying around him. He saw Old Haas try to fight back, shoving a pike straight in to the gut of his enemy but a second simply stepped in and smashed him over the head. Haas dropped to the ground and a lump of his skull followed a moment later.

Telfur pushed his way through the panic, all thought flushed from his mind save the desperate urge to reach Andra and get away from the eyeless men. It was hard to push towards her, the Prophetess, but he forced himself to shove his way through the struggling mass. It had only started seconds ago and all sense had fled and broken down, there was only flight now, but to where?

Telfur saw her through the thinning smoke, shoving her way away from the temple and off to the east and the nearest edge of the treeline. The temple was on fire and the screaming began inside it but Telfur knew he could do nothing. Better to live. Better to live and avenge them.

There she was again! Telfur ducked under a wild blow and continued running while the noise of the screaming grew around him. He shoved, pushed, squeezed through the crush until he found himself dangerously close to one of the bronze giants bellowing their hatred in to the boiling day. It was busy keeping the villagers penned in and beating them in to submission. Telfur ducked, started crawling through the blood and mud and desperately hoping that nobody fell on him. Ahead were a pair of bronze greaves, splattered with filth and planted firmly apart, but Telfur was slim.

It was a close thing but he managed to get out, and up, and began to run. All around him buildings burned and smoke billowed out but he knew where he was going and where the fences were built. He vaulted one, then another, then the tree line was in front of him and the shrieking was behind him and he could see Andra watching him from under the forest canopy. There was a clattering behind him, someone in armour was coming his way but if he made it to the forest he stood a chance, he and Andra together stood a chance.

Agony shot up his leg.

He looked down to see an arrow sticking through his thigh and stumbled on for a couple of steps before collapsing. He looked up at Andra, saw her lower her bow.

‘I’m sorry Telfur, I need you to slow them down.’

Confusion and a wash of exhaustion rushed through him. He said the only thing that he could think of to say.

‘I thou… but I love you…’

‘Really? Gods above, I don’t love you. I am sorry though.’

Telfur saw her hesitate for a moment, biting her lip, then she turned and ran in to the darkness under the trees. She didn’t even look back.

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