Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Note: This is a rewrite of my work 'Outcast' under its new, probably proper name. As such some sections will be identical or near to it to the few chapters I posted previously. Any feedback welcome!
The steady thump of marching and clinking mail broke the silence as the convoy made its way towards the capital. Jaron Iren, captain of the royal guard, lead the procession. His vibrant blue eyes swept through the trees on either side of the hard dirt road. The forest was quiet. No birds sang. No crickets chirped. His features tightened. He was on edge and the men could tell, shuffling anxiously as they marched, purple and gold livery unmoving in the absence of wind. His gaze slid to the man in the center of the square formation, Crown Prince Gene. He rode surrounded by his retinue, swathed in finery even during travel. He was less an upstart than the finery might suggest, but only slightly so.
In times of peace even the crown prince didn't usually have such an escort as forty royal guardsmen, but although there was technically still peace between the neighboring kingdoms of Learsthrone and Caprith, skirmishes and raids were frequent. Of course, each kingdom maintained plausible deniability, for neither wanted to be the one to start the inevitable war. So it was a game of sorts, with the stakes a little dubious moral high ground in the coming war. It made for good recruiting if it could be pitched as defending their homelands.
With a shout from the trees whistling filled the air. Arrows fell upon the men at arms and three of the mounted retinue around the prince fell from their horses, bristling with arrows. Screams of pain and rage quickly replaced the orderly sound of marching. Jaron, standing just outside the prince's retinue in the square's center, burst into action.
"Stay in formation! Get the prince down off that damn horse!"
The royal guardsmen on the outside of the square turned their shields to face outward while the inner of the two rows prepared their spears to repel any charge as they had been trained. Before his retinue could help, the prince rolled off horseback to land on his hands and knees in the mud, splattering his gold embroidered purple cloak. With the prince no longer an easy target, Jaron focused on the battle.
Can't be many this close to the capital. But is it few enough that we could take them in the trees with our numbers? His gaze slid back to the prince. No, we can't leave the prince. Even if it is only a dozen.
"Second. Crossbows up!"
Placing their spears inside the square behind them, the second row unstrapped the crossbows from their backs and loaded bolts.
"Place your shots. Keep an eye on the trees. Any bowmen high enough could get a shot on the prince."
Shield-bearers and spearmen went down with arrows in necks or even their backs from archers on the other side of the road.
Why hadn't the scouts sounded a horn?
Almost every arrow was well placed, finding the tiniest of gaps at the neck between helm and mail, hitting the leather seam at the back of the knee or barely scraping the top of a shield to enter an eye just below the edge of a guardsmen's helm. A piercing howl overrode the sounds of battle, followed by another and another until a chorus of howls drowned out everything else.
Sudden screams came from among the trees and the rain of arrows stopped abruptly. Men in mottled brown and green tunics rushed from the undergrowth headlong into the guardsmen only to be cut down or get a bolt to the chest and fall into the ditch at the side of the road. Eerie silence reigned for a moment and Jaron went to speak and steady his men.
"Brace yourself. You need only look to the man on your left to-"
Bestial roars broke out just before large, seven-foot-tall bipedal wolves leaped from among the trees at the front line. The sheer force of their impacts splintered the shieldwall and the beasts set to tearing apart the nearest guardsman.
What manner of demon are those!
As only a battle-hardened captain can, Jaron read the situation in moments. Turning to the prince- who miraculously still had hold of his mount- he yelled, "On the horse!" The plate-clad knights around the prince made room as Jaron gave Prince Gene a boost. Staring at the clearly terrified young prince, Jaron spoke quickly.
"You must flee. Up the road. Tell your father that Caprith has invaded. These demons can't be mere coincidence, I'm certain they're to ensure your death." Giving a quick glance to the mounted retinue, he slapped the horse's flank and it took off as fast as it was able without any other prompting. Jaron, looking back to the few of his men that remained, knew there was nothing else he could do. With a prayer for his wife and son he drew his longsword, its pommel engraved with the sigil of the Learsthrone royal guard and charged a monster about to disembowel one of his men.
Far down the road, a figure cloaked all in black smiled and began tracing dizzyingly complex lines of sparks in the air and with a muttered word, disappeared.
Air whooshed above me as Old Joe's wooden training spear swept the space my head had occupied barely a moment ago. Thrusting the blunt end of my own spear forward from my crouched position, I aimed for his right knee putting everything I could into it. I hoped to at least get a solid strike in this time. Aiming for the old man's knees might be considered poor form since I knew they stiffened in the cool autumn air, but after having my ass thoroughly handed to me a few too many times in a row, I was willing to take any advantage I could get. Displaying his skill, Joe pushed his right hand forward, releasing his spear with one hand only to grab the shaft of mine just below the blunt end, yanking it away from me to his side. I tumbled forward, desperately trying to keep hold of the spear. It was futile and I ended up with nothing but a mouth full of grass.
"Keep your back foot grounded! If you're going to thrust you've got to put enough into it to do some damage true, but if your back foot comes off the ground you lose control and one quick grab and you're either dead, or you've lost your spear and then you're dead."
He tapped me on the head with a calloused hand to emphasize his point. June and Pieter sniggered from where they were supposed to be sparring nearby. They'd been training longer and had clearly already had this lesson. Looking up, I found Joe's grizzled, weather-beaten face smirking down at me as I spat dirt and grass back where it belonged. Glaring over at June and Pieter, they broke out into full on laughter.
Taking Joe's offered hand, he pulled me to my feet; my shoulder length auburn hair plastered to my neck with sweat from training. At seventeen I'm a bit of a late bloomer and only just had my growth spurt, shooting up to five-foot-eight; just a bit taller than the average woman, but by no means an amazon. What it really meant was spear and quarterstaff training from Old Joe since I was now tall enough to do it properly.
Finn, a young, straw blonde man a few years older than me shouted to draw our attention. He stood among the apple trees between us and the road west of the village, hair flopping about in the wind.
"Get to Brady's, the elders need you." An uncharacteristically worried look marred his usual carefree demeanor. Finn's something of the town jokester, although we just call him the town joke instead.
Joe frowned and nodded.
"Looks like that’s it for today. Grab your apples and we'll head back to town."
It's harvest week, so we, meaning June, Pieter and I, were out picking apples until our haversacks were full before training with Old Joe. Everyone in the village had basic spear and quarterstaff training. We aren't particularly vulnerable being only four or five days from the duke's city, but with the constant threat of war with the Caprith to the east it had become common practice around the kingdom. Learsthrone has been at war or on the edge of it since a decade before I was born. We're just lucky to be a long way from the front.
Lifting my haversack, I winced as I joined the others in the center of the clearing where we usually trained, I'm sure I'd have a new bruise or two tomorrow. We walked through the orchards a short distance to the road to make our small trek home.
"So, Ali how was the grass? Looked like you were enjoying it from where I was standing!" Pieter grinned as June laughed.
"You forget Pieter, I've watched you eat grass from the sidelines over and over again. Now I'm tall enough I look forward to feeding it to you myself!"
"Ho-ho, fighting words. May the best man win." His grin grew even wider.
"I may be a woman but I'm both a better man, and woman, than you'll ever be. You're more of a flea-ridden dog, or perhaps a dung beetle."
June was content simply to laugh along as Pieter and I traded friendly insults all the way back to the village. Normally Joe would laugh along with us but today he was subdued and fondled the hilt of his short sword as our banter died down. As warden of our village, Old Joe was an advisor to the village elders. He was a big man with a grizzled face sporting a few obvious battle scars and greying hair; intimidating until you got to know him. There was only one reason the village elders would call for him urgently, something must've happened that required a warden's touch, and that was never good.
We entered Glimmerdale, our village, just as the sky began to darken. Glimmerdale sits in the center of a dip in the land, creating a reasonably sized valley looked down upon by the surrounding hills bristling with trees. Just over sixty people made it their home, of which my father and I are two. The town is shaped in a cross. Thatch roofed buildings clustered around the main road to the duke's city. It runs right through the village center before continuing to Jaksonville a few days east. We're a bit better off than most small villages thanks to a decent income and educated folks such as Mayor Thompson and his wife Serena, who taught all the village children as many words and numbers as we showed aptitude for.
Joe left us to enter Brady's house, one of only two multi-story buildings in the village; a benefit of being the carpenter who builds the houses I suppose. June, Pieter and I stashed our training spears in the village hall and went our separate ways, but not before they foisted their haversacks off on me. They claimed that since I was going to the brewery anyway I could take theirs for them. We all had things to do, in my case, it's helping Finn and my father with brewing the cider. Unlike most villages we didn't grow foodstuffs like turnips, beans, potatoes, carrots or even grain or barley. We grew apples. Our main source of income is cider; it's actually where Glimmerdale got its name. Our cider is known for its sweet, rich flavour and how the light reflects off its surface.
Opening the door to the brewery, I quickly dumped the haversacks beside the large mechanical press taking up the center of the room. Counters and shelves cluttered with brewing utensils and measuring implements filled the space along the right wall while the left was filled by a large brewing vat.
"Hey dad. Finn."
My father, Rasard, stood with his head down at the desks while Finn tinkered with the mechanical press.
"Hey sweetheart." I blushed. I wish he wouldn't call me that in front of Finn.
"Hiya Ali." Finn seemed to have found his grin again.
Dad looked pretty good for his age at thirty-nine. Short, raven black hair reflecting the light from the windows as he straightened and turned to face me with that special smile he reserved just for me.
"You're early but there's even more dirt and grass stains than yesterday! Joe really giving you a hard time?"
I scowled, looking down at myself. I wore simple work trousers and a plain green blouse which partially hid the stains.
"He's too fast! I can't even land a hit on him."
"Don't worry Ali. Took me and Franklin a full year before we even scratched him." Finn piped up. Finn, his parents and baby sister joined the village when I was twelve. They were displaced by bandits, although they were sure it was actually Caprith soldiers in disguise. They still retained their eastern accents and trademark straw blonde hair.
"So where are we up to today?" I asked with a sigh.
"I've still yet to keg yesterday's cider." Dad said turning back to the desk where he was inspecting an open wooden keg. "While I finish this, you two pulp enough apples to fill the press. Once I'm done I'll join you and we can get today's batch over with."
I nodded even though dad wasn't looking and turned to Finn.
"Same as yesterday?"
Finn walked to the back of the room, grabbing a wooden bucket almost big enough for me to bathe in. While he was doing that, I moved the haversacks away from the door; stacking them with the rest in the front left corner of the large room.
"What did the elders want Joe for?"
"Peddler came through, demanded for the elders to see him. Whatever he said rustled them something fierce. Pale as ghosts they were." He frowned, a rare occurrence; he even smiled while being punished after he and his buddy Franklin's inane pranks. It certainly didn't sound good, maybe full on war's broken out again?
Finn being Finn, didn't shut up the whole time we worked. He talked about his plans for his eight-year-old sister, Maria's, birthday. Apparently, he'd made a deal with someone to make candied apples just for her. Meanwhile, dad bustled about quickly draining the contents of the vat into kegs and sealing them ready to be stored behind the brewery in a room just for that purpose.
After we pulped as many apples as we thought we could safely lift we hefted the bucket, pouring everything into the mechanical press. We repeated pulping apples until the press was about half full when dad finished kegging yesterday's cider. We took turns struggling with the wheel on the press until the pulped apples were squashed to nothing more than a liquid, then drained everything into the vat. It took the next hour repeating the process until all the apples harvested that day were pulped and pressed.
"That should do it for today. Ali, you take the haversacks back to the village hall while Finn and I clean up. I'll see you at dinner sweetheart."
"Okay dad. Bye." Grabbing the piled haversacks, I made my way to the village hall. Dumping my cargo, I left to go find June before dinner.
June was at home assisting her mother and Serena, Mayor Thompson's wife, patching clothing. Looking at Anita, or Mrs Mariet to us 'kids', showed where June got the tall, sleek figure and shiny, black locks. I'm pretty sure she's carrying a torch for dad but he's completely oblivious to it. Serena was blonde and curvy and being the mayor's wife, she had that same slight, stuffy, high society air that her husband gave off even after living in the village longer than I've been alive.
"Hi." I greeted everyone.
"Hello Alison. How are you?" Asked Mrs. Mariet as she looked up from her sewing.
"And your father?"
"He's fine, just cleaning up with Finn. Thought I'd come find June before dinner since we finished early because the elders needed Joe."
A worried look flashed across her face.
"Any chance I can steal June?"
Serena spoke for the first time.
"Dinner is in a quarter-glass anyway Anita and we are almost finished here as it is."
Mrs. Mariet nodded.
"Okay girls. I'll see you at dinner."
June leapt up from her seat and hustled out the door behind me.
"Phew. I hate sewing." Grumbled June.
"That’s what you say everyday June. Come on." I grinned at her as I knelt to scoop some lose rocks from the side of the road.
Rushing over to Pieter's house we discreetly opened the door and poured rocks into Pieter's shoes where they sat in the entryway, desperately trying to contain giggles the entire time. Closing the door behind us we dashed back to the center of the village before bursting into laughter. We got a couple of strange looks and smiles from people as they entered the village hall in front of us.
Following them inside, we found our usual spot and sat. The village hall served a number of purposes, one of them being a communal dining hall and kitchen. Long wooden tables with chairs on both sides were laid out end to end, enough to seat just over eighty people comfortably. Delicious scents of roasting meant and vegetables wafted in from the kitchen through a door in the northern wall. Some kind of meat, pork I think and the ever-present applesauce. We weren't exactly wealthy by food was one thing we always had in abundance.
The rest of the village filtered in slowly until it looked like everyone was here. I scanned the hall as steaming hot platters were brought in, I don't think most people knew anything was going on, although the absence of the village elders was a telling sign. I saw dad talking to Mils, the gentle, soft-spoken chef who ran the kitchen most nights. It went smoothly mainly because no one wanted to let her down; she's like the town mother or something.
Digging into my food, I hoped that despite whatever's going on Old Joe would be up to a story tonight. Some of the adults thought listening to his stories at my age was undignified, as if stories of battle and adventure were reserved for the little ones who, in their childish innocence, would imagine outlandish fantasies such as going on grand adventures themselves while I was old enough to know better. They didn't understand, I don't want to spend my whole life in Glimmerdale. Dad told me how mum left us when I was just a baby. He said she had wanderlust. I couldn't bring myself to tell him I thought I had it too. I wanted to try new things, to explore new places to do something dramatic and exciting!
My introspection was cut short when I felt someone's gaze burning holes in me from across the table. Looking up, I found Pieter glaring at me.
"What'd I do?" I tried my best to be the very embodiment of innocence.
"You put rocks in my shoes! Again!" He exclaimed, red faced.
"It was all June's idea!"
Loud splutters of indignation interrupted Junes laughter next to me.
"It was not! I'm not the one always picking on poor Pieter and I wouldn't lower myself to do something so petty."
"Lower yourself? Really?" I raised an eyebrow looking at June.
"Best I could think of."
"Hey now, I'm not letting you distract me into forgetting this time." Interrupted Pieter.
"We weren't trying to distract you, were we June?" She nodded her agreement. "In fact, I believe you just implied that we're dishonest."
"Oh no you don't! You're not going to turn this back on me either. I-"
With a loud bang the large main doors closed behind the four village elders, followed closely by Old Joe.
Brady the carpenter, a big, blonde, clean-shaven man and one of the town elders bellowed, "Quiet! Mayor Thompson has something to say."
The Mayor, a tall gangly man with spectacles and patchy beard stepped up.
"Thank you, Brady. Most of you know that Patrick Heronsson passed through with his caravan today. You may have noticed they barely stopped to chat, let alone do any trading." Thompson paused a moment and grimaced before gathering himself to speak again. "Pat had some disturbing news. He and his caravan had just come from Jaksonsville. He says it was empty, not a soul to be found."
"Empty? What like everyone just up and left?". My father said incredulously.
"No...", Thompson replied quietly, "Like they'd been taken. Or at least their bodies had been. According to him there were definite signs of a violent struggle. Blood, torn clothing, shattered tools, broken down doors and the like."
Silence reigned for what seemed like a long time before everyone began yelling at once.
"Quiet!", bellowed Thompson, "Stay calm. We elders have discussed the matter and decided that Joe will take a small group consisting of himself and his current trainee's to the duke's city to ask for aid. This and the roads is why we pay taxes after all. Duke Lorrin can't refuse us in this. I have written a letter requesting his protection and an investigation into the whereabouts of the people of Jaksonsville."
Old Joe stepped forward to the left of the mayor looking more serious than I'd ever seen him. His eyes seemed hooded, full of dark memories. Nodding towards Joe, Mayor Thompson continued.
"Joe and his group will leave at first light and we expect a response will take up to a tenday. Meanwhile, Rasard as Joe's second will set a watch schedule until they return."
Dad nodded from where he sat.
"As you can see we are taking action and everything is under control." He looked around at each of us. "Pat also mentioned hearing howls at night so we've almost certainly got some wolves around. As such-"
Finn interrupted from further down the table, "No pack of wolves would attack a whole village."
Clearly irritated at Finn's interruption, Mayor Thompson scowled and faced him.
"Did I say that?! No. We don't believe wolves attacked the town. It must've been some bandit's or slavers; probably deserters from the army. We all know war between Learsthrone and Caprith is likely around the corner." Thompson turned back to look at the rest of us, "As I was saying, no one should go far from the village, and although no one should be picking the harvest alone anyway, now would be a particularly stupid time to do so." Thompson glared at us as though he thought we were particularly stupid and likely to go alone just because he said not to.
"Thank you for your attention. Please do as Rasard says if he asks for your help on watch." He finished with a gesture towards my father.
Dismissed, I turned to face Pieter across the table, he looked as scared as I felt. June next to me had a green cast to her skin as she spoke.
"I can't believe it. I hope aunt Molly and uncle Raz are alright. I better go check on mum." Her chair scraped across the floor as she stood and hurried over to her mother a few places down the table.
Being the closest village to Jaksonsville a number of people had family there, fortunately I wasn't one of them. We also buy most of our food from them on their way through to sell produce at the duke's city. I wonder where we'd get most of our food now? Looking around, dinner seemed largely forgotten in the wake of the news as people yelled and cried. A group clustered around dad, probably discussing watch shifts. A thump sounded beside me and I turned to find Old Joe on my other side.
"You three might as well stay at my place tonight so I won't have to collect you come dawn. I'll have packs prepared so no need to worry about that. Rush home after you're done here and get travel-worthy clothes enough for three days, then meet at my house."
"We're going to see the city?" Asked Pieter, his expression a strange mix of fearful, excited and anxious. Neither Pieter or June had ever been to the city with its rough stone walls and towers. Nice stone double-story buildings crowded before the keep itself, transitioning back to more common wooden single-story houses as you got closer to the wall. I'd been with Finn and my father once when they went to get a wagon full of new kegs for the cider.
"Alison." A large rough hand landed on my shoulder.
"Hey dad." I looked up into his stormy grey eyes, different from my own. He liked to say my eyes held the storm from his but got their green from my mothers.
"You be careful going with Joe alright. Stick close to him at all times. Especially in the city!" I nodded. "City-folk aren't as easy going as us. I'm taking watch now with Finn", he rolled his eyes, "so I probably won't see you awake again 'till you get back; assuming I survive Finn twice in one day of course."
Knowing that Finn wouldn't shut up for a moment, I chuckled. His eyes softened and his face crinkled around the edges, "I love you Alison. Be safe." Bending down he pulled me into a tight hug.
"You too." I replied, hugging him back. With a smile for my friends he released me, walking over to collect his watch partner.