Great Shadow: Prima Earth Chronicles
A light drizzle lathered the old man’s sticky hands. Using it, he washed the farmer’s blood off into the dirt and grass, staining them a faint red. Any remnants came off with a quick wipe on his pants. He slid on his worn cloak, more gray than its original black, to ward off the rain. They’d put enough distance between them and the farm. There was no doubt in his mind as soon as someone inspected the place and found the family dead, they’d be looking for anyone who was new to the lands — people like them.
“The man and his boy put up a better fight than I thought they would,” said Gailec, the biggest of the three other men in their band.
“Toilers always do … it’s the noble one’s who spent too long at the tit that go down easy.”
Gailec wiped his dagger on Dant’s back, the smallest of the three young men. “I don’t know about that, you old bastard. If they’re trained with the steel, they’ll get ya good.” He lifted his shirt, reveling a hand-long scar. “Nobleman’s son gave me that before I fed his bowels to the vermin.”
“Don’t you be callin’ my da old or bastard!” The old man’s daughter, Jessemal, knocked Gailec in the ear with a wooden spoon. “It’s Walther or Sir … and if it wasn’t for him we’d be starving and coinless.” She dropped the spoon back into the pot over the fire.
“Meant no offense, love.” He threw the sordid smile he so oft made, meaning only one thing in his dim language.
“Speaking of food, why don’t you boys go catch us something to throw in the stew. Not enough meat in there anyway,” Walther said.
Gailec, Dant and Britt all turned with the same irritated look. The dried blood and dirt made their faces look even more displeased with the request.
“I won’t have those looks, boys.” He brushed them away. “If ya hadn’t a killed the farmer’s last swine and left em to rot, we’d have no need. Now get to walking!”
“Any requests, your majesty.” Britt, the middle-sized one, said sardonically with a bow.
“Get!” He yelled, throwing a rock at them.
They turned and disappeared into the woods just over the hill behind their camp. The last bit of light hovered above the rolling plains to the west like a pale stage curtain. Mist continued to fall and the clouds threatened to break open at any moment. Beads clung to the horses, the carriage and the pilfered bags of crop.
“Da?” Jessemal asked.
“Supposen we gave the farmer and his son a chance to keep their lives … maybe tied em up instead of just gutting them, they might have accepted?”
“No.” The old man didn’t hesitate. “Farmers are more proud than lords and half as bright. It’s not in their nature to give up something they bled for.”
The young girl of fifteen looked away, face scrunched. “Aye they’re proud, but when it comes to their lives they value em as much as the next man.”
“They do when it comes to anything but their crop and livestock. A slaver will give up his servant under threat, because you can’t truly own another man. A harvest and animals though … that’s another story. Only thing a man can truly own I venture.”
“You’re probably right. You usually are about these things. It’s just … they hadn’t done anything to us and might have given us some of their harvest.”
The old man turned to his daughter. She squinted like her mother used to, like she needed to know more. In that moment with the low light, her pale skin, concerned look, and auburn hair reminded him of his deceased wife. He cupped her chin and smiled. Her warmth traveled up his hand and heated his entire body, a pleasant thing on such a cold night. The words caught in his throat for a second as he thought he looked at the ghost of his former beloved.
“Da?” Her voice shook him out of it.
“There ain’t nothing standing in our way. You understand me? It’s them or us. Every time I’m going to choose us. Even if it means cutting down a few men. We’re all that matter. Our survival is the only thing. Even above the boys.” He dropped his hand. “Do you hear me, love?”
Her eyes looked passed him. “Aye … I do.” She motioned with a head nod. “Speaking of which.”
Walther turned around and saw a man on horseback trotting along the Western Road, twenty paces from their camp. Enough light remained to reveal he was a knight or a well vested squire from a noble family. Silver armor with a sky-blue jerkin with a crest of a willow tree, and an impressive claymore hanging off his right. A collection of pouches, that looked full, drooped on both sides.
“Oh, the day has blessed us, love. That’s Lord Dolton’s eldest come back from gods know where. We can ransom him for half his father’s lot.”
“But, Da, he’s far bigger than you and he’s a knight. No telling he’d gut us before we could take him down.”
“Aye … not all five of us though. The boys will be back soon. Just have to wait.”
“How ya going to do that?”
“Follow my lead.”
The old man paced through the damp grass toward the road with his daughter in tow as Lord Dolton’s son kept the same trot. Streaks of blood remained on Walther’s pants. He pulled the cloak over and wrapped his arms to make it look like he was staying warm instead of hiding something.
“Pardon me, my lord,” the old man called out as he stepped up to the road.
Lord Dolton’s son pulled back on the reigns and slowed to a stop. His face was weary, as if he had ridden the entire day. Both his hands stretched out, confirming at least long travel. He straightened up and nodded to both Walther and his daughter. “Is there something the matter?” his voice clean and strong like a future lord’s should be.
“I thank you, my lord.” The old man’s voice came out more desperate and sinewy. “A pack of ruffians threatened us a few miles back. We were able to shake them when another knight like yourself shooed them away, but they swore they’d find us tonight. Would you be so kind as to accompany us for a spell to deter them.”
The lord’s son drew back surprised by the request. “You want me to stay here incase these ruffians return? What good would that do?”
“Well, they see a knight of your stature and being the son of the lord of these lands, they might think differently and leave us alone.”
“These are not dangerous lands, surely you and your daughter will be safe.”
“I assure you they had the look of northerners come down to make a living off others hard work.” The old man’s daughter chimed in.
“Please, my lord. We’ll fix you a pot of stew. It’s not much compared to what your castle cooks can whip up, but it’s hearty. The night is upon us and you still have over twenty miles to go. You need your rest, even if for a few hours.” The old man snapped his fingers. “I’ll even tell you a few stories to keep you entertained.”
“Father’s a wonderful story weaver, my lord.” His daughter broke in at the perfect time.
The young knight looked back and forth at them and drew in a heavy sigh. “I suppose I wouldn’t be much of a lord if I didn’t protect everyone in my father’s lands.” He shook his head. “I warn you, our castle jesters can spin a good yarn, so I’m a harsh critic of fables.”
“Thank you, my lord! I promise you won’t regret this.”
“Please, call me Laury.”
The young lord dismounted. The old man’s daughter grabbed the reigns and walked the horse to the others and tied him off while Laury and her father took seats at the fire. Walther made sure to scoop every piece of meat in the stew and served it for their guest along with half a loaf of bread. They sat across from each other on a couple of logs, Laury’s back to the forest.
“I hope the food is to your liking, sir Laury?” the old man asked.
The knight swallowed the first spoonful and wiped his mouth clean. “After my travels it may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
“Splendid, sir, splendid.”
Laury scanned their camp, along with their carriage and supplies. “A lot of packs for just two people. What are you doing on the road?”
Jessemal beat Walther to the reply. “We’ve cleared the harvest for my father’s brother who just passed away. Seemed a waste to let his crops go rotten until his sons come back to resume ownership of the home and lands.”
Sir Laury nodded his head. “I’m sorry for your loss … both of you.”
“It’s for the best really. He fell in love with the drink a few years back and hadn’t been the same since. Speaking of which. Wine, good sir?” The old man offered.
The knight waved him off. “None for me. Got to stay keen if I’m to ride by moon and starlight.”
“Good man, good man you are, sir Laury.”
He dove into the stew once again and made a complimentary noise. “So how about those stories. Nothing like a good tale paired with a warm meal.”
“Oh heavens, you’re right. I almost forgot.” The old man batted himself on the side of the head. He peered up into the stars. Several of the constellations broke through the rain soaked clouds. “This one’s an old one about the boy who ran away from a fortune.”
He cleared his throat. “The sun beat down on the boy, sweat emanating from his pores. He sat in a city plaza with over a thousand people screaming obscenities. A good place to snatch a coin pouch or two. He would need a few if he were to eat that night. The plaza had an ancient look. Old marble, once white, now had streaks of black and faded gray, covered the entire square; dozens of fifty foot arches supported by heavy columns encircled it. The entrance had a magnificent decorative arch with a massive ram’s head carved at the peak. At the other end were columns as thick and tall as oaks that lay before the glowering stone courthouse. Statues lined the tops of the entire plaza along the rectangular stones.
“Another large crowd had gathered on the steps. They chanted a name. With all the noise the boy couldn’t make it out. Their faces filled with hatred and a lust for blood. Shorter than most, the boy struggled to catch a glimpse of what the people were drawn to. A man wearing a regal robe and sash walked out to greet the mob. ‘Philla, Philla, Philla!’ The mob cheered for the man as his hands rose to welcome their praise.
“After a minute the crowd settled to a murmur. Philla turned back and motioned to the guards. They went into the building and retrieved a man who had more muscles than an ox. Thrashed and bloodied from whips and spears he struggled to walk. The crowd went silent as the guards carried his lame body forward. His face covered with a sheet kept his identity hidden from the boy, but the mob seemed to know who it was.
“The guards shackled the man’s hands with large boat anchor chains. Standing in between the two middle pillars, the man staggered as the people backed off the steps away from him. As the guards left, the man pressed against the pillars to support his ailing legs. The dignitary Phila walked toward the hooded criminal. ‘I give you Hanosam!’ He shouted as he ripped the sheet from the man’s face.
“’Ooooohhh.’” The entire crowd let out upon seeing his mangled face. His tattered beard covered with dried blood remained the only hair on his head. Not a single tress clung to his crown.
After the initial shock the crowd burst into mocking laughter. The ones standing on the stairs below spit on feet while others screamed their curses. What could he have done to deserve this? The boy wondered. He scanned the crowd, each face more blood thirsty than the next. He had never seen such revulsion.
“Something dropped on the boy’s head. Peering into the sky the clouds darkened above. No one else seemed to notice with their attention fixated on the prisoner Hanosam. Lightning burst, striking somewhere in the distance. The boy felt the rumble of the thunder above the roaring of the crowd. Hanosam looked up to the sky just as the boy; almost as if someone spoke to him from above. The boy looked up again to see what the man stared at. Nothing but dark rain clouds accumulating.
“Hanosam’s legs straightened and pulsed as his hunching body came to life. His arms flexed and his chest beat red. The once dilapidated hulk moved as if fire raged through his muscles. His arms went stiff; veins throbbed as his hands pressed tightly against each pillar. Another rumble echoed in the great plaza, but it was not thunder.
“The boy stumbled as the archways above him starting to shake. He turned to another archway and it shook more violently. No one else seemed to notice anything, still seething with hatred for the man. The archway above shook harder as if two mountains wrestled nearby. Dust from the marble grinding started to fall, dusting the oblivious mob. Are they so blinded by rage that they do not see this? The boy thought.
“A crack blasted through the arch sending small pieces down to the ground. The pillars shook like the untamed ocean. The marble crumbled around Hanosam’s hands as he pushed. The boy wanted to leave but the mob was too thick to escape. ‘He’s going to bring the plaza down on us!’ The boy hollared. A loud scream came from a woman behind. Then another — and another. Three men lay dead, their heads bashed in from large chunks of stone. The mob’s insults tapered and turned to screams. Snapping out of a trance, everyone in the plaza began to panic as the structure started to fail. All at once the mob clamored to get out.
“Everyone pushed and punched, trying to get their way through. With the crowd, too thick to move fast enough, the people panicked. Hordes of broken marble crashed killing everyone it landed on. Men and women screamed for their lives as they frantically tried to escape.
“The boy darted out of the way, just avoiding being smashed. The entire north end of pillars and the rams head careened toward the middle of the square. It crashed with hellacious fury killing hundreds of people. Their bones crunched and screams silenced against the hardened dirt. The more they panicked the quicker they died.
“The boy’s closest exit blocked by fallen marble and piles of bodies, he ran to the middle of the square. The entire west side of the plaza collapsed, silencing hundreds of souls. The east side teetered lower as dozens of statues fell onto the helpless people. Knowing it could crash at any second, the boy ran toward the steps before Hanosam. The hulking man continued to push the two pillars he was chained to slowly apart. Hundreds lay dead around his feet.
“The boy howled as he slammed his leg against a piece of fallen debris, gouging out a chunk of skin. He pressed on toward the front of the plaza. The east wall finally gave, squishing hundreds and sending a wall of dust into the air. Blinded, the people scattered like bats skewering themselves against the shards of fallen stone. The boy reached the steps. Panning around, he made eye contact with Hanosam. Statues and throngs of debris crashed around them. Hanosam’s face relaxed while all the screaming and booming around him went mute. ‘Be still … you are safe now.’ He whispered to the boy.
“The pillars split in two and the mighty mansion collapsed on itself. With nowhere to run, the boy stood still, hoping he would survive. Hanosam fell as the broken marble pummeled him and everyone nearby. The boy closed his eyes and stood with clenched fists waiting for the rocks to overtake him. He felt the wind off the broken marble as it whizzed by his sides and over his head. His feet trembled as the mansion crumbled right in front of him. Tremors shot up his legs as he tried to stay still.
“As quick as the raucous had started, it halted. Still afraid he kept his eyes closed until he could hear nothing but his own breathing. He opened his eyes. Dust stung them, but no more than the deaths stung his heart. He looked all around and nothing moved. No more voices, no more screams, just an eerie silence echoing in his ears.
“The clouds cleared and the sun shone bright again; blinding like before. A thousand coins both gold and silver had caught the light. They had fallen out of the dead people’s pockets. If he collected them all, he could eat himself fat. The boy just stood there though, paralyzed. A fortune awaited him … but he knew it was wrong. However cruel life had been to leave him fatherless by age four, he would not repay with cruelty of his own.”
A.P. Stayberg has been writing and creating characters since he was twelve years old. His favorite subjects to write and read are Fantasy and Literary fiction. His first book, The Earth Mover, a young adult high fantasy novel will be debuting this Fall. Check out his website at www.apstayberg.com and look for his book on Amazon, barnesandnoble.com/Nook Press, Kobo, and Smashwords.