Halfhorn

This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of sorcery.

Halfhorn

Postby malladin.ben » Sat Mar 03, 2012 4:19 pm

Chapter 1: The Dark Winds
Fear. It courses through my blood like an icy stream, bones crushing under some imagined pressure.

It is dark all around – wood and soil, a hidden pit in the roots of a great tree. Something terrible is going on above me, yet I cannot comprehend what. I can make out screams and bray shouts, I can almost feel the fear and rage boiling over above me... and it terrifies me to my core.

But I had been told to be quiet, I can’t remember by whom – a kindly voice, but it spoke in the human tongue. I remember being bundled down here in a rushed flurry of panic-stricken activity, energised by some fast-approaching foe.
And so, silent I remain; too fearful to even breathe.

The screams and shouts stop, replaced by hoarse and cruel laughter, and a submissive whimper. The calm in the storm of the rampage above me settles my fears and I let out a long, silent breath. I strain to hear, but all I can make out are low, guttural grunts, and the continuing whimpering.

Minutes pass, although they feel like hours, and there is little change. But then all goes quiet and a trickle of some warm liquid splatters down my cheek. It drips down through the foliage that hides my location, each drip adding to the imposing silence. And then I hear my master’s voice call my name.

“Come to me Little One,” he calls. “Come Gron, tell me where you are hiding.”
But I remain silent. For some reason his voice fills me with dread, and although I understand his meaning, his words seem alien. Holding my breath, I hear his soft footsteps overhead. Sometimes close; sometimes further away.

Something makes me jump and I bite my tongue to avoid calling out. Something moves beneath me. I look down in the darkness but cannot see anything other than blackness. A wriggling and crawling sensation covers my skin and I realise what it is. Hundreds of arachnids, insects, millipedes and other vermin crawl over my skin, swarming out of my hole… revealing my hiding place. In a panic I sink as deep as the small pit will allow, smearing the dirt from the walls over my body in a pathetic attempt to bury myself further and remain unseen.

The pit floods with light, blinding me at first. I put my arm over my eyes as the pain of the sun’s glare sears through them.

And then I feel his gentle hands pick me tenderly out of my sanctuary and bundle me up in an embrace. I feel safe and secure.

It is my master.

“Shh, Gron,” he says, “you’re safe now. I’ll take you now. Back to your own people. Home.”


“Gron! Get up you lazy man-spawn!”

I slowly rose to a sitting position, rubbing sleep from my eyes. Evidently not quick enough – a large cloven hoof hit me in the ribs, the pain jarring me back into the waking world.

“Ow! I’m getting up, Master, please...” His staff loomed over me, ready to strike again for my insolence, but as I looked up at him, face to face, there must have been something about me that gave him pause. A gnarled hand reached out and lifted my chin up and he turned his head to the side slightly to get a better view of my face. He ruminated for a moment, chewing on the blackroot he was so fond of, studying my complexion. Black spittle, dripped from the corner of his maw, stained by the invigorating root.

“You had that dream again,” it wasn’t a question, “of your whelphood.” He sighed. I knew he disapproved of me letting fear rule me such. He turned my head aside dismissively, turned his back on me and strode off out of the cave. Pausing briefly to release a ball of black spittle he muttered, “I’ve told you before – channel that fear into anger. Then you might master the Dark Winds, rather than spending your whole life as a root-picker.”

The Dark Winds were the force behind magic, an invisible force that only those gifted by the gods could sense, and even control. Whilst I could sense the winds as clearly as any shaman in the Wald, or so my master told me, I had not the strength of will to master them. Oft times I had tried to summon the winds, but it always ended in disaster. Every time it happened, my failure was greeted with a beating to the point where now I grew fearful even at the prospect.

“You’ll do nothing ‘til you can master your fear, whelp,” he had said and turned away, muttering something about me being a no-good man-spawn and why he’d thought he could teach me in the first place. In some ways the beatings hurt less. Whilst he was a hard task master, and limited in the tools he had to handle my repeated failure, he genuinely cared for me and treated me well, and his disappointment in me cut like a knife.

I was dragged from my self-pitying reverie by an inquiring call from outside the cave, and quickly leapt up from the pile of grass and moss that passed for my bed. As I scurried past my master, knowing that he would want me to deal with the caller, I saw his stance change, as it always did when a visitor came to call.

Life in the Wald was brutal and few lived to see old age. Showing any sign of weakness was an assured way of marking yourself for the Cull. Our kind die in many ways. Often we fall prey to the beasts of the forest: ghorgons and jabberslythes pick off the slowest and weakest in their hunger. At other times we fall victim to the hatred of men; hunted for sport, purged as unclean or in the pitch of battle. Yet most will be taken in the Cull. The Cull was the most brutal of the practices of my people. Those who were deemed weak or infirm were simply killed, so as not to slow the herd.

It might seem natural then, that when my master faced a visitor to our cave that he would stand tall and proud, rather than leaning on his staff. My master was cannier than that. He did not fear the Cull as others might. He was a great shaman, perhaps the greatest in the Wald, and had survived longer than the memory of any living gor. He did not run with a herd, keeping to himself in his hidden cave. He mastered the Dark Winds and could take whatever he wanted. With the simple wave of his bray staff he could weaken the mightiest doom bull to the strength of the lowliest ungor runt and cut them down with the power of his will alone. No, it was not a show of physical might that maintained my master’s aura of dread amongst our kind. It was the exact opposite. Whenever someone came to call on us he would extenuate his frailty: leaning on his staff, hunching his back and squinting as if going blind. He knew that they feared him more for knowing he survived despite his obvious weakness. That for a shaman, age meant power. That he could strike them dead with little more than a glance.

I hurried past my master and out into the forest glade outside our cave. Flies leapt up from our meat pile as our visitor pulled a shank from the heap and helped himself to a bite of rotting flesh. Before me stood a gor not unlike my master. His cloven hooves splayed across the twigs and splintered trunks that littered the clearing floor. He walked upright like a man, but with an undulating gait due to his bestial legs, covered in thick fur and crooked like the hind legs of a goat. His obese body was draped in tattered robes, crafted from the hides of forest creatures – it was the upper body of a man, yet one so corpulent and bloated it was perhaps more akin to slug. His head was that of a goat, with magnificent straight horns sweeping back and curving behind his skull.

He looked at me as he chewed the meat, his carnassial teeth tearing through the flesh, putrid juices dripping down his chin. There was an evil look in his eye – an evil glee – but tinged with disapproval and disgust at the sight of me. I started to speak, but before a syllable passed my lips he cut me off.

“I’ll not be spoken to by your pet ungor, Hurrgar!” he called to my master directly, past me as if I wasn’t there. Yet his malicious glare remained fixed, the subtle curve of a sly grin twitched in the corner of his maw.

My master came hobbling out of the cave, leaning heavily on his staff. His charade perfect in its effect on our visitor, his gaze instantly averted from me, the evil sneer replaced with, for the briefest flash that perhaps only I was close enough to notice, a grimace of fear.

“By the Ruinous Gods, Hrayorr! How dare you come to my domain and make demands.” I’d rarely seen my master so angry. “Gron, take that meat off him – I’ll not have you steal from me, Hrayorr, you bloated pig - you’re as fat as Nugle himself, and twice as ugly!”

I approached Hrayorr nervously. Even with my master’s authority behind me, I sensed that Hrayorr might kill me just to make his point.

And then I felt it, a faint rushing of the winds of magic around me. I switched my focus so that I could perceive the Dark Winds. Hrayorr was drawing magic to him, currents of dark swirling colours swept from the forest around him, swirling slowly around his bray staff. I stopped, petrified, frozen to the spot. I turned to look at my master, and, on making eye contact, his expression changed in an instant.

Hurrgar’s face snapped towards Hrayorr, a haze of malice in his eyes. He slammed his bray staff into the ground and the power Hrayorr had summoned was banished in an instant.

“This is my domain,” my master reiterated.

Hrayorr bowed in submission. “Forgive me for testing you, Hurrgar, but it appears my fears have been confirmed. This runt of a man-spawn is your apprentice.”

“He is.”

“Hurrgar,” Hrayorr pleaded, “surely you cannot seriously allow one such as that to know the greatest secrets of our art. These ungor are worthless, the weakest of our kind.”

“He spotted what you were up to before I did. He has a talent more powerful than any I have encountered before. What does it matter if his body is weak? He is touched by the gods!”

My master turned to me. “Go inside, Gron, what I have to say is not for you to hear.” I walked inside, straining to hear, but knowing that being caught eaves-dropping would lead to severe punishment.

The two shamans talked for what seemed like hours. I paced frantically, not knowing what to do. I suppose I might have made myself busy, using the time to prepare Hurrgar’s potion ingredients or carve and dress his spell fetishes, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than what might be going on outside. Was Hrayorr as powerful as my master? Would their argument escalate into a duel? If Hurrgar was defeated, what would happen to me? Anxiety and fear coursed through my veins, leaving me restless yet unable to focus. I opened my mind to the Dark Winds, in an attempt to sense any build up of power that might precede a magical battle. Although perhaps heightening my sense of panic, this, at least, gave me something to put my mind to, to stop it imagining several gruesome endings to the current situation.

A sound from outside caused a break in my concentration: my master’s braying laugh. He would so often use his laugh as a weapon, to humiliate others or show his contempt, but this laugh was softer, somehow, more bemused than haughty. I crept to the edge of the cave, as close as I dared.

“It will prove glorious, I promise you, Hrayorr,” I heard my master say.

“It sounds like it may. I just hope it doesn’t cost us our way of life in the process. Well, farewell then, Hurrgar. I will watch developments with interest.” And with that, Hrayor the Glutton hefted his bulk out of our glade, picking another chunk of meat from our offering pile and scattering the flies in his wake.

* * *

Hurrgar gave me a list of roots, berries and other components to collect that kept me out of his way for the rest of the day. I don’t know what had transpired between him and Hrayorr, but he certainly didn’t want me hanging around asking questions. I didn’t get back until after dark, and with Morslieb, the chaos moon, in wane, there was little to keep either of us up through the night, so I headed straight for the cave and my bed of straw in the corner.

Hurrgar was already asleep, a naked female gor lay beside him. My master was fond of fast and forceful fornication to relieve stress. His mating was often so violent and vigorous that it left him and his chosen female exhausted. It looked like he must have gone down to the Twisted Horn’s herding grounds to find himself a suitable female for the night whilst I was at my chores. I soft-hoofed past their sprawled unconscious forms and settled down for the night.

I awoke early the next day from another troubled night, haunted by my recurring nightmare. I busied myself unpacking the supplies I had collected the day before whilst Hurrgar snored. The female left early, awoken by my pottering around, and keen to be out of sight before my master came round.

It was close to noon by the time I had finished unpacking and sorting out the different poisonous roots, noxious berries, bark scrapings and carnivorous plants. I had already ground down the different seeds, insects and organs from a variety of vermin creatures into powders and pastes ready for their use in whatever concoction my master was planning, and was left with little to do to occupy my time. I went out into the forest to hunt rabbits: a favourite pass time of mine. I had no particular technique other than to simply run at full pelt at the first sign of movement and try and leap on top of one before it disappeared down its burrow. It was a strategy that didn’t lead to many successes, but when it did I enjoyed having some fresh meat, rather than the part-decayed hunks of carrion left in my master’s offering pile. However, it appeared that day was not to be one of successful hunting, so after a few botched attempts I headed back to the cave, nursing a few small bruises.

It was then that I spotted the tracks. They were enormous, cloven hoof-tracks. Such tracks were common to many forest creatures, whether spawned by chaos or a more natural part of creation, but I had never seen one so large. I was intrigued. Perhaps foolishly, I began to follow the tracks. They weren’t hard to follow, not just because the tracks were so large, but the creature that owned them was so big it had left a trail of splintered branches in its wake, some high up. The creature must have been enormous.

I followed the tracks a little further before I smelt and heard the beast ahead of me. First I heard it crashing through branches, and smelled its stench of corruption but soon, as I drew closer, I could make out the smell of blood and the wet ripping sounds and chomping – it was eating something. It didn’t take me long to discover what. A discarded trotter hung from a tree – the trotter was large itself, at least as broad as the length of my forearm. It was probably from a razorgor, a mighty boar-like beast the prodigious bestigor used to pull their war chariots, they stood as tall as a minotaur at the shoulder. What creature was this that could slay such a powerful beast?

Whilst my fear was great, my curiosity was greater, I pressed forward, trying to be as quiet and stealthy as I could. I skirted wide of the beast’s tracks now, locating it by sound, and keeping myself as hidden as I could. Then a second smell wafted through the trees: men. I was evidently not the only one tracking this creature. I pressed closer, and the shape of the beast grew visible through the trees. It was some sort of massive minotaur, perhaps six or seven times the size of even the biggest doombull, but feral – without even the minotaur’s limited intelligence. The twisted power of chaos had obviously tainted it further, as it had four arms, each ending in different appendages: one a clawed hand, one a raptor-like talon, another a writhing tentacle, and the final one a long blade of exposed bone, dripping with blood. I had heard of such creatures, but never seen one in the flesh before. This was a ghorgon, a bull-headed monstrosity, once a minotaur, but driven mad and corrupted by its cannibalistic ways, having feasted on the flesh of its own kind for years. They were amongst the most feared creatures of beastmankind.

As I drew closer I could see the men, bedded down in the ferns, their foul weapons targeting the creature. Powerful as their guns were, with their black powder and lead bullets, I doubted they would be a match for such a creature, but I waited, watching, to see what they would do.

The gigantic creature moved into a clearing, and seemed to see something on the ground that I couldn’t make out, but as it bent down to pick it up the forest erupted. Ropes pulled taught, dragging two of the creature’s arms wide and pinning it in place in the centre of the glade. Suddenly, shots rang out and the ghorgon was peppered with shot.

It had little effect. The ghorgon bellowed with rage and pulled on the ropes, sending the men anchoring the beast flying through the forest and slamming them into trees. Ropes still tied to its arms, it charged at one of the hunters, slashing in a broad arc with its bone-blade. The razor sharp bone cut through man-flesh and bone without slowing, lifting the poor unfortunate off the ground and sending his legs and abdomen spinning off in one direction and his upper body in another, both spraying blood and great crimson arcs of gore.

More shots rang out and it turned and charged another, diving on it and grasping with its talon and wrapping it with its tentacle. Then its lower jaw dislocated and split, showing rows of needle-like teeth inside its unnaturally gaping maw. The doomed hunter was stuffed into the creature’s cavernous mouth and swallowed whole, his gurgling screams muffled by the chomping of its jaws.

It turned again, but this time it saw me. It looked me straight in the eyes with the same hungry malice it had eyed its previous victims.

Not waiting to see if it charged after me I fled into the woods. I heard a crashing behind me and more gunshots, but the beast was loose and was after me. I had to lose it somehow. I ducked under branches, trying to use my size as an advantage, trying to slow it in thick undergrowth. But it was too big, it just smashed and tore its way through whatever I had to scramble through. I gave up trying to shake it off and just tried to run as fast as I could, putting as much distance between us as possible. And that is when I tripped and fell.

A thick root caught my hoof and I went sprawling onto the ground, jarring my teeth. I rolled to get up, but the ghorgon had seen me fall and slowed its pace, bellowing in triumph as it closed for the kill. Suddenly, out of the forest a great stag, presumably startled by the bellow, darted between us and across the ghrogon’s path. The bull head turned and followed the stag as it crossed, and after a moment of thought, it gave chase, evidently tempted by a much more satisfying meal than my scrawny form would have made. Not taking any chances I got up and ran back to my master as quick as I could.

* * *

“Ah, so you’ve returned have you?” My master greeted me. “No rabbits today. You need to learn some proper hunting techniques if you’re going to turn your nose up at a decent piece of carrion.” He was chewing on a greening rib bone, which he discarded and wiped his hand down his robes when I approached.

“Get yer staff, whelp, it’s time get to grips with yer calling. I can’t have any other Elf-arses like Hrayorr coming here telling me my business!” I ran back into the cave and returned with my braystaff. When I’d first started learning to channel the Dark Winds my bray staff had been my most treasured possession. It was something that set me apart, even from the meatiest bestigor champion – my own braystaff, like a proper shaman. I had spent hours carving it and decorating it with my own special fetishes. But with so many failures and corresponding beatings behind me, it had soon become associated with a host of negative emotions. I ducked out of the cave, braystaff in hand and took up my usual position facing Hurrgar.

“Off you go, Gron, you know what to do. But remember your anger. You need rage and hatred to channel the Dark Winds.”

I tried my best to summon as much anger as I could. I pictured Hrayorr’s sneering face and the debasing way he looked at me. I opened my mind’s eye and saw the currents of magic gently rippling around. The ground here was thick with magic, being so close to a shaman such as Hurrgar. I began to draw the winds towards me, turning my staff slowly as the colours coalesced around its haft. It was going well, better than usual – that image of Hrayorr in my mind was helping me focus.
But then it all went wrong.

I felt the winds touch my mind through the staff. I heard voices calling to me, dark voices of great power. Every time I heard those voices my head was flooded with fear and I lost control of the winds. Even with the hatred I had summoned against Hrayorr, there was little I could do. The voices became stronger, more demanding, and my fear began to well up, pain started to spike across my brow and down my back, my skin felt like an army of insects was crawling beneath it.

And then Hrayorr’s scornful glare turned from being the object of my wrath to a source of humiliation and derision. My fear began to spiral out of control. More and more of the murky winds of magic swirled around me; through me. Fear welled up and body was wracked with physical pain. I tried to release the magic or to push it away, but that just made it return more violently in a wave of blackness.

The last I remember, as pain and blackness washed over me, was that I cried out. The first time I had ever let the pain show. And I caught the look on my master’s face as I slipped into unconsciousness. A look that hurt more than all the beatings and all the pain I had suffered from my failed attempts at spellcasting.
malladin.ben
 
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Re: Halfhorn

Postby malladin.ben » Sat Mar 03, 2012 4:20 pm

Chapter 2: Gathering Herbs

My latest spellcasting blackout had been one of the worst yet. My body was physically shattered by the incident, with sharp knife-like pain washing over me in debilitating waves at random for the next few days. As time passed, the intensity did not drop, rather the intervals between attacks lengthened. After a day the intervals were long enough to allow me to return to most of my duties, avoiding carrying anything that couldn’t cope with being dropped or putting myself into any precarious positions (Hurrgar often sent me climbing trees for the various parasitic plants that grew on them).

As the time between attacks stretched into times marked by the sun’s passage overhead, rather than the duration of a bird’s song, I started to develop a weariness; an ache. I wasn’t even sure whether it was entirely physical. Hurrgar hadn’t even considered telling me to fetch my braystaff since the incident. He hadn’t even mentioned my failure; hadn’t even given me a thrashing. He’d hardly spoken a word to me since. I didn’t know what hurt more, the seizures or his unspoken disdain.
The only times my master did speak was to issue me commands. As my mobility increased he sent me on more and more errands. Mostly I was sent to gather ingredients for components for my master’s spellcasting and potion making. Much of my time was spent digging in the dirt, searching the undergrowth or climbing trees. I’d even stretch out the chores with a little hunting of my own between errands. I don’t know whether my master was merely turning a blind eye because he felt more comfortable without me around at the moment, or whether he just assumed I was lacking the competence to do the job in any less time. Whatever the reason, I was glad to have avoided the usual beating for tarrying beyond his domain for too long.
On rare occasions my master would send me to speak with one of our neighbouring herds, or the minotaur tribe. In fact, the tribe was a much more likely option. Hurrgar had chosen his domain because it was wedged nicely between two warherds and a minotaur tribe. He had no desire to be the pet bray shaman of some petty beastlord. He thought himself greater than them, above them and their petty bickering and posturing. I didn’t know whether he was justified in this belief. The Twisted Horn were closest, and immediately north of our doman. They had no bray shaman of their own and frequently sent offerings of carcasses for my master’s meat pile and females for his pleasure. My master often laughed with derision after he had dispatched another of Malogk’s heralds back to his master with a polite refusal to his treaties for a more formal alliance. To the east, the Broken Claw were a smaller warherd than the Twisted Horn, but their bray shaman, Kuu-Akg had been my master’s apprentice before me and often came seeking his advice.

Both warherds had what my master referred to as a “healthy disdain” for my kind. I was an Ungor, a “no-horn.” It was a term of derision used by the bigger gors and bestigors against our smaller-built kind. And it wasn’t even true in most cases. I myself had a pair of straight, pointed horns, almost a hand-span long, and other ungors had longer ones still. But these were nothing compared to the mighty curved or sweeping horns of our larger brethren, often as long as their arms. Any errands I was asked to run to them were often inconsequential – simple deliveries and the like, where I had little to do other than pass on goods and get out before some embittered gor decided to take out his bad day on my face.

But the minotaurs were different. “Too stupid to see you for what you are,” my master had told me on my first visit, “so make sure they see you for who you represent.”

The Bronze Hoof were one of the most respected minotaur tribes in the forest. Perhaps not the largest, but their leader Ierax, was feared as a mighty warrior who had lived through many winters and sired many bulls of his own. I had heard my master say that some talked of him getting old, and wondering whether some young gorebull might see an opportunity to challenge him for his tribe. He had taken females from all the surrounding tribes into his harem, so that many would face spilling blood their own kin if they were to take control of the Bronze Hoof. I had visited their lands on a number of occasions and had regularly dealt with one or more of Ierax’s females as they sought ingredients and advice for their remedies and fertility potions. The massive males hardly registered my presence, as if I was little more than a forest creature, too small to be worthy of their attention, but to the females of Ierax’s harem I became a regular and welcome visitor.

I was almost back to my usual self about half a moon-cycle after my ill-fated spellcasting attempt when an unusual visitor came to call. The visitor was remarkable in three ways: firstly that it was a minotaur; secondly that she was a female; and finally that she looked quite unlike any of the minotaur females I had met in my dealings with the Bronze Hoof.

As usual, my master had sent me out to deal with her when she called from the edge of the glade. The voice was obviously female, its tone softer and higher pitched. I scrambled out of the cave to greet her only to be struck speechless at the shock of her presence. To see a female so brazenly independent was rare amongst any breed of beastmankind. I’d met a few formidable harem matrons who ruled over their fellow wives with an iron hoof, and knew how to handle their mates, but I’d never known one who felt comfortable to – or perhaps whose mates allowed them to – travel away from the herd, alone.

And she stood with confidence and moved with a grace I had not previously seen in any of my kind. She was tall, taller than the minotaur females I had dealt with previously, but not gigantic like the minotaur bulls. But I was not yet fully grown and an ungor at that – I barely came to her waist. She was also unusually slender for her breed. Minotaur males are a seething mass of muscle bulk, the pinnacle of everything the male half of beastmankind aspired to: sheer power. And the females I had dealt with previous had almost been the polar opposite, the embodiment of the finest female attributes: all the curves and bulges that suggest excellent rearing stock. But the female before me was slender and lithe, almost humanlike in build.

“You must be Gron,” she said to me, “the Mothers have mentioned you. Could you tell your master that I’d like to see him? Oh, I’m Yolanda of the Bronze Hoof tribe, daughter of Ierax Steelclaw.”

Dumbstruck by her manner, lacking the usual haughty airs my presence typically inspired, I scurried off to fetch Hurrgar. He came presently, grumbling something about me being an idiot whelp before he, too, was struck speechless by her presence. It didn’t last however, my master knew better than to let any weakness show, no matter how trivial.

“This is a long way for you to be out on your own, young one,” he suggested. “I have something of a reputation. Are you sure you’ll be safe?”

She laughed. Not the sort of haughty laugh used as a show of dominance, but a genuine giggle of amusement.

“My mother has told me of your reputation, Hurrgar ‘the magnificent!’ The only gor to satisfy a minotaur female! You old dog.” She giggled to herself. “But I am safe, I feel. My father has a fearsome reputation, and if anyone were to even touch a hair on my head I expect they’d find themselves facing the wrath of every minotaur tribe from here to the Reik. And besides,” she said with a wink, “I’m a good girl”

“Ah well. Your loss. What can I do for you my dear?”

“It will be my Coming of Age soon, and my first Branding before I am to be found a mate and shipped off to some other tribe to forge some new alliance, or whatever. I want my Branding tattoo to be spectacular! I want colours vivid and dazzling, and I believe none have the knowledge of pigments of the wonderful Hurrgar.”

“Feh! I don’t know what you’d want with such things. Tribal tatts should be black and nothing else. Now, just like I don’t fancy your ‘daddy’ coming down after me for awakening your spoilt behind to the pleasures of my beasthood, I also don’t fancy the aggravation he’d give me from you having some fancy butterfly painted on your arse.”

She pouted and fluttered her long bovine eye lashes at him and he melted. “Well, if you must, take Gron here. He’ll show you where to find what you need. That way it’ll be his head. Gron, take her to where she can find it. I’m not risking her using anything from my stocks.”

“Well, Gron Sharp-Horn, it appears I am in your capable hands.” I blushed at her naming of me. I had not done anything yet to earn any such title, but I felt that if I did, “Sharp-Horn” would be the kind of name I would like.

“Lead on,” she said, and gestured grandly. Bashfully I moved forward and into the woods.

* * *

“You don’t say much, do you Little One?”

I shrugged – an answer of sorts.

“So.” She paused, as if unsure how to fill the silence. “Where are you taking me?”

And then I realised I didn’t really know. “Um. What colours do you want?”

“Oh! Any fantastic, bright colour – yellows, reds, blues. Bright and bold!” She danced a little reel, almost singing the colours to me.

“Well, the Mudflower might get you some of the colours you need.”

“Mud? Flower? You’re not selling this one, Gron.” She shook her head, but followed me anyway.

“Well, it isn’t much to look at. But with the right techniques it can give up a magnificent dye. My master says it’s the same species as Ruby Blossom and Azurias – just growing in different types of soil. Where does Ruby Blossom grow?”

“That’s easy: in the peat bogs. But I’ve never even heard of Azurias.”

“They’re a deep blue flower. They grow in clay. But Mud Flowers grow on the forest floor amongst the decaying leaves.” We were in the right sort of place, so I had a quick scan and rummaged through the leaf litter and found a few flowers.

“Hold these,” I said, and went over to a tree and cut a couple of strips of bark off with my blade.

I placed the bark strips in front of me, crushed the grey-brown flowers into a pulp and smeared a smudge of the mush onto each of the bark strips.

“Now watch. This water,” I said, pulling out my waterskin, “collects in our cave, dripping off the stalactites. Taste it.” I passed Yolanda my waterskin.

“It’s slightly bitter. And it tingles on the tongue.”

“It’s Rock Tears. Now watch this.” I mixed a drop in with one smudge of brown mush.

“It’s turning blue! That’s amazing, Gron.”

“Now for the other one.” I took out a ripe berry I had been saving for later. Berries were something of a guilty pleasure of mine: my master preferred me to eat only meat, preferably month-old carrion. I carefully squeezed a couple of drops of its pale, watery juice onto the second smudge and mixed it in. “These fruit are sour, tangy.”

“It’s gone red. So one flower will do me all I need?”

“Yellows are trickier. Especially if you want a bright yellow. And you’ll need more juice if you want more than a smear of red.”

We walked and foraged for hours, and I gradually found my guard dropping and warming to Yolanda. We’d dug up bright orange roots to extract their pigment, crushed the shells of dark blue beetles for their sheen and dug up the yellow clays close to the river. She was enthusiastic to learn all that I could show, and at least appeared impressed with everything I had to show her. As the sun started to fall and the shadows lengthened I began to fear that the day might end. For the first time I can remember in my life, the constant dread that I lived with had been washed away. For the first time in my life I had found a friend.

“Can I just get a bit more of that yellow clay from the river bank? Then we can go back to your cave. You can bring me something to eat if you like.”

“I could catch you a rabbit if you like. Fresh meat.” I knew minotaurs weren’t as fond of carrion as their smaller beastman brethren. They preferred their meat still fresh, bloody and warm.

“Yes, that would be nice. I don’t think I’ve had rabbit before. See if you can rustle us up a few whilst I collect the clay. Which way was it?”

“Follow me.”

I led her down to the river and then returned to the forest to hunt. I sniffed the air to see if I could track down a nearby warren, but caught the faint whiff of man. And then I heard a loud crack and Yolanda cry out in pain, or perhaps fear. The vile smell of smoke and black powder reached my nostrils.

I ran as fast as I could, faster than I ever knew I could. I ran for the riverbank where I had left her, my heart pounding in my chest.

I exploded from the tree line with only a split-second to take in what was going on.
Five men. Hunters, armed with guns and knives. Yolanda, a bag over her head, tied down and struggling. Her legs spread. One of the men was unfastening his britches.
Without thinking I charged at him, slamming into him and taking him away from his companions before they could react. His hands caught at his hose lacing, I pinned him to his arms to his side and lifted him off the ground. Carried on momentum and outrage I barrelled the swine along for six or seven strides before I stumbled. The rapist broke my fall, but he was not so lucky. His chin slammed down onto the rocky ground, shattering teeth and spraying blood and spittle onto the ground.

Thinking fast, I realised that five was too many for me to take alone. I needed a hostage if I’m going to get them to free Yolanda. I sprang to my feet, blade in hand and dragged the groggy man to his feet by his slick, oiled hair and pressed the blade to his throat.

“Release her or he dies!” I screamed at his companions. But they didn’t understand my words. They start to slowly circle me, but I pull back towards the tree line and gesture with my blade arm, pressing it tighter at my hostage’s neck and drawing a bead of blood. They understand that at least and halt their advance.

“Whoa, there. Steady on feller.” One of them says. He wasn’t speaking the black-tongue, yet I could understand his words! What was going on?

And in my distraction I was too slow to respond to a movement behind me. Six men!
Slam! The butt of the sixth man’s handgun hit me in the face just as I turned to face him. I crumpled to the floor unconscious.

* * *

The next thing I knew was a cold, wet, cloying sensation on the side of my face. Then I started to feel the throb of pain spanning across my nose, cheek and forehead. I had certainly broken something. Hopefully just my nose, but skull, cheekbone and eye socket were all possibilities. It felt like all three were shattered. Then sensation started to return to the rest of my body. I realised I was lying face down in the clay mud of the riverbank with my ankles bound and my arms tied behind my back. Tentatively I opened an eye. The side of my face that felt less damaged was in the mud, and the wounded side of my face too damaged to even contemplate opening it, so I slowly lifted my head out of the mud so that I could see what was going on, trying not to be obvious enough to be spotted.

I soon realised I had been tied up and left where I had been struck. Five of the men were stood on or around a large rock by the riverside, muskets in hand. I looked around for the sixth and found him in a tree at the edge of the forest. He straddled a branch high up, but suspended from the branch by six feet of rope was Yolanda. She swung and span in mid air as the men near the rock took aim. The man in the tree heaved on the rope so that she spun and swung wildly, like some living target. And she was living. No longer hooded, but bound and gagged, I could see fear in those deep brown eyes of her and could hear her muffled cries. She was cut in places – a few glancing shots perhaps – and heavily bruised. Blood seeped from between her legs

Quickly I tried to wriggle free, making sure none of their eyes were on me. As I struggled to free myself one of the men fired. He missed wildly.

“Taal’s cock, man! You’re supposed to be aiming at the cow, not me!” the one in the tree called. His companions laughed and jeered.

“Get yourself down from there, Herman,” a burly man commanded, giving Herman a push off the rock as he climbed up to take his place. “Now I’ll show you how to shoot. Get a good swing going, Malk, or I will be aiming for you!” He braced his gun, looking down the barrel at Yolanda, rocking from side to side with the swing. An ominous sense of dread washed over me. Somehow I knew he was going to hit.

I don’t know how I managed it but I pulled a hoof free and shook off the ropes. Arms still bound, I rolled to stand. And as I did I heard the crack of his gunshot.

The muffled cries were gone. The men whooped and cheered.

I got to my hoofs to see her body hung slack against her binding. A single red dot, dead centre of her head, cried a single red tear.

“Noooooo!” I screamed at them, and struggled against my bonds, willing my hands to come free so that I could ring their necks.

The laughing stopped.

“Looks like you’ve got another target, boys!” called Yolanda’s killer, and they drew their guns to brace and took aim.

And then, for the first time that day, fear washed back over me. A greater fear than I had felt before. It was like I was back in the hole in my dreams. And like a rabbit I bolted.

A loud crack of gunfire went off behind me. Hot pain seared down my side and across my shoulder, but still I ran on.

I ran and ran and ran. Until, breathless and bleeding, arms still bound, I broke the tree line outside our cave and collapsed beside the carrion heap.

As I blacked out, one question passed through my mind: how could I understand them?
malladin.ben
 
Posts: 4
Joined: Fri Sep 30, 2011 8:56 pm


Re: Halfhorn

Postby malladin.ben » Sat Mar 03, 2012 4:21 pm

Chapter 3: The Call for Vengeance
For a brief moment I was calm and happy. The sweet smell of herbs and ash filled my nostrils, it comforted and soothed. I had quite forgotten the events that had taken place just hours earlier. I was soon reminded by the throbbing pain in my face.

“Yolanda!” I bolted upright, screaming out in panic as the picture of her hanging dead from the tree flashed across my mind.

“Hush, Little One.” It was my master’s voice. I turned to face the sound, but my face stabbed with pain and I collapsed back into the straw I had been lying on.

“They killed her, master.” I told him.

“I thought as much. Tell me about it.”

And so I told him. I left no truth unhidden. What was the point? He could see through my lies. I told him of how I had felt, how I had fallen for Yolanda, and had wanted to impress her. He sneered at the suggestion that I might even consider myself worthy, and laughed at my foolish declaration of love. I told him how I had left her alone at the riverbank whilst I went to hunt rabbits. How I had let my guard down until it was too late, not smelling the man-stink before I left her, where they had surely lied in wait. I told him how I had fought to free her, but had been taken by surprise and knocked unconscious. He checked my wounds, ensuring they matched up to my story. For the first time that day he seemed impressed with me, like he had expected me to have merely fled, that he was proud that I would stand and fight.

“So, my little runt has some spirit in him after all,” he giggled to himself, emitting a sound like a donkey’s bray, only quieter, faster and lower pitched.

“Not in the end, master.” I turned away from him in shame. “In the end, all I could do was run in fear.”

“Well, finish your tale, at least. How did you go from being out cold on the floor to collapsed at my carrion heap?”

“When I came to,” I continued, “I was bound. Yolanda was tied to a tree and they were swinging her, shooting at her with their guns. I struggled against my bonds and managed to free my feet, but it was too late. She took a shot to the head. I cried out for vengeance, but they turned their guns on me and the fear took hold. I just ran. Ran and ran until I reached the glade.”

His smile had faded, and I could see his disappointment resurface for a brief moment. But then he turned away, perhaps to spare me the pain, perhaps because he couldn’t bear to look at me.

“She was already dead. What you actually did was probably the right thing. I may not be happy with the reasons, but the outcome is what counts. Without running you would have died there on the river bank and neither I nor Ierax would know what had happened to our charges.

“Speaking of which, Ierax will have to be told.”

My stomach churned.

“Now.”

* * *

I hobbled as best I could; using a make-shift crutch my master had hacked down from a tree at the edge of our glade. Each step on the crutch, each time it dropped heavily onto the forest floor, jarred through my shoulder to my shattered face. But then as I eased off the pain that wracked the rest of my body took hold. My wrists and, especially, my ankles had been worn raw by the coarse rope the huntsmen had bound me with in my struggle to be free, and now had swollen and burned with every step. I was also starting to become aware of bruising to my ribs and gut, where the huntsmen had obviously laid into my unconscious body. It was a dull ache and faded into insignificance when compared to the sharp throb of my swollen joints and searing pain of my splintered face, but in the lulls between the throbbing and searing, there was just that reminder there that I had been badly beaten.

Hurrgar walked beside me, braystaff strapped to his back. He spoke very little, other than to bark orders if he felt I was letting the pain, or my fear of what would inevitably follow the journey, get the better of me. Yet he allowed me to dictate the pace, not pushing me to walk at a pace that would push my pain beyond a level I could master.

It seemed to take an age to get to the Bronze Hoof’s tribal herding grounds. Normally it would be a distance I could run there and back, having done all my business in between, and get back to the glade well before sunset, even in winter. However, today we had set out before noon and were still what appeared to be a good distance away when the sun started to dip behind the trees and the forest was enshrouded in the gloomy half-light. Despite my master walking beside me I feared that the night might bring out predators, and the Cull would call for me in my injured state. I gritted my teeth and steeled myself against the pain, upping my pace so that we might make some headway. My bestial eyes were quite capable of seeing clearly in the moonlight, or even starlight, but the dark still held foreboding and was the time when a number of predatory species and worse came out to hunt.

By the time it was truly dark, however, I started to recognise some of the landmarks – the brook with its sharp twist around a rocky outcrop, the small cliff face that looked a little like a skull - that indicated we were drawing closer. It was at this point that my master decided to speak with me.

“What do you expect will happen when we get there?” It was a simple question that demanded an answer. I shrugged, not wanting to think about the full consequence of what that question implied.

He pulled to a halt, stepping in front of me. His face was like thunder

“I don’t ask you this out of some necessity for small talk, or to fill the space between breaths with needless chatter like some jabbering harpy.” His voice was steeled by a quiet malevolence.

“Answer the question. I need to know what you are expecting.”

I leant against my crutch and gave the question consideration before beginning my response.

“I suppose we’ll approach the camp, and ask to speak to Ierax. We’d tell the guards we have news of his daughter, maybe. Then we’d speak to him and we’ll – sorry, I’ll – tell him what happened. At which point he’d be angry and upset. I’ll throw myself on his mercy, beg his forgiveness –”

“You’ll do no such thing,” my master cut across me. “If you accept any blame for what happened you will suffer a brutal, if swift death. A cunning beastlord might grant you mercy, if he sees some benefit in your continued existence, but a doombull? And one sparked into a blood vengeance, at that? Your heart would not have time beat before you would be fresh meat in Ierax’s maw. You say he’d be ‘angry’..? Anger is not a word that even comes close to describing the full blown rage of even the runtiest minotaur. Their wrath is like none other. Only great Khorne himself knows its equal.

“No, you will be Ierax’s loyal servant, fighting to save his daughter from overwhelming odds. You will say that you only ran to bring him the message that he might know who to exact his revenge upon.”

It felt wrong. I don’t know why, lies and treachery were necessary to survive in the warherds. I’d readily lied to my master on numerous occasions, despite the fact that he always saw through them. No, it was the betrayal of Yolanda that made me feel uneasy. I had failed her once – deserted her. It felt like I needed to atone, to relieve myself of the burning guilt I felt at abandoning her. Despite my fear, I almost welcomed the inevitably fatal punishment as my just deserts, and a chance to purge my guilt.

Out of nowhere a fist slammed into the good side of my face. I crumpled to the floor.
Hurrgar always knew what I was thinking, like he could look into my soul. “This is not the time to grow a pair and develop some soft man-spawned idea of honour, like some prancing Bretonnian horse-fornicator. There is no honour in these woods. Only survival.”

He turned away muttering under his breath. “I have invested too much for you to waste your life over this.” I don’t know if he intended me to hear that last sentence.
I drew myself back to my feet. “I will do as you say, master,” I assured him. “I don’t want to die.”

“Now that’s more like the cowardly runt I’ve known these past years. You listen to me, and I’ll keep you alive.”

We talked some more as we approached the tribelands, rehearsing my tale so that I gave nothing away, so that I painted myself as the hero, as Ierax’s friend. By the time Morrsleib and Mannsleib were high overhead casting their shadowy glow onto the forest below we were within earshot of the Bronze Hoof. Whilst during my daytime visits to the tribe had revealed a sleepy, peaceful domain, dominated by the bustle of female activity whilst the bulls slept lazily in the sun, the night was owned by the powerful males. The sounds and smells of chaos emanated from behind the trees: the shrill screams and wet slashing sounds of slaughtered innocents, the laughter and rhythmic thumping of dancing and fornication, the clang of metal against metal of sparring bulls, the chomping and slurping of feasting, and above all, the all-pervading smell of fresh blood.

A thickly muscled minotaur stepped out from behind a tree to bar our path. He had the head of a powerful bull, deep brown eyes staring at us in the dark, wide horns jutting out from the side of his skull, tipped with dried blood. He stood at twice my height and had an upper body not unlike a man’s but as burly and solid as any prize bull. A mane of thick hair ran down his back, into which he had tied bones and skulls, presumably of the foes he had slain in battle. His arms were as broad as tree trunks and had rusty metal plates strapped to them. Between his hands he held a powerful great axe, its blade as tall as me and probably twice as heavy. He hefted it threateningly and grunted at us.

“What is your business with the Bronze Hoof, shaman?” He addressed my master directly.

My master brought the butt of his staff down hard with a thud into the ground.
“My business is with your lord and is none of your concern.” He gave the minotaur guard a look, and I felt the rush of the dark winds as he drew power. The shadows thickened around him and the mighty minotaur’s legs started to buckle with fear, dominated by the force of Hurrgar’s magic. “Lead me to him,” my master demanded.
With what seemed like an unnatural amount of nervousness in a creature so large, the guard led us into the clearing that served as the Bronze Hoof’s herding ground. All around me was the embodiment of chaos made flesh. To one side as we entered the clearing, a ring of both bulls and females surrounded a melee of minotaur warriors attacking each other with their axes and clubs. In the centre, tied to the stake was a fat human female, tied to a pole unconscious – the prize awaiting the winner of the martial contest. As we drew past the fighting circle we passed piles of meat – carcasses of humans, elfs and beasts of the forest; still fresh and warm judging by the steam rising from the heap. A mob of young minotaurs clambered over the mound, gorging themselves on the flesh. Others lay sprawled around the forest floor in an orgy of gluttony and lust, males passing meat to their chosen females in exchange for carnal favours.

Further in we approached the rough tents that held Ierax’s harem. Outside one tent a single bull, one of Ierax’s offspring, was mounting a series of female gors. It was brutal to see a creature of his size mate so violently with females half his size, but they seemed to enjoy his powerful lusts. I turned away, unable to watch.
Outside the tents four naked humans, both males and females, were chained to a post and huddled together, some shaking with fear, others rocking back and forth, muttering, their minds shattered.

“Mighty Ierax!” the guard called. “Hurrgar Ruin-Horn, Great Bray Shaman of the Hollow requests your audience.” He paused for a response. When none came he continued, “he brings news of your young one, Yolanda.”

A deep gurgling roar emanated from deep inside, and the whole tent seemed to shudder as the might of Ierax swept from within to stand before us. If any of the previous sights of this night might have prepared me for the sheer power of the mighty doombull, they failed. The guard, not small amongst his kind, reached only to his lord’s breast, even as he drew himself as tall and straight as he could. Yet Ierax was hunched over, tallest at the arch of his back, and even more thickly muscled than the guard. His horns were enormous and had human skulls rammed onto each end, creating an image of dread. Any courage my master may have instilled in me earlier fled into the woods, just as I wished I could do.

“What is this?” When Ierax spoke, his voice was deep and angry, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness. He was obviously anxious about the news we brought. “I know she went to see you, shaman, and has not returned. What have you done with her?” There was a threat in that last question. He loomed over Hurrgar, trying to dominate him with his physical presence.

It didn’t work. My master looked him straight in the eye and said: “We have travelled a great distance in a spirit of friendship to bring you this news, despite my apprentice’s injuries.” There was a steel to his voice that brooked no dissent, not even from the mighty minotaur lord. Ierax shrugged and backed off, and simply allowed my master to continue.

“Yolanda did come to us, seeking advice on herbal dyes. I sent my apprentice as a guide so that she might gather her own. However, they were waylaid by a party of men. Whilst my apprentice fought to protect her, he is yet young, and a runtish ungor at that. He was not able to save her.”

The doombull’s mighty faced twisted, first in a moment of confusion as the message sunk in, then in pain and rage. He held his head back and emitted the most powerful roar I have ever heard. Filled as his cry was with rage, it was also charged with pain and grief. The humans shackled to the post quaked with fear.

And then his eyes, burning with malevolent fury turned to me. In one swift move, he reached out and grabbed me by the throat, lifted me off the ground and brought me up to his face, opening his maw to reveal his jagged carnassial teeth. The stench of meat on his breath was overpowering, but as he tightened his grip on my neck it cut off my ability to breathe.

My master leapt to my defence, bellowing at Ierax with a voice of power and authority. “Put him down! He has come here out of loyalty, bringing you this news despite his injuries. He fought to save her. He is your loyal friend and seeks vengeance against these men for the injuries they inflicted on him. Direct your anger elsewhere!” I can’t be sure in the chaos of the situation, but I’m fairly sure I felt my master summon a little of the dark winds to empower that command.

Ierax flung me to the floor, lancing pain throughout my body. He turned to the humans tied to the pole and leapt upon them. Arms and legs flailed helplessly trying to fight him off, but his rage was all consuming. I saw him pull the arm clean off a male whilst it was still breathing. A female he grabbed around the waist was beheaded as he pulled against the poor wretch’s neck shackle. After just a few short seconds they were all slain, a new pile of fresh meat surrounded the shackle-post. Ierax looked down at the carnage with an empty dissatisfaction. Even that amount of bloodshed had failed to slake his need for vengeance.

“Tell me, ungor, who else do I need to slaughter so that my Yolanda may be avenged? Who was it who attacked you?” Ierax turned to me, his voice empty and hollow with grief.

“It was men, lord. Huntsmen. We were attacked down by the river. We had been there once before, earlier in the day, collecting ochre. Yolanda decided she needed some more so we went back. It was then that we were set upon. Well she was. We had become separated – I don’t think they knew I was there. I rushed them, fought as best I could, but there were six of them and I couldn’t slay them all. I over powered one and held my knife to his throat. I tried to bargain for her release, her life for the man I had captured. But they do not speak our tongue. And one had snuck around behind me. I realised only in time to turn to face the full force of his attack in my face.” I pointed to the swollen and bloody side of my head, to emphasise the point.

“I was out cold, for how long I don’t know. When I came too I was bound,” I showed him the rope burns on my wrists and ankles. “Yolanda was strung from a tree and they were using her in some foul sport, taking shots at her as they swung her from a tree. I struggled from my bonds, but could not free myself before she was shot through the head, surely dead. So, I ran to my master that we might bring you the message of her murder, and that you might take your revenge.”

“And whom should I take it upon? From where did these huntsmen hail?”

“I do not know my lord.” I answered him honestly.

“I believe I may be able to supply an answer.” Hurrgar interjected. “When he came to me he was badly beaten, and his arms were still bound behind his back. In their fear of chaos, the manlings had warded his bonds. Not in any purposeful manner with any power behind it, merely out of superstition.” He pulled a scrap of rope from inside his robes and threw it at Ierax’s feet.

The doombull bent low and picked the scrap up with a clawed hand. Tied to it were a red ribbon and a small statue of a human female wielding a sword. “The lady and red can only mean the city in the ring of mountains to the east, the great crater. The city the manlings call Talabheim.” My master explained the significance of the wards.
Ierax raised his head to look at us both. “Brothers, I thank you for bringing me this news.”

He raised his head once more and gave out a roar. Whereas his earlier road had been the audible embodiment of his rage and grief, this roar was focused and purposeful. It was a summons. Within minutes, his tribe surrounded us.
“Your sister Yolanda has been slain, brutally murdered by the men who hide inside the ring of mountains. My warriors, prepare yourselves for battle, for we will rain down a vengeance of blood upon them!” A great roar erupted from the tribe warriors.
“But for now,” he continued, “we must summon a host of beasts to ask for the ruinous powers’ favour on our quest for retribution. Go far and wide, visit the tribes and warherds throughout this forest, and summon them here that we might form a bray herd the likes of which has never been seen and will make the manlings quake with fear!”

Another roar went up. Ierax gave just one more command: “Go!” and the minotaur warriors turned and ran into the wald, each taking a different bearing.

His messengers dispersed, Lord Ierax was as calm as had even seen a minotaur. He bent low and came down close, looking me straight in the eye.

“This story is too convenient. Are you lying, runt?” He considered me in more detail for a moment. “No, not lying, but there is something more that you are not telling me. What have you left out?”

“He has told you all there is to say! He is your loyal servant!” My master stepped forward and pushed me back, but Ierax merely knocked him out of the way.
My mind raced. I couldn’t tell him that I left her alone and only came to her when she was already captured, and they were about to rape her. Yes, I’d not mentioned the rape, that might give him something to focus on. I spoke.

“They had also raped her, my lord.” I whispered. Hurrgar turned to me with dread in his eyes. Ierax hoisted me off the ground once more and snarled in my face.

“You let this happen. I should kill you now.” Again, his voice was calm, but filled with ominous dread.

“He is your loyal servant,” my master screamed at him.

Ierax dropped me to the floor, like a discarded bone and turned back to his tent. “Then,” he said, voice dripping with malevolence, “he will fight for me.”
malladin.ben
 
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