Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Idols of Appeasement by James Eastick

Farinne travels to the unfriendly Eastern land of the Borbrandas to investigate the disappearance of some of the King's subjects on the road north of Fyrholt.

Farinne had been on the road for more than week and had been travelling east for longer than she could remember. Over the preceding few days it had rained almost constantly. She wore several layers beneath her long brown coat but still felt soaked to skin. In contrast, Missen, her light-skinned palfrey, coped admirably, accepting the endless downpour with very little complaint. Even so, as they approached the crest of the hill she could feel him tiring beneath her. The rain had turned the roads to muddied furrows, snaking through forests which stretched on further than any eye could see. For poor Missen, traversing them had become something close to a battle of attrition, and he couldn't go on for much longer.

She dismounted and felt her own boots sink into the mud right up the ankle, but trudged on, pulling Missen up the hill. As she reached the crest, the road became firmer and easier to use. Water streamed down both sides so that the road resembled a river to such an extent she wondered how they'd made up it with such relative ease.

It seemed a good place to stop. From where she stood Farinne could see almost a quarter of a mile in both directions. Anyone approaching would be visible from a distance and the conditions would slow their passage further still.

She led Missen under the long creeping branches of a tall oak by the side of the road. Water ran through the leaves above but it still afforded some degree of respite which they were both grateful for. There they waited a while, hoping in vain for a change in the weather. Farinne drank from her canteen and fed Missen an apple. He nodded his head up and down, the way he always did when eating, making her stifle a laugh. She had a general rule not to become too attached to the horses that she used, but Missen had been the only constant companion throughout this venture and the rule was becoming increasingly hard to stick to.



Almost thirty minutes later a tiny figure appeared downhill to the east. Farinne stayed where she was and doubted it could be a threat, but loosened her short sword in its scabbard regardless. When it was still some distance away she recognised the figure for a woman and relaxed somewhat. She made sure they were visible, so as not to be taken for bandits but opted to stay off the road so it was clear there was no intent to accost the travellers.

The woman dragged a small pony behind her, upon which sat a small boy of no more than seven.

"How far to the next village?" Farinne called when she was close enough to hear.

She took care to speak clearly and distinctly. The people of the east shared the same language following the conquest, but used it on their own terms.

"East? 'Bout three mile."

Farinne had thought the woman old to look at her, but the sound of her voice was of someone much younger than she originally thought. The weathered lines on her face she had taken for wrinkles were from the exertion of climbing the hill. In fact it became evident she and Farinne were not of such distant ages. Despite that, her eyes carried in them a weariness belonging to one much older.

"Is there another path through the forest?"

The woman shook her head.

"There's a village a mile north as the crow flies, only there are no crows here. You stay on the road, miss."

Farinne took a coin from the purse at her belt and flicked towards the woman who caught it and smiled faintly in return. The boy upon the pony looked frightened, though it didn't appear to be Farinne he was scared of. He watched the woods, staring deep into the tree line, a strange fear etched across his face.

Long after the woman and the boy had gone, Farinne set off again, moving slowly and following the road east. She took her advice and stuck to the road. Regardless of the rain it seemed the better option, the forest grew so thick on either side it seemed near impossible to find a way through. The eastern forests also held dark myths, which came alive in isolation. Even Missen shied away any attempt she made to direct him beyond the trees.



The road ran far from straight as it approached the village of Fyrholt, winding and twisting through the trees up a gentle slope. Since the village had first been founded many generations ago it had barely grown, but the forest had steadily encroached further and further uphill. Now the boughs of trees reached over the stone perimeter wall, the tips of the branches like stiff wooden fingers.

It was night by the time Farinne arrived at the southern gate. A solitary guard stood at his post, wearing the King's colours and watching the woods nervously. When Missen trod up beside him he seemed startled.

"What's your business here?" he demanded.

"Men and women may travel freely wherever they wish under the King's Law." Farinne said, making a deliberate point of gesturing to the sigil on his tunic.

"The King's Law eh? When the King himself comes through these gates I'll be sure to tell him that you reminded me of my duty."

"I seek a place to stay for the night, no more."

"Is that so?" He looked her up and down. "Women travelling alone in any land are either brave or foolish and by the looks of you, I'd say you've come far."

"Be assured, I shall not outstay my welcome and I will leave this village no worse than I find it."

He smirked.

"Until you've seen the village in all its glory, I wouldn't make such promises. There's nowhere else in the world that could make you think more fondly of home. You mention the King's Law so I expect you'll keep the King's peace. You'll leave your weapons here and make no quarrel with anyone. If I hear any different we'll meet again at the tip of my spear."

There was still much distrust between East and West. The last battle of the conquest had been fought almost a generation ago, but the old hatreds died slowly and showed little sign of diminishing within Farinne's own lifetime. She handed the guard her sword, spear and bow but deftly concealed the hilt of her dagger beneath her tunic.

Once inside the walls she began to understand at least some measure of the guard's cynicism. The village was smaller than she had expected. No more than a few humble dwellings and some larger buildings in the centre where the road split into two parts, north and east.

As she hoped, an inn stood in the centre of the village, the largest building by some distance, complete with adjacent stables. It was more than two storeys high and shadowed the nearest hovels around it, though most of them had been built half dug into the earth with their thatched rooves nearly touching the grass at the edges.

The inside of the inn was as quiet as the outside. Two men sat in one corner drinking and mumbling quietly to one another while the fire crackled loud enough to drown their conversation. Behind the bar a large man stood polishing the counter with a dirty cloth, watching her approach.

"How much is it for a room?" she asked.

He seemed to weigh her up for a moment before answering,

"Two silver."

Farinne searched her purse and drew out a handful of coins. She placed two upon the bar and pushed them towards him.

"Three for Westerners," he said.

Farinne met his eyes, they were green and still though the whites were stained to a soft pink by the tiny red veins emerging from either side.

"Are you so kind to all travellers, or do you not like women?"

One of the men in the corner began to laugh, it was a deep throaty chuckle fuelled by ale. The landlord, whose cheeks had flushed faintly red, shot him a look in response that quickly silenced him. He took the two silvers.

"Yours is the second room at the top of the stairs. My daughter's in the kitchen, you call her if you need anything."

Farinne took a cup of wine and moved to a table in the centre of the room facing the door. The two men watched her with no attempt at stealth. She sipped at her wine, refusing to return the gaze. When the fatter of the two stood up, she moved a hand to the dagger at her belt, lifting the edge of her tunic. But instead of moving towards her he staggered towards the door and barged through it. Through the thick wooden walls she heard him retching, the ale exiting his mouth and splattering into the mud. The other man smiled, but remained where he was, still staring.

"You've come a long way Westerner," he said coolly. "What brings one such as you to the Borbrandas?"

"My business is my own. I prefer to keep it that way."

He smiled, showing a set of yellow teeth.

"Take a look around you, girl. There's no business in the east. Men here scratch through dead soil to plant seeds that never grow."

"Why do you wish to know my affairs, sir?"

He got up from his seat and moved over to Farinne's table.

"Call it curiosity."

She moved her hand back to the hilt of her dagger. An action he didn't fail to notice.

"There'll be no need for that young lady." He leaned closer, "I mean no harm. A man may lose his sense of courtesy trapped among these Eastern savages."

Farinne had smelled him before he sat at her table and up close it was even worse. His hair was lank and greasy, and the clothes he wore looked as though they had never seen soap.

"What do you want?"

"Did you lose your courtesy too?"

She drew the dagger and lifted it. He took her hand and slammed it against the table, while with his spare he drew his own blade and drove it into the wood, inches from her flesh.

"You think I couldn't hurt you if I wanted?" His breath reeked of alcohol. "The ale doesn't addle me like it does my friend. I could have you right on this table and that old fool behind wouldn't move a muscle to help."

He released her hand.

"All I want is conversation, would you deny me that?"

She flexed her hand, his grip was strong.

"I meant no insult," she said, nervously.

"No, but when in a den of wolves, you don't raise a hand against a member of the pack." He leaned back and sat down. "Its been long since we've had any visitors. What news from the West?"

"How do you know where I'm from?"

"A man knows his kin."

"Things are much as they ever were. The Priests sacrifice innocents but the Sickness continues regardless, and the King taxes people to starvation to pay for another Crusade south beyond the Walderwyn."

"Then he's headed the wrong way. There is more to be feared than foreigners in this world."

He stood up, pushing back the seat with his legs, and took two coins from a pocket by his belt.

"For your trouble, Miss," he said as he slid them across the table towards Farinne.

"Wait!" she said. "What is it you fear?"

"You come to the East edge of civilisation and you ask what it is I fear? Have you not heard the stories?"

"Myth and old wives' tales."

"Spoken like a true Westerner."

With that he left her, walking out through the door and into the night. Farinne took his money but her mind was elsewhere. She, like most children, had grown up hearing the stories of what were often called the 'Devil-men'. The Old Kingdoms had supposedly fought them for generations before the forests grew silent. In all the ages since, Man had never settled beyond the Bobrandas and so the distant east remained wild and the rumours persisted.

Farinne finished her wine, tasting its heavy flavour. Her wrist ached somewhat from when it had been slammed against the table but the damage was not permanent. If he had suspected what she truly was he may have tried to kill her.

After she had retired to her room Farinne sat upon the bed. The mattress was so uncomfortable she pulled the sheets from it and made do with the floor. Cool air crept into the room through a tiny window towards the top of the far wall, making her wrap the blankets around her ever more tightly. She could see the cold light of the moon through the same gap and beneath it a tiny carved wooden figure which faced outwards.



By the time she woke dawn had already passed into morning. It had been her intent to rise as early as possible so she might return with the sun still high in the sky, but that now seemed unlikely. Outside the day was drab and grey, with pale light filtering through the cloud and the voices of the villagers emanating from the road below. She placed the sheets back on the bed and left the room as she found it.

Downstairs the landlord was up and about his business. He still refused to acknowledge her, but bellowed through to the kitchen demanding a breakfast be brought out.

Farinne sat down in front of the fire; it was a cold morning and the warmth seemed welcoming. She rubbed her hands together and held them in front of the flame while she waited. A short while later a young girl hurried from the kitchen with a wooden platter of bread and cheese, placing it gently down on a table besides her.

"Your breakfast, Miss," she said, with a degree of awkwardness.

As she bent over, Farinne noticed a small wooden pendant hanging from her neck. It was the carving of a figure, similar to the one upon the window in her room.

"What is that?" she asked.

"Godless idolatry!" the landlord bellowed from the other side of the tavern.

His daughter blushed and scampered back into the kitchen.

Farinne could feel his hateful eyes upon her, but chose not to react. Momentarily he resumed sweeping the floor behind the bar, grumbling and cursing under his breath. She was hungry but couldn't stomach the landlord's company for much longer, feeling her fists clench involuntarily between bites, and so she left with half her meal uneaten, slamming the door behind her.

It was close to noon though clouds concealed the sun, but as warm outside as it had been next to the fire. She decided not to waste any more time and went straight for the stables. In the stall next to Missen's she found the stable-boy asleep, snoring upon a stack of hay. Farinne gave him a swift kick to stir him from his dreams.

"Get my horse ready," she told him.

The landlord had soured her mood already and the day was still young. She regretted kicking the boy almost immediately, though there was nothing to be done after the matter. While she walked back to the gate to collect her weapons the sun began to peek through the grey clouds. Almost immediately in response, children began to emerge from their hovels and play in the mud. Every one of them she saw wore a small pendant similar to that landlord's daughter. Other, larger idols were also visible, placed in windows and above doors.

The guard was only just returning to his post when Farinne arrived at the gate. He was struggling to hold up his breeches whilst at the same time clinching the belt around his waist.

"What were you doing?" she asked.

"Ah... There's no more urgent a duty as the call of nature."

She looked down. "The piss stains on your boots can attest to that."

"The wind is a cruel thing, my lady."

"And your aim appears little better. You have my weapons?"

"One moment," he said, waddling across to the gatehouse.

"Wait!" Farinne called. "I'll get them myself."

She didn't like the idea of the guard leaving her weapons with the same smell of urine that followed him around.

"That sword is blunt enough to hammer nails with," he said.

He was right. The sword had long since lost its edge and the point of her spear wasn't sharp enough to skewer anything harder than a fat man's belly, but for her purposes now they would have to do.

She left the guard with a passable farewell and began walking back into the centre of the village. Outside the carpenter's workshop an old man sat carving idols from discarded scraps of wood. He placed the completed ones along a small shelf to his left. They ranged in size but all held roughly the same shape. She walked over and picked one up. On closer inspection they looked even odder than they did from a distance. Their shape was like that of man, though the proportions were all wrong. The arms were too long and reached down beyond the knees, due in part to the stooped curvature of the back while the legs seemed to thin for its supposed size. The faces too were sculpted with a curious attention to detail. Although each had certain unique characteristics the features were the same: a pinched face, big eyes and a large nose. They possessed a certain aspect that was almost human, yet uniquely different at the same time.

"Take one, if you wish," the old man told her.

"I see these everywhere I look..." She placed the carving back in its position along the shelf and retreated a step. "...They're supposed to be 'Devil-men'?"

He nodded.

"Blasphemy," she whispered to herself.

Farinne had never taken her faith too seriously, yet adopted the forms when necessary. To even talk of the 'Devil-men' was often considered heresy and so their true name had been forgotten in time. She'd heard rumours over the past year that men in certain places had turned to the old gods, and the King had organised a crusade against the Wealas in the South for that very reason.

"Why do you carve these?" she asked.

"They give people here peace of mind."

"It's dangerous to do so. You know the risks."

"We have more pressing concerns here than priestly fires."

"You've seen these creatures?"

"As I see you now, though at times I wish I could forget."

"But you carve these figures."

"Because they give people hope. They believe these idols can appease them."

"And do you believe that?"

He was silent for a moment.

"I looked into the face of one of them and saw his eyes as it looked into mine... If you ask me I don't believe that even the presence of almighty God can turn their anger."

Farinne left the old man to his carving and walked away. She stared out through the north gate and the forest beyond, feeling the seed of doubt creeping into her mind. The old man had spoken with such conviction. Yet it was a story she'd heard across the Kingdom many times before, used often by both the superstitious and bandit groups with varying degrees of success.

A hand tapped her on the shoulder. Missen was saddled and ready. The stable boy looked shy, refusing to meet her eyes. Farinne remembered kicking him earlier with a sense of guilt. She took one of the silver coins she'd been given for her 'trouble' the previous night and handed it over.

Stable boys were rarely treated well and often not even paid. So when he saw the silver he accepted it with a degree of astonishment. Farinne smiled apologetically and mounted Missen. The stable boy helped make sure both her feet were securely placed in stirrups and she gave Missen a gentle kick to start him walking. As she left the village she gave one last look to the old man who sat as he had been before, with all his attention turned onto the idol in his lap.



Farinne rode north for two hours at a gentle pace under the slowly increasing heat of the day. The trees no longer grew so close together and it became much easier to see some distance inside the forest. Not that this improved Missen's disposition towards it. He still balked and twisted away whenever Farinne attempted to turn him off the road.

She had hunted many beasts over the years across the Kingdom, but now it was men she was required to track. Many travellers and merchants had disappeared on the road north of Fyrholt and bandits were suspected. The people of the village lived under a shadow of fear they could not name and so turned to a long lost legend. But it was likely one of them knew of, if not colluded with, the bandit groups and propagated that same fear for their own purposes. She was to find them and bring the King's Law with her.

With the Sun at its highest point Farinne decided to stop and scout the immediate area. The day had grown hot and she welcomed the idea of the shade. After tethering Missen to a low lying branch she readied her equipment: bow and quiver, short sword and dagger. She patted Missen and stroked the soft short fur between his eyes,

"Watch the road for me," she whispered.

His answer was no more than a blank look but enough to make her smile. With that she left him and entered into the deep woods of the Borbrandas.

Despite the wide open spaces between the trees, little light reached the forest floor aside from small shafts which beamed down through tiny gaps in the foliage. Dead, rotting leaves littered the ground, obscuring the mass of twisted roots which ran underneath them. It made the going relatively difficult and she stumbled more than once. In hindsight, Missen's refusal to enter the woods made increasingly good sense. Even if she had have been able to convince him, the palfrey would've likely broken an ankle in minutes.

Although the terrain was more difficult than Farinne had expected, she made steady progress and soon lost sight of the road. The evidence she sought soon presented itself too, a blackened patch of earth, dusted with ash. The fire had extinguished long ago, but the scuffs and scratches in the dirt around it were a greater sign still, all of them leading deeper into the forest.

Following the trail she came to a small stream which cut across her path, following a gentle slope downhill. It seemed a natural path for her to follow, knowing that any men would likely make camp close to a river. She washed her hands, feeling the coolness of the water against her skin and cupped a handful over the base of a small sapling struggling for life by the stream's edge.

Finding the river was easy, though it was deeper than she would've hoped. She used the butt of her spear to check the depth of the water, hoping there would be a point she might cross with ease. A rustle from the undergrowth on the opposite bank caught her off-guard and she made herself absolutely still as a young fawn appeared at the riverbank no more than a stone's throw away. The water was up to her knees and beginning to creep in through the tops of her boots but she knew not to make any sudden movement. She began to creep backwards to the shore, moving as slowly and as quietly as possible to avoid startling the fawn. It wasn't the prey she sought, but it was a meal, or better still, something to bring back to the village to mask her true intent and prove the woods were not haunted.

Farinne lifted the bow from her back, followed by an arrow and delicately placed it against the yew. She stood slowly and softly, pulling back the string in the same motion and lifted it up. The fawn had clearly seen her. They both stood in the open, but even with the bow taught and the arrow aimed it remained calm.

Farinne closed an eye and aimed carefully, waiting for the moment, feeling the motion of her breathing. A call rang through the air just as she loosed. The fawn startled and bolted from the river back into the depths of the woods and the arrow sailed harmlessly past, disappearing into the undergrowth. She quickly readied another arrow and aimed it up the bank on her own side of the river where the call had come from. It wasn't one she recognised, resembling something close to the bark of a dog, though louder and deeper. She could feel her pulse quicken and the exhilaration of the hunt wash through her. Then mixing in initially with the gentle sound of the river running she caught another sound, a whispering, rising in volume and seemingly coming from all directions. Louder and louder it came, a mantra repeating in a strange language, the likes of which she never heard. Then from the bank of the opposite side of the river something emerged. She turned her head to see it and in that moment she knew everything the villagers had said was true.

Farinne ran, no longer caring for stealth. She didn't look back once, and couldn't bring herself to do so. Back up the stream she went, roughly trying to retrace her steps, though panic made her miss every sign. Behind her she could hear it, the long strides and jagged grunting of its breath.

From the stream she dived through the thick bushes and pushed herself up into a scampering run. The creature behind tore through the vegetation like paper but seemed to slow just enough for her to make some headway. The heavy footfalls behind slowly dissipated until they could no longer be heard; only then she did afford herself a moments' respite and a look over her shoulder.

The forest was still. Farinne rested a hand on a nearby tree and caught her breath. Her lungs felt hollow and her heart raced so fast she could barely think. Leaning against the tree, she saw from the corner of her eye the blackened patch on the ground. Realising suddenly where she was Farinne turned to see the distant outline of the road and the gap in the trees with Missen beyond. With all the strength that remained she sprinted towards it. The ache in her legs quickly returned and fatigue spread from her chest, but hope spurred her on.

"Missen!" she cried with mixture of desperation and joy.

The palfrey seemed uneasy, as though panicked by her distress. He twisted from side to side fiercely and stomped his hooves. Farinne gently stroked his head and whispered into his ear to reassure and soothe him.

"Shhhh," she said, "it's ok."

Far from calming, Missen grew more agitated, pulling and at the tether and trying to rear with such force she thought the leather strap or the branch might snap. Farinne could see a wild panic in his eyes that she'd never seen before. It gave her pause and she stepped back while Missen kicked out with enough force to break bones.

"Missen?"

A hand closed around her mouth while a strong arm lifted her by the waist, pulling her backwards into the woods.



For days Leylan had done absolutely nothing but fritter away the last of his money on ale. He would have spent it quicker if the village had a brothel, but as it was there were barely any women at all. The landlord's daughter was nice enough but off limits should he wish to return. The only other had been the hunter who passed through two nights previous, but he'd burned his bridges with her and wronged himself in a way two silvers would not likely redeem.

He used all he had left getting his horse shod and even then the smith insisted he leave his coat behind to complete the payment. With the day as hot as it was he had little argument though, but as he left he began to remember just how quickly the weather could change in the Borbrandas.

The roads were so quiet he saw no other soul for hours, and when chance did present itself it was not another person, but a horse tied to the roadside. Leylan went as close as he dared, the horse seemed half wild. It kicked and snorted so he approached from the side and slowly, whispering platitudes to it. He felt content to leave the beast where it was but the saddle looked expensive and he was broke. As he got closer he could see the spots and splashes on its front, which looked at first glance looked like dried mud. However, the flies that buzzed around combined with the smell coming from inside the forest told him different. He drew his sword and peered into the dark woods through a gap besides the tethered horse. His stomach convulsed almost instantly and he vomited his breakfast onto the roadside. The stench was incredible but the sight was worse still. He might not have recognised the remains for being human had it not have been for the severed head impaled upon a spike. The sight of it struck his stomach even harder as he recognised her face. The light brown hair matted by blood, vacant blue eyes and a mouth pulled open in an eternal silent scream.

He staggered away, feeling suddenly light-headed with the muscles in his legs turning to sand. His horse scared and galloped away northwards following the road. Leylan watched it go, breathing heavily and waiting for his mind to come back to him. The shout interrupted that, at least he thought it was a shout. Slowly he turned, still half dazed, to a see a grey skinned figure standing in the middle of the road. It watched him silently, its back stooped and shoulders bent forward. Even hunched it was tall, much more so than he was. All he could think of were the idols as it strolled forward casually and gripped him by the neck, lifting him off his feet. Its strong hand felt like a vice. As he caught gasps of air all he could taste was the foul stench of its breath upon his face as it drew him close.

People throughout the kingdom said the 'Devil-men' were demons sent from hell, but as Leylan looked into its eyes he knew that wasn't true. Deep in those red and black orbs he saw something not motivated by evil, but by rage and the purest form of hatred imaginable.

1 comment:

  1. Well written, but just getting to know Farinne and...
    Guess we know what was happening to the King's subjects.

    ReplyDelete