What a Merry Band We Are
* artwork by CG Wall
Vargan took the goblin’s head in his giant hands. The wiry creature flailed its arms and screeched in fear, but I did not flinch. I thought about the bloody pig on the roast and how much it resembled human flesh. I thought about the villagers in the hands of the ogres. Somebody’s father who had no doubt waved his hands in fear. Somebody’s children who’d have stared through the shutters, powerless to do anything to stop the looting goblinkind. Now, this creature had us to contend with.
Vargan made a quick motion and snapped the thing’s neck, ending its noise. Mila’s golden eyes glimmered at me in the firelight. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sulayn quickly turn away and I thought I heard him exhale in regret or disgust. It was impossible to tell. It was getting late and we were getting tired, and we still had another hour or more before we reached Bekaz. Sulayn released the other goblin we’d interrogated for information, the one with the infernal bagpipes made of bone that looked suspiciously human, though it may have been dog bone for all I know. I looked over in surprise, but the thing had been done.
We labored for a half hour in the week hours of the night, stripping the bodies of their gear and tossing it into the handcart the goblinkind had stolen from some farm. Before we set off, however, we all heard Halda scream, “If you ever say anything about me or my kind again you’ll regret it.”
I squinted to see what had set her off like this as a cloud passed over pale Somal above us. She had her finger pointed at Vargan and she looked ready to kill. I’d never seen her like this, not even when she’d burst into The Lady’s Bedstraw upset with me for revealing her nature to the witchhunters. Vargan shrugged uncaring. Sulayn asked what was happening while Randolph took Vargan aside, attempting to distract him. The man was calm for the moment, but it was impossible to read his face. His eyes glimmered like a toad’s in the moonlight, perhaps uncaring, perhaps slightly regretful, perhaps even slightly mournful – as if his family had just disappointed him again.
It took some time but Sulayn finally called Vargan over again and said to Vargan, “It seems like Halda needs you to agree to stop insulting her and her kin. Is this something you can agree to Vargan?” His voice was calm, even conciliatory, but I noticed his heavy glaive was in his hand, held more like a walking stick. Vargan looked, seemed to notice the same thing, and glanced around briefly, considering everyone, then nodded.
We left in silence, ogre heads tossed in the wagon cart. We each took some space to ourselves coming down the hill, but when we got down we realized we’d lost Vargan. We called out to him in the darkness but he was gone. I wondered if I’d ever see him again, and if it would be at the head of a band of goblinkind. I hoped it would not be the case – and not because of how deadly I’d learned he was. There was a sadness about the man that none of us had and probably not of us could understand. I’d learned his off-color jokes were his misguided way of building camaraderie. No doubt Sulayn understood that from his days as a mercenary, but knew that dissent like this could not be tolerated in a party. And he was right. I reflected on how he’d being leading the group as a mercenary captain – from within, and from the front in battle. As we approached Bekaz I wondered how our “lord” Aetherton would greet us the next day in Bekaz, having comfortably slept with his honor guard in Rozita while we searched for the children of Versex. I hardly cared anymore. I just wanted to rest.
“Mobs have passions, not brains.” – Ailson Kindler
But when we got within several hundred yards of Bekaz we noticed many torches. Sulayn hissed, perhaps mistaking the fires for a burning village. But I was used to this. Forty lights gathered in the town square a few hours from dawn? This was not a burning village. This was a mob. I knew the sight, having seen it many times when traveling with my second family, the Petrescus. “The only real question is what are they gathering for,” I said aloud. Persephone offered sympathetically, “Maybe they are gathering to protect themselves from the ogres.” I frowned. “Since when do peasantry arm themselves at an hour before dawn to fight ogres and goblins?”
Sulayn dutifully nodded and said, “We’d better go talk to them.” On our way down to the bridge leading into Bekaz we noticed a large set of standing stones. “Vali, go check them out.” I nodded and moved quickly off in the dark, Mila trailing me like a shadow. In the clearing I discovered signs of ceremonial use, very likely associated with the winter solstice. Was it tonight? Tomorrow night? I found and sniffed glass bottles – one acidic, one antiseptic and likely used to sedate, and a third one smelling herbal. Black cloth covered the stones, and one stone in the center. I hastily lifted a cloth and saw runes beneath – not Thassilonian, nor written in any language I knew. I’d seen Kellid writing before in mountain passes or stones throughout Ustalav, and this looked very similar. The altar showed no signs of blood sacrifice, but the entire scene had a sinister mood that I distrusted nonetheless. Maybe it was just the gathering mob was now approaching the bridge my companions we getting to. They were going to face each other on the road. I ran down to gather with my companions who waited in the middle of the street. As the villagers stepped onto the bridge I quickly relayed what I’d found.
We saw a boy of about twelve dressed in just his underclothes led by two thick-armed men, thirty to forty villagers, and one man painted in white designs who murmured guttural prayers as he led his people toward us black hoods over most of their faces under the torchlight. “Are you just going to stand here?” I asked incredulously.” Sulayn shrugged. “We need to talk to them.”
“I agree, but…” I knew it wasn’t a good plan, but I didn’t have any better. All I could offer was, “We might get more information by watching rather than discussing.” I knew better than to talk to mobs. Somehow people gave into their worst fears when mobbed together, like herds. Rarely could they stop to discuss things rationally – especially on the subject of religion.
“Maybe it’s best if you hide, since you’re an archer.” There was no more time to deliberate for any of us. They were halfway across. Any longer and they’d see us. I moved quickly into the brush beside the road. Persephone did the same, as did Halda. Sulayn looked exasperated to Randolph, but he too was moving into the woods. Sulayn cursed silently and moved into the woods as well. Amazingly, the villagers didn’t notice us and I realized the sound of the river obscured us and they were half-blinded by their own torchlight.
We followed close at hand, noticing the boy was out of sorts. The antiseptic mixture. Sulayn motioned for us to spread out across the perimeter. We tried to meet his eyes but couldn’t. I don’t know what I was trying to say, but something. Anything. This was all turning so sour. These villagers weren’t goblins. But there was the question of the boy. How were we going to stop this? I wished Aetherton were here to step in with his honor guard and talk them down with his clear voice and divine right. But there was none of that out here with us in the wilds of Versex.
A Winter Feast For Someone…
The boy was brought to the center while the man in the center began chanting steadily, louder and louder, certain phrases repeated, so I suspected we were now seeing their winter solstice rite. I climbed one of the standing stones carefully, as it was almost fifteen feet tall and wide enough to crouch and be unseen. Mila stayed below. I should have known something was wrong when she didn’t follow. At the top I looked down at the villagers anticipating some important moment. Desna’s lights were winking out above us. It was the darkest part of the night.
And then I felt the great stone lurch underneath me, like some giant had pushed it. It couldn’t be moving. I was so light; it so heavy. Far below it sank deeper into the wet soil on its front end. The chanting below nearly reaching crescendo and then man drew his dagger – a long slender black blade. Sulayn and Persephone were leaning out from behind their rocks, ready to jump forward to save the boy. I scrambled backward in panic, but too late. The stone came crashing down, me with it, right into the circle, sending peasants diving into the muddy grass. I slowly got up as gracefully as I could, taking my bow back in my hands.
“You do not belong here. Do not disturb the rite outsider.”
I coughed and wiped some mud off my thigh, then bowed in a poor impression of Elias at the last party after he’d finished dancing with a lady. Hardly appropriate, but nothing really was at the moment. “We may be able to assist. Perhaps you could tell us a little more about what you’re doing here?” I held a vial of Quickness in my hand while pointing to the vials I’d noticed and smiling my best travelling salesman smile.
“You do not belong here,” he repeated. “Leave now outsiders.”
Persephone crept out, intent on securing the boy. I admired her spirit, but there was no way she was getting through that throng without being noticed or creating a bloodbath. The stars were all gone and even Somal had set. Desna turned a blind eye to us.
Sulayn stepped out as the villager surrounded both me and Persephone, and then him and Randolph. “Stop now and no one has to get hurt,” Sulayn called out. It never seemed to work for him, bless him for trying. I took a step back, and the villagers didn’t notice.
“Sheep! You’re all sheep! You can’t just kill this boy!” Persephone challenged them all at once, her eyes flashed red and her face took on a deadly supernatural quality against the firelight. I took a couple more steps back positioning myself alongside the fallen standing stone, but this time the villagers followed, menacing me from the other side of the standing stone. The ones to the right tried to circle another stone but Sulayn barred their way with his adamantine glaive.
I tried once more, searching for some way out of this mess. We couldn’t just leave the boy. We couldn’t just slaughter these people. I projected my voice as best I could. “There’s time. This doesn’t have to happen now. You can wait for a few hours and return tomorrow night. We are the vanguard to Lord Lowls the younger. We’ve come to investigate the ogre attacks, and he will want to know of this.”
The priest, or whatever he was, responded unmoved, “We know. That is why we are doing this. There is no other time. The appointed night is tonight. Now go outsiders. You are not wanted here. We will do as we have always done.”
Having lost patience, Persephone rushed forward. I reached a hand out to try to stop her but it was hopeless. What followed thereafter was a mad moment for everyone. Persephone grabbed the boy while the villagers all closed in. Shouts from everyone. Arms grabbed at Persephone, drowning her in fire and limbs. I stumbled back, shaking my head. Sulayn watched unhappily, no doubt having seen this play out before many many times. The priest raised his dagger. Wild chanting. I drank my potion. A great cloud of black faces erupted from the priest, like the gates of the Abyss had just opened from his palms. I flung myself behind the rock to my right, my heart caught in my throat, and then the shadows reached around the pillar at me like so many hands. Whether they were the shadows of the mob or his spell or my imagination I still don’t know. I bit my lip and shaking I climbed the next stone, my bow clenched in my teeth. Anything to be away from the mob. To not kill them. To not be buried by their mad superstition. To escape, even if this new stone fell, I don’t think I cared if it fell on them.
What I saw when I finally climbed up top, was a horror. Persephone was being grappled by ten men, Sulayn kicked off my stone using the butt of his glaive to launch off the ground, landing on a brazier lightly and kicking off that, spinning in mid air and whipping his glaive out at the last second to slice the priest across the chest. His blood splattered onto the black cloth.
He stumbled back but continued his chanting as ten villager surrounded Sulayn and ten more surrounded Randolph. His hands shook like mine. For the first time in many years my bow felt heavy in my hands. The villagers hit Persephone with their torches, embers bursting off the hits. One rammed the torch hard into Sulayn’s side, stuffing its fire against his flesh as he gritted his teeth, cutting down two others and knocking back a third with his glaive. One stumbled over from a gash on his throat and fell onto the altar.
I drew the Flaming Touch spray, pressed its nozzle. Randolph gasped against the mob. I notched an arrow, still looking for some way out. I saw Persephone disappear underneath the mob. I finally released a breadth I didn’t realize I’d been holding and released an arrow then impaled the priest through the chest, sending him falling back onto the altar, spilling blood on the black cloth. As the same breadth still left me I grabbed another arrow, notched, aimed at the head of the thick-armed man in a black hood, released, and saw the arrow pierce his skull. Then took a raspy breadth. “Stop! Now!” But no one listened of course.
It was done.
I stood there for a couple seconds my body cold and breathless as a corpse. Persephone somehow threw the men off her, her white teeth sharp and her eyes glowing mercilessly crimson. “Sheep” she hissed. “You’d sacrifice this boy!” She fending them off with just a buckler. Groups of two and three at a times suddenly grabbed their heads and stumbled, buying Persephone space to dash away and Sulayn a place to step. Sulayn spun around one way, and then another, his dark blade flashed, and each time cutting through somebody’s mother, somebody’s father. It took less than ten seconds before he stood atop a pile of corpses a dozen deep. Persephone had tried once more for the boy, but he dropped listless in her arms. I could see her confused desperation. Who would simply allow themselves to be sacrificed? At long last she drew her sword and cut the villagers down. The altar, by now, had been covered by gore.
I dropped to the ground, peeling the black cloth from my stone as I fell, cursing myself for not having acting faster, but it was like I was moving through a pea soup fog. Rolling with the impact, left my bow at the foot of the stone and dashed to the altar. Frantically, I snatched the black cloth off the altar, now drenched in blood, and stared at the glistened yet dry runes on the altar beneath. They’d drank the blood. All of it. Hungrily. What had we done.
In vain, I tried to wipe the altar with the black cloth. Sulayn dispatched the last couple villagers near us and took to helping me. But we were too late. Dawn’s fingers finally crept over the sky. And with it, Aetherton’s guard could be seen riding on the road. I stood there over the altar, surrounded by corpses, trying to swallow. Over and over.