Monday, May 18, 2020

An Unsung Death In Geoff Part 1

An Unsung Death In Geoff  

Ragnar Hellson drew the honing stone slowly back across the edge of his axeblade. There was a dull rasp as he worked out the notch a metal helm had put in the steel. Back and forth, back and forth, he worked the stone with care. He had the time to put a keen edge back on the blade.

"Time enough," he said aloud to himself.

Behind him, down the overgrown road, lay the body of his horse, the bodies of his two companions, and the carcasses of a score of orcs. Among the slain were two large ogres, their bodies hacked, slashed, and partially dismembered. They had taken quite a bit of killing. The orcs had been little more than blood to bathe his axe in. It was the ogre pair that had slain his companions, his horse and nearly himself.

Somewhere, a little ways down this track, a very angry giant would be hearing about all this, he thought to himself. At least a handful of the verminous little goblins had escaped and they would no doubt tell their master.

The giant would probably just step on them for their trouble. "May their bones pierce its hairy feet," Ragnar cursed.

He paused and looked at the blade. The notch was not deep and the stone had taken the rough edge off leaving only a small semi-circle bite from the sharpened steel. He stood then and hefted the axe, letting it swing once or twice, catching the light from the late morning sun. Ragnar 'hrumphed' in satisfaction with the feel and balance of the weapon and the fresh edge to the blade.

Turning away from the bright sunlight, always so much harsher in winter, he let his gaze wander.

This land, it was like the lowlands of his home. The Corrusk Mountains rose tall and deadly around the land of his childhood, like these Barrier Peaks and Crystalmists here. This Geoff, its forests, fields and hills, hugged by the arms of those mountains, it was as beautiful as the northeastern lands.

And now the beasts of the mountains, the giant-kind, held the lowlands in their arms and under their fists.

"Giants!" Ragnar spat out the name like a curse. How he loathed the creatures. Humanlike, but not human. Not just big humans at all, but part of the hills, of fire, of ice. They were of the oerth, sky and the elements themselves, formed in the shape of man. He hated them all. This giant he had come to hunt in secret and in stealth, it would be the death of him.

"No one will sing of this battle," he mused aloud. It wouldn't matter. "These southern lands," he shook his head, "most deaths go unsung."

* * *
Two Days earlier....

"Hey! Ragnar!" a young voice shouted across the muddy market street of Hochoch.

It was midmorning and the frozen ground had thawed, turning the rutted oerthen roadway into a slippery mire. Wooden planks had been placed along the sides of the road as a walkway, but crossing the street required entering a treacherous no-man's land of ankle-deep mud.

The early rising merchants, tradesmen, and travellers had churned the mud into a viscous goo that both gripped feet in mid stride with an adhesive suction and formed a tractionless layer beneath the surface. Those who braved the crossing of Hochoch's market street found themselves in a losing struggle for balance.

The results were many and spectacular, much to the enjoyment of the merchants in their stalls and those travellers lucky enough to have avoided such a fate, as well as the unlucky but glad to see someone else share the misfortune. Misery might, or might not love company, but everyone watching enjoyed seeing someone else fall in the mud.

At the sound of his name, Ragnar turned from the leatherworker's table where he had been haggling over the price of a finely tooled sheath for his axe-blade and carry strap to sling the axe over his back. The merchant, taking advantage of Ragnar's momentary distraction, plucked the three large silver coins from his startled grasp.

He loudly exclaimed "Deal!" and slapped the sheath and strap into Ragnar's now empty hand.

"What!" Ragnar bellowed at the merchant, but the man merely smiled and began haggling with another customer.

"Ragnar!" The voice called again urgently.

"Belsimioth!" Ragnar turned to face the opposite side of the street and yelled back. "Votan's frozen beard!"

"The Master's sent word for you!" Belsimioth the page shouted, breaking into a screech.

"All right, all right," Ragnar replied, his voice lowered to a mutter. He glanced quickly back at the merchant, who ignored him, then without a second thought stepped off the wooden plank and into the sea of mud that was Hochoch's Market Street.

* * *

Kerim Tannner watched the large barbarian step into the muddy street with a smile of amusement. He patted his coin pouch, feeling the shape of the three newly minted silver eagles, and thanked Istus for putting them in his hands. The two other customers at his table had both turned away to watch the barbarian as well. Travellers on the street had become wary and it had been some little time since anyone had ventured across and chanced their footing against the mud.

With surprising grace, Ragnar slid more than walked across the width of the street. He kept his balance admirably well. No sudden stops, no flailing of limbs, a great disappointment to spectators.

"Belsimioth!" Ragnar said with exasperation as he reached the planking on the far side. He reached out and steadied himself on the boy's shoulder and stepped from the slick, pulling mud and onto the wooden planking. "You've cost me some silver lad. Now what's so urgent that Master Talberth sent you out to find me?"

"I know not, Ragnar, sir," the boy said. "Master said find you quick, said you'd be here," and with a sidelong glance finished quietly. "Must have cast a spell."

"Or talked with Emiel and found out I had business with Tanner," Ragnar shook his head. "Talberth saves his magic for paying customers. Well... Come then," he gave Belsimioth's shoulder a pull. "If it's really urgent," and started down the street, the page in tow behind him.

The crowded walkway found room for the barbarian as he made his way down its length. Ragnar seemed oblivious to the muffled cries of protest as startled shoppers had to lean into merchant's tables or step off the planking into the mire.

Belsimioth grimaced at the looks being sent their way, but he could barely keep pace, let alone restrain Ragnar from simply barreling through. He was thankful that the corner was not far and his master's dwelling only a short way down the side street.

They turned the corner, leaving Market street and entering Arcane Way, home to the few sages, soothsayers and hedge wizards that Hochoch could boast. Master Talberth was part of a new breed, coming to the town which was becoming a city, following the retinue of the Duke and the occupying force of Gran March. Many had come to the retaken town and taken up residence during the rebuilding, but none so mighty as Belsimioth's master.

Poor Hochoch. Little except foundation stones were kept of the old town. It had been a prosperous city on the eastern border of the Duchy, but the giants and their minions had burnt, broken or fouled every inch of it.

When the Knights of the Watch and the soldiers of Gran March finally broke its defenses, surprisingly sturdy and laced with traps which many felt beyond the ken of giants, they were sickened by what they found.

No human town, no Hochoch of distant memory, but a warren of filthy dens. Only the Mayor's House and the City Hall bore any resemblance to what they had once been. These the giants had taken for themselves. They'd torn out the upper floors, creating a long hall, making them as close to their mountain steadings as possible. The cellars had been packed with debris so the floors could bear their weight, but the outer shells remained whole.

It was at the City Hall that Lassar the hill giant chief and his warriors fell. They defended the hall to the last, and before they died a great fire sprang up around them. Matholwch, a Knight of the Watch, son of a Geoff noble, wounded the chief, but he in turn was beaten to the ground by a tree-sized club and pulled from the fight by a Gran March soldier. The men-at-arms from Gran March were resolute but suffered terribly beneath the fists and clubs of the giants. Two score lay dead inside the hall, one blow, one flung stone from a giant that a siege engine might have thrown, where they struck, they killed.

Lassar had pulled himself up and cursed at the soldiers surrounding him. He towered over those who faced him, surrounded by a wall of dead. Giant, ogre, orc and man. Blood poured from a wound which laid his face open to the bone and two hill giants stood beside him.

"Little ones!" he called. "You wish to play!" and he laughed. It shook the very walls, and then beyond his laughter there came a rumble, then a roar. From the back of the hall, which still bore doors and rooms of human size, a flame appeared. It spread across the walls and up over the roof. It played across the bodies of the dead and around Lassar. It swept toward the knights and soldiers, and they fled. As they ran from the hall they could hear Lassar's mocking laughter following them.

The building shook, and then with a crash it fell in on itself. The ground trembled and the burning rubble sank a man's length into the ground, as if some open place beneath the oerth had swallowed it.

City Hall became a pyre for all the monstrous dead. The fire burned for days, fed by the bodies of orcs and goblin-kind, carcasses of ogres, and pieces of trolls still wriggling on the end of swords and spears. The once well-crafted and cared for buildings of Hochoch were added. The monsters had fouled them beyond re-use. Not even the walls around the town were spared, though they had been built higher and stronger than before the coming of the giants.

The dead of the Watch and of Gran March were placed in a great barrow outside the town. It formed a hill, so high was the oerth piled.

Then began the great rebuilding. Once the town had been scoured and every trace of the monstrous occupation erased, then came the builders, then tradesmen, tavern keepers and whores, priests and clerics of most faiths, Geoffites returning to a small fraction of their homeland. The Duke came and a residence was built where the mayor's home once stood. The town filled out and began to grow. A call went out from the Duke, a call to arms for the future of Geoff and it brought patriots, mercenaries, adventurers and fools. It brought Ragnar, and it brought others, like Master Talberth who came for his own reasons. He built a great house alongside the humbler dwellings of Arcane Way.

All this went through Belsimioth's head as he ran after Ragnar down the street to his master's dwelling.


Talberth's page and would-be apprentice, Belsimioth, was a dreamer. As his mind wandered, as was often the case, his feet were left to find their own way. An incautious and careless habit paying no heed to the ground they tread upon.

Master Talberth's dwelling sat in splendor between rows of rough and quick-built shops and homes. While wood plank suited his inauspicious brethren stone slabs lead to and from his door and lined the way in front. Belsimioth, lost in thought, his feet obeying their own commands, missed the transmutation of wood planking to stone paving. He was moved through time, from the recent glorious past, and space, flying forward like one enchanted by his master's spells.

Ragnar heard the sharp startled cry and dull thud. Looking back he rolled his eyes, muttered something under his breath so intelligible that even he didn't know what he'd said, then reached down and hauled the dozy page up by the scruff of his neck.

"Belsimioth," he said disapprovingly, "until you can float like your master, keep your head from the clouds and your eyes on where you're going, lad."

"Yes sir," Belsimioth said apologeticly but without much conviction.

* * *

Talberth, Master of Magic Arts, Sage of Ancient Tomes, Doctor of Thaumaturgy, HM.SoM.CoG., tapped the end of his quill pen against the side of his nose as he studied the report he would be sending the duke. He occasionally glanced over at Emiel, a small, neat man, finely dressed with agile hands and nervous eyes.

Emiel would catch these glances, pretend not to notice, but would then look towards Thaddeus, Ted to everyone else who knew him.

Ted, a tow-haired, plain-looking fellow in common garb; could be a workman, a tradesman, or a farmer if you put him in rough homespun. Ted was just watching the door and thinking, "Ragnar, you big idiot". He'd let that thought come and go a hundred times. He almost jumped when, outside the door, down the hall, and at the entrance, a resounding boom rang out.

"If he breaks that knocker again it's coming out of his pay," Talberth said, rising from his seat.

Emiel gave an insincere laugh, treating the pronouncement like a joke, but he knew Talberth meant it.

Ted just grimaced.

There was the sound of scurrying feet, someone running awkwardly down the hall outside the door. The booming continued then stopped abruptly.

A loud voice could be heard, Ragnar's, then that awkward running. The door opened suddenly and a small, deformed, ancient-looking man appeared. He wore long robes which brushed the floor and concealed his feet. His body appeared hunched, misshapen, and his grizzly white-haired head seemed disproportionate somehow. One eye was missing; a black strip of silk concealed it, wrapped around the head and covered one ear, though no sign of that ear appeared beneath the cloth.

"Caliban!" Talberth called to him.

The old man smiled, his teeth surprisingly straight and strong.

"Caliban, I take it that Ragnar," and Talberth's voice took on a tone of amusement when he spoke the barbarian's name, "I take it that he has arrived?"

"He has," Caliban answered in a deep and pleasant voice. "He waits outside"

"Hrmph!" Ted could not stop the wordless exclamation from escaping his lips. Ragnar, wait? Not likely.

"Good," said Talberth. "Let him stay for a moment," then looking directly at Caliban, said, "No, Caliban, let him wait a good ten moments then bring him here."
Caliban merely grinned and shut the door behind him. His movements were shuffling yet quick and slightly unpleasant to watch. 

"Now gentlemen," Talberth said leaning forward, his hands resting on the table in front of him. "I have a task for each of you, and our barbarian friend out there."

* * *

The look of shock on Ragnar's face almost made up for the unease that Belsimioth always felt when he was in Caliban's presence. Seeing the huge barbarian seized and lifted like a small child by the deformed old man was humorous, but also disquieting.

At first Ragnar did not struggle. When the old man stepped in front of him, blocking his way, he thought to gently move him aside. But it was Caliban who acted first and his grip was like iron. Ragnar's arms were pinned to his sides in an encircling hug and without visible effort he was lifted and carried across the hall.

Then Ragnar twisted and tried to break the viselike grip, but Caliban showed no reaction, no slackening. He paced slowly forward while Ragnar roared curses. Belsimioth covered his ears.

To the side of the front entrance, inside the hall, two alcoves flanked the door. Both were empty except for a granite square, a pedestal that some statue might sit upon. It was in one of these that Caliban placed Ragnar. Belsimioth thought he heard some twisted phrase snap from Caliban, but he caught the sound between Ragnar's damning shouts. And then there was nothing, Ragnar's voice was cut in mid-curse, the word sliced in two with a razor of silence.

Caliban turned away and walked his strange shuffling, disturbing walk down the hall. With slow hesitant steps Belsimioth inched toward the alcove. There stood Ragnar, this Belsimioth knew. But it couldn't be. The semblance of Ragnar, an artist's vision of Ragnar cut from rock and imbued with a palpable life, but not the living, breathing, shouting and cursing Ragnar. He reached out and gave a tap with his finger. The stone gave out a dull chu-chunk. Belsimioth snatched his hand away as if it had been burned. That stone was Ragnar!

"Master Talberth!" he yelled and ran down the hall.

* * *

"So then," said Emiel with a long breath, "we have no choice."

"It would seem so," said Talberth, gesturing with open hands. "I have made the alternatives plain, have I not?" He glanced toward Emiel. "Agreeing to this undertaking would seem the wise...."

"Master Talberth!" Belsimioth cried, slamming the door open with a bang and rushing across the room.

" Belsimioth!" Talberth snapped out angrily. "You know better than to..."

"Master! Master! Caliban has gone mad!" he blurted out in an explosion of words and breath.


"Master, but..." Belsimioth gasped

" Enough!" The wizard shouted. "You will sit and stay silent!"


"Not another word. Not another peep, or you'll be joining Ragnar in the hall." Talberth warned, and catching the shocked expression on his page's face, he saw also there the dawning of understanding. "Yes. Good. Caliban has not gone mad, and neither have I, not yet, not until you drive me there! So sit!"

Talberth shook his head and brushed his hands across his face and eyes as if to clear them of some obscuring dust settled down by ages of disuse. "Gentlemen," he said, "I wait your answer, yea or nay."

Emiel and Ted exchanged glances, looked at the silent page sitting dumbfounded in a chair near the door, then back at the wizard. "Yea," they said together.

"As you know it must be," Emiel added glumly.

"Good!" said Talberth. "Your enthusiasm heartens me. Now I believe ten moments have passed," he glanced at the door." Yes I believe that will be Caliban retrieving our gentled barbarian."

And they heard the odd footfalls of Caliban passing by, heading for the entrance and Ragnar.

* * *

It was like a grey cloud had settled in his head. Slowly it cleared away, and he began to be able to think again. Then his vision began to return, fuzzy at first, but he could make out shapes in the fog. A thought occurred, a memory, 'Talberth'. From far off he heard his own voice, cracking and strained, he began to cough, a little at first, then without control, great racking coughs. He realized he could feel, and he wished that he could not.

There was a burning, he had felt its like before when the warmth came back to frozen feet and hands, but this was worse. This burning began deep inside, it radiated out from his heart, from the marrow in his bones.

The clouds were gone and the fire was in his head, behind his eyes, and following the courses of blood through his body. Suddenly every nerve caught the blaze and it swept from toe to tooth. A shout formed in his mouth but before it could escape the wave passed and was gone.

Ragnar found himself sitting in a large and ornate chair and before him the thrice damned wizard standing behind a table of some dark smooth wood.

"Feeling better are we?" Talberth said with a smile. "Good. Now enough time has been wasted. You will find that there is little to spare."

"Wizard, you and your damned spells. Just what did you do to me!" Ragnar shouted angrily. He would have risen, he should have been enraged, berserk, but he felt slow, withdrawn. He was awake, his head was clear and focused, but he could not maintain his outrage or anger with the wizard.

"It is unimportant, trivial, and you do not have the time," Talberth looked from one to the other. "You have been complaining about inaction since I brought you here Ragnar. And you Emiel, Ted, you have been straining to return to your homeland, your people. Well now is the time."

"Tell us then!" Ragnar snapped, then calmed. "I have done nothing but sit and grow fat. You promised much, what is it that you needed from me?"

"I need your skills Ragnar. Yes, that axe of yours and your experience, but especially your judgment. I need you to protect these two as you will need them to help guide you, but beyond that I need you to kill a giant."

Ragnar smiled. "Yes wizard, that is worth what you have put me through. Tell me about this giant."

* * *

"The giants have taken the loss of Hochoch to heart," Talberth began. "This loss seems to have struck them a more grievous blow than being driven out of Sterich, if they were driven out at all. From what I saw there they withdrew, and in good order. I could not call it driven though that is what the bards are singing."

"Yes, yes," Ragnar said impatiently. "I was there myself. What of this Giant?"

"I will get to him shortly," Talberth said with a small touch of annoyance in his voice, "if I am not interrupted. Now then, hrummph..." he cleared his throat. "The giants have increased their presence inside of Geoff. They had been spread fairly thin, but most of those from Sterich survived and..."

"They should call the fight in Sterich, 'The Great Goblin Hunt.' It seems like that's all we did during the last few weeks..." Ragnar trailed off under the stern gaze of Talberth.

"Most of those giants survived and have come to Geoff," Talberth continued, "and more have come from the clans farther back in the hills and the mountains. So, now, instead of just roving patrols of goblins and their like, we are seeing larger monsters and even giants themselves. This has made my tasks much more difficult."

"Just what are your tasks?" Ragnar asked with a deep curiosity.

"None of your business!" Talberth replied. "Well, none of your business for the most part," he relented. "Getting into and out of the duchy, and killing a particular giant who is a large part of my problems are your concern. The giants had grown complacent before Sterich. Now Sterich and Hochoch are the bees' nests that we have disturbed and they are flitting around the duchy like mad. But one giant in particular is stirring things up along the border here. Hreidmar, a hill giant clan leader, fresh from the mountains."

"You want him dead?" Ted spoke for the first time.

"Exactly," Talberth nodded toward Ragnar. "With his help and your compatriots in the duchy it should be well within your abilities. This Hreidmar, he leads his fellows from the front. Takes out patrols himself, and has helped prod these overgrown potato sacks of giants into action. I have just received word that he has left Midwood and is leading a patrol to sweep the border around us."

"Why not send knights and soldiers?" interjected Emiel hopefully.

"Because any show of force and he will simply retreat back to Midwood or summon reinforcements. The time is not right for such a confrontation. Besides, the giants have surprisingly up to date and accurate information regarding our forces, when and where and whatnot. No, this task is better accomplished by you and your people with Ragnar's assistance," Talberth said looking from Ted to Emiel.

Ted looked dubious at the suggestion. Ragnar would seem as no more than a child in comparison with the smallest of these giants.

"I have helped slay giants before," Ragnar said quietly in answer to Ted's wordless question.

"I would not have you undertake this mission if I did not believe that you could accomplish it," said Talberth. "But, be that as it may, though you have been kept in the dark regarding this, you have each agreed to serve me, and the duke, and your own interests," he gave a piercing look toward Emiel.

"Indeed wizard, I have no qualms, but a larger force will be needed, unless we can get this Hreidmar away from his followers," Ragnar said.

"Emiel will see to that. He will provide a small but hardy group of partisans. They have become skilled in ambush and stealth, but they need a warrior of some skill himself to face and kill Hreidmar," the wizard opened a drawer set in the table and withdrew a squared and folded map. It had seen much service but was clearly marked and finely drawn.

"This..." said Talberth pointing to the symbol of a small house, recently redrawn with a spire and a thick circle around it. "This is Hochoch. To the west is Midwood. Between them, though nearer to us, is the Oyt River. Hreidmar, from what my sources tell me, plans to cross the Oyt and come as close to Hochoch as possible, hoping no doubt to descend upon a patrol of our own. And there are outposts being built along the river which he might raid. It is a bold and dangerous move. I know of only three reliable crossings of the Oyt along our border. They are all watched, but the giants have a means of crossing when and where they will, and we know not how they do so."

"Emiel, finding out how they do this is of prime importance," Talberth said seriously. "As much as I would like to stop Hreidmar on the western side of the Oyt, that will not be our plan. You will leave today, I said time was short, and cross the Oyt. Word has already been sent and you will be met at a safe location within the giant-held lands. From there you can contact your people, Emiel, and make plans to waylay Hreidmar and his band as they return from across the Oyt. There is a slim chance that the giant will be stopped this side of the river, but no warning is being sent to our patrols. Any word given would pass directly to the giants. As I said they have very good sources of information."

"What about us?" asked Emiel. "Won't they know about us?"

"I honestly don't know. Every precaution has been taken, which is why you have sworn service to me and not the Duke. Can you trust your own people Emiel? I have told no one, and besides the four of us..." the wizard said discounting Belsimioth who sat quietly by the door, " one knows of these plans."

"My people would not betray me," Emiel said firmly.

"Good, I have prepared gear for you and a meal. You have time to eat and drink with some leisure and check your gear before you depart. Any questions?" asked the wizard.

"Where's the food?" asked Ragnar with enthusiasm. "I'm starving."

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