Sunday, 20 January 2013

Travels around the Isles with Bobo Melf - Part 2

The first few days of my journey were uneventful in terms of mental stimulation, but all too eventful when it came to the crippling of my buttocks. They were fighting a losing battle with the unforgiving wood of the cart that bore me north, its wheels and axles fighting their own losing battle with an increasing number of potholes riddling the King's Highway - a clear sign there were scant riches to be found in this direction.

There were fields, an endless sea of them, filled with grey-green crops growing miserably under a blue-grey sky. The occasional farmhouse passed in the distance, built from the same mishapen stones as the walls that criss-crossed the landscape. I would like to say these stones were rainbow-hued, but artistic license is not something granted to a serious journalist.

Everything in the Northern Ranges appears infused with this monotonous grey, but the worst thing is that it won’t last. This grey will grow darker and darker until the land becomes as midnight - every grain of soil, every blade of wilted grass, every brittle branch of every dead tree stained black by the Mordant Blight.

That's where I expect to die. If I get that far.


'We've heard stories in the Royal City that orcs and goblins are now raiding this far south,' I say to the barkeep of The Slaughtered Werewolf. I’m a hundred miles north of home and this is the only inn to be found in the small farming village of Urtingard, a ruddy, weather-beaten place, where even the scrawny chickens roaming the streets have beards.

'City folk like their stories,' replies the bearded barkeep, 'but can't say I've seen a green-skin round here.'

'So you don't think the rumours of them digging tunnels into human lands are true?'

'Don't think about it one way or t'other. Folk round here don't worry about what might be, they worry about what's right in front of 'em.'

I look at the pitcher of mead in front of me. I find it hard to worry about drink when the prospect of an orc ripping my lungs out looms large in my future.

'Ha! Orcs,' continues the barkeep, shaking his head as if mistaking the bloodlust of an orc for the inconvenience of bunions. 'When dead kings talk through the mouths of your children and taint your crops with their hatred, you wish for such simple terrors.'

'Say what now?'

'I should praise the gods for your ignorance if it means our farmers can still sell their goods at market, but you’ll pardon me if I spit in your mead all the same.'

My brain is a slow-moving contraption, especially when preoccupied with the pain of much-bruised buttocks and the sight of fresh spittle circling in my pint, but the barkeep's words finally connect with a memory from a year ago, when the Royal City was overrun with stories of ghosts, ghouls and spectres.

'Oh!' I said. 'You're talking about the haunted cabbages.'

The barkeep sighed and covered his face with a hand.

I still have my doubts, but the official story is that the city’s supernatural outbreak was due to a shipment of possessed farming produce. The source was a region of the Northern Ranges where ancient kings once fought constantly for dominion. At least until King Alfric the Destined marched up with his army of ten thousand heroes and unified the realm by killing them all. Each dead king was laid to rest beneath a great stone cairn and by all accounts rested quite happily until Alfric’s son, King Barin the Bitter, ordered all the cairns destroyed in a futile attempt to prove the only kings ever to walk the land shared his bloodline.

Desecrating graves is rarely wise and this attempt proved no exception. The ancient kings rose again as wights, spectres and ghouls. The passing of the decades would not diminish their thirst for vengeance, which eventually extended to corrupting the harvest.

Hence the haunted cabbages.

Whether this explanation is true or not, I do know that a respectable calling once limited to priests, clerics and professional demon-hunters has been opened up to a less-intrepid class of ghostbuster. After all, while few would dare attempt to banish a liche, even the commonest commoner has enough courage to exorcise a vegetable.

'I hope the cabbage soup I had earlier wasn't haunted,' I told the barkeep. 'I don't want to start farting poltergeists.'


I regained consciousness the following morning in a ditch outside The Slaughtered Werewolf. My extremities were blue from the cold, except for red marks where bearded chickens had been pecking at me.

The next leg of my journey would be on foot, accompanied by a party of pubescent dwarves out to earn their beards by decapitating one greenskin for every inch of beard they wished to grow. I did point out the chickens who’d grown beards without the need for such violence, but they just laughed and hit me in the face with the flat of their axes. Such is the fate of anyone who attempts to reason with a dwarf.

Yet I was glad of their company when, twenty miles out of Urtingard, a curious fog rolled in from the road ahead. It was not thick, we could still see the scarecrows keeping watch over the fields around us, but the horizon was lost from sight and the diffuse light of the sun was cast an eerie pale green.

We stopped walking. I edged my way into the middle of a dwarven circle with axes pointing out toward whatever might dare attack.

But these were not battle-hardened fighters. Their reactions were slow. They saw the danger far too late and while I saw it somewhat earlier, I foolishly thought the pigeon would pull up or bank left or do something other than fly beak-first into my forehead.

When I recovered my senses, I naturally demanded blood. That was when the nominal leader of the dwarves, Grodni, handed over the note fastened to the pigeon’s one and only leg.

‘Find attached credit note to cover your next week’s worth of expenses. Please send first article back by return of pigeon. Your faithful Editor.’

I glared at the pigeon. The pigeon looked around brainlessly in random directions, specks of red still glistening on its beak. I took the parchment I’d completed from my backpack and squeezed it into a cylinder that was then reattached to the pigeon’s leg.

I threw the bird up into the air and it took flight again, loosing a sinister avian chuckle as it did so. Still, that particular moment didn’t afford me time to ponder the import of this, because Grodni was pointing out to the fields with his axe and saying: ‘tell me that looks damned wrong to you, because it looks damned wrong to me.’

Long shadows were stretching toward us from the scarecrows, despite the insipid sun shining at our backs. The vengeance of a hundred ancient kings was upon us.

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