66. The Miracle

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Feb.03, 2011

At my command, the air exploded with phraxmusketfire, blinding white and deafeningly loud. A fettlelegger let out a strangulated cry and crumpled to the ground. A flathead fell a moment later. But the others kept coming, their eyes blazing and weapons brandished, bellowing like wild animals. I recharged my musket and fired again. A stocky woodtroll with a studden cudgel bit the dust…

‘Retreat!’ It was Hench the cloddertrog. I’d tried, and failed, to hit their ringleader. Now he was the one taking control of events. ‘Retreat!’

As quickly as they had appeared, so the renegade Defenders of the First Age disappeared. I could hear them rustling in the undergrowth, whispering – and caught sight of two of them dashing off along the lakeside to try and get round to the back of the hivehouse. If they made it, it could prove fatal.

Terrified by the sounds of battle, Vitus started screaming, and Lara left her post to comfort him. Bragsworn turned to me.

‘I know this lot,’ he said darkly. ‘They won’t easily give up.’

I shook my head. What we needed was a miracle – and, grizzly old cynic that I am, miracles are something I don’t believe in.

It was stalemate. We were under siege, with twenty or so Defenders waiting to launch a fresh attack. How long they would wait, I didn’t know. Until daybreak? Until we fell asleep – or grew weak with hunger? If Bragsworn was right, then we were in for a long haul.

But then, all at once, I noticed that events were moving. There was activity going on in the trees and my heart missed a beat when I realized what they were doing.

‘Bragsworn,’ I hissed, and pointed.

They had a primitive wooden catapult on wheels and enough blazing tallow logs to burn down a small town. The pair of us opened fire in the direction of the catapult. Our phraxbullets thudded into the ironwood strusts, but did little damage.

‘This is your last chance!’ came Hench’s gruff voice. ‘It’s the phrax-powered monstrosity we want to destroy. Give up now and your lives will be spared. Keep resisting, and you’ll be destroyed along with it! All of you! Even that young whelp I heard scream…’

His brutal threats abruptly fell still. There was a thudding noise, then another, and someone cried out. Fearing some kind of trap, I neither responded nor made a move. The next moment, Hench the cloddertrog came crashing out of the undergrowth. He was clutching at his chest and there was blood pouring over his hands as he stumbled towards us. He didn’t make it. With a low grunt, he toppled forward, fell heavily to the ground – and remained there.

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‘Hedgethorn!’ I heard. ‘Hedgethorn, old friend, are you all right?’

I gasped. I recognized that voice. It was Forden. I stuck my head out of the window and, looking up, saw the Varis Lodd skimming the tops of the trees. And there, at the stern, his phraxmusket firing down at our attackers, was Forden Drew himself.

With their commander down, the rest of the Defenders showed little desire to keep fighting. And as the little phraxlighter came down low over the Farrow Lake, they scattered in all directions.

I raced outside, Bragsworn and Laria – with a now sleeping Vitus in her arms – following close behind. We stood in front of the little shack with the phraxloom we’d defended so bravely, and watched the vessel coming in to land. Captain Ironshank stepped down first, followed by Forden’s pet nameless one, Kultuft, who had grown even larger in the time that had passed since I’d last seen him. Finally, Forden Drew himself jumped to the ground.

‘Forden!’ I exclaimed, as we seized one another by the shoulders.

‘Hedgethorn!’ said Forden. ‘Looks like we arrived just in the nick of time.’ He grinned. ‘Still, all’s well that ends well. Whatever that lot were up to, they’ve got what they deserved. And I’m pleased to announce that our trip was also a success. I’ve got hold of five rods of phraxcrystal - more than enough for a dozen stilthouses!’

‘A dozen!’ I exclaimed. ‘The Third Age has finally arrived in our little settlement!’

Forden laughed delightedly. ‘And it only took six months to get here! I shall tell you of my adventures over a bottle of woodgrog…’

‘Six months,’ I said. ‘It it really that long?’ I shook my head. ‘It’s almost impossible to believe, Forden. You’re away for all that time, and arrive back just at the moment we need you most.’ And I laughed. ‘Maybe miracles can happen after all.’

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Feb 3rd 2011 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

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65. The Eastern Woods

Posted by Forden Drew on Jul.26, 2010

Firing up the phraxchamber of the Wind Zephyr and setting the flight levers to full steam, we soon left the dread canyons of the Midwoods far behind. What followed was a week of hard voyaging, as Captain Ironshank, Kultuft and I made our way across the cloud-filled expanse of the sky, heading ever eastwards towards our goal.

Finally, as our carefully rationed provisions began to run out, the horizon ahead was lit up by the unmistakeable glow of the Twilight Woods. I felt my pulse quicken as Captain Ironshank brought the Wind Zephyr down low over the treetops and, reducing speed, cast down the tree-anchor.

‘We’ll rest up here for the night,’ he announced, ‘then set off for the phraxmine at daybreak. We’ll go on foot as quietly as possible,’ he added, giving Kultuft a steely glance.

‘Don’t worry, Captain,’ I assured him. ‘Kultuft can be as stealthy as a lemkin when he needs to be.’ I patted my hulking companion on the head, and he gurgled happily.

‘I hope so,’ said Captain Ironshank, allowing himself a smile, ‘because we’ll need Kultuft here to carry the money chest.’

After a fitful night’s sleep beneath a honeyed full moon that bathed the Eastern Woods in a soft, golden light, I awoke just before dawn. We breakfasted on the last of our provisions – acorn-meal biscuits and woodgrog. But with plentiful game in the Deepwoods, and time on our side, we could stock up on our return journey, I knew. But first we had an appointment with a mine-sergeant, one Demdro Dax, an old friend of the captain’s.

Dax had agreed to supply us with five rods of phraxcrystal in return for the fortune in gold we carried in the large copperwood chest. With these crystals, Hedgethorn and my dream of building a stilt-factory in Farrow Lake would be realized. But the stakes were high. Demdro was taking a risk. Selling phraxcrystals at the minehead was highly illegal and the phraxguard of Great Glade patrolled these woods in search of smugglers like us.

But we had no choice. To buy crystals on the phraxmarket of Great Glade would have taken years and our gold would have been used up with bribes and backhanders long before we’d have a chance to bid for a phraxcrystal. This way, Great Glade ensured that industry remained in the city and the new settlements could not compete with it. I and Hedgethorn aimed to change that, but we knew the dangers we faced.

We set off after our meagre breakfast and crept through the woods until we came to the minehead itself, a dark tunnel mouth propped up by timber struts and disappearing down beneath the Twilight Woods which lay in the distance.

Demdro Dax was waiting for us. A tall fourthling with a shock of red hair and a vivid scar down one side of his face, he cut a distinctive figure standing in the tunnel’s mouth, with several heavily-armed cloddertrog guards by his side. Captain Ironshank greeted him warmly and, for several minutes, they swapped stories of the old days, when they’d served together on the sky-taverns of Great Glade.

But time was of the essence and a few nervous coughs from the cloddertrog guards brought their conversation to an end. Captain Ironshank gestured for Kultuft to step forward, and my faithful companion obeyed, placing the heavy copperwood chest of gold in front of the mine sergeant. In return, he reached into his jacket and drew out a slim lightbox and opened it. There, nestling on white velvet and illuminated by a small bark-oil lamp, were five perfectly-formed shards of phraxcrystal.

‘Hurry,’ Demdro Dax urged. ‘The phraxmarine’s dawn patrol could appear at any moment…’

As if in answer to his words, a heavily-armed phraxlighter appeared on the horizon, its twin phraxcannon blazing. The minehead echoed to the deafening roar of exploding phraxshells, and Dax and his guards fled back into the safety of the tunnel. Ironshank, Kultuft and I turned and ran back the way we’d come. We arrived back at the Wind Zephyr footsore and gasping for breath, the forest behind us alive with the sound of phrax explosions and musket fire.

Setting the flight levers for full steam, we left the Eastern Woods behind and embarked on an arduous three-month journey back to our beloved Farrow Lake.

One day, when my beard is grey and my back is crooked, I’ll sit by the fire and entertain the young’uns with accounts of that voyage – of the white goblins of the ravines, the singing of the giant tree-fromps and the mighty prowlgrin migration…

But these tales are for another time. Suffice it to say, when our little phraxlighter finally crested the ironwood pies and Farrow Lake came into view, I expected a warm welcome from my old friend, Hedgethorn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me outside his hive-house beside the lake…

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Posted by Forden Drew on Jul 26th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

64. The Loom Shack

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Jun.21, 2010

‘Too late… Too late…’ Bragsworn’s words were ringing inside my head.

Certainly it wasn’t looking good. There were two of us and twenty of them. At least. All I had to defend myself was my knife, and although Bragsworn had a phraxpistol, we were so outnumbered it wasn’t even worth him pulling it from his belt.

The rowdy mob came barrelling towards us, clubs and swords brandished in their hands, and roaring drunken promises of what they would do to us with them when they caught us. I turned to Bragsworn. He was staring back at the advancing rabble – members of the so-called Defenders of the First Age – frozen with fear.

‘Too late, Bragsworn?’ I said. ‘If there’s one thing this life has taught me, it is that it is never too late. RUN!

I grabbed his arm and tugged him after me, and the pair of us dashed off into the darkness of the trees. Behind us, our would-be attackers roared with frustration and rage.

‘Stop ‘em!’ I heard them bellow. ‘Cut ‘em off!’ ‘Kill ‘em!

We crashed through the low branches and dense undergrowth, the bloodcurdling cries of our attackers ringing in our ears behind us. I glanced round once, then again a while later, then a third time – and was relieved to see that we seemed to be leaving them behind. But then I heard something. Something that dashed that relief in an instant and chilled me to the marrow; a voice – their leader – plotting their next move.

‘Head for the hive-house!’ he roared. ‘Smash the phraxloom! Victory to the Defenders of the First Age!

The hive-house! Where Laria and Vitus were sleeping…

‘This way,’ I hissed to Bragsworn, cutting up to the left and onto a short-cut track I hoped our pursuers did not know.

Bragsworn followed, but from his laboured breathing I could tell he was beginning to flag. I wasn’t about to leave him behind. Not only because that would mean abandoning him to certain death, but because I would need him with me more than ever when we arrived back at the hive-house – if we arrived there.

‘Not far now,’ I encouraged him. ‘Just a little bit further, Bragsworn. You can do it, my friend.’

With the moonlit Farrow Lake flashing between the trees to our right as we continued along the high track, we kept on. I glanced round again. The Defenders were further behind us, but I could still see the flickering of their flaming torches. They hadn’t given up the chase.

‘There it is,’ I said as we emerged from the treeline and my lakeside hive-house came into view, its curved roof and the adjacent shingle-topped loom shack silhouetted against the moon. I pointed to the lopsided shack. ‘Wait for me in there!’ I told Bragsworn and, before he could argue, dashed inside the hive-house.

‘Laria! Laria!’ I bellowed.

‘Hedgethorn?’ came a drowsy voice from the sleep-loft. ‘Is that you?’

‘Get up, Laria! Get Vitus!’ I commanded as I took the stairs two at a time, knelt down at my wooden chest and began rummaging through its contents. ‘Go to the loom shack. We can defend it better than the hive-house… NOW!

Maybe, as the former wife of a Freeglade Lancer, Laria was used to such emergencies. I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, moments later, without me having to explain what was going on, she was out of her hammock and hurrying down the stairs, with Vitus, still swaddled and sleeping, clamped to her chest. I followed her moments later, my phraxpistol in one hand and the old rusty phraxmusket in the others.

By the time I reached the loom shack, Laria and Bragsworn had introduced themselves to each other and from the reproachful look on Laria’s face, I knew Bragsworn must have told her what had happened at the Split Willow. I glanced out of the window. The Defenders were nowhere to be seen – but I could hear them, their drunken howls cutting through the cold night air.

‘Where’s Vitus?’ I said.

Laria nodded to an alcove at the back of the shack, behind the loom. I nodded back.

‘Right, Bragsworn,’ I said. ‘Defend the doorway.’ Bragsworn pulled his phraxpistol from his belt and knelt down, the barrel pointing out at the trees. I turned to Laria and thrust my own phraxpistol into her hands. ‘You ever used one of these before?’

‘Yes, I… But what about you?’ she said.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I said as she took the phraxpistol and crouched down at the window, the heavy barrel resting on the ledge.

Outside, the bloodthirsty roar grew louder as the Defenders got nearer. I hurried across to the phraxloom and, though my fingers were badly shaking, managed to transfer the crystal of phrax from Laria’s loom back into the old phraxmusket I had taken it from. I could only hope that my trusty weapon would still work.

Back at the window, I crouched down next to Laria. She turned and gave me a brave smile. I smiled back – then tore my gaze away as the first of the Defenders of the First Age suddenly burst from the trees. I turned and raised a hand to still the others. More tumbled out of the forest, bellowing, roaring, eyes full of hate. The fettleleggers and webfoots I’d seen; the two battle-scarred flatheads. And the hulking cloddertrog, Hench…

‘Earth and Sky protect us all,’ I whispered as my finger pressed against the trigger. ‘FIRE!!!

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Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Jun 21st 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

63. Battle of the Floating Fortress – Part Three

Posted by Forden Drew on Jun.10, 2010

What unfolded in the next few moments is still a blur in my mind. The tallow-hats, candles blazing from the brims of their crushed funnel hats, charged forward onto the deck of the Rainseeker and set about the crew with long-scythes, pitch-irons and razor-pikes. As I dodged swinging blades and grappling bodies, I was able to discharge my phraxpistol into the melee and bring down several of the burly invaders. But all too soon, my luck ran out.

I stepped aside as a mean-faced goblin with half a nose and an empty socket where an eye once had been, lashed out at me with a sabre. The next instant, I felt a crushing blow to the back of my head and pitched forward into blackness.

When I came round, the deck fight was over. I was lying in a pool of blood – thankfully most of it not my own – amongst the stricken bodies of tallow-hats felled by the disciplined phraxmusket fire of the Rainseeker’s crew. Towering protectively over me and clutching a chunk of balustrade as a makeshift club, was Kultuft, my nameless one. Beside him stood Captain Gart Ironshank. Seeing me stir, the captain offered me his hand and helped me to my feet.

‘That was a close-run thing, Forden,’ he said ruefully, ‘and you seemed to be in the thick of it. Took a nasty blow to the head, I see…’

Before I had a chance to answer, there came a roar from the prow of the Rainseeker as its phraxcannon was discharged. Ahead of us, the central tower of the sumpwood stockade into which the tallow-hats had retreated to make a final stand exploded. A mass of splinters and burning shards of sumpwood rained down on us as, through the steam and smoke, the dazed looking defenders of the floating fortress threw down their tallow-hats and stamped on their candles.

At this signal of surrender, the burly, battle-scarred crew around us gave a mighty cheer and sky pirate captain, Throg Skullbaiter, made his way down from the helm of the Rainseeker.

‘Well fought, lads!’ he announced. ‘Now let’s free the slaves and put a torch to this accursed fortress.’

The crew obeyed, prising open the heavy trapdoors in the wooden floor of the stockade and freeing a hundred or so ragged, gaunt-faced captives below. Trogs, slaughterers, oakelves and woodtrolls – the tallow-hats had enslaved a cross section of midwoods’ dwellers after plundering their settlements and razing them to the ground.

Now it was the tallow-hats’ turn to taste their own medicine. Their leader, a hard-faced fourthling by the name of Lemlott Scrave lay mortally wounded in the smouldering ruins of the stockade and angrily waved away all offers of help. Turning away, Captain Skullbaiter ushered the freed slaves and the captured tallow-hats, now bare headed and grim faced, on board the sky pirate ship and threw the phraxchamber into reverse.

With a creaking and splintering sound, the Rainseeker broke away from the stockade and turned about, its funnel belching steam. From the deck, the captain threw a burning torch down into the wrecked stockade, which had begun to list badly to one side as its gantries and turrets succumbed to the flames.

Then, as the sky galleon gained speed, the floating fortress behind us rose in a great ball of flame and shot up into Open Sky. The sky pirate turned to Gart, Kultuft and me, then nodded towards our phrax-lighter, the Wind Zephyr.

‘Time to cut you loose,’ he said…

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Posted by Forden Drew on Jun 10th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

62. Escape from the Tavern

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on May.25, 2010

I opened my eyes. The darkness swirled. I didn’t know where I was. I lifted my head to look round, but when I did so, a sharp pain filled my skull. I flopped back and closed my eyes again.

There were muffled voices coming from the other side of the wall. Some I recognized. Hench and the other conspirators were in the middle of a heated argument. Mother Redwattle was trying to quieten them down, but without much success. Then I heard my own name, and winced. They must be deciding how to deal with me. So much for my attempts to glean information about the smashed loom…

You were a fool to come here in the first place.

The sharp voice inside my head came as a shock, and I sat bolt upright despite the stabs of pain at my temples and behind my eyes.

I’m sorry, Hedgethorn, but I had no option. When I saw that cloddertrog wielding that machete of his, I pretended to side with them. I hit you over the head and dragged you into the store-room. Better a sore head, I thought, than no head at all.

‘Threnodesse?’ I said. ‘Is that you?’

It is, Hedgethorn,‘ the voice said, and I heard a match being struck. Abruptly, flickering candlelight illuminated my surroundings, and I saw the windowless little store-room she had brought me to. Three of its walls were lined with shelves laden with goblets and tankards, and I was lying on a straw mattress that had been pushed up against the fourth wall, behind the door.

The waif emerged from the shadows. Carrying a candle-holder in one hand and a small black leather bag in the other, she crossed the room and crouched down beside me. She inspected the bump on the side of my head. It was tender to the touch, but as she smoothed in the ointment she took from her bag, the pain subsided to a dull throb.

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‘You’re the Split-Willow’s tavern waif?’ I said.

‘For my sins,’ said Threnodesse with a sigh. ‘After our Great Glade mission, I’d had enough of corrupt bigwigs – then Mother Redwattle offered me the job here.’ Beyond the wall, the voices were getting rowdier. Threnodesse shook her head. ‘Trouble is, Hedgethorn, rich or poor, some folks are good and some…’ She paused. ‘Are just rotten.’

‘The Defenders of the First Age,’ I muttered grimly.

At that moment, there came a ferocious thumping at the door.

‘This place is a hot-bed of their rebellion,’ Threnodesse confirmed as the thumping grew louder. ‘They aim to put an end to any use of phrax-driven machines in the Farrow Ridges. Even if it means civil war.’

Just then, the wooden frame started to splinter. I leaped to my feet, seeing stars as I did so, and staggered backwards. Threnodesse caught me.

Quickly,‘ she said, speaking inside my head once more as she steered me across the room. In the shadows I saw a second door. She turned the key and pulled it open. ‘Your friend Bragsworn has promised to help you, she said. ‘He slipped out unnoticed and is waiting for you by the well out back. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.

She pushed me out into the cold night and locked the door behind me. A moment later I heard the inside door splinter and crash to the floor as it was kicked open. The shouting grew louder. I started running, dodging the empty ale kegs and wine casks. The angry voices grew fainter.

‘Bragsworn,’ I said, as a familiar figure stepped out from the shadows behind the well.

‘I gave them the slip, Hedgethorn,’ he began, his eyes looking round wildly. ’But we’ve got to get out of here before they track us down and finish us both off.’

I orientated myself. If we head left and keep to the forest, it should bring us out near to my hive-house,’ I told him. ‘We’ll be safe there.’

But Bragsworn didn’t move. Instead, he nodded back the way I’d just come, where swords, machetes and studded clubs glinted in the light of flaming torches and swaying lanterns as the baying mob blundered towards us.

‘I fear, Hedgethorn,’ he said, ‘it’s already too late…’

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on May 25th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

61. Battle of the Floating Fortress – Part Two

Posted by Forden Drew on May.10, 2010

The hideous flock of glowing-eyed rotsuckers descended on the sky galleon, claws spread and snouts dripping. Around me on the deck of the Rainseeker, the sky pirates sprang into action.

A team of burly trogs and flatheads leaped onto the phraxchamber’s scaffolding, swinging large double-edged axes at the rotsuckers, that were landing and attempting to gain a clawhold on the iron struts. The bat-like creatures hissed and spat streams of bile as twenty or so of their number were decapitated and sent spiralling down into the gloom below.

I crouched in fascinated terror as a grim battle unfolded on the foredeck in front of me. A powerful harpooneer in plated body armour had swung his swivel-mounted phraxcannon around and loosed a barbed harpoon at a cluster of black crouching rotsuckers. It pierced six of their number as it swept across the foredeck and disappeared over the side into the darkness. Four more of the hideous creatures fell upon the harpooneer who, despite his armour, was torn apart by their razor-sharp claws.

Suddenly, flashes of light lit up the fore and aft decks as the sky pirates opened up a fusilade of phraxmusket fire. The phraxbullets must have been incendiary, for, as they found their mark, rotsuckers burst into balls of flame. As the flock scattered, the flames spread to the streams of bile that poured from the rotsuckers’ snouts, creating an extraordinary pyrotechnic display in the dark air. The musket-fire had cleared the decks, though at the cost of ten or so sky pirates who lay horribly disfigured in pools of blood.

Danger was far from over. As I got to my feet, the deck shuddered and sent me tumbling. From below came the sound of claws scrabbling and scratching as they embedded themselves in the ship’s hull. The Rainseeker shuddered once more and then began to roll back and forth with increasing momentum.

‘They’re trying to turn us turvy!’ came Captain Skullbaiter’s shouted warning from the helm. ‘Everybody hold fast!’

With that, there came a hissing blast from the phraxchamber, and the funnel belched forth a billowing cascade of smoke. I ventured a look over the side as the sky galleon suddenly put on a burst of speed. Below, I could just see a mass of black shapes dotted with glowing eyes, hanging from the hull of the Rainseeker like monstrous sky-barnacles. Even as the ship gathered speed, more rotsuckers seemed to be landing and clinging on to its underside. A few more, and they would drag us down into the depths of the canyon with disastrous results.

‘Prepare for impact!’ bellowed the captain from the helm, and I crouched down on the deck and gripped the gunwales.

The Rainseeker had now reached its maximum speed and ahead the ramparts of the sumpwood stockade rose up to meet us. There was an ear-splitting crash as the hull timbers of the ship slammed into the sumpwood logs of the stockade. The flock of rotsuckers clinging to the Rainseeker were sloughed from its underside in screaming, twisting shards as the funnel of the phraxchamber enveloped us in steam.

The phrax vapour cleared to reveal the sky galleon embedded in the fort’s facade. I had been considerably shaken up by the collision, as had most of the Rainseeker’s crew. Shakily, I reached for my phraxpistol and rose to my feet. The rotsuckers had been repelled, but now a new danger appeared out of the rising mist to take their place. The tallow-hats – hundreds of them – armed to the teeth and with murder in their eyes.

The Battle for the Floating Fortress had only just begun…

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Posted by Forden Drew on May 10th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

60. The Split-Willow Tavern

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Apr.22, 2010

The sun was sinking down beneath the Western Woods as I made my way along the Farrow Lake, then cut back along a track that led into the forest to the north. After a hundred strides or so, I came to a clearing with a curious fork-trunk willow at its centre, with a sign – the Split-Willow Tavern – dangling on chains between the two trunks. Behind it, nestling in the shadows, was the tavern itself.

It was a squat, single-storey wood cabin, with a crooked chimney emerging from the pitch roof and dozens of empty woodale barrels and sapwine casks piled up against its walls. The place had only been open a few months and was already, by some accounts, was ‘nothing but a den of thieves’.

The thing was, if I was to take the law into my own hands, I needed help. And what better place to find a band of like-minded souls than a tavern, where all sorts gathered and, as the woodale flowed, tongues loosened and allegiances could be forged?

All the same, I checked the phraxpistol at my belt as I halted by the door. A clamour of voices was coming from inside. I pushed the tavern door open and stepped over the threshold – and the voices fell still.

The tavern was gloomy, with the smoking oil-lamps seeming to cast more shadow than light. There were rows of spigotted barrels stacked at the far end, and a wooden drinking trough, frothing with ale, along one wall. Drinkers stood in clusters, or sat at roughhewn tables on log benches, the dull yellow light glinting in their suspicious eyes as they stared at me.

‘Welcome,’ came a voice, and a stout shryke matron in a crisp apron and speckled headscarf came striding towards me. It was Mother Redwattle, the owner of the tavern. ‘What can I get you?’

I ordered a tankard of woodporter and was shown to a table in the far corner. She brought me my drink and, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I surveyed my drinking companions, raising my drink in greeting to any who made eye contact. There were two young fettleleggers from the southern shores, a group of webfoots, a hulking cloddertrog and two battle-scarred flatheads; a grizzled old slaughterer and his son, two woodtrolls…

‘I know you, don’t I?’ said one of the flatheads, striding across to me. I looked up and recognized him as one of the Freeglade Lancers who had ridden beside me at the Battle of Farrow Lake. ‘Hedgethorn Lammergyre, isn’t it?’

‘Bragsworn!’ I exclaimed, and the two of us knocked our drinking-tankards together in greeting. ‘Draw up a seat.’

As the ale flowed, we fell into easy conversation about the war and fallen comrades – comrades like Parvis Helm. I told him about Laria Chillax, and Vitus. He in turn talked of his family, of the house he’d built and, as we quaffed yet another tankard, he went on at length about the drainage ditches he was working on with his brother to irrigate a piece of newly-cleared farmland.

‘These days, there are so many new innovations which could help you do that,’ I told him. ‘Phraxengines to dig the ditches, phraxpumps to shift the water…’

As I spoke, I saw Bragsworn tense. All around us the atmosphere seemed to change.

‘So, you’re all for this so-called phrax revolution, are you, friend?’ the hulking cloddertrog called from across the other side of the tavern.

‘He’s all right is Hedgethorn, Hench,’ said Bragsworn. ‘I can vouch for him.’

But the cloddertrog wasn’t listening. He climbed to his feet and, fists clenched, started towards me. Others stood up in support. I leaped to my feet, my hand gripping the handle of my phraxpistol. I waited for his next move, my gaze never leaving his for a moment, then swallowed as I saw the vicious-looking machete that Hench had produced, seemingly out of nowhere.

‘Now, now,’ I heard Mother Redwattle squawk, as she bustled towards us, a heavy flail swinging from one hand. ‘I’ll have no violence in my tavern.’

I raised my hands defensively. ‘I want no trouble,’ I said.

Then why did you come here? The voice was in my head. Forgive me, Hedgethorn, but this is for your own good…

The next moment, I felt a ferocious blow to the side of my head. The pain was red and angular and numbing. I saw stars, that blurred and spun as I keeled to one side, and was falling, falling. Then blackness closed in…

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Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Apr 22nd 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

59. Battle of the Floating Fortress – Part One

Posted by Forden Drew on Apr.11, 2010

The horror of what I witnessed that day will stay with me as long as I live, and I hope I never have to venture into such regions of dark depravity again. If I ever doubted the justness of Captain Skullbaiter and the crew of the Rainseeker’s mission, such reservations were banished when I saw the sumpwood stockade of the tallow-hats.

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As soon as the captain had ordered his men to their battle-stations, I had taken up a position on the foredeck, behind one of the ironwood gunwales, with a spy-hatch that afforded me an excellent view of the sky ahead. My companions, Gart and Kultuft, had taken the captain’s advice and sought the safety of the quartermaster’s cabin below decks, but I’m afraid to say, I’d allowed my curiosity to get the better of me with my decision to stay on deck.

That curiosity was satisfied all too soon as the Rainseeker entered a region of towering escarpments and deep, shadow-filled ravines. With great skill and whispered commands, Captain Skullbaiter navigated a course ever deeper into these gloomy canyons, whose sides were verdant with lush vegetation – great cascading curtains of moss, shelves of mouldtrees and sporeblooms, and mottled lichen the size of trees. The further we went, the darker it became, a dank, cloying mist cutting out the daylight and giving our surroundings a nightmarish, deathly grey aspect.

‘Ready the phraxcannons,’ came the whispered order and, squinting through my spy-hatch, I saw a great, jagged form loom up before us.

As the Rainseeker drew nearer, I discerned pin-points of light moving to and fro along the walkways and gantries of an immense timber fortress. The stockade hung in mid-air in the dark recesses of a canyon, its buoyant sumpwood construction allowing it to float in the dismal air on the end of a lattice of ropes, like some vast rockspider at the centre of a monstrous web. Beneath the stockade were huge bunches of tar-black pods hanging from slimy tendrils in clusters that disappeared down into the gloom.

‘Fire!’ roared Captain Skullbaiter from the helm and, on either side of me, and from all parts of the sky galleon, the Rainseeker’s phraxcannon erupted into life. Their barrels blazing, they poured a fusilade of phraxshells into the walkways and gantries of the sumpwood stockade, which splintered and shattered and burst into flames.

As if in answer, like termites whose nest had been disturbed, the battlements of the stockade lit up with a swarm of flickering lights - but no phraxfire was returned as the Rainseeker turned about and its crew feverishly re-loaded. Instead, a terrible hissing sound erupted from the shadows beneath the floating fortress as a thousand glowing eyes opened and trained their gaze upon the Rainseeker.

‘Steady, lads!’ came Captain Skullbaiter’s voice. ‘Phraxpistols and deck-scythes at the ready. Don’t let them get their claws into the hull!’

His words filled me with misgiving, but that was nothing compared to the panic that gripped me when I looked out once more through the spy-hatch. The sumpwood fortress was ablaze in places, and in the firelight I could make out clusters of savage-looking individuals in funnel hats topped with lighted tallow candles, hacking away burning wreckage and dousing the flames with bucketfuls of sodden earth. But this is not what sent the shudder of panic coursing down my spine. Instead, it was the sight of what was emerging from among the clusters of pods beneath the stockade.

It was an immense, ragged horde of glowing-eyed rotsuckers, their tendril snouts dripping with strands of bile and their scimitar-sharp claws quivering. A thousand strong, these bat-like monstrosities closed in on the Rainseeker with a cacophony of wheezing hisses…

Posted by Forden Drew on Apr 11th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

58. The Phraxshell

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Apr.05, 2010

Lucia had sobbed for hours, inconsolable. ‘Why?’ she kept saying. ‘Why, why, why?’

I tried to explain to her the motives of the self-appointed Defenders of the First Age – fanatics, hellbent on curbing the changes to the Edge caused by the harnessing of the power of stormphrax. They wish to return to a simpler time – as they see it, a nobler time – when the sacred crystals of lightning were used for nothing more sinister than weighting down the floating rock of Old Sanctaphrax.

To an extent, I understand their longing for the past. After all, that was why I left Hive for this isolated outpost of the Farrow Ridges. I too yearned for a simpler – a nobler - way of life. And yet, even though stone sickness has finally been cured, and buoyant rocks are once again growing in the distant Stone Gardens, I recognize that our new technology can never be unlearned.

‘I’ll build you a new loom,’ I told Laria and, when she looked doubtful, added, ‘I did it once, I can do it again.’

As I set to work, I discovered that the loom wasn’t quite as badly damaged as I’d at first thought. Although most of the wood had indeed been reduced to splinters, some of the metal parts were salvageable. Slowly, methodically, I constructed a new frame, and the carved spindles and rods that would house the shuttle-spools. Two weeks later the loom was ready, but for it to work, I needed a crystal of phrax large enough to power it. I had no idea how I could come by such a thing.

So I set off to think this problem over in a peaceful, tranquil place – fishing on the Farrow Lake in my coracle. As the sun was beginning to set, I pulled in my net, and along with the usual haul of reedtench, mudtrout and chubblings, I saw an unexploded phraxshell. It must have gone astray during a bombardment of the Battle of Farrow Lake. It was half a stride long, dull grey, ironwood-tipped and with brass bolts holding the panelled casing in place – a casing that enclosed the explosive device which, if I wasn’t careful, would blow me to Open Sky.

I laid the phraxshell gingerly down at the bottom of the tiny vessel and paddled back to shore as fast as my shaking hands would allow. I dragged the coracle up the beach and ran to fetch my tool-belt from my hive-house, relieved to find that Laria had gone out, and taken Vitus with her. Back at the waterside, I placed the phraxshell on a folded blanket, selected a boltdriver, its head the same size as the bolts, and set to work.

In all my life, time has never moved so slowly. Seconds took minutes. Minutes seemed to last for hours. My hands shook and my brow was beaded with sweat as I undid first one bolt from the upper panel, then another, and another. By the time the fourth bolt came free, and I laid the piece of casing to one side, my shirt was drenched.

I studied the inside of the explosive device; the fluted brass disc, the latticed phraxball and the heavy, coiled iron spring that, on impact, would have driven the disc backwards, crushing the crystal of stormphrax and causing the whole lot to explode. This shell had had no hard impact though. When it struck the water, it had simply plunged down into the depths of the lake, where it had remained – unexploded, yet deadly – waiting for my fishing net to scoop it up. The trick would be to extract the spring without allowing it to slam into the disc.

I pulled a pair of pliers from my belt and gripped one end of the spring. Then, wedging the end of the boltdriver into the small gap at the other end, I started to lever the coiled metal out of its moorings. A drip of sweat fell down onto the latticed phraxball and I held my breath, terrified the whole lot was about to go up. When it didn’t, I resumed the careful levering, easing the end of the coil slowly – so slowly – upwards.

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All at once, there was a scrape of metal and a soft click, and the taut spring leaped free of the phraxshell. I heard a splash behind me as it landed in the water. Inside the phraxshell, the disc slipped back and the phraxball rolled harmlessly to one side.

I picked it up, then unscrewed the two halves of the outer shell and squinted down at the brightly glittering shard of phraxcrystal nestling inside its glowwormskin ‘twilight’ sheath.

I could scarcely believe I was still alive. I had to admit that my hand was shaking. This was a splinter of solidified lightning, a shard of immense energy that could easily have blown me to Open Sky and oblivion. As my fingers closed around the glowing phraxcrystal, and my hand balled to a fist, I silently vowed to catch and unmask the so-called Defenders of the First Age – and to do that, I had to bait a trap…

Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Apr 5th 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

57. Keel-Chained

Posted by Forden Drew on Mar.22, 2010

The distinctive crack of phraxcannon rang out from the foredeck of the sky-pirate galleon. Moments later, I felt the Wind Zephyr shudder beneath me and, looking round, saw two phrax-propelled grappling hooks embedded in our aftdeck.

The chains they trailed jerked taut, and the Wind Zephyr came to an abrupt halt. From the galleon came shouted commands, and figures hunched over powerful winches began to haul us in.

‘Well, well, well, what have we here?’ a deep, growling voice boomed from the helm of the sky-pirate galleon as the Wind Zephyr clattered against its hull and was held fast. ‘A couple of cloud-manged ratbirds and a… what is that?’

Looking up, I saw a burly individual in a heavy flight-coat and old-fashioned tricorn hat descend from the helm and stride across the deck. With the tell-tale blotches on his face and neck, and his tufted ears, I saw that this individual was a mottled goblin. He stood at the balustrade as his crew, a wild-looking bunch of hammerhead goblins, flatheads and several hulking brogtrolls, pulled the three of us aboard.

‘What is that?’ the mottled goblin captain repeated, gesturing towards Kulltuft.

‘Kulltuft is a nameless one from the Nightwoods. He’s my friend and companion,’ I answered.

‘Well, just keep him under control,’ said the captain, ‘or I’ll have him chained and thrown in the brig.’ He smiled a sharp-toothed, wolfish smile. ‘You are guests of Captain Throg Skullbaiter and the crew of the Rainseeker,’ he announced, ‘and your vessel will be keel-chained until our current enterprise is concluded.’

Beside me, Captain Gart Ironside grimaced. The sky-pirate captain was informing us that the Wind Zephyr was to be secured to his vessel’s keel and would be towed in its wake on whatever this enterprise was.

‘We are honourable sky pirates,’ Captain Skullbaiter went on, ‘and we respect the code of the clouds. You will not be harmed during your stay with us - if you give us your word you will not attempt to escape. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, and if we’d let you go, you might have alerted the enemy.’

‘The enemy?’ I said, as around me the crew levelled their phraxmuskets at our chests.

‘The sumpwood stockade of the tallow-hats – a band of brigands and slavers who have been laying waste to this region of the midwoods for far too long.’

Gart and I exchanged glances. It seemed we had little choice. Captive though the Wind Zephyr was, the sky pirates had showed no sign of searching her and discovering our chest of treasure. We would do well not to provoke them.

‘We give you our word, we will not attempt to escape. But you, in turn, must agree to release us once your mission is concluded,’ Gart informed him.

The captain nodded. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘Now, I suggest you go below decks and take shelter in the quartermaster’s cabin, for we are about to go into battle…’

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Posted by Forden Drew on Mar 22nd 2010 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

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