Archive for January, 2009

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6. How to Catch, Skin and Cook a Barksalamander

I’m from Hive, born and raised inside the great city’s boundary limits. Few wild creatures from the surrounding Deepwoods ever ventured within. The only creatures I saw with any regularity were the dead hammelhorns and prowlgrins which, when their useful lives as draw-animals was over, were slaughtered and rendered for tallow – the tallow I made my candles from.

Out here in the Farrow Ridges, it is a different story. The whole place teems with wildlife. When I first arrived, their unfamiliar noises spooked me – squealing quarms and chattering lemkins; razorflits screeching as they swooped down on prey; the chirruping of skullpeckers and curious hooting of the giant tree fromps. The sounds of creaures I knew existed, but had never before encountered.

Some creatures here, however, are unknown back east; creatures that I have given names to. Shaggybirds and skittermice, for instance. And fourhorns, the timid tilder-like creatures that emerge from the Western Woods at dusk to drink from Farrow Lake. Closer to home, in the copperwood and yellowoak trees of High Farrow, are tagbears, nightshriekers – and the barksalamanders themselves.

I’d been living here for several months before I even knew they existed. For a start, they’re silent. More importantly, they’re well camouflaged, their mottled red-brown skin blending perfectly with the copperwood bark. Anyway, I remember the occasion well…

It was a sunny afternoon in late autumn, and I was up on High Farrow gathering woodnuts, when a couple of playful tagbearcubs caught my attention, leaping and hopping from branch to branch. One would chase the other, then, when it caught it up, they would both emit loud whoops of excitement; and then the chase would begin again, with the chaser and chased reversed. As the pair of them scampered up the trunk of a massive copperwood, I thought I saw a piece of bark move.

I looked more closely. It was an animal, I realized, and it was creeping slowly round the tree, flat against the trunk. It had angled limbs and splayed claws, a scaly prehensile tail and a diamond-shaped head. I watched how it used its flickering tongue to locate a knothole in the bark, then how it would thrust its head inside and emerge a moment later with a fat, wriggling bug in its mouth…

Winter was harsh that first year in the Western Woods, heavy snow falling before the leaves had even dropped. The tagbears and lemkins went into hibernation, the tilder and hammelhorn migrated west, while Farrow Lake froze rock hard. There was no food to be had. If it hadn’t been for the paltry supply of woodnuts and spudroots I’d laid up earlier in the year, I’d surely have starved.

One icy morning, I was foraging on High Farrow, when I saw my second barksalamander. This time I didn’t look it as an interesting woodland specimen; this time I saw it as lunch! I remembered how it had thrust its head into the knothole, and I contrived snares from split-twig springs and twists of twine. I attached them round the trunk, seven in all, the opened loops fixed at the entrances of the holes. The following morning I returned, expecting little, and was overjoyed to find that some of the snares had been tripped. Three dead barksalamanders dangled from the makeshift nooses.

Back at my hivehouse, having cut off their heads and made long incisions down their bellies, I strung them up by their forepaws. Then, slowly and carefully, I peeled the leathery skin down over the bodies, painstakingly cutting round the limbs, until the barksalamanderskin came free. It was roughly rectagonal, three hands wide and six hands long. It took thirty skins to create the jacket I now wear. And as for the meat…

At first, hungry, I simply cut it up, skewered the chunks and toasted them in the fire. It enabled me to survive that long, ice-bound winter. Later I experimented. The best meal I produced was by marinating the meat in brine and woodgrog, seasoning it with nibblick and margerygrass, and simmering it until it was tender. It was a supper fit for a clan chief!

That is the supper I am about to prepare for my neighbour, the young fourthling who has taken up residence in the pit house he dug himself on the far side of Farrow Lake. He has been there several weeks now. I have seen his fires; I have heard the tap-tap-tap of his pickaxe, the scrape of his spade, the thud of his hatchet. Now we have met, face to face.

This morning, I was out on the water in my coracle, a vessel I made myself from plaited yellowoak staves and tilder hide, and met him coming along the shore. We greeted one another and got to chatting. What caught my eye was the old military top-coat he was wearing – belonged to his father, so he told me. It brought back so many memories…

I look forward to getting to know this stranger better over a fine meal and a flagon of my best root. His name is Forden Drew.

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Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Jan 29th 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

5. The Caverneer

Leaving my pit house, I scouted the western shore of the Farrow Lake for most of the day. The Levels are low-lying and swampy, but the soil is rich and should make crop growing easy. As I approached the steep farrow of the Five Falls, I spotted a figure emerging from one of the water caverns high up above my head. I waved and shouted a greeting before embarking on an arduous climb up the south face of the farrow.

Two hours later, I reached the entrance to the first of the five water caverns. A strange figure sat on an outcrop beside the great gushing waterfull. He wore an iron-pot helmet, leather jerkin and stout iron-capped boots, a lamp and a forage sack by his side. Spread out beneath him was a huge cape of what I took to be snailskin – mottled and greyish in colour, and taken from a lake-snail from one of the Four Lakes in the Northern Woods.

I raised a hand in greeting and the stranger bade me sit down, which I was glad to do. The thunder of the Five Falls made our conversation a difficult one, each having to shout to make his words heard above the watery din. The stranger introduced himself as Blatch Helmstoft, a mobgnome from the Eastern Woods, where he’d laboured in the phraxmines. I should have guessed from the tell-tale blue glint in his eyes, the result of working with phrax crystals. Blatch had had enough of the work, brutally hard, but, I believe, extremely well paid, and had taken a sky tavern out here to the Western Woods seven years ago. Now, he told me, he explores the mysterious water caverns that extend far down below the Farrow Ridges, finding food, shelter and even riches – gemstones and cavern-pearls and the like – in those dark, subterranean depths.

Blatch’s tales of white trogs, cave lampreys and magnificent fluted caverns, the size of Sanctaphrax palaces, filled me with wonder, and I asked if I might accompany him on one of his expeditions. The kindly old caverneer, for that is the name he gives his curious profession, readily agreed, and in return, I promised him the spare hammock and a feast of craycritters in my pit house whenever he tired of the cavern gloom. Promising to meet up on this very spot two weeks from now, I bade the caverneer farewell and set off for home by way of Midridge and the eastern shore.

As the evening shadows lengthened and the setting sun glittered on the waters of the Farrow Lake, I was brought to an abrupt halt by the sight of a figure pulling a finely-wrought coracle out of the lake. This, I decided at once, must be my secretive neighbour, a grizzled grey goblin by the look of it, and a Deepwooder of the old school. I was about to introduce myself, when the goblin gave an exclamation of surprise, his eyes fixed on the sleeve of my topcoat and the badge sewn there.

‘As I live and breathe,’ he gasped in astonishment, dropping the coracle and striding towards me, ‘the Second High Town Regiment of the Hive Militia…’

‘It was only then that I saw there were tears coursing down his cheeks…

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Posted by Forden Drew on Jan 29th 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

4. The Pit House

It took me the best part of three weeks to dig out the main room of my new home, but it was worth it. I chose the spot carefully at Low Farrow, between two tall lufwood trees on a low bluff overlooking the magnificent Farrow Lake, with the Five Falls in the distance.

The forests behind me yield plentiful game, while the Levels to the west look like a perfect location for a pumpkin patch or two – but not just yet, because I’ve had my fill of digging for the moment. As for the lake, the blue and black craycritters I’ve caught with a pole net have made excellent eating, and I’ve got plans to build a coracle to fish further out on its glittering waters.

But right now, I’m busy building a log roof to cover the pit I’ve dug, and lining the walls with ground moss and white bark. Next, I’ll turf the roof and build a balustrade where I can sit on long, warm evenings, watching the Five Falls thundering on the far side of Farrow Lake.

Can there be a more perfect spot in the whole of the Western Woods? Not even the Riverrise spring in the distant Darkwoods can compare to the Five Falls. At least, that’s what I imagine, as I’ve never been to the City of Night – though I’ve heard the tales of those who have.

My neighbour in the far distance, on the eastern shore of Farrow Lake, is keeping himself to himself. Perhaps I’ll pay him a visit, whoever he is…

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by Forden Drew on Jan 21st 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

3. The Night Terror

 

I had the night terror again last night. I woke up in pool of sweat, my mattress soaked through.

 

As usual, it began innocuously enough. I dreamed I was walking through the Deepwoods, dappled sunlight dancing on the forest floor. At first I was alone. Then Grablock and Grasp were beside me, their great cloddertrog feet pounding; and Chafe Sireswill the fourthling, too, his mixed ancestry clear in his large lop ears and fiery red hair. We chatted, laughed…

 

Then it was raining; hot, torrential rain that hissed and steamed. Thunder rumbled and crashed; lightning lit up the sky, the forest – and the burnished copperwood helmets upon our heads…

 

For it was then, as it always was then, that, with sickening dread, I realized we were dressed in uniforms; dark grey breeches, white waistcoats and light grey overcoats, the embroidered patches on our sleeves reading, 1st Low Town Regiment and marching into battle.

 

The thunder turned to the explosions of phraxcannon, the lightning to the dazzling flash of exploding shells. All round my head, white-hot leadwood bullets cut through the air like buzzing woodwasps, while my feet sank deep into the clinging mud that gripped my boots, making it impossible to flee.

 

Yes, I’d have deserted if I could, but I was trapped, like a butterfly pinned to a board, with only my phraxmusket to protect me…

 

A shell exploded to my right. I spun round to see the air filled with mud and blood and body parts. Grablock, I breathed. Grasp… The two cloddertrogs, pressganged into the regiment, were dead and would never return to their smithy.

 

I heard my voice being whispered, low and plaintive. I turned, to see Chafe Sireswill was lying in the mud, or rather, what was left of him. One arm was missing and there was a gaping hole in his chest, while the left side of his face had been smashed in; jaw crushed, cheek smashed and one eye loose in its shattered socket.

 

Hedge… thorn…’

 

I struggled towards him, driving myself on impossibly slowly as the mud gripped like strong, unseen hands. All round me the churned mud was littered with the dead and dying. Anguished cries of pain and low muffled groans filled the air, along with the drifting steam of the phraxweapons.

 

I fell to my knees and seized Chafe’s hand, whispering promises and reassurances that I knew were untrue, for he wouldn’t be all right; he would not survive. A flicker of happiness passed across my friend’s face as he recognized me – then, with a wheezing rattle at the back of his throat, he breathed his last.

 

The shock of witnessing his last moment set my hands shaking, and I dropped the phraxmusket. It fell to the ground and began to sink into the thick claggy mud. I scrabbled after it, desperate to retrieve it before the firing chamber clogged up. The mud released the phraxmusket with a soft squelch, and I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and was feverishly wiping away the mud when all at once something landed heavily behind me.

 

Before me stood a Freeglade Lancer on prowlgrinback. His lance was raised and his face, twisted with hatred for his enemy, loomed above me.

 

The battle crashed and boomed about us. Cannon balls rained down, killing the living and destroying the dead. The hiss and whistle of the incoming ordnance, the screaming and groaning of its victims; sounds that will haunt me till my death. And when a shell exploded close to my ear, I welcomed the temporary deafness it brought that left me unable to hear the terrible noise.

 

I raised my musket and aimed it at the lancer’s chest. His prowlgrin reared up. I pulled the trigger…

 

Nothing happened. Mud must have got into the mechanism after all. I pulled it again. Still nothing. I scuttled back, stumbling in the mud and landed flat on my back. The Freeglade Lancer, a brutal looking flathead goblin, leered and licked his lips as he advanced. He stood above me, lance raised, ready to strike. His eyes glared and I saw his mouth moving, though was unable to hear the words he said.

 

He wanted me dead, that much was clear. I tried to tell him that I was no enemy of Great Glade, that I had been pressganged into fighting, but, like the phraxmusket that wouldn’t fire its bullets, my throat, dry with terror, would not release my words.

 

There was nothing I could do. His hate-filled face grimaced. The lance came down and…

 

At that moment, I woke up. I was alone. I pulled myself from my mattress and sat with my head in my hands.

 

After the Battle of the Midwood Marshes, I did not return to Hive, and I had no stomach for Great Glade. Instead, I travelled here, to the Farrow Ridges, and built this fine hive house. The field of battle is now twelve years and many many miles away, yet has not released me from its terrifying grip.

 

Will the night terror never leave me in peace?

 

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Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Jan 21st 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

2. A Phraxmusket and an Ironwood Spade

That’s what they say it takes to make it out here in the Western Woods. When I say ‘they’, I mean the fromp-hunters, glade-stakers, timbersmiths and all the other old-time Deepwooders who roam these vast forests.

 

The phraxmusket is for hunting and, when the need arises, defending yourself. The ironwood spade is for digging. Not that the old-time Deepwooders set much store by digging because most of them are wanderers, always on the move. But for ‘stayers’ like me, the spade is even more useful than the musket.

 

My father was killed at the Battle of the Midwood Marshes, fighting in the Second High Town Regiment of the Hive Militia. Perhaps you’ve heard of the battle? A nasty, brutish fight in the mud, outside the Midwood Decks settlement. My mother died soon after, back in Hightown, so there was nothing to keep me in Hive, except their tailor shop and a mountain of debts. So I sold up and took a berth on a sky tavern bound for the Western Woods.

 

The Drews of Great Glade are wealthy factory owners, I believe, but we Hive Drews have always struggled to make ends meet. After settling my father’s debts, I had just enough to pay for my passage down in the hold of the Xanth Filatine, along with the rest of the Deepwoods dreamers…

 

Three months later, here I am in the Farrow Ridges of the Western Woods. When the Xanth Filatine dropped anchor at the Needles, and I saw the Five Falls, I knew that this was the place for me. So when the sky tavern continued on to New Hive, I remained behind, along with a few timbersmiths and trappers. They soon set off into the surrounding woods.

 

But not me. Like I said, I’m a ‘stayer’. I found a spot near the glistening waters of the Farrow Lake and, propping my phraxmusket up against a lufwood tree, took my ironwood spade in both hands and started digging…

 

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Posted by Forden Drew on Jan 21st 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off

1. The Noise

 The sky tavern, that had moored at the Needles overnight, had left by dawn, and the few timbersmiths and trappers it disgorged had set off into the woods. I was alone once more.

 

It was sunset when I first heard the noise. I jumped up, pulled my phraxpistol from my belt and aimed the barrel into the shadows as I turned slowly around. The noise continued, coming and going as the wind rose and fell. It was impossible to pinpoint, and I couldn’t see anything untoward, but I remained on my guard.

 

To the east, the slender Needles were silhouetted against the coming night. A colony of leathery-winged rockpeckers had made the place their home, but it wasn’t the sound of their beaks chipping into the brittle rock that I could hear.

 

Further south, the copperwood and yellowoak trees of High Farrow, were home to numerous creatures. But it was neither barksalamanders cracking woodnuts nor tagbears breaking branches for their treecots that I could hear; nor was it the clashing horns of rutting farrow-tilder.

 

No, this was a different type of sound entirely; too regular to be a farrows creature, too insistent for me to ignore…

 

Phraxpistol raised, I walked to the lakeside. The sky beyond Great Ridge was orange now, the tops of the jagged pines at its crest glinting like the points of a thousand burnished lances. Below it, the flooded Levels gleamed like liquid gold, while the water emerging from the Water Caverns high to my left, gushed out in a torrent, its booming roar all but drowning out every other sound. Yet above it, I could still hear the mysterious noise.

 

Tap tap tap, it went. Tap tap tap tap tap

 

It clinked and chimed, like metal striking stone and, though it was quite unlike the sounds that had become so familiar to me in the twelve long, solitary years I have spent out here in the Farrow Ridges, it stirred memories from the past – memories of a life I’d left far behind me in the mighty city of Hive.

 

For the first time in years, I found myself thinking of my modest tallow-making business in Hemtuft Square, and the neighbours I’d had back there. On one side were the brothers Grablock and Grasp, twin cloddertrog smithies. On the other was Chafe Sireswill, who’d produced potent sapgrog from fermented winesap skins. And then there was Riga, an elderly mobgnome who’d run the communal bathing vat. They’d all made noises like the noise I’d heard. Meg, with her packhammer, tapping at the encrustations on the brazier stone; Grablock and Grasp nailing metal hammelhornshoes to the creatures’ hoofs, and Chafe, hammering stone stoppers into the necks of the filled sapgrog flagons with an ironwood mallet.

 

Tap tap tap tap.

 

It wasn’t exactly the same as any of them. But it was similar, very similar; the sound of a tool being used to strike something hard by a goblin, trog or troll, and I knew there were none living close by…

 

I should probably have gone off to inspect, there and then, but I was reluctant to leave the smoke-racks. The gushing torrents had stirred up the lake and I’d managed to net several dozen siltfish that had flapped up to the surface, dazed and gulping. If the fire died down while I was away, the fish would not be properly smoked, and if it flared up, they’d be burned to a crisp. Either way, they would end up inedible, and with the harshness of  winter approaching, I couldn’t afford to let that happen.

 

Besides, the noise had stopped now and, as it grew darker, and a wispy mist twisted above the surface of the lake, I realized that I must have imagined it. It wouldn’t be the first time. When you live totally alone, the desire for company makes the mind play cruel tricks. I decided to take a look at daybreak, but in the meantime, I’d return to the fire to tend to the fish.

 

I was realigning and damping down the moss mats that rested over the smouldering copperwood logs when I glimpsed something that made me freeze. It was a light, fuzzy through the mist, that flickered from the other side of the Farrow Lake.

 

A fire. A campfire.

 

I hadn’t imagined it after all. I slumped to the ground, the collar of my cape raised and my arms wrapped round my knees. I gripped the phraxpistol tightly.

 

I was no longer alone…

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Posted by Hedgethorn Lammergyre on Jan 21st 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off