Archive for April, 2010

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60. The Split-Willow Tavern

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

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

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