All right, so a while back, I said I might have an original story on the way. This... would be the first chapter. I already sent it out to a couple of friends, and they reacted favourably- now I want to see what everyone else thinks. Enjoy.
The cold, hard winds bore down on the plains, the first sign of winter coming; when the plants would again be dead, when all life that could would emigrate south and the landscape become more barren than it usually was, which was not saying little.
And in the midst of the approaching storm- for it was a storm brewing, no doubt- sat a muscular figure hunched beneath a tree, whose thick trunk and low-hanging needle-ridden branches offered some protection against the unforgiving Mother Nature. Had he stood up, he would have revealed a tall figure, broad of shoulder and covered in a coat of fur, covered by even thicker, well-tanned furs. Thick horns jutting out from the back of his head, a long snout occasionally letting out a warm breath, cloven hoofed feet that felt no cold. But for now, he did not stand; only huddling beneath his furs, hoping the winds would die down long enough that he could make his way back home to the village, with the four snared rabbits he had worked nearly two days to find.
The people of the south, who had hair only on their heads- which surely was a sign that the gods had not favoured them, making them unfit to endure the wilds- called them ziegenmann, "the goatmen", but though their horns, fur and beards made them similar in appearance, there was little they had in common with such base farm animals.
They were taanah-aak, The Tribes, the most ancient travelers of the north. They had lived on these northern plains, with its snows, its summers and sun, its wild untamed fickleness- sometimes food was abundant, sometimes you nearly starved- and it was theirs. Or it had been, but times changed even though the shamans insisted they did not. The first change being the fae, the vicious, thin hairless, who were so much like the southern hairless ones but so different- where the southerners would trade you for food that lasted very well through the winter, the fae would stab you dead just for looking at them. Where the southerners would march in great hosts and annihilate your village with fire and thunder if you raided their settlements, the fae would simply rob and steal from you, assault your camps at night and kill whoever they could, whether you had raided them before or not. The southerners had pink faces and short manes of hair; the fae had long ears like knives, white-pale skin and black markings on their face, and one was worth talking to and the other was best to chuck a spear at, or you might end up with a barbed arrow in your back. They had learned to hate the fae, in the time since they had arrived. They had come at the time of his grandfather, and they had done the taaanah-aak no good since. The South could be reasoned with, animals could be fought with flint and fire, but the fae were like mad dogs, like all of them had been hit over the head hard in their youth and never recovered.
He looked out from under his furs, the wind tugging sharply at his long, thin beard. With the frostwinds out, at least he would not have much cause to worry about knife-ears. Grasping his prized iron axe through his thick mitten, he let himself drift into a half-slumber.
Vesric gestured to his hunting partner, looking over the ridge. The wind bit them both, but there was a larger hill behind them both, and the wind was weaker by far where they had hunched down, in some thin and measly bushes.
"Over there." He pointed. "You see it, Hayder?"
Hayder nodded, his sharp nose giving him the profile of a hawk. "In the clearing near the plain, under the biggest spruce."
"Can smell the dirty beast from all the way over here, can you?" Vesric sniggered.
"Not smell. I see his breath. Look- it's slow, but it's there."
Vesric took a closer look, squinting. Even with his elven eyes, he could barely make it out- but there it was, the slight steam of a large beast breathing slowly through its nose. "Damn." He remarked, impressed.
"There's a couple of broken twigs just fifteen feet in the glade, too." Hayder said, sounding smug.
"You're a master tracker, I get it." Vesric said. Sighing to himself, he almost regretted following him out on the hunt. The weather was bad, and Hayder was the kind to hold himself in high esteem- and sadly, not without cause; he was one of the clan's finest trackers and hunters. Still, it was worth prestige hunting with him, and mounting the beastman's head outside his own tent would be quite the prize too. Hayder was a tracker, but Vesric was a warrior, young, in his prime and eager for blood. Tracking was all right, but when it came down to it, it would be him taking the life of that goat…
"No," said Hayder, as if reading his mind. "We wait for Esur Halfhorn. He is the huntsman."
"And lost in the bloody storm!" Vesric exclaimed. "To a huntsman the respect that he owes, but we are not mewling, helpless babes without him!"
"What would you do?" Hayder said, putting an arm on his shoulder. "March through the razorwinds, face him with your legs spread wide and your sword held like a strong man of clan Rotleaf, and best him in single combat? He would smell you coming a mile away. This is a hunt, not a competition in interesting ways to get yourself killed."
"You think I cannot take just the one beast, old man?" Vesric sneered. "They are-"
Hayder's hand shot out, grabbing Vesric by the ear and forcing him from the casual crouch he had been standing in and down to the ground. "You'll address your senior hunter with respect, junior huntsman." He said calmly. "If you don't, I'll cut your ears off. I won't, because I was young once and I know what it's like to be impatient. You will shut up and listen, though." Vesric squirmed, the grip on his ear being firm and painful. "We'll wait till the winds die down enough that you can walk around unhindered- Esur should be back by then- and then make our move. We'll take him down safely, and you get to brag to all the young women about how you faced a big scary beastman." He let go of the ear. "And no, I don't think you could take 'the one beast'. Only their senior hunters go out here, because this is Rotleaf hunting territory, and their seniors are as underhanded as they are strong. A pup like you, he'd gut."
Spitting and sneering, Vesric decided to stay quiet.
Hitch spat, wrapping her military coat close around her. She had holed up in a cave, and even with a fire going and her coat and blanket wrapped around her, she felt cold. She remembered back in spring, when her regiment had first been transferred to the north, how she had complained about the weight and warmth of their new coats. Now, it seemed barely enough. The north was just as unforgiving as the veterans had told her- not that she blamed herself for not believing them, because veterans were worse gossips than fishermen's wives and better at embellishing than fishermen talking about that one fish that got away, which got larger every time the story was told.
And here she was. Army life had never been glorious, but serving the imperial majesty meant you had plenty to do, and solid pay- compared to none whatsoever, which was what she had made as a hand at the old farm- and more importantly, you'd probably die before you got old enough to start complaining about the sad state of things. The north had sounded like an improvement to her- evil-minded elves and barbarian goatmen to be sure, but no amount of spears or arrows were as terrifying as a regiment of cannons taking aim at your unit. She had lived through two instances of that, and it was two too many. Even so, she had lost friends here. Her patrol had started out a party of four, and now she was the only one left. Two dead to elfen arrows, and one frozen to death just twenty feet outside the cave. She sighed, poking her small ration of dried meat and biscuits. Water wasn't hard to find, although you had to melt it in your mouth first, but food… she needed to find her way back to an outpost by tomorrow, or she was in trouble.
Sitting there huddled, private Arden 'Hitch' Felsi waited out the winds, ignorant of the goatman just down the hill, or the ambush waiting for him. As far as she knew, she was alone- which was bad enough; cold was the worst enemy when winter hit.
Finally, the winds died down. Deciding to wait a little longer, Hitch sat back, feeding a few more branches to her small fire. When she felt a bit of warmth returning to her limbs, and she could hear no winds deafening her very thoughts, she decided things might be improving after all.
"Hello?" She ventured. Odd. "Hell-LO!"
She could hear her own voice. And it was actually far louder than the wind. All right, time to get moving, then. Chewing down a biscuit, she got up, and walked towards the mouth of the cave. As she walked out, she soon passed the body of Fentan- poor sod, he'd tripped and hit his head, got knocked out and frozen to death, and she hadn't dared leave the cave to look for him. Reaching into his uniform, she grabbed his Number, the small leather-encased piece of paper they all had so that their mothers would know to weep for them when the army sent them a letter telling them to rejoice about how heroic their sons had been, exetera exetera. That made three now. She sighed, moving on. Only twenty-five she was, and she didn't feel much more about three deaths than a numb sadness and a creeping resignation. It's what soldiers did, watch their mates die over and over.
Trekking slowly down the hill where the cave's mouth had been situated, she looked around. The landscape would have been described by a poet as stunningly beautiful in its barren harshness, but poetry is reserved for warm people with full stomachs, so all Hitch saw was a dull, greyish plain with a bit of overlapping forest here and there, mountains in the background. No signs of life yet, but more importantly, no snow. She sighed with relief. Good. There was frost, sure, but the sky was clear and so was the ground. A day's march, and she was bound to hit an outpost. She'd live- well, she had reason not to lie down and die, at any rate. Securing her backpack, and slinging her musket over her shoulder, she began to march down, carefully. It was slippery here and there, but luckily, not too steep. A careful climb saw her at the foot of the hill in no time. Ahead of her was a small clearing of spruces to her left, and open plain to the right. What was that landmark- yes, walk east towards Old Grandad- the largest, most vicious mountain in the area- and you'd hit Fort Hoffnungslos soon enough. 'Soon enough' better be one day…
Slowly, she began her walk. She only just passed the first hill when she heard a noise, a slight cry carried by the wind. Too husky to be a wolf's howl, and too soft to be a yak. Ziegenmann? She cursed under her breath. Of course she wasn't alone. The universe just wouldn't be in balance if she had just one day go smoothly. Well, it was in the other direction, so she had better just walk…
Hitch couldn't, when later asked, quite explain why she didn't walk. Morbid curiosity, needing to find out if there was a threat, divine intervention- whichever it was, Hitch found herself sneaking carefully up one of the hills she had just passed.
"I'll be taking this hill." Hayder explained. "I'll be drawing a bead here. Esur will be coming from the side, ready to cripple him."
"He signaled me." Hayder said, irritated. "Your job is to bait him out, and deliver the killing blow."
"And if he runs away?"
Hayder let a joyless smile pass his thin lips. "Then he dies even faster."
Vesric shook his head. God damn hunters, with their senior's tattoos and their smug attitudes… well, it was time, at least. This part he understood, the one where things died. Drawing his blade, he began approaching the spruce.
Carefully sticking her head over the hill's edge, Hitch took a close look. Elves. Bloody elves, those skinny little buggers who had gotten half her patrol. She looked around. Two of them, one creeping through the undergrowth towards the spruce, and one striding casually op right towards it. She looked closer. The creeping one moved quietly and artfully, and it was pure luck that she had a good view of him from up here. Remembering what her sarge had said about them- "If there's one of the knife-ears around, the five more are lying in the bushes waiting to gut you like a pig on a sticker!"- she took a close look around. Where might they hide? She saw, on the hill closes to hers, a small set of bushes. Looking close, she spotted it- the upper half of a bow ready to fire, easily mistaken for a branch. So there were three of them, and…
From out under the spruce, a goatman stepped forward. He was tall and thick- something like seven feet, she reckoned, maybe less. The many thick furs he had on him might be part of it, though. So, that was their target? No wonder they had chosen and ambush. The muscular beast held a masty-looking axe in his hand, and he had a look in his eye like her sarge when facing a cocky rookie.
Rolling back and looking up at the sky, she cursed. What was she to do? The elves were evil little bastards, and they could easily catch up to her and kill her, take her a slave or worse. They knew these lands. Then again, if there was a dead sure way of making them want to kill her, it would be attacking them. She swore again, trying to keep as quiet as possible.
All right, stop. Think. Small steps. Small steps, sarge said- small steps. If shit looks complicated, look to what ain't complicated first. Reaching for her ammunition pouch, she took out a bullet. Whatever happened, she would be better off with a loaded rifle. She checked the small paper-held gunpowder charge- dry, intact. That was at least one thing good about the cold; gunpowder never got wet.
Rifle loaded, she looked up again. The creeping elf had gotten close, and finally stopped. The bow was still primed over in the bushes. The third elf was taunting the goatman in his own tongue- or maybe goatman tongue, she had no way of knowing. Carefully, Hitch put her pistol- a fine find, taken off one of her fallen comrades in true military spirit: waste nothing- next to her musket. Carefully, she took aim.
Carefully, he sized up his opponent, hefting his axe with the casual ease of somebody who has practiced the same swing a thousand times. This was bad- this pup before him, jeering at him like a youngling, was not looking very intimidating, but the elves never attacked anybody alone unless they could help it. He had friends nearby, or he was plain mad. And if he had friends nearby, then running would probably send him right into some vicious trap. Grinding his teeth, he steeled himself.
Taking aim, Hitch tried her best to keep from shaking. This wasn't like combat, not just yet, when she would get too fired up to be scared. Here, she was out in the wilds all alone. If she missed this shot, they'd probably find and kill her, and nobody would ever know. Her pa, her brother…
She shook her head. No, stay focused. What would sarge do?
…well, sarge would have legged it, because he knew the difference between stupidity and bravery. But what would sarge have done if he was a bit stupid? Well, he'd aim for one and make sure the other couldn't blindside him, for one. If she could get off a pistol shot, maybe distract him long enough for her to reload… it wasn't much of a plan, but it was better than nothing. Taking a deep breath, she aimed…
Esur pulled his bowstring, an arrow trained on the poor, dumb beast. It would be smooth, Hayder hitting it in the chest first, then he would hit its leg, run up and stab it from the side, while Vesric would keep it occupied. It would send a strong enough message to his pack, that his kind was not welcome here. Slowly, he took aim. Easy.
It came as a great surprise to him when suddenly, his grip on the bowstring slackened.
At the sharp crack, Vesric jumped. His eyes flickered, jumping to his side for just an instant. Esur was down, blood pouring out from a wound in his back. The one instant was all the beastman needed, leaping forward with what seemed like impossible speed. Vesric dodged his first swipe just barely, his instincts saving him narrowly from a severed head. Taking three steps back, he readied his guard, but the beast charged forward, barreling into him. He tried to stab it, aiming for its spine, but the creature caught the blade with its axe, moving both axe and blade out of position with infuriating ease. They really were furious, Vesric pondered…
There was but a moment's time for pondering, though, as the beastman slammed his thick head against Vesric's forehead. Bone met bone, and the lighter of the two gave way. Head spinning, Vesric staggered backwards, desperately trying to make sense of the world around him. He held out his sword, flailing about, trying to parry whatever assault came next. Just as the stars had begun to clear up, he saw the beastman holding a short throwing spear, arm primed. Oh, damn…
The short spear hit right above his thigh, going a good four inches in. Vesric cried out, falling to one knee. Desperately, he tried to parry with his sword. Where was Hayder? The blade was knocked out of his hand, and slowly- so slow it seemed- the beastman raised his axe. The last thing Vesric saw was the blade of an axe coming down.
As soon as she had fired the first shot, Hitch grabbed her pistol, aimed for just a second, and fired at the offending bush. There was no way to tell if she had hit or not, and she didn't take the time to look. Grabbing her musket, she sprinted down the hill, slipping on the way and tumbling half the way. Picking herself up as quickly as she could, she began to reload.
The simple farm girl in her, the one who had her pa teach her to never lie, work hard and overturn a tortoise if it had been spun on its back, had briefly reprimanded her for shooting somebody in the back. The soldier in her had quickly brutalized the thought. Sod that. Their kind killed Lufty and Tonker. To hell with them all, and to hell with this god-forsaken plain.
Hayder was running. Everything had gone wrong, everything. The tip of his ear had been ripped off, by the same kind of cracking weapon that had killed Esur. He had seen them before- stinking, deadly, vicious. Not as accurate as a bow, but there was plenty of them and it was always southerners doing it. A Southern Soldier, here! Had they angered them? This needed reporting, even though the leader would be displeased that he had left their kills behind. Too big of a risk to come back- a soldier armed with a killstick, and a beastman hunter? No thank you.
Approaching the glen gingerly, musket at the ready, Hitch looked around. Dead elf on the ground? Check. Dead elf with its brains knocked out? Check. Third elf? Not check. Goatman? No check-
The punch took her by surprise, blindsiding her. Suddenly, she was on the cold, hard ground, a hoof pressing down on her chest and the blunt end of an axe pressed against her neck.
"You!" A fierce, demonic face, surely as if conjured from the most vicious sermons by the vicar in her home town, snarled at her. "You hyuu-mann! Enemy?!"
The fact that his sentence ended in a question rather than a strong assertion, you're-going-to-be-my-new-skull-trophy kind of tone gave her enough hope to croak out, "Friend! Friend! I shot that elf bastard over there, see? With my boomstick, yeah? See?"
"Muss-ket." The goatman said, easing the pressure. "We're not stoo-pid, hyu-mann."
"R-right. Not stupid. Brilliant."
Finally, after inspecting her carefully, the goatman stepped off, grabbed her by the collar and pulled her up. "Hyu-mann."
"Mister goatman, sir." She said weakly. It never hurt to be polite when you were up close with a creature nearly two heads taller than yourself.
"You kill-ed my enemy. Saved my life." His words were hard, sounded forced, but he spoke imperial fairly well all things considered, and his voice sounded deep but not intimidating. "Why?"
She scratched her head. "Ah, would you believe it if I said they killed two of my mates a couple days ago? Not sure if it's these exact ones, but…" she trailed off.
He nodded. "I believe. They have kill-ed many of my tribe, too."
"Right." She said smartly, taking a step back. "So ah, I figure, we've not had any trouble with the goatmen, they don 't seem so bad-"
"We are the taaanah-aak, the tribes." He made a facial gesture, which could possibly be interpreted as a smile. "I am Tiktaalik the hunter. Glad that the gods brought our fates together, hyu-mann."
"Right. The gods. Well ah, I better get going-"
"Camp is not far from here." The goatman- Tiktaalik- said, now looting the bodies of the two dead elves. "Elves had fine food with them. They had- what they call them in your tongue, big beasts but not as big as really big beasts?"
He nodded, apparently satisfied. "Yes, that. We will make a feast. Come with me, and you will be well fed. Thunderfoot tribe is not ungrateful."
"Well…" She really should have known better, but her rations were almost empty. What harm was there? She had just helped save his life, and the goatmen- tanaak, apparently- weren't known for much more than cattle theft. Godless barbarian monsters, of course, as the clergy said- but godless barbarian monsters with manners, and more importantly, hot food.
"Will it be safe?"
"Will be safe as long as I say it is safe." Tiktaalik said, slinging a dead deer over his shoulder. "Besides, you have killstick. Power of the gods right in your hands, yes?"
If she hadn't known better, she would have taken his tone to be sarcasm. "Maybe just the one meal, then…"
Hitch didn't know it, but her sarge would have knocked her over the head with extreme prejudice.