Episode 1 (The Strangers) ~ Redux

A selection from the first Lore of the Underlings episodes,
now freshly revised with up to 35% more poetry (by volume)!
Try some today! Or click for ebooks of the Lore

The photography of Michael Leacher ~ The strangers cometh

They appeared at dawn, on the edge of the northern horizon. We watched them glide across the barren plain, swiftly and gracefully as if on the wind itself. Ever closer they came and we saw what they were, three figures and nothing more. No chevox, no traveler’s cart. Yet they wore the dark shrouds of a long and solemn journey.

Suddenly they were within the settlement walls. A man came running, “Ghosts on the market road! To the square! To the square!” But most were there already, eager to begin the business of the day. Before they knew, the strangers were upon them.

The crowd scattered, some falling back behind mounds of sand beans and wheaten fruit, others disappearing into shadowed doorways. A few froze in place, agape.

By the roadside, a young mother stumbled trying to flee with both her handsome boy and a basket of fresh billit eggs in arm. She saved her son from falling, but the eggs flew and cracked on the ground. Her trouble seemed to draw the three, who swooped in close to see.

She sensed them surround her and lifted her gaze from the broken yokes and bits of shell. They were faceless, empty eyed. Quaking, she clutched the child even closer and screamed with all her mortal soul. But the terror choked her lonely voice to something squealing and weak, so woeful. Their shaded shapes pressed closer at the pitiful sound and studied her.

Yet the little one was not afraid. He smiled at them and reached out his hand.

The mother gasped. She held him back.

He reached out the other as if to be taken…

At that they spun away, the three, with nodding hoods and an unworldly laugh. The noise of something wickedly wild. And then in a blur they were gone, speeding eastward down the rutted road to a narrower footpath of dirt and stone that fed into a clearing known as the common field. They circled there a great ironwood tree that stood out in the opening. Before long they came to rest beneath it, on the ground planted side by side.

Word of evil’s arrival and the threefold visitation spread like skyfire over the land. From morning on through afternoon folk trickled down and then streamed from town. They ebbed and flowed on the edge of the field to witness, at a distance, for themselves. The strong came armed with toiling sticks or a pocketful of stones. The curious came with a keen eye and a fleet foot pointed home.

“They say there are devils here.”

“Yes old man, look out in the sweetgrass. See? By the Liar’s Tree.”

“There?”

“That’s them.”

“I see only rocks. Are you sure?”

“They sit as still as the hardwood itself.”

“Then perhaps they nap…”

“Oh that may be, but dreaming up a nightmare for us.”

“So strike down these demons as they sleep.”

But no one dared be the first.

Day turned to dusk and the gathered grew, into a makeshift encampment of hundreds arrayed in a crescent against the three. Some of them set to building fires, pyres of thick limbs fallen from storm season, mixed of everwoods, iron and rose. The wood was dry and cracked in the heat, throwing off sparks of silver and red that glowed in the heavy smoke. The smell of roast billit meat soon filled the air to tempt and tickle every nose.

And then with the night-rise, more surprise. From the deepening haze and flickering firelight came another puzzlement.

“What’s this? Look!”

“Someone runs!”

“Who is it?”

“A child. A girl.”

“It’s the orphan Mox…”

“She carries something.”

“What is she doing?”

“I’ve always thought her mad.”

“Bad blood.”

Jixy Mox flew across the field and into an emptiness far and wide while her ragged clothing rippled behind, like a tattered flag flown into battle. In one hand she clutched a pregnant sack of soft, tanned boven skin. Its contents seemed heavy and important. In the other hand, a talon blade.

Her hair went wild to the rhythm of running, whipped up into a frantic dance. Already animal to some, she now took the look of a chevox foal galloping through the grass untamed. As the plainsmen sing:

Mane of straw and strands of gold
Heart of home, unbridled soul

Even before she reached them, the urchin girl called out, all but breathless. “Daddy, is it you?! Daddy?! Have you come back home again?”

The dormant figures did not answer.

“It’s Jixy, Daddy! Mommy’s gone. It’s…”

Jixy stopped dead in her tracks as the black cloaks abruptly rose from their slumber — up, up, up to tower above her. They rose from the ground, afloat on the air.

The unwashed waif looked down. “You must be hungry Daddy. You’ve been gone so very long. See what I have for you?!” She turned her eyes to the boven sack and smiled to herself with pride. “It’s food. Daddy, I brought you food. You can have it all. Look here.”

The dark ones drifted nearer.

She held the sack up high as she could and flashed the talon’s jagged claw to slash its skin wide open. The contents spilled out on the ground — two loaves of crusted siege bread, a fist of pungent boven cheese, strips of leathered blood snake, and a whole smoked billit.

Suddenly, two of the visitors swooped and simply by the wind they made knocked Jixy off her feet. She tumbled into a tuft of tall sweetgrass. They pounced upon their windfall. By the time the twain had ascended again the meats were gone and an awful squeal split the ears of the gawking folk.

The third had not stirred at all at first, hovering off aloof and watching. But then it too descended upon her, down to the sound of a mournful groan. It swept her up in the folds of its shroud and raised her from the bed of blades that had caught the fallen child.

Jixy’s eyes were wide as moons but her voice was sweet and calm. “I knew it was you Daddy. All along. I knew you’d save me. Now hold on. Promise you won’t let go forever.”

But from their dimming distance, the folk saw something very different. A scene of utter horror…

“She hangs in mid-air by the grip of that ghost!”

“It wraps her in its death robe.”

“Wasn’t this a prophecy? Does anyone remember?”

“My wife has fainted! Water! Please!”

A young man and woman, both handsome and tall, emerged from the dumbstruck onlooking lot. They stepped forward as others now seemed to shrink back. Without a word or the slightest glance these two set course for the odd event, walking at an even clip. Soon they were joined by one more man — an older, rounder fellow or chap, who scurried to follow after them. He and his apparent friends each carried a long torch of home-spun oil.

The young woman raised her torch aloft, high above her uncovered head. Then she leveled it at the fading horizon and held it there in a firm clenched fist. The warm flame shone on the cascade of golden hair that fell upon her shoulders and poured like liquid light down her back.

“Ogdog!” she called out, “Ogdog!” Her voice was clear and strong.

“Enough.”

She spoke to the one with Jixy Mox, the demon that possessed the girl. She and her men approached them now.

“It is done.”

This devil seemed to be under her spell and bowed to the woman at once, deep and low, as a servant bows before his mistress. Then it obeyed her command without pause. In a swirling whirlwind and dizzying spin it cast off the cloak of darkness it wore and cast out the child from its armless embrace.

The ribbons of blackness that had wrapped it drifted away on a waft from the west. But the rapt girl dropped like a rock instead — down, down, down until she landed hard on the young man’s strong right arm. She was shaken but unharmed. He had reached her just in time, still holding the glowing torch at his left. The long herder’s hat he wore tipped back, revealing two eyes the blue of sky set square against features of chiseled truthstone.

“Fear not, my dear, fear not at all.” It was the rounder man. He spoke to her in a soothing way. “All is alright. You are with friends. I am Morio and I shall keep you safe.”

But Jixy turned away and pointed back at the murky sky. “What is it? Where did Daddy go?”

The curious crowd, so much the braver, spilled in to fill the void around them and planted a ring of firestalks in the rich, black soil.

“It’s a bird.”

“Or a birdless wing I think.”

“No, look, it is skin and meat.”

“But alive. A slab of flesh that flies.”

“What beast is sliced knuckle thick and lives?”

It flapped slowly to an entrancing rhythm, holding steady in the air. The other two figures, yet enshrouded, loomed like omens high behind.

Morio whispered in her ear. “That, my dear, is called an og and a very fine one at that. But I’m afraid I don’t know your daddy. Perhaps we can find him together.”

He stepped in closer and stroked her cheek with a stubby but tender hand. “Why, look, you have eyes of tan like mine. What is your name, my wee cousin of color?”

“Jixy…” She paused for a moment, remembering. “Jixy Poxum Mox.”

“Well then, Lady Mox,” he said with a nod, “it is truly my honor to meet you today… and in this lovely place no less.”

She couldn’t help but giggle at him. It was just the look of his sweet, fat face framed by such a mop on top — all curlicues and long brown locks that sat on his head like a fernage bush.

The mopster motioned to have his young friend put Jixy gently down. Then he took her by the hand.

The first edge of moonrise cut open the azure and out spilled some of summer’s wealth. A glimpse of heaven’s treasure. It washed over all in pale gold and shadow.

The young woman plunged the staff of her torch hard into the ground then clapped hands twice. At that the og took off and flew a loop between the other two, disrobing them along the way. Then it sailed to the old, gray Liar’s Tree where it wrapped around a twisted bough.

“What trick is this?!” yelled an elderwoman, shaking her toiling stick at the sky.

“Two more of these wingy things?”

But these were bigger than the first and fairly hairy too. Free of disguise they began to act up, like young pups darting in all directions, one with a kind of cackling shriek, the other its own low growl. They seemed to take pleasure in stalking each other — a dogfight right over the heads of the folk. At each pass they crashed then passed again. They slapped and nipped and tangled up, nearly tumbling to the ground.

Some boys pushed their way to the front of the crowd to get a closer look. Three of these, the brothers Hurx, came with pummel stones and a mind to use them. Pyr was not the oldest one but he had the reddest hair of all and knew just what to do.

He raised his stone high and proclaimed the words that he had learned so well. “Semperor says: Strangers die in Syland!” He fired. And then did his brothers too.

The gourd-shaped stones lurched head over handle on their crude arc toward the nearest og. One fell short, another long, but Pyr’s was true and strong.

Crack!

The pummel stone splintered and rained down shards, some sharp or hard, on the folk of the field. The og, unhurt, flapped off with a fury and turned back at the boys.

“What armor wears that warbird?” wondered Pyr’s elder brother Ayr.

“I think we’re soon to learn,” said Pyr, squinting at the sky. “It comes.”

The angry og dove and the crowd fell back, all in a great commotion. But the brothers, defenseless yet brave, held their ground.

“Here lad!” called the quick-thinking elderwoman. She hurled Pyr her irony wooden rod. He plucked it out of the air just in time and took a swat in the very same motion at the approaching raptor. He hit the flesh of prey dead on.

Suddenly Pyr was on his back and staring at the stars. In his ringing hands he held one half of a broken toiling stick. He shook his head, confused. “Did I slay it, brothers? Is it killed?”

“No Pyr, no,” answered Ayron, the youngest. “It wheels for more… its twin now too.”

“Rise brother,” said the elder Ayr, pulling Pyr back to his feet. “Let’s face these headless hunters together, live or die tonight!” Each took grip of the shattered stick and held it up prepared to fight.

Someone screamed. “Don’t harm them! Please!” It was Jixy, the ragtag orphan girl. She bounded from the older man and entered the fray with the boys and beasts.

“Careful dear! Those are from the wild.” Morio had a look of concern and turned to the young man for help. “John Cap?”

But John Cap was way ahead of him. He had shadowed Jixy’s run and stood guard towering over her and the sons of Hurx on the battlefield. Quickly he lifted his mighty right arm and spoke four words of a tongue unknown to the puzzled youngsters. And to their wonder a blade-thin shield unfolded from that limb of his. It sprung into form as a curved oval shell that parried the ogs’ dual aerial blows with ease and the sound of heavy thuds.

“He is well armed,” said Ayron the Innocent.

“Who is this warrior?” questioned Ayr.

“No Sylander,” muttered Pyr under his breath.

The assault was over, order restored. Everyone seemed to let down their guard. John Cap’s armor rolled up and vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, and the two wild ogs came to land in a patch just in back of the tall young woman. They looked even more imposing aground, quivering masses of muscle and flesh as wide as a plainsman’s reach. But at least they were behaving.

She turned to them and spoke in the tone of a mother to her wayward boys. “You’ve had your sport. Now off with you.” And she pointed to the north. “Go.”

The pair retook to the air but slowly, whimpering off as they climbed the night sky. Each beast glanced back sheepishly once or twice but kept one another on course this time with just a gentle nudge. No fight. And so they disappeared in the distance, swallowed up whole by the eventide.

The young woman whispered her farewell. “Your help will not be forgotten.”

“Goodbye friends!” called Jixy Mox. “Until I see you again.”

~

A blanket of silence fell over the field as folk wondered what they had witnessed. But soon enough from that baffled hush arose a foulish murmur.

“We’ve been played for fools tonight.”

“If only the Guard were here.”

“Right.”

“But maybe it’s them. Maybe they test us.”

“You are the fool, Boxbo. How could that be?”

“They are in disguise I think.”

“What, as flappy flying things?”

“No, you woodwit. Them. Do you recognize those three?”

“Well, not the tall ones certainly.”

“Isn’t the other your cousin Yoz?”

“Shhh! Do not speak that name. He was a leaver. Long gone.”

“Forgive me, Ixit. I didn’t know! Just how long ago?”

“A score of seasons or so I’d say. Five years after the Treasuror’s fall.”

“Then we shall not see him again…”

“Shut up all of you! Silly fools. Open your eyes. These are strangers.”

“What?!”

“Oh my!”

“But…”

“Mother Mayly may be right. She knows her beans from stones.”

“Though if that’s so, then what’s to do?”

“And how, who?”

“Who knows?! But someone should do something soon.”

“Or the Guard will have us in a stew…”

“Boiled to hell with your cousin’s bones and a cabbage head or two like you.”

“Then this is it.”

“Yes, surely so.”

“The time is here.”

“Here we go.”

“But where are my manners…”

“Please, be my guest…”

“No, after you…”

“Oh, I insist…”

“Hold on. Could it be? What luck!”

“Here comes Bylo Hamyx. Look!”

“Good for him!”

“Bless the Finder!”

“Get them, Bylo!”

“We’re right behind you!”

~

A fleshy bald man had shoved his way clear and into the middle of things. He staggered, out of breath and blood-flushed, the red of a rash or a snarl hog in rut. Sweat streamed off the big lumpy dome on his head as drops of it dripped from a furrowed brow to wet his huffing, puffy face.

“Where is it?” he growled, yellowed eye whites wide, flashing this way then that. “Where is it?”

Someone called from the crowd, “Bylo! What do you seek?”

He paid no heed and lurched ahead to search the circle of souls before him. “Weeds, all of you. Weeds to pluck from this blood-fed field.” He cast his glare across the lot of them, face to face to face. The tall ones. The fruit of Hurx. He spit on the ground. He spat at their feet.

“Weeds to pluck and boil…” He paused then suddenly raised a quaking hand that flexed an index finger gnarled and encrusted in a bark of scab and sallow pus. He pulled the foul finger to straighten it out then used it to stab at the air.

“You!” he roared, baring a row of broken black teeth. “You are the thief!” Again he jabbed a pointy nail and jerked himself that way, lumbering over a lonely wildflower of gold. “Now for your crimes you shall pay.”

Jixy backed away and looked for a gap to slip through the wall of watchers. But there was no escape from the ring of lights and lives that surrounded her. She cut behind John Cap and the boys and broke for the circle’s empty center. Bylo the Finder followed.

“Useless scrub! Soiled seed!”

“Quickly girl,” guided the tall young woman of gilded tresses. “Come here.” Her bright green eyes sparkled like precious jewelstones in the flickering torch light. “Stand at my side.”

Jixy ran to her as if they had known each other forever. As if they were blood.

“Surrender the sneak!” hissed the steaming Hamyx. “It belongs to me.”

The woman raised an open palm against Bylo’s boarish charge. He halted and slid on the soft sweetgrass, landing hard on his hefty buttocks. “Oof!” Before he could pick himself up again, her two companions arrived as reinforcements. Morio planted himself on Jixy’s other side, John Cap three steps behind watching their backs.

The woman lowered her hand. “No harm shall come to this child.” Jixy gazed up at her with a look of wonder.

Bylo shook with anger, flinging droplets of stinking sweat all about him. “So this is the smelly cheese you sell? Well, as you wish. But know that the Guard have a garden of thorns ready for robbers of the Keep and those who harbor them.” He laughed bitterly and spit again, just short of the woman and girl.

“Oh I’m glad that’s settled!” chirped Morio, pulling out the boven sack of foods that Jixy had left on the ground. “Let’s all celebrate with a snack. I must say that I am full of hunger after such a long journey.”

Suddenly, Bylo looked puzzled. “Journey?” he mumbled to himself.

Morio reached deep into the torn sack but to his dismay came up with only a small Treasure Pie and a pickled billit egg. “It is somewhat short of a feast,” he sighed, pondering the items. “No matter.” A warm smile spread across his face as he turned to Jixy and handed her the golden, crusty pie. “This, my dear, is for you.”

Her innocent eyes grew wide as if she had never seen such a delicacy. She looked up at Morio and back to the pie. Then she snatched it from his soft, meaty hand and gobbled it gone in three wolfish bites.

Bylo’s jaw dropped. His oozing eyes bulged.

Morio displayed the egg to the young woman then held it out to John Cap. “My friends?” The woman stared back, expressionless. John Cap shook his head. “If you are sure,” said Morio lifting the shiny reddish orb to his mouth, “then don’t mind if I… Ouch!”

Something hard and heavy sailed past Morio’s nose and knocked the billit fruit from his grasp. It rolled away into a thicket of long blades, lost.

“Stop!” screamed Bylo, scarlet as the egg itself. “Accomplice! Leech! Caught red-handed. You mock me to my face, gorging on the very meal this runt stole from behind my back.”

Jixy picked up the broken chunk of pummel stone that had landed at her feet.

“Now, now. There must be some misunderstanding,” assured Morio calmingly as he rubbed his sore fingers. “Let’s have a drink together and everything will become more clear. Does anyone have a drink? Some brewn ale perhaps?”

“I would just as soon shrink to a bloodless prune as drink with the likes of you. Ha! Or dine on a menu of maggots as sup at your side…” Bylo squinted suspiciously. “And these two, these pretty treelings…” he sneered, turning to the crowd and bending both of his snaky arms to mark the young woman and man. “Ask yourselves… whenever did such tall and fair ones spring from the soil of Syland?”

The swarm of folk began to buzz like a poked pod of stingle wings. Then they and the night closed in tighter, breaching the arc of firestalks to flood the space with lightless heat.

“The Finder is wise!”

“He speaks an ugly truth!”

A gust of wind blew away the smoke of oil, wood, and meat that hung on the air.

“Explain yourselves!”

“What is the wormy fruit you serve?”

“Why weave this web of deceptions?”

The young woman stepped forward. “It was the only way. We had to be certain.”

“Reek and rot! This is grubbish you talk,” grunted Bylo. “Certain of what?”

“Listen and you’ll see!” chimed in Morio from behind. “Oh, you will not believe…”

John Cap cleared his throat hard and Morio saw him shake his head.

“Oops… well…” he went on in a whisper. “She’ll tell it.”

“I’m waiting!” fumed the Finder. “Spew!”

The young woman spoke again, her words measured, her voice clear and strong. “We bring news of the world and of worlds beyond. Long and far have we traveled to find you, but find you we did. Now there are tales you must hear, tales we must tell, before others find you too.

“A great peril comes to all who yet live — the last children of the morning dew, masters of wood and field, elders of the hearth. We are few. The free, fewer still. And even here in this forbidding wilderness, lost in the heart of a floating land both vast and forbidden… even here where the shores of your island home have forever been under the guard of twin oceans, the seas of Syar and Mer’n… even here, evil comes for us. It comes for you…”

“Says who?” bellowed Bylo.

“Tall tales!” a second sang amidst a chorus of qualms.

“We don’t want or care for worlds.”

“Or evil things and such.”

“And if the Guard hear…”

“What we’ve heard…”

“No mercy.”

“No.”

“None.”

“Never.”

“So…”

“Just tuck your tales…”

“And go.”

Suddenly a brilliant flare erupted from the crowded grounds, shooting high into the night sky a silvery stream of dazzling sparks, lighting the faces of all who stood witness. “Wait!” called a voice, its owner obscured by a glowing cloud at the source. Quickly the flare faded and out from the blinding haze stepped Pyr of Hurx still clutching the broken ironwood of the elderwoman, now ablaze on one end. “In the name of my father and my uncle, I ask you please!”

All went quiet but for the cracks and pops of the irony firebrand. Pyr stuck the emberred end into a mound of soil and turned to look the angry Hamyx in the eye. “With all due respect, Finder…” He nodded ceremoniously and Bylo, baffled, wiped the tip of his clotted crimson snout and returned a halting half-nod.

Ayron and Ayr came to stand behind their brother as Pyr faced the great gathering with a quiver in his voice but purpose in his eyes. “Treasured ones, after all we have seen this day — ghosts that turn to battle birds, arms that turn to armor, saviors turned to strangers… now only blood can write the truth. Blood spilled or blood sworn, that is our choice. But it must be written and written red.”

He shifted his gaze to the tall young woman and their eyes briefly met. “The Semperors taught us to turn from the foreign face, even the most beautiful. But where did we learn to turn from the moment in fear? Or to turn blind to revelations that may save our Keep? These are not lessons known to my brothers and me.”

Bylo looked sideways at Pyr. “So what would young master Hurx have us do now?” He gestured toward the strangers with a slow sweep of his hand.

The elderwoman answered for him, elbowing her way out from behind the meater and his apprentice, each of whom carried their long carcass knives. “Isn’t it obvious, Finder? Ah, this boy is every bit his father’s son. Ayryx would be proud indeed.”

“Um, perhaps so,” said Bylo, “but what…”

“If I might make a suggestion,” offered a voice politely. Morio waved his hand to catch their eye. “Yes, over here. Do you think it possible to take a brief break from these proceedings? I find myself in need of… forgive me… a personal moment of relief.”

“Really?” whispered John Cap. “Right now? Really?”

The elderwoman seemed not to hear or not to understand. Bylo grinned and curled his lips to respond, when suddenly…

~~~

There’s more Lore in store…

~~~

The illuminated lore project is an ongoing collaboration of
photographer Michael Leacher
and Lore of the Underlings author John Klobucher

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