Episode 2 (Return of the Guard) ~ Redux

A selection from the first Lore of the Underlings episodes,
now freshly revised with up to 35% more poetry (by volume)!
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Photo by John K ~ The Guard's gate (inspired by the photography of Michael Leacher)

From the night sky came a blood-cold cry, like the woeful plea of a haunted child. “Wurree! Wurree!” Overhead circled the og from the Liar’s Tree, once more taken wing. It shone luminous black neath the watchful moon.

To the heavens turned the eyes of all, all but for the strangers three. They instead turned to each other and exchanged a silent signal, a palm upon the heart. As eyes again fell to find them, they now stood in a new formation — a tight triangle with each facing away a different direction. They stood at the ready, waiting.

Hidden amidst them, Jixy Mox found a comfortable patch of sweetgrass and sat. She played with the broken stone in her quickling hands, tossing it up and down in the air.

John Cap looked back at the tall young woman. “Do you hear it?” he asked. “That rumble?”

“Yes,” she answered. “It grows nearer.”

Morio made a pained face, straining to hear it too.

Without glancing up from her game, Jixy mumbled to herself in a soft sing-song. “Here they come.”

The land began to quake underfoot as a pounding sound storm rolled in like lightningless thunder from the angry plains. It shook the boney limbs of the Liar’s Tree. Into the dark that cloaked its trunk fell things that whooshed and rang.

“Boxbo!”

“There you are, Ixit!”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“That it has suddenly turned quite late and we should quickly be off to our homes for bed?”

“And that…”

“We were never here at all and know nothing about it?”

“And not to mention…”

“That we trust in the Guard to protect us from such threats and believe with all our hearts in their methods and goals?”

“Right, treasure that. Now hurry, loglegs, before we’re the last left.”

Abruptly the og fell deathly silent. Jixy looked up and let her stone go tumbling to the ground uncaught. “Mr. Oggie?” She saw the creature slowly stretch to the width and weight of a bareskin blanket then float gently down from the far above. It draped about her head and neck. It covered her completely. With a squeal she vanished from view.

Out at the edge of torches’ reach, a line of riders tore through the curtain of darkness that bounded the fleeting field. They charged hard on massive mounts, kicking up clods of sod and soil the size of heads that burst all about like a volley of hurlage bombs. Quickly they closed on the fleeing folk and cut off their path at the neck of the road. The slow they knocked from their feet and nearly trampled under hoof. The rest they rounded up like lapsheep, herded back toward the heart of the field.

And the riders began to sing. Deep and strong they sang, a bloodsong of the war-born:

Pray drink, pray dine
Prey mine tonight
Pray drink, pray dine
Prey die

Pray meat, pray wine
Prey spine of white
Pray meat, pray wine
Prey die

Prey bone and bleed
Pray prey to feed
Prey feed to death
Pray die

Pray feast, pray fast
Pray hell’s repast
Prey ever cast
Prey die

By the fall of the final note, a count of three and thirty chevox strode the field under the firm rein of their masters. Their long column had slowed to a trot and turned a perfect arc toward the Liar’s Tree before branching into two separate companies. One of twenty-two formed an outer ring, encircling all. The other of eleven surrounded the trio of strangers and the few folk who had held to hold them — Bylo Hamyx, elderwoman Pum, and the Hurx boys.

“Welcome back, Guard! Welcome home,” the elderwoman loudly announced in a voice surprisingly deep. “We pray that your mission met with success, whatever it was, wherever you went…” She squinted a bit and chewed her teeth. “And not that an old woman needs to know the details of every excursion…” Her eyes had a sudden steeliness. “But ‘tis good to know you have returned.”

She gestured toward the strangers behind her. “For we have had our own adventure — some unwelcome guests this day.” Her words met stony silence from the helmeted faces mounted high about her.

Then the great matron noticed something amiss. “Is he not here? Did he not make it back with you? Where is the brother Treasuror?”

One of the Guard raised a shiny black battle pike and pointed off into the night.

“Ah,” she replied uncertainly.

From the side of his mouth John Cap mumbled something, just so Morio could hear. “Is this what you expected?”

“More or less,” Morio mumbled back.

“What’s with the fancy suits of armor?”

“Armor of spring vine, it is said. In the colors of each different region or clan.”

“Look!” someone shouted.

“There.”

A lone rider took form in the murk from which the others had come. But this one was different. Something was wrong.

This man and mount moved slowly, haltingly — not with the pace or power of the first. As they came closer all could see that the animal had suffered wounds. It limped painfully on but three of its four long legs, listing perilously to the left while holding its head high and proud.

Another of the eleven inner Guard produced a thin pipe from the handle of his battle pike and raised it to his lips. He blew a short, shrill melody then repeated it once then once again.

“What happened?” wondered Ixit aloud.

“It’s the brother Treasuror’s vell, Arrowborne,” answered Boxbo. “It’s hurt.”

“I can see that, you knothole.”

Still the vell was a creature of beauty. Taller by two than its rider it was but slender of shape, a wisp of the width of the chevox, its kin. Its coat shone sleek, colored lightly of tan, but with head and mane that seemed of smoothest soulstone, carved in perfect measure by a master’s hand, cast pure white despite the summer moon’s yellowed palette. Its eyes were set like treasured gems that had been polished well and inlaid with a gentle touch, wide apart upon each side. They were lidless and black, like liquid pooled, a black the deep of dreams.

As the wounded one approached, each chevox bowed its great horned head, some quietly scraping the ground with their heavy hooves while it passed. The vell seemed to nod slightly in return, revealing the hint of horns that crowned it.

The rider called out, “Ayr, Pyr, Ayron! Come here!” He dismounted the vell with care and lowered himself to the ground as the three boys came quickly forward. The vell staggered then let out a muffled grunt. “Lead Arrowborne to the stables. See that he is fed and watered — and made comfortable.”

“Yes Uncle,” answered Pyr.

“We will sir,” said Ayron.

Ayr silently took the vell’s gold-hued reins in hand and turned away to hide his damp eyes.

“It reminds me of something from the Everall,” said the young woman softly in the direction of John Cap.

“I have seen such a creature before,” added Morio through a hand cupped to mute the sound. “Once in a book of Semperors past… a noble animal… quite rare it seems…”

The vell craned its neck and stared at the strangers as if listening to them.

Ayr gave a little tug at the reins but Arrowborne ignored him. He tugged a little harder. Nothing still. “Come on boy… please,” he whispered. “You’re not right. We’ve got to look after you.”

Arrowborne shook his head and kept an eye fixed on the three unknowns.

The two other brothers took hold too to give the vell a pull. It answered them by turning tail and letting its hindquarters do the talking. The message was clear from the look on their faces. No buts about it. Then it sat down.

Try as they might to plead with the ground-bound vell, it was all to no avail. “We have our orders,” Pyr explained. “We must not fail them and let Uncle down. Duty calls, old boy. You know that.” Arrowborne crossed his lengthy front legs, low and close to the hooves.

The rider had seen enough by now. “Very well then. Leave him be.”

As the boys let fall the reins, the vell seemed to sink a little and sigh. They moved to its side and used their hands to smooth its coat and comfort it. But the man spun sharply in place and cast a cold eye over the figures of the field, now dimly lit by the dying glow of ashen logs and burnt oil. The jawbone under his thin, red beard looked to lock up tight.

In the meantime, the Guard about him posed poised for force, as if waiting to seize a word or a sign. Each held his battle pike high, at the ready. Overhead, a thick bank of clouds, gray ghosts from the east, had rolled in unnoticed. They blinded the heavens and stole the gold of the moon gone mournful and dull.

John Cap watched as the bearded man pulled a tired firestalk from the ground and headed in his direction. He approached with a certain swagger wearing a long, brown journey coat and minder’s cap well-worn of heavy boven hide, yet the closer he came, the smaller of stature he seemed. He rose perhaps to the shoulder of the strong young stranger, perhaps less. His eyes though, dark and sharp, bore a stare the match of any man. They locked on John Cap.

John Cap did not look away. He returned the gaze unblinking and began to raise an arm, his right, as he had raised it before in battle with the ogs. This time though, he stopped and held it halfway, holding for things to unfold. His hand hung awkwardly in the air.

“We are infected, Fyryx!” The words burst from Bylo’s crooked mouth in a shower of bitter spittle. “So good you could find your way back for it.”

The man, Fyryx the Red, the brother Treasuror, paused for an instant but kept his back to the Finder behind him. He now stood just a torch’s length from John Cap, near enough to raise the failing flames he held to the young man’s face. He squinted hard at the stranger, studying him.

John Cap squeezed his hand into a fist but held still, steady as stone.

From nearby came a voice. “No.” The voice was female, firm but calm. “I am the first.”

Fyryx turned his torch to the sound and found another tall stranger, this one the narrow young woman with hair of wheaten gold and eyes the green of pom wine. He raised a red brow, the one on his right, then sidestepped left for a better look.

From toe to top he measured her make, lingering longest on the timeless beauty of her face. Her clothes, like those of her two companions, were nothing uncommon. In keeping with the ways of old, they wore garments of limberwood peeled from young trunks in soft supple sheets, dyed in browns and greens, and sewn. She herself was dressed plainly in a maid’s cheesing frock, which appeared not to fit quite right, and a pair of weathered leg leathers that wrapped her feet as footings. But something in her look, her skin…

Fyryx watched a lone drop of rain fall upon her high, smooth cheek, which glowed pale gray in the low light of the ironfire. The drop rolled down toward her perfect purple lips then vanished before it reached them.

She opened her mouth, parting those lips to speak. But Bylo had a different plan.

“Beware her trickling tongue!” he howled. “I warn you — dear, dear brother Treasuror — already did this one try to sow a seedy, weedy row.” In disgust, he stopped to cough up a thick ball of phlegm from his raspy throat, but it hung bloody black on his lip. So Bylo scooped the phlegm in the crook of his fetid finger and flung it flush at the young maid’s head, though it somehow misappeared behind her in the empty space the trio made. “Look how pretty they pose there. Foreign fakes. Even now they hide another, a toadstool that fouls the soil they shield…”

“It is true,” avowed the elderwoman, crowing loud as a warnbird to be heard across the grassy gap. “Even my aged eyes see it. Lie upon lie upon lie. There is some filthy game afoot — a dark trick that they play on us in league with a devil of their doing, a beast of flesh that flies. And one of the unwanted too. The dirty waif of a leaver, you no doubt know the girl. She acts spellbound by this evil skin. One masks, the other mocks. These are the strangers we’ve long learned to fear. They honor neither the bile of the Finder nor the blood of your own family, embodied by your brother’s sons who alone stood bravely today. These are the strangers from without whom the Semperors said would come.”

Fyryx had tired of the talk and raised his hand to silence them both. “And so, treasured ones…” he said in a voice cold with disappointment that seemed to be timed to a downfall of rain, “Why do they still live?”

The elderwoman’s shoulders sank. Her face deflated to a jowlful of folds. She knew — how well she knew. Bylo too. Eyes down, he found the ground as engrossing as ever. And folk further back looked nervously about, pointing fingers at their neighbors.

“Shame on you!”

“You make me ill.”

“Yellow-fellow!”

“Spineless swill.”

“You could have axed them, Ixit.”

“Bloody Boxbo. Who’d you kill?”

As his question hung on the air unanswered, Fyryx turned to walk away. With a flick of the wrist he summoned the nearest and most menacing of the Guard — a warrior clad in all of an armor well-waxed, black, and thick, and one who’d been watching like a bloodhawk from astride a great, brutish bull chevox.

“Syar-ull! See to it.”

They seemed as one these two, this team of animal and man, with eyes that flashed unworldly through the dark night’s rainy veil. The bull let out a thunderous snort and pounded the puddling ground hard using its wide front hoof.  The Guard mashed his battle pike three times into the gauntlet he wore on his right. Then he dexterously turned it in air to rest across his heavy breastplate, a vestment adorned by an artisan’s skill in a pattern of yellow leaves and shoots that sprung from a long thorned vine. The same markings covered the intricately carved shaft and handhold of the pike.

He called out from behind the visor of his full face mask and helmet, which allowed no window to the wearer but a wide, thin eye slot. The sound was nearly song, strong but highish pitched:

Till the grave
Plow this row
Reap their souls
Sovereign, ho!

The bull began to lumber forward. But then, all of a sudden…

“Hi-ho sirs! Hello!”

Stranger three, the fattier folkish one, stood out betwixt the taller two. His arms were open wide and he gave a cheery smile.

“May I call you ‘sirs’?”

Fyryx looked back over his shoulder. Bull’s-eyed Sovereign set his sights.

“Permit me please, very quickly, to introduce myself. Morio Yoop at your service.” Morio made the briefest bow while keeping one eye bullward. The other he shifted to send John Cap a cheeky secret wink.

John Cap squinted at him with a question on his face. “What?”

But his eager colleague did not wait to answer or elucidate. Instead the fuller fellow was off on a venture of his own invention. In other words, that is to say, Morio set some scheme in motion…

To begin he took a slight step back and said something odd like, “Psst! Tuck and run,” in a whisper to the tall young woman. She tipped her head, puzzled, and frowned at the words. Meanwhile his foot found the fleshy mass of friends lying low amongst the tufts and he kicked it hard with his soft shoe heel. “Tusk and run Ogdog,” he half hushed. “On my mark!”

Beneath the shielding skin something seemed to stir and wake… with a weak cry and a muffled voice.

And the brawny bull was upon them. Morio bounded to meet the beast with a leap like a hoppalope then thrust his hands up high in the air. The chevox was nimble and stopped on the spot, so near that its nostrils flared in the stranger’s face and sprayed him in a mist, a warm shower of sour mucus.

Morio turned his head to breathe. “You can see, noble sirs, that I bear only arms.”

The rider leaned over the neck of his mount.

“But for even further fellowship, I hope you will accept my full and unconditional submission to your will and every whim!”

The black Guard raised his battle pike to strike the stranger down.

A score of strides away, the vell shoved Pyr Hurx in the back with its long and boney nose. Somehow that gave him the pluck to speak. “Hold there, honored Guard! Forgive me, Uncle…”

Syar-ull swung. Morio ducked, but the weighty stick still struck his shoulder with a glancing blow, barely so, but enough to fell him aground. “Mmmph.”

Fyryx fired a livid look. “Mind your place, boy!”

“But Uncle…”

“The Guard do not take orders from children. Nor do I.”

“But Uncle…”

“Silence! Go. Tend to your animal.”

Morio gazed up from the sodden grass having fallen flat upon his back. The dark pikesman loured over him, unmoved by the man’s cherubic look or that friendling kind of face. He gripped his weapon spearwise and then spiked the fat foe through his ruckscoat’s right side, just by a wide but solid belly, to pin him to the spongy sod.

Morio made to wriggle or roll but could not move at all. “Kudos, good warlord! Your mastery of the rod is real, or really unreal… I am awed… Owww!” He reached to rub his arm. “Your hand will come in handy.”

John Cap peered through the darksome drops at the flailing of his friend. He twitched as if about to act but the tall young woman shook her head.

Morio gave a hard lurch left and heard his ruckscoat rip. “But pleasantries aside,” he said, “I wonder whether you’ve had the chance to chat with your cohorts or associates on a matter that I mentioned earlier tonight. Sound familiar? The notion of negotiating a temporary truce or treaty to attend to some ever-more-pressing private business? Ring a bell?”

Syar-ull drew from his planted pikeshaft a long well-honed impaling lance, one hewn smooth and sharp by an old cold hand to mock the mark of an oddcat’s fang. “Prey die!” he sang, inspecting it. Then he stabbed at the stranger to finish him off. But Morio popped up just in time and flew afoot with his coat torn in two and a nick on his neck from the tip of the point.

“Sorry!” he sang back, “Business first!” And he flew, straight as a stingle wing and fleet as his wee feet could flee, drawn to the darkness and the black mass of the Liar’s Tree.

The great Guard growled and leveled his lance as all eyes followed the fugitive’s flight.

“He must be mad.”

“Is this a full moon?”

“Farewell, you fool!”

“Toodles!”

“Good night loon.”

Holding the grip of the lance in both hands, a riled Syar-ull snapped off the butt to reveal a length of wrapture rope knotted at one end. He yanked the knot hard and it popped like a cork, spilling a spool of fine vine down Sovereign’s meaty, sinewed side. Then he heaved the new-made harpoon up upon his padded shoulder and gave it a mighty hurl.

Morio turned in time to see the weapon sail right overhead. And then the vine unfurled behind. It speared the soil mere feet away and blocked the route he had been on — straight to the foot of the armored arbor. The tail of it lashed his back and latched on tight to rope his every limb, wrapping his trunk in a knotty embrace.

“Mark! Mark!” he cried out loud, signaling back to his small stand of friends.

Boxbo kicked Ixit. “Who’s Mark?” he asked. Ixit kicked him right back. “Mark of the dead, I guess!” He laughed.

Now everyone anticipated the endgame of the Guard.

“We’re taking wagers, gentlemen! Don’t be late. No bet, no win!”

“A basket of sand beans says he’ll start by splitting the man in half.”

“I’m in!”

“Who’ll bet on a skinning?”

“Alive?”

“Five sticks.”

“Six if it takes two peels.”

“Hmmm…”

“That is a porkling one…”

“Indeed, but the Guard is very good…”

“Tell you what — because we’re kin — I’ll throw in a head of pepper salts too.”

“You’re making an offer I can’t refuse.”

“Are we on?”

“Sure.”

“Easy treasure!”

But away from the bloodsport, there in the secret space behind the young woman and man, another game began. The og hide that hid Jixy safe inside suddenly fell slack and slipped from her back to the sweetgrass about her kneeling knees. It rolled up tight to a twisted tube then turned and turned again… right before her amber eyes remade as a leg-long boney blade. At that it lay flat on the given ground, still until it went all white, a deathly pure from pommel to point.

The young woman called softly to the child but with urgency in her voice. “Go girl, run. Seek safe haven. Your time is to come. We will need you then.”

Jixy nodded her tangled mane. Though sleepy-eyed she understood and her muscles mindlessly knew what to do, what had kept her alive this long. She plunged her hands into the rich, black mud that bubbled between the leaves of grass and smeared it thick like warpaint over every inch of innocent skin — face, arms, legs — all concealed. Then, as if guided by an ancient instinct never learned, she fled for the darkest corner of the Guard-filled field. Eastward she went and away from the walls of the Keep.

No one saw as the soily creature scurried toward the near ring of riders, slipping quick and low through the tallest tufts. In a stroke of luck she caught them off guard while the war men, by order of a bull-mad Syar-ull, lit from their mounts to converge afoot upon the alien three. The little mud maid pounced at her chance. She snuck to flank the first chevox she found, the brown cow Clarion, and ducked under the beast’s wide belly to hide amidst her hooves from the marching Guard. There the girl held, huddled and hushed as they passed. Then suddenly the cow sensed something below and let out a bellow low and long. But Jixy was already gone.

John Cap stood ready to meet the dismounted. He was not long alone. Something grasped his wrist and he glanced down to find an almost ghostly gray hand and slender fingers wrapped around it. The tall young woman had joined him to stand at his side.

“Let them come John,” she said calmly. “Do not resist.” The ever green of her beautiful eyes gazed deep into the handsome blue of his. His lips let slip the hint of a smile.

It was strange about this tall damsel, this maiden, this youthful lady of the pale… how she somehow seemed to be untouched by the dark night’s teary fall. The few drops that caught her sun-dipped hair glistened like stars in a twilight all aglow with yesterday’s goodnight kiss.

The peace of the storm’s eye passed. The vanguard of the footmen, the blue-clad coast keeper named Faal-syr, greeted John Cap with a short heavy harmlet to the throat and threw the tall traveler aside with surprising ease. Then he dropped the leaden club with a thud and strode ahead, for he sought not the man but the space he took. It was his in no time. “Child’s play,” he said to himself.

Yet, despite the bright of a fresh torch following just behind, all the blue Guard found was the white weapon at his feet. He picked it up, heavy handed in his gutting glove, and studied it suspiciously. He turned it over and over again, seeking some sign of the hidden hand that made its fine wide blade and doubled edge, that fashioned the toothy sharp tip of it, or that cast it so strong down to a hilt the thick of an arm.

The black Guard barked. “Faal-syr! Report!”

“Sir!” answered Faal-syr smartly, crossing his arms in salute. “My sir!” The blue made a beeline for the black except for a stumble on a little something hard lurking in the grass. It was Jixy’s jagged pummel stone. He quickly collected the fist-shaped shard and delivered it double-time with his other find to the moody master Guard.

“Our search did yield but these, sir my sir.”

“A pale blade and a broken stone?”

“Yes, sir my sir. But this sword… ‘tis a strange thing… unlike any I have known.”

Syar-ull scoffed and took up the arm, weighing it in his hand. “Odd, the hold of it. And so light…” He waved the tusk-like weapon in air. “It seems to mind its motion…”

A voice from afar caught their ears. “Yoo hoo! Will some friend kindly set me free from this mortal coil? It surely packs a pinch.”

Faal-syr the Blue bowed his helmeted head. “The snared stranger, sir. Shall I send him hellbound?” He placed his free hand on the handle of the spikey halfpike hung at his side.

Syar-ull answered in a mutter black and bitter, as if to no one but himself. “He has chosen the liar’s path. Let him suffer the liar’s fate.” Then he tore from the fingers of Faal-syr’s left fist the lost half pummeler of young Pyr Hurx and launched it into the sinister arms of the looming ironwood.

As it flew he sang an old childling’s song:

Come the fall
When iron flies
Quick Boy darts
But Slow Boy dies

The dark, deformed limbs of the great tree shook, unleashing a hail of ironfire upon the poor soul below. Morio struggled against his bonds to duck and dodge the rain of terror as hell’s cruel elements fell all around with the ring and clang of a devil’s dance. A squall of razor leaves sliced the skin of his ragged ruckscoat, in places slashing his underclothes too — and nearly more. Indeed, where one sleeve was shredded and torn right to his snowy white folking-wear, a weak streak of red bled through but then blurred in the waterlogged fibers of limberwood.

The doomed man’s mouth moved yet the din was too loud. It looked as though he said, “Oh my!”

The vell Arrowborne tried to rise. The boys struggled but held him down.

Then another fall began… one of fine needles… thousands of them… shed like a shower of silver tears… teardrops from the pining Liar’s Tree for the leaves it lost a season too soon…

Lacking any shelter or shield, Morio bent as best he could to let his rucks’ padded back take the bulk. It worked… in a way… except that he now stood pinned and poked from shoulder to shoe in a topcoat of quills.

“Looks like a prickupine,” someone smirked, “Plump and ripe for plucking.”

“Or a porkling peppered with prickly cloves and skewered for the spit.”

“But no. See how the needles crown him? He’s more Lord of the Lard than pig in a poke.”

“Yes, swillbag,” hissed Finder Hamyx, suddenly sprung to life again and recovering from his long silence of shame. “All hail the Semperor of Swine!”

“The Liar King!” roared elderwoman Pum, who too had awoken as if from a spell.

Boxbo and Ixit joined in together with a girlish giggle:

Truth lies in a royal pain
So don’t mind if we pick your brain

“That sounds offal, Boxbo.”

“Exactly, Ixit.”

At last Morio’s knee buckled under the heartless barrage and he seemed almost certain to succumb, bough-beaten and buried by the unforgiving fall. A moment more and it would all be over. The battle lost. The man gone.

But just then the rains abruptly stopped and the winds turned a new direction, gusting strong and warm from the south. Morio filled his lungs with a new breath, a puff of life, and a wonder befell him — a small wonder well aimed, as if by an unseen hand. From high atop the Liar’s Tree a heavy seedcone tumbled down, down at a dead drop like a hard truth cast from heaven. The cone had the shape of a wildeboar’s heart, with four full pods and every edge tipped in an irony fang, so it met no match in the snaky vine that tethered him to his hell-bound berth. It cut the cord and the man ran for his life, given again.

~

The folk were confounded.

“He lives!”

“Huh?!”

“It can’t be. How?”

“Who cares how? You owe me. Now — pay up, pay up, the lot of you!”

“Not so fast, Lunxy. Look where he goes.”

“Back to the Black and Blue?!”

“No…”

Out from under the ironwood’s reach, Morio stopped for a moment and shed his mortally wounded ruckskin. “Pity,” he blurted, out of breath. “You were a fine old friend.” He made to tuck his tattered shirt but suddenly stiffened, looking legward, with a boyish blush. “Whoopsie! There we go. Hooo…” After a solid minute or so, he shook one leg and then the other, his face flush but serene. “Some business just won’t wait!” he proclaimed, pouring forth with a frothy laugh.

Three of the onfoot outer Guard moved in and quickly surrounded him. They pressed their pikes to his back and sides. “Go now!” ordered one.

“I’d love to sir,” said Morio. “That’s oh so kind of you, but… ‘Mission accomplished’ and ‘Anchors aweigh’ already, I am relieved to say!”

The Guard put a boot to Morio’s buttocks and kicked him into gear. That launched a long march toward the thicket of troops with a poke or prod for every step forward.

“Who knew that a pant could be so absorbent?” marveled the prisoner as they went. “And then treat the nose to such a scent… of heaven-sent mersy petals to boot?!”

The Guard, less enamored of Morio’s pants, gave him another whack in the back.

A column of pikesmen, more armor than flesh, lined the last of their course. As Morio passed they thrust weapons aloft and chanted low the verses of a wordless dirge ominous and old. Ahead at the heart of the hold they marked, a glow of soft gold awaited… cast by a bale of light, sweet crude… spun oil just now laid down and lit.

Here Morio’s keeper sent him sprawling, headlong into the haloed ground with one final blow from behind. “Down, clown prince.” The hammering nailed him — bound to be whiplashed and cross-eyed as well — while from his hair fell a pound and a peck of the ironwood’s precious nettles. Oddly, those had done no harm, for the deep heap of curls he wore atop had made a cushion to catch them in style and spare his skull a certain riddling. But he was on his knees now blinking back a haze… a man adaze and confused.

In more or less the bat of a lash Syar-ull stood over his kneeling prey, this sack of skin awallow in the stinking mud and soiled black blades all once sweet and green. The master Guard looked to call for his mount but the bull chevox needed no command. Sovereign charged hard from the rear, eyes ablaze and snorting foul fire. With the right of his two great goring horns, he hooked the marked man by the brace of his britches to hang him high and helpless.

“Well whoa is me,” noted Morio, fighting back a wince. He looked glassy-eyed and a little woozy. “Regards, everyone! Hello down there. Glad to see you and you again… albeit in duplicate and spinning… I didn’t know that you all had twins… Anyway, where were we my friends? Where did we leave off earlier?”

The black Guard pressed the point of the strangers’ sword of pearly white to Morio’s throat. This time he spoke his sentence songless in words both clear and hoarse. “Now shall you die like dogswine to slaughter. Prepare your eyes for darkness and your pitiful soul for the fires below.”

Arm and blade drew back to strike when a sound of horror stood all still. A poisonous noise. It was the vell.

Arrowborne howled a baleful howl with a soul-filling cold to chill even the bloodless. As if his grave wound had been healed, he bounded from the bittersweet seedbed that the brothers made for him and at the death about to be. It mattered not that Syar-ull was the finest soldier of Syland. No man alive had the power to change a vell’s mind once in motion. Arrowborne met him high ahoof and kicked the broad boneblade from his grasp.

The weapon went spinning skyward, high then higher than a bird, then floated to land in phantom flight right to the hand of the man of red, the brother Treasuror, Fyryx Hurx. In that same instant the vell fell hard, aslump on the ground in a motionless heap.

Fyryx raised the sword for silence. Eerie quiet gripped the Keep.

“This is the devil’s night… as if grim Prince Vysitor himself reaches from hell to play us for puppets. He offers us a devil’s deal, to let his demons win the light or lose ourselves to this dance in the dark. No good can come of either.”

A weariness weighed on his voice.

“Bring the taller two. Let me look on all three at once.”

“Treasuror, sir!” answered Faal-syr eagerly.

As he waited, Fyryx dropped the arm to his side without the slightest glance at the foreign hilt his fingers held. For a moment his eyes seemed absent, lost.

The young woman was first to come, let to walk alone untouched. She strode in steady and sure. Behind her followed two pair of the pikesmen herding the larger John Cap like a bull. He seemed to like making them labor some, though that caper came at a heady cost — his hat was lost along the way.

Syar-ull marshaled them all arow, aside the dangling Morio. He barked and growled and gnashed his teeth, both hungry and angry to bite.

Carefully, John Cap cocked his head and whispered up to their high-borne friend. “Hanging in there, ‘O?”

“In high spirits,” answered Morio.

“Keep it up.”

“Oh, yes I can, all for Miss Vaam’s plan!”

“Shhh!”

Fyryx paced the strangers’ row yet this time eyed them not. It was downcast that he kept.

“Odd invaders are these three… but how did we go so weak?…

“And why did a part of our heart turn their way as ally to turn on us? A vell of the ull, from the Semperor’s stable… Arrowborne, what have you done? Are you fevered from your wound? Is that the reason you protect them… at the price of your very life? Perhaps you’ll wake and shun their souls…

“But the beast rules tonight. It cannot be denied. The die is cast till dawn.”

Fyryx raised his gaze from the ground and found the black mask of the master Guard. “Syar-ull!” he ordered with speech again strong. “Take these to the Letting Pen. Hold them there alive for now but surely locked away, deep down, bound in devil’s moss if you must… feet to the flames as you see fit.”

“With pleasure, sir my sir.”

“Then pitch my battle tent, out beyond the wall by the wood and make camp.”

“Sir. As Treasuror says, Guard does.”

“Boys! Ayron, Ayr, Pyr! Go gather the Guard of the southern shores. Fetch pike poles and good, thick limberwood sheets from their packs and fashion a litter to bear poor Arrowborne away. When you reach camp, lay a bed of soft straw in the fore chamber of my tent, near the door. Then set him there to rest. He must not pass this night alone.”

“Yes Uncle.” And off they ran.

Fyryx suddenly noticed the folk.

“Now what are you waiting for?! Someone, clear this forsaken field and shepherd what’s left of our herd back to town. It’s time to send the Treasured home.”

~~~

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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