Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Episode at the Old Mine

This short story, set on Hackmaster's Tellene (better known as the "Kingdoms of Kalamar" setting) started as something of a joke, but got worked into a full, fairly serious story, while keeping the joke just out of sight. I've hid it beneath the cut, since it's almost 3000 words long. Now available from DriveThruFiction!

Jill came to slowly, fighting her way up from unconsciousness, the constant drip of water pounding through her head like a smith's hammer. The stone was cold against her cheek, and the darkness was almost total; the blackness that seems to not merely be the absence of light, but its obliteration and banishment. She felt a momentary fear overwhelm her in that dark, but a soft grayness as she turned her head on a sore neck showed that there was a source of light that way... probably the entrance, though she had no way of knowing how long she'd been down here in the dark. She remembered a fight, could feel the bruises on her body. Remembered one of the bastards going down with blood spurting from his groin where she'd slashed him, the second with a dagger in his belly, the bloom of pain as someone hit her from behind with a goddamn *tree*, the sudden stop as her foot connected with a knee... then stumbling off, half-blind with pain. She must have found this... cave?... and collapsed.

She took stock, laying quietly in the darkness. Unarmed... who knew what happened to her knives, her sword and food were probably back with her bedroll. Thank the Bright Eyes she still had her armor on, and a few silvers stashed in her purse beneath it. No boots; she'd taken those off to sleep, it seems, before the bandits found her. Arrrrgh... walking back was not going to be pleasant.

She stiffened at the sound of her own growl of frustration. She hadn't meant to make that sound aloud, and certainly wasn't prepared for it to be answered by a moan from nearby, followed by some words in a guttural tongue she didn't understand. It came from the entrance, she thought, and she stilled her breathing to hear more. A grunt, a whimper of pain, a string of curses, the thud of someone settling heavily down. Jill didn't think she'd been really heard; whoever it was had responded in his sleep, and stirred from there. She tried to rise noiselessly to her feet, fighting a wave of nausea that threatened to empty her pinched stomach on the hard stone. Ugh... she was so hungry, she must have been out for days. Thankfully, the wall was where she thought it should be, and she steadied herself in what she hoped was silence. Slow and careful, Odd Jill. Slow and careful, and you'll get to see what's up without puking your brains out. Bare feet let her feel the toolmarks in the stone, the slight depressions where generations of carts had rolled across the floor. Bare feet warned her of stones that might click in the darkness, might give her away to whoever waited at the entrance.

He lay next to the entrance, gripping the shaft of a spear, its head coated in blood and fur. His features were stronger than a man's should be, with a wide nose, a brow like a granite cliff and sallow cast to his features that spoke some Krangi blood. His eyes were open, and the pained movements of his head said he was alert... or, at least as alert as one can be with your foot half gone. He wouldn't be moving fast, that's for sure, but his spear gave him enough reach that Jill couldn't be sure of getting out without getting tagged... and what had left its blood on the blade? Jill sucked air through her teeth as another wave of nausea rolled through her head, and cursed silently as the spear swung unsteadily towards her.

He shouted something at the darkness, something she couldn't understand. The point of the spear wavered, but didn't fall. Was the sky getting slightly darker? Jill knew that she couldn't stay in the dark forever, and had no idea how long it might take this sil-karg to die. She kissed her hand and patted the wall for Draper's Luck, then stepped around the corner... still a long way from the spear point, but where his eyes couldn't help but see her.

He shouted at her, his voice sounding like gravel being rolled in a barrel half filled with water. She cycled through greetings in half a dozen languages, but he kept shouting the same phrase in whateverthehell. Her languages exhausted, Jill pointed to herself. "Jill." He watched her carefully, obviously thinking something over. She gestured at herself again, hoping it didn't sound filthy... or violent... in his language. "Jill. Odd Jill." He uncurled one hand from the shaft of the spear, the tip wavering and dropping towards the floor. He pointed at himself with a badly crushed thumb. "Dah Mahk." He wrapped his hand back around the spear, and his face went stony when he bumped the thumb against the shaft.

"Guess he's going to refuse to show any weakness to an enemy," Jill thought to herself. "But, still... maybe I can at least leave." She gestured towards the entrance, her hands palm up. Not surrendering, just asking to head outside. He jerked his head sharply to the right. "Cheg. Zit kep cheg; Geh ze fee. Geh Ze Fee." Not sure what he meant, she started forward, only to stop when Dah Mahk jabbed the spear at her. "CHEG. Geh ze FEE." Jill took a step back. She might be able to rush him, but not as weak as she was. She decided to try for something else. "Food? Water?" She mimed eating and drinking. Dah Mahk's eyes narrowed, and he looked suddenly out the cave mouth; he seemed to have heard something. Jill felt herself tense, and looked around for some kind of weapon. Finding nothing more than a fist sized rock, she took it in hand... better one good throw is better than standing there with her tits out. After a moment, whatever he heard seemed to have passed. He relaxed a hair, turned back towards her. "Food? Water?" The sil-karg slung a drinking skin towards her, wincing. "Yaff. Thumik."

Jill took an unsteady step towards Dah Mahk. The skin had landed within reach of his spear, but she needed something. A few more steps, too quick for her shriveled stomach and swimming head, and she knelt by the skin. Greedily, she opened it, and didn't notice the rank smell until it was in her mouth. Thumik, whatever it was, was foul. Thick, like cream or half-melted butter, with clots that caught in her throat, and a stench that made her eyes water, like the unwashed crotches of a cavalry squad; horse and sweat and gonorrhea. Her nausea battled with her hunger and thirst; it was a testament to how hungry she was that she swallowed two mouthfuls before the stench made her stop and quell her rebelling stomach. Looking up, Dah Mahk had a grin on his face. Was he impressed? Or had he played a joke... she shied away from that thought. Didn't want to think about what that joke might have been. She battled for a moment, then said "Food?" and mimed eating again. It was, in her opinion, the bravest thing she'd ever done.

"Cheg. Nukk thumik." He jerked his head to the right again. Jill set the skin down for now, and settled back against the wall to watch the entrance with Dah Mahk. She tried to get his words for things... rock, spear, cave. He participated only reluctantly; berk, gart, ogra. He didn't want to play when it came to verbs, and her head swum so much that she didn't want to try things like walk, run, or jump. Hours passed in the half-light of a grey day, and Jill realized she must have awakened in the morning. She struggled down another mouthful of thumik; Dah Mahk grinned each time, then would settle back into the half-doze that still let him come awake if she moved towards the entrance. At what must have been midday, she stood and took off her armor, wanting to look at her wounds. Dah Mahk started when she did this, but looked away, casually, with no sign that he cared. Bruises painted her skin, some with the ugly purple newness of a day's rest, others older and more familiar. She explored her face with her fingertips, hissing as she felt the tenderness from where she'd taken a knee or fist or something to the face in the fight that must have been last night. Weighing the discomfort of leather armor on bare flesh versus the pain from her ribs, she ripped her tattered shirt and used it to bind her chest tight; it may not be great, but it would keep things from getting much worse. She looked at the mess where his foot had been, and cleared her throat to wake him. She pointed to her foot, then his foot. “Bandage?” She gestured at her bound ribs, her tattered scraps of shirt.

He looked carefully; she felt him thinking on her offer with his eyes. “Yaaaffff…” He drew the word out, reluctantly, carefully. She walked forward, slowly, stopping when he drew a dagger, but his eyes never wavered. She took two more steps, and he watched carefully. His eyes were orange irises on black, and never wavered from hers. She settled down into a squat, which made her entire legs ache like a motherfucker but meant she wasn’t kneeling to him, wasn’t fastened to the ground should he attack with the dagger.

Looking at the wound, she was surprised he was still alive; even after hours, it still oozed around fresh scabs, and bits of bone stuck out where whatever had cut his foot off had scraped rather than cleaved. She could think of a dozen things she’d rather have than a handful of bandages torn from a dirty shirt, but she tied it tight around the ankle and padded the wound as best she could; hopefully, the ankle tie would keep it on and slow the blood loss. Through it, Dah-mahk gripped tight at the spear shaft and dagger handle, his teeth grinding so hard she wondered that they didn’t crack. He did not make a sound.

When done with his foot, Jill looked out the entrance; the grey light of dawn was long gone, and the old remains of a mining camp lay outside; the foundation and half a corner of some old shack pushed up through mud and scrub, and old firepits overgrown with grass. Though overcast, it seemed bright to her dark-accustomed eyes, and the trail away seemed inviting. Dah Mahk seemed to read her thoughts, and put his spear across the opening. “Zit kep cheg, Jillodd. Thelkk. Geh Jillodd fee.” He closed his teeth with a click and a toss of his head, holding up his injured hand in an approximation of a claw; not a threat, but a warning of something outside. Seeing his mangled thumb again, she held up her hand, showed her thumb, then mimed setting it. That drew only a harsh “Cheg” and that rightward jerk of the head. After staring into the bright for a few minutes more, Jill sat down at the entrance, across from Dah Mahk, and he seemed content to let her, so long as she didn’t move further out.

They both dozed, waking briefly when the other would find some new soft spot on their own flesh, or one of Dah Mahk’s weapons would click on the stone floor. They both woke at dusk to the waking cries of the night birds, and watched in silence as a small herd of deer walked at the edge of the clearing, slender brown shadows slipping through the purpling night, cropping grass without ever exposing more than a few at a time. Jill looked hopefully at Dah Mahk, but he showed no sign of letting her take the spear and try for a deer. They traded words for things… deer were jekek, trees (or maybe that kind of tree) was strund, fire (which he wouldn’t let her out to gather wood for) was zapal (wood was trevo). She wondered, as she always did when picking up words like this, if she was learning the right word, or some slang term, or simply a very specific word for the general concept she was looking for. Still hungry, she took another two rancid swallows of thumik, then passed the skin to Dah Mahk, who drank it with gusto before sticking it behind his back.

It was not quite full dark when the deer alerted to something in the brush, then leapt away from the forest, landing in a wave before running across the clearing for the forest on the far side. Jill had been staring at the darkness, and scrambled to her feet with their flight; something was coming, and the deer were taking no chances. Her movement woke the dozing Dah-mahk, who drug himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the spear. He looked into the dark, where a shape emerged from the brush, the light too weak for Jill to make out what it was. “Thelkk.” Jill looked to him, not sure what that name meant, but it was the fear of it that had led Dah-mahk to keep her here all day. Jill hefted her rock, then realized the futility of that weapon.

“Dah-mahk, gart. Jillodd nukk berk. Gart Jillodd.” She held out her hand, the thought “I hope I don’t sound too stupid” running across her mind.

“Cheg, Jillodd. Dah-mahk gart.” The rightward toss of his head was brief, as he didn’t take his eyes from the ‘thelkk’.

“Yaff, motherfucker. Gart Jillodd so I don’t die with a fuckin’ rock in my hand.” The thelkk’s dark bulk moved across the clearing, the moons too low and too small to pierce the overcast give her an impression of more than bulk and strength. A bear? A giant hog? Some creature too wild to have a name. Dah-mahk offered her the dagger. It was better than nothing, especially as the beast came closer. It was clear that it knew where they were, whether because both smelled of blood and thumik, or because its eyes could pierce the dark better than a mostly-human and her sil-karg companion. Jill kissed her palm and patted the wall; hopefully, Draper found her amusing or the Bright Eyes wanted her to walk a bit further.

Still several paces away from the entrance (and Dah-mahk’s spear), the thelk raised to its hind feet, a dozen feet tall, with paws the size of Jill’s chest. The scent of old blood and dead things clung to its fur, but it was only a darkness against the dark sky to Jill… until it roared. Its bellow was half-growl, half-shriek, as if steel scraped against rock when the gods shoved back their chairs in horror of what they created.


Dah-mahk should’ve advanced, then, but he couldn’t; his foot was still raw, and he had to wait for it in the cave. Wait for it to take an unsteady step closer before falling to all fours and charging. As it approached, Jill threw herself outside the cave and to the side, hoping to escape its frontal assault, while Dah-mahk drove his spear forward, commiting himself to a forward lunge that, in his state, he could not stop. Jill rolled to the ground and she saw the spear scrape along the lowered skull and into the hump of flesh on the owlbeast’s back. One frightened part of her screamed to run as it straightened to its terrifying height, knocking the spear from his hand and wrapped Dah-mak in giant arms. Instead, she leapt forward, herself, clinging to its crest and driving her dagger into its back. It screeched in pain, falling backward and almost rolling against the ground, dropping the battered sil-karg and narrowly missing Jill, who thrust herself free at the last moment.

Landing, she saw the spear, laying on the ground a few feet away. Dah-mahk was down, and who knew how injured, but the thelkk was rising, blood seeping from its wound, and looking about for its assailant. Jill dove for the spear, rolling to her feet and found that her two hands held the two pieces of the spear… the staff had shattered. As the owlbeast charged her, she flung the sharp end at its face, then clubbed it with the remaining blunt end. The first club strike stunned it; the second smashed it to the ground, and a third and a fourth kept it from moving; the fifth strike, she was pretty sure, was pure adrenaline. But she was alive, and the thelkk… the owlbeast… was not.

She looked to where Dah-mahk lay; he still breathed, though not much. Cracked ribs and three broad slashes from owlbeast claws marred his chest. He might see dawn. She hauled him to the abandoned tin mine, and started looking for firewood, hoping to beat the bulk of the rain that started to patter down from the night sky. At least the owlbeast would provide something to eat besides thumik.

Thumik is similar to the Mongolian Kumiss, but with a hobgoblin twist. It's milk (mare's, goat's, cow's... they don't care) mixed with blood, yeasts, and a few other ingredients (which vary by tribe, nation, cook and availability). Traditionally, it's kept in a leather wineskin close to the body, keeping it warm and liquid, but the presence of blood, cream, and other factors tend to result in a texture somewhat like hot cottage cheese mixed with whipping cream... clotted, thick, and pretty damn rank. It is mildly alcoholic, but you'll seldom find anyone drunk off it; it is similar in alcohol to human or halfling "small beers". While pretty horrible to taste and smell, it does serve its purpose; it provides plenty of calories and protein to an active body. Over time, living on thumik alone will lead to malnutrition, especially in humans and elves, but that is a matter of weeks.

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