Another bit of mtg fanfic, returning once more to Ulgrotha and the Homelands set. Bit late for All-Hallows, but I hope you enjoy all the same!
The boy started awake as the meagrely-laden cart shuddered, jolted out of a rut. He could feel, having made this trip countless times before, that they had gone too far. Rubbing sleep-heavy eyes, he peered into the drawing gloom. Close-coppiced trees blocked out his vision after more than a few feet either side of the path. He looked over at his grandfather, the old man’s figure shadowy against the swinging lantern behind him. The old man must have noticed that his grandson was awake, but gave no outward sign, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. There was something unusual about all this, the boy felt.
Shifting on the wooden bench, the boy looked behind him – yes! There it was! Bouncing with each stony depression the wheels fell in to, the boy watched the lights of An-Havva Inn twinkle in the distance. They were still close enough that a burst of laughter and music reached them, as some wayward patron staggered out the main door. They turned a corner, and the last cheery sign of it was gone. The boy shuddered as the dark seemed to pull in on them, heavy, dank, and oppressive. It passed quickly, though – a moment more and the moon shrugged off its foggy shroud, casting its light on the road ahead of them.
“Papa,” the boy said, “why aren’t we stopping at the Inn, like we usually do? Where are we going?”
The old man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the wood boards rasping a different note than the usual creak of motion. Finally looking at his grandson, he held the gaze steady for a long moment. His face was drawn, greyish and lined in a way the boy hadn’t seen before. He looked old, older than he did yesterday. A sudden snap out in the forest broke him from his reverie, and, with a shake of his head, he turned away. The rustle of leather and rumble of the wheels were all that was heard for a time, until the old man began to rummage by his side. He produced a dull, pewter flask, and, unscrewing the lid with shaky hands, he drank deeply. The smell of the liquor was thick on the air as he exhaled, the unusual odour making the boy feel queasy. His grandfather hardly ever drank, even only having a single mug of hard cider during the Harvest festival. The queerness of the situation did nothing for the boy’s state of mind, making him feel all the sicker.
“We’re not bringing anything to the Inn, tonight, not yet…” the man said, still looking ahead. “We’re…taking our stock to another place…yes, another market…” As the sentence drifted off, he lifted the flask for another pull. The woods on either side, organised and humane on the road approaching the Inn, began to take a disorganised, wilder look. Unworked, old – the trees drooped with moss several feet thick, the bark knotted and horny. The air was close, musty – and threatening.
“Say,” he said, turning to the boy in sudden animation. “Do you remember the, well, this would have been quite a few years back, so you may not, but do you remember the tinker that stopped at the village for several seasons – name of Rorik, I think.”
The boy screwed up his face in concentration, trying to remember. It had been several years ago, and, the boy being so young, he couldn’t remember much past two harvest-times with any degree of clarity.
“Ah, as I remember it, Rorik used to put on shows for you young’uns. Puppets and whatnot,” the old man said, warming to his subject.
The memory of the displays, always a burst of colour in the small, pastoral life of the boy, cleared the fog of time.
“Oh, yeah, I remember him!” he said excitedly. “Are we going to a puppet show? Will he be there? I haven’t seen Rorik in ages!”
“Erm, no, my lad, not quite,” the man said, uncomfortably. The brightness of the memories fled from his face, leaving him once again looking ragged. “No, I was just thinking, you recall how Rorik…how he had to leave us, at the village-like?”
The boy, thinking about how long it had been since he saw the strange, cartoonish man, nodded.
“Well, that Rorik, he didn’t just leave, like. He helped the village, y’see?” the man said, earnestly, a strange urgency in his words as if he was trying more to convince himself than his grandson. The boy, for his part, mostly looked bemused.
“And then, do you remember Tallin, the carpenter, who came the year after? He helped to build the mill at the base of the Green Run? Well, he didn’t stop there – when he left afterwards, he helped out even more!” The boy knew how important the mill was to his village, it was what set their home apart from the surrounding districts. It made sense to think of it as a lasting aid – didn’t people, at least before, come from miles around to use it?
“And after that, too,” his grandfather continued, “there was Oan and his wife, and their daughter. They helped the village a lot!” The boy remembered this family well – the daughter, Sigri, was only a year older than he himself. There were so few children in the village, they had become fast friends. Quickly, they had become inseparable, spending every moment they could together, those that they could steal away from the chores on their families’ farms. But then, after only a year and a season, Sigri and her parents had abruptly left the village. One day, Oan had been discussing with the other men the best way to lay out his meagre fields for the coming season – it had been early Spring – and the next, he and his family had left. Sigri hadn’t even said goodbye to the boy, hadn’t even mentioned their intention to leave the village. The boy still hadn’t gotten over the loss, though it was several years ago. He didn’t know what Oan and his family could have done to help the village, though he trusted his Grandfather. Oan couldn’t weave stories like Rorik, dazzling the crowds with feats of acrobatics or enthralling with music. Nor did he have the ability that of Tallin to shape wood, the know-how to raise structures that stood for years and harness the power of the rushing Run. Oan had been poor, with the worst plot of land in the village. Sigri had always had threadbare clothing, her mother unable to do more than repair the scraps and off-cuts of other villagers’ charity. No, the boy didn’t know how Sigri and her parents could have offered the same sort of help as the other strangers.
“Yes, my boy, all those poor folk, they helped the village. Without them, well, we wouldn’t have gotten by, no indeed,” his grandfather continued, though the over-bright expression he had worn before had been replaced now, returning once again to a stolid set.
“We’ll be helping the village ourselves, tonight,” he said with a note of finality, another drink quick on the back of the words.
What must have been nearly an hour passed. The fog thickened as the air cooled, muffling the sounds of the night time forest around them. The boy began to nod, the rhythm of the slow nag rocking him into a fitful sleep. His fevered mind, though, gave him no respite. Dark dreams, filled with half-seen terrors that flitted about, kept him from truly falling asleep. Coming to full wakefulness of a sudden, he perked up his ears, hearing a thunder in the distance. He looked quickly to his grandfather, who stared ahead of them, gimlet eyes peering into the darkness. Clearly, the sound had distressed the man, as well. Though the sky was overcast, the clouds didn’t look to be carrying a storm in their bellies, and so he wondered at it. Few moments passed as the sound grew, seemingly from all sides, and then –
a great crashing and a terrified whinny from the mule, which pulled the lot of them into the ditch as a dark shape hurtled by. The boy caught a glimpse of a white face, twisted into an inhuman, silent shout, struggling to restrain a brace of the largest stallions he had ever seen. Jet-black, they stood at least 20 hands at the withers – taller than any dray horse he’d seen in his short life, and much more sleek. Despite their tumultuous passage, the carriage they pulled seemed to glide behind them. Glossy wood, painted or naturally ebony, the boy didn’t know. The shape of it was elegant, and unsettling. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he spied another face, within the carriage, before the obscuring curtain was twitched back into place. This face was white, like the other, but, where the first was animated by its struggle, this second one was placid, calculating. Like a still pool, the depths of which were obscured by the mirror-like surface. Time passed quickly, and the face was gone as the vehicle sped along the empty road. Not even sure he’d seen the passenger, the boy was left deeply unsettled by the thought of its gaze.
It took nearly half an hour to right the cart and settle the mule. The animal, normally sombre to the point of dullness, danced and shied as if a colt, though its energy evidently sourced from something more dire. It was fortunate the cart itself was so lightly loaded – their usual cargo, the heavy barrels of cider and ale, would have checked any efforts to pull the cart from the muddy trench.
The trio finally continued on their way – the somewhat-calmed mule tugging the vehicle steadily uphill, the old man sitting silent, every so often taking a pull from his flask, and the child, trying to stifle the mounting unrest brought on by the extraordinary events of their nocturnal travels. They climbed above the reach of the fog, its tendrils clinging to them as they jerked along, as if loathe to let them go. The air, crisp outside the fog, was cold. Once again, the clouds pulled back, and the gibbous moon revealed itself to the solitary travellers. High above them, now, its thin light illuminated their surroundings. The boy looked out into the forest, and a break of some several feet in the surrounding trees opened up a scene beyond and below them. Far off in the distance, leagues and leagues, the yellow moonlight lit up a vast wasteland. From their high vantage, they could spy some of the outer edge, the way that the surrounding forests and fields came to an abrupt, unnatural end. Barren rock, taupe in the moonlight, covered acres of land. The boy looked out, and, at the furthest reaches of his sight, he thought he caught glimpse of a single, loan tower rising above the background waste.
“Ill luck, boy,” his grandfather said gruffly. “Ill luck to look on the Basalt Spire by moonlight. Look too long, they say, and you’ll set the Old Witch to ringing her chime once more. Best to look away,” he finished, another swig of his flask. He needn’t have bothered, as, within a few moments, the forest returned thick as ever.
The boy could feel their descent steepening, and, soon, they were confronted by a solid wall of fog, blotting out the way ahead. The mule paid no heed, and dragged them into it without slackening pace. The boy shuddered as the thick moisture settled on his bare skin. He wrapped himself in his skimpy traveling clothes, trying to retain what heat he could. Droplets of water fell from the tip of his Grandfather’s large, crooked nose.
The cart jerked to a halt, and the boy awoke, disoriented and perplexed. The moon had fled – it was the darkest hour of the night, some short time before dawn. He realised he must have fallen asleep, despite the clamminess of the fog. He looked around him, trying to make out his surroundings. His Grandfather had jumped down from the cart, and stood, conversing lowly, with someone – or something – just beyond the reach of the lamplight.
“Papa – where are we?” the boy called, a tremor in his voice.
“It’s – it’s alright. Come over here, Grandson,” the last word caught in the man’s throat, emotion choking his alcohol-blurred speech – the first time he had uttered the word, their long journey.
The boy gingerly descended the cart, still bundled tightly in his small robe. The muck was thick on the ground, oozing overtop of his boots. Pulling himself free with difficulty, the stink of it curled his nostrils. When he had made his way over to his grandfather’s side, his mysterious associate struck a light and set a lantern burning.
The boy beheld the ugliest man he had ever seen, a face more animal than human – almost that of a pig. Great, rotten teeth peaked up above a quivering lip, the top of his mouth covered by greasy bristles of a patchy moustache. The eyes, dark and hard, pierced the boy, looking more through than at him. The boy whimpered in fright. The gaze shifted to the older man, a questioning look on its swarthy features. The man faired hardly better than the boy.
“Now, Grandson -” he began. “Just as I, erm, was saying, we’re going to help the village tonight…” there was a pleading edge to his stammering speech, guilt stamping it false. “Y’see, there’s been no strangers through in such a long time, and, and, the crops ‘ave been failin’, and praying to Serra’s no use…” the man looked utterly wretched. Fat tears began to slide down his grey face. “It, it was discussed, it was decided – I fought them, I did! I fought them, but, it’s for the good of the village, and the crops be failin’, an’ it be decided…” he ended weakly.
The rough man grabbed the boy by the arm, his grip like a vice on the thin limb.
“You will be rewarded,” he rasped, his speech treacly, like the muck they stood in. “The Dark Barony is ever in need of fresh meat,” he said.
The boy looked at his grandfather, imploring silently with his eyes, but the man would not meet his gaze. He turned, began to shuffle back to the cart with drooping shoulders.
“Wait!” the brute called to him. He fished about in a soiled pocket a moment, and thumbed a thick coin to the broken man. Flipping through the air, it glinted gold in the firelight.
“For your troubles…” and he began to laugh.
The coin fell into the mud by the man’s feet. He looked at it a moment. The boy reached out to him, hoping, still hoping…
The man bent and fished the soiled money from the filth, though he knew the real payment was yet to come.