Friday, October 2, 2009

Short Stories

The following is a series of shorts I wrote back before Lord of the Rings Online was released. They are fragmented here, because they were originally placed between posts other people were making on my guild forums at the time. I had a falling out with them and removed my part of the tale shortly afterward. Here are the shorts, without much context, presented to you to read at your leisure.


A squat two-tiered building lay beside the beaten path of the training grounds across from the common stables. A radiant beam of light caressed its roof, casting a glow of dim blue and crimson upon the shingles. The grass waved softly in the breeze as birds began their morning song, and the fluttering jade leaves of proud trees outside the compound cast fanciful shadows upon the gravel path and those traveling it. Several armoured figures moved slowly towards the building, talking to one another anxiously as the morning light gleamed off their equipment, disguising the otherwise dull and beaten gear. The sound of revelry could be heard from within the tavern, encouraging the otherwise melancholy band to hasten their entrance.

Within the tavern lay all the amenities typical to a mercenary refuge, with several roughly sanded wooden tables and chairs taking up the majority of space on the first floor. A bar held precedence at the western wall, shrouded in a haze of swirling smoke, holding upon its rack a sizable amount of liquor given the small venue. A hostess was busily filling another tankard with frothy ale as the group entered. The man receiving the tankard looked up as the armoured contingent marched inside, smiling with recognition before bringing the tankard to his lips and pouring the contents down his gullet. His large frame dwarfed the stool he sat upon as though it were made for a child. His bronzed skin shone in the candlelight as if the fire itself was painting upon his well developed muscles. Like cords of spring steel, the veins in his arms protruded with every gesture, doing little to hide his mammoth strength. With a broad smile he greeted those who entered, his darkened mane of hair matted with sweat from the previous night’s revelries. Slamming the tankard onto the counter, he belched and merrily wiped the froth from his mouth, demanding it to be refilled from the barmaid. One had the sense upon entering the tavern that one was walking into the squalid home of a wolf, and the unusual feeling of discomfort associated with it. One of the men carrying a lute alongside his sheathed sword glanced into the merry drinker’s piercing brown eyes and felt as though he had caught a glimpse of some wild animal that had made its way into the tavern, not a man at all.

A thunderous cry broke his meditative silence, as the brutish man bounded from his stool with surprising grace for all the sack he had touched to his palate. “Drink up, lads! Whether from high tower or valley low, from the ruins of the Dunedain all the way through the land of hobbits, drink I say! You’ll have need of it, for I smell death around you like foam washed upon the sails of a warship.” He gestured towards the new guests with an open hand. “I’d just as quickly get it over with for all the tension these scallywag drunks bring to the bar!” Stopping a moment to drink from his tankard, the bear of a man cast his gaze to others in the bar, some betraying their fear for battle, before raising his mug in the air as though it were a prized trophy. “Wassail! Find your courage in the drink,” he bellowed, “and ale for all lest my name not be Ulfheonar!” An equally thunderous applause broke out from the revellers, some who had clearly revelled too much, captive by the friendly giant from the night before. At the mere mention of more ale an elderly man who had been keeping pace with the others fell over in his chair, spilling what remained in his tankard over his clothing, to which Ulfheonar responded with a hearty laugh, his mighty hands slapping his stomach.


Rising from his stool beside the bar, Ulfheonar listened attentively as Meldarion outlined the scouting plans. As he drew the briefing to a close, Ulfheonar fixed his gaze upon the map and walked slowly over to the table that housed it, placing a hand upon the hilt of his sword. The cloak he had been given as part of the squire-ship enunciation hugged his form gently. Soft wrinkles in the fabric rippled like sea-green waves when he shifted his weight, and would occasionally move aside with a gust of air from an open window to reveal not one, but two weapons along his belt. A pair of short and slightly longer rusted swords were draped along either side of his hips, with a spare short-axe corded up with string and slid into the back of his belt. When he folded his arms and concentrated on the map, one could see a simple cloth tunic covering his broad chest with lightly armoured paddings going down the length of his legs, providing protection for his thighs and behind the knee. The protection was meagre, but he was proud to wear the kit given to him by the Gray Council; he had been celebrating several other candidates who were fortunate enough to be chosen as squires alongside him, and had not ceased the revelries until the moment Meldarion stepped into the tavern and laid out his great plan.

It appeared to Ulfheonar that trouble was but a stone's throw away and after a moment of studying the map, looked up and met Meldarion's eyes. Stiffening his body and standing upright, he wiped the last of the ale off his lips before placing a finger down on the map, landing eastward. "Meldarion," he said, his voice devoid of mirth entire, "I was reared on a naked land. Having survived by makeshift camp, my only guide being the stars above, I learned how to fight from the very creatures that plagued the lands. With tightened grip and rending of flesh, I learned to fight the wolf in close quarters combat of the sort where swords became useless and bare hands had to be weathered like granite to ensure survival. Even then the frenzied howl I did fear, until that same piercing shriek did instill in my soul a burning instinct for the hunt. Ere did I follow the hounds and hone my nose to smell as they do, to study the tracks where human senses fail, and remain hidden in the leaves to catch hare, fox, and coon for the feast. Some say the people of Dunland be savage, aye, and I stand proof of that claim before your eyes. But the low-laying mire is where I make my home, not the trappings of steel cages and labyrinthine tombs of stone your people call cities." He tapped the map again, keeping his eyes locked with Meldarion. "I will take a small charge to the East, if you will have it, and find the invading host. Whatever their foul devices may be, by fire or stone you shall be made aware. Of that I give my word." Bringing his hand up to rub his temple he steadied himself as he met the gaze of the men and women around him, then added in a weary tone, "Though a moment of rest for my aching head would be welcome, if there is but a moment to spare."


One by one the candle flames were extinguished, their gray wisps of smoke like brush strokes upon the air. One by one the shutters were opened, the rays of white light chasing away the orange dim and gray shadows of the tavern. The dust twinkled and reflected light upon the naked eye; a thousand falling sapphires, jewels, emeralds and stars emerged and then blinked out of existence just as quickly when the light began to pass through the coloured glass of an old lantern hanging by the window. It was into this kaleidoscope of light that Ulfheonar reflected his own thoughts. It was not the barbarous accent, pounds of muscle, nor embers that swirled in his eyes that made him strong; it was the inner fire of courage, confidence, and will that made him a force of nature. Fire spreads and fire burns from even the smallest spark, and compared to the gods who rest on jewelled thrones upon the highest misty peaks, such a man as Ulfheonar would appear to be naught but a wink of light emerging and then blinking out of existence to their immortal reign. A man's worth was not measured in physical size. One by one the squires did file out of the tavern, and to each did Ulfheonar attach his gaze and search beyond the flesh for hearts that burned ethereal, leaving aeriform wisps to mingle with the brush strokes of extinguished candles.

With furrowed brow the savage rested a hand under his chin and brushed the hair of his beard above the lip in a thoughtful motion. It seemed the squires that permeated the compound carried the spark he sought, though there were others who would not survive the coming siege. He carefully concluded that their presence was still vital, as shields of bone could be substituted for shields of iron in battle, giving those imbued with warrior spirit an opportunity to prolong their warfare upon the enemy; those who would pass his silent test would accompany him to the front lines of battle to exact the highest death toll among the approaching war-band. Leaving his tankard behind, Ulfheonar relaxed his posture and walked silently out of the tavern, disappearing into a portal of pure white light to those whom eyes had not yet adjusted to the break of day.


The compound was filled with activity. Metal buckles clinked against armoured pads, swords were sheathed and unsheathed, and in each direction ran another squire or knave making themselves ready for what lay ahead. The bustle was that of a stirred hornet's nest, one filled with eager creatures readying their respective stingers for the pelting of rocks that would surely come. Unlike bees, hornets can sting several times before dying. Ulfheonar knew that in this particular compound there were certainly a few bees running around, and the task of finding a suitable partner for his scouting patrol was becoming more and more daunting. Standing upon the lower steps of the tavern, he scanned the gravel paths, the stables across from him, and either sides of the tavern, looking for someone who wasn't already taken with another task. His hands wandered down to the holstered weapons around his waist, toying with the hilts as he pondered. He loathed the feeling of helplessness associated with dependency, working his thoughts upon the grip of his weapons now. He clenched his teeth and began gritting them as his eyes narrowed, the alcohol in his body not countervailing the feeling of rage that was building up inside of him by any means. With each twist and grind of the handle, the sound of strained leather complimented the inner turmoil building within him. Several minutes passed. Having been lost in thought, he noticed he was wearing out the leather hilts and released his hold with a sigh.

Coming to his senses, he skipped down the remaining steps of the tavern and threw himself to the ground, trying to wear out his anger with push-ups. Simultaneously he was getting covered in dirt and mud, which again went unnoticed in the beast's mind. He tried counting each repetitious movement but found his voice too choked up with adrenaline, and so relegated his speech to grunts and other animal noises. After the hundredth push-up, and finding that he was no closer to wearing himself out, he half-thought of asking one of the passing hobbits to sit on his back but withdrew the idea for the sake of their safety. This outburst of energy and anger was nothing compared to the real frenzy he'd work himself into before the coming battle, and had at times in the past been known for attacking allies who came too close at the apex of his unsated blood lust. It was for their safety that he vented his anger upon the ground, now. After the second hundredth push-up some of his energy began to wane, and so he sat up on his knees, breathing heavy and watching the horses eat from their troughs at the stable parallel to him. He repeated to himself mentally that he would have to remember to remind whoever he was saddled with that in heights of emotion he was somewhat of a wild man, as uncontrollable as the winds of a hurricane.

Finding his balance, the barbarian stood tall with straightened back and began to stretch. In the back of his mind he knew that his ire was merely pacified for the time being. Taking out a scrap of parchment as well as some coal from one of his pockets, he wrote down a requisition before tacking it to the exterior of the tavern door. It read,

"I pray thee read onward if skill in stealth ye possess. Gallant warriors, most happy are they when there is hope for battle, are needed. If smashed spear-head or broken blade come by you upon the eve of warring and with them so to does your skill break, heed not this letter's request. If ye be affeared of the Eastward wood come nightfall or grow loath of discomforts paired with it, preferring to hide head keelward as if showers of water were arrows, do not heed this letter's request. If thou rightly continued reading this parchment, with bearing both skillful and dutiful, hasten thee to the one known as Ulfheonar at the Training Grounds of this very compound."

After checking to see that the paper would hold its place, Ulfheonar stepped backwards down the steps, keeping his gaze fixed upon the parchment to make sure the wind would not blow it away. Satisfied with his work, he spun around and jaunted up the path toward the northernmost grounds of the compound, eager to practice his fighting skills and await whomever would answer his summons.


From the arrow-slits of the donjon, one would be afforded a view both pantheistic and heartbreaking. Going back to times immemorial, men (and now women too) were preparing for war. The purpose of their engagement was then unclear, but to they who practiced with sword and arrow, it mattered little. The enemy whom everyone could see and seldom had power to conquer was time itself. When the sun next rose to greet the inhabitants of the bailey, who among them would have eyes to greet with? Would the gods part the clouds to attend the battle? Despite divinity they would observe and endure man's inhumanity to man, weeping from a distance with the clouds themselves. Say all who fight, "Bring us glory in death!", and to those above, "Bring them glory in life!” The fighters fought the dummies, archers arrowed targets, ere did the axe chop the wood for machinations of war, no thought paid to their own self-destructive nature.

-Excerpt from Strato's journal, two days after the razing of the compound.

With a heave and a sigh, another block of wood was splintered in half. Having no particular desire to fight with warriors of hay, Ulfheonar instead chose to chop wood with methodical, meditative strokes of the axe. Wiping his brow, the sun beating down on him, he rested the axe head upon the ground and took a moment to gather himself. Other squires who were waiting for their turn to patrol, or had come merely to sharpen their skills, were vigorously slashing at dummies, notching arrows at rounded targets, or chopping wood to pass the time. It was decided through Ulfheonar's self-imposed break that food supplies, light clothing, and plenty of water were needed for his patrol. He hoped that whoever chanced upon his script at the tavern could tolerate rough conditions, as he had no plans to bring firewood with him. Were the route shorter, he conceded that a horse would be better left to the stables for all the dung they left on the road; if ambushing the ambushers was called for, it was best to leave no trace behind. Fire creates light and smoke, and the smell of cooked food may drift throughout the wood attracting all manner of beast and man alike. It was his nose, Ulfheonar concluded, that he would inevitably have to rely on. The brush was thick, so seeing the enemy from a distance would prove difficult; staying downwind was crucial, and should they chance upon the droppings of a man, broken twigs or cut leaves, they would have to stalk the forest like panthers, using their hearing and sense of smell to catch the lookout off-guard. Only the inexperienced would make the mistake of thinking a camp consisted merely of men by a fire, Ulfheonar thought, for the encircling spotters would have more than one arrow poised at your back. To die in such a manner was not considered glorious among his people.

With an amused smile he rested his hands upon his hips and mused about a cushy hobbit intercepting his note, and envisioned the short trip that would follow. Surely after the second or third meal break of the hour, the insistence for jaunts of cooked animal meat over berries and foliage would alert even the basest of guards around the imagined camp he sought to find. Arguing would follow, raised voices would echo the woods, and come nightfall, after wandering off and leaving Ulfheonar to sleep unguarded in search of mushrooms, they would both awake in cages over pots of boiling water or spike pits. With a hearty laugh the man of Dunland then envisioned the last words he would hear should a thing occur, with the hobbit complaining that the cage was too "dirty" and "uncivilized" as the men of Angmar pierced their flesh with spear-tips. Stifling his laughter, Ulfheonar turned his gaze from the practicing squires to the entrance of the training grounds, where a tall intimidating man with a pipe in his mouth stood, anything but cushy. "He'll do", he muttered with a grin.


A ring of smoke blew into the taller man's face, but no cough betrayed him. The duo stood facing each other with locked eyes, the smoke dancing upon the iris of each man like black wisps that foreshadow the flame made from bow and kindling. A gust of wind burst from the beast's nose, clearing the air between them and bringing the grounds to silence. The savage released his grip, letting the hatchet fall to the ground. Squires who had not already turned their attention to the standoff did so, allowing the rounded targets and straw filled dummies a moment of reprieve. With a slow and meditative motion the imposing figure brought his hand to hip-level with the challenger, taking the lit pipe from him and holding it aloft in the space between both men. The pipe was then brought to bear at eye level so that each could see it without shaking their intimidating stare. Closing his hand into a fist, the barbarian's muscles hardened into tree trunks, the veins winding along the length of his arm like corded strings of steel upon his bronzed sinews. The pipe was crushed, burning embers and all, the sound of breaking wood coupled with a soft, drawn out hiss. He opened his hand and let the ashes crumble to the earth below, as the squires watched on. Silence.

A moment passed, and then another, before finally the silence was broken with a resounding crack that would have been mistaken for thunder had storm clouds been present. Slapping Syngar's back boisterously, and laughing just as carefree, Ulfheonar relaxed his posture and smiled wildly. The squires let out a collective sigh of relief as the tension evaporated from the grounds, settling their nerves with reassuring banter as they returned to normality. "I admire your bravery fellow warrior," Ulfheonar said after his laughter had died down, "else I worry about your sanity! For it was either boldness or stupidity that bade you to do such an action, but since you mentioned my note I can only surmise courage." Ulfheonar took out a scrap of parchment and eyed it carefully as he continued. "Regardless, your merit will be tested when we leave this place. I have here a list of supplies for the road ahead," and here Ulfheonar looked up and met Syngar's gaze, "pipe-weed being not on the list. We move against the trained hunters of Angmar with full intention to keep them unaware of our actions and learn what they know of us. I won't risk firewood either. Mayhaps we will get lucky and they will make that mistake for us, providing us with an easy time of it, though I am doubtful of such a thing occurring." Sensing some discomfort after giving over the list, Ulfheonar placed his hand on Syngar's shoulder with sympathy. "A deal then is the thing, for compensation of your lost pipe. Should you earn my trust in the wood, and I yours, a new pipe will I purchase for you of the finest craft, and the beard on my face will I cut free," patting his own cheek with a smile, "for there is much wealth to be gained from those foolish enough to oppose us. Unless there is anything more to say, take that list and bring it to the food-stores while I saddle the horses. If you have trouble carrying anything, tell them who it is for and I am certain they will be more than glad to carry it for you." Turning his head and meeting the eyes of an observing squire in the bailey was all that had to be done to cause the young man to yelp and skitter away towards the gate.


A cool breeze kicked up in the afternoon, rippling the blades of grass as waves caress the beach. The air was mild and warm, the sun had taken a firm grasp on the sky, and the clouds were scarce. Ulfheonar left himself to be enchanted by the fine weather, closing his eyes and breathing deeply; spiritually nestling himself deep within nature's womb. It was a small wonder to him that people could long for a complex city life while the simple offered the most; the rustling leaves and singing birds were his orchestra, the soil and tilled land his market square, his quiet reflections upon stumped tree-trunks the equivalent of lectures in great halls. He pondered the need for land, the desire to reign over men while amassing and hoarding wealth, and the battles that waged over lines in the sand. Clutching his cloak close to him to keep the breeze from chilling his arms, he looked out across the visible tree line, the mountain ranges in the distance, and the unending ocean of sky above him. It bemused him to think as his compatriots did, or those of the Angmar forces soon approaching, that any mortal creature could [i]own[/i] the infinite. In truth, one could merely put a label on something so big and claim it for their own, but it, like the wind, belongs only to itself. It was for these reasons that Ulfheonar then thought of his own people and their nomadic way of life - traveling with the herd, migrating with the weather, hunting out of necessity and claiming no property; either of man, beast, structure, or borders on a map. It fascinated him to study the 'civilized' man, as a stranger in a strange land is wont to do.

It was upon this very thought that Syngar returned from the gate, seemingly empty-handed save for the scrap of parchment given to him by Ulfheonar's hand. "I don't need any of this," Syngar said with a tone of irritation, "my senses, my hatchet, and my bow is all I will need out there. Let us make haste." He held the parchment in a lackluster way, letting the wind tempt it over the walls and into the blue yonder, with an expecting look upon his face. Reaching out and calmly taking the paper, Ulfheonar studied it once more, and looked up at Syngar with a slight air of confusion on his face. "Syngar, all goods and equipment are essentially a luxury. I know this, I am used to improvising in the wild, but even my people would meet and trade with settlers for common goods." He glanced at the list and continued. "Things like fish hooks, a shovel, matches, candles, parchment, and bandages may seem far-removed from our task, but they are certainly worth getting while we stand among friends." Ulfheonar folded the paper and placed it inside a pocket with remarkable grace for someone with hands so big. "I suppose we can subsist on plants and dig for springs of water, but why not bring a canteen while we can? Considering the danger we head into, bandages are as good an idea as warm jackets for the night. I'll go and fetch some lard as well as we can't cook, though candles will do in a pinch, since we can't rely on hares or coons to thoroughly feed us. The meat is too stringy, though if we find any small feral cats we can use their innards for reliable bow-strings." Syngar began to grimace. "I'll fetch food rations, but we pack light," Ulfheonar added, walking towards the gate. "We'll need a map to know where we are to patrol. I'll tell Meldarion that we'll be departing and that if he has no word from us by to-morrow eve, something is amiss. Go to the stables and saddle our horses while I get what we need." Turning on his heels, he silently slipped through the gate despite the giant body he inhabited.


Several hours had passed since Syngar and Ulfheonar had begun their patrol of the north-east route, and with them brought little worth describing. Suffice to say several breaks were had, roads were checked for other human tracks, canteens were emptied and then refilled with water springs, and at meal times the pair sat and waxed machismo while eating foraged berries and springs of leaf. Soon the sun set itself into the horizon, warping the colour of the sky and clouds to a red and crimson glow. At night they happened upon a natural covering to hide themselves from the cold wind as they slept in shifts, eating lard out of their palms and gnawing on dry rations. Ulfheonar would lay slumped against a tree with a sword across his lap, and Syngar would sit on the bark of a fallen tree, keeping the horses company as they knelt and slept.

By daybreak the pair were off again, moving from the East up to the North on their patrol, passing through the brush and clearing, over the knolls and logs, and bounding over the grass - all the while covered in sparkling patterns cast by the roof of the tree line. An hour later, they had ceased their steadfast journey, leaving the horses tethered to a batch of trees surrounded with enough brush to keep them out of sight. With careful steps, slight pauses, and silent gestures between the pair, they came to a halt outside the perimeter of a camp. Syngar dutifully marked the location of the camp (roughly 6 miles North East of the Gray Council compound), as Ulfheonar checked for traps and indications of ambush. They knew a camp was nearby for the change in air temperature, the smell of burning wood wafting in on a northern breeze, and the remains of fallen branches and leafy stocks discarded in its direction. Syngar recognized the markings as having come from that of a sword, slowly widening with each branch - the blade that was used was becoming more and more dull with each cut, assuring Syngar that the invading company were about as poorly equipped as they were.

The two continued their investigation, making sure they kept downwind as often as possible, for, as Syngar had hastily concluded in their first few moments together, the barbarian's one true weakness was bathwater and soap. Staying true to their survival instincts and past experiences granted them the upper hand when Ulfheonar spotted a small wisp of smoke that ended with a red flare among the trees. Moving closer, and squinting as best he could manage, the outline of a small figure sitting on an equally small wooden plank became apparent. Dressed in earth tones, the hunched character was sitting with his back to the trunk of the tree, high enough to have a clear vantage point of the surrounding area --when, Syngar hastened to add upon discovery, he was paying attention. For, as luck would have it, the pair came across the guard on his meal break, and devised a clever plan of attack suitable for such an encounter.

Caught glimmering in the field below, a bright light beckoned to the woodsman, disappeared, and did so again. Taking the pipe from his mouth and resting a broken slab of bread beside him, the guard placed his boot on the edge of the plank and leaned forward to get a better view. The brush was thick and elusive, and to his eyes all he could see were patches of jade and silver glints of metal. Cautiously, he picked up his bow and reached back for an arrow to nock into the bowstrings, his eyes fixated on the light below - it might have been the glinting steel of Syngar, if not for what happened next.

A surprised yelp, followed by an outright yell, ended with a triumphant and resounding crash upon the earth. The unfortunate woodsman lay in a crumpled heap amid the bushes, his glittering prize a mere fishhook on a line. Like the sirens of ancient myth luring men to their doom, a line and the able hand of a barbarian continued the tradition in a fateful way. Using his silent prowess and pleasant smell, Syngar had carefully made his way up the tree branches to the plank of the guard unnoticed, and at the most opportune moment had aided nature with the gentlest of nudges. Ulfheonar inspected the corpse as Syngar searched the supplies above.

A plan was made based upon their findings: from the body of the scout, Ulfheonar retrieved some coins and procured some identifying marks, and from the supplies the man was eating, it was agreed that he was to be there for quite some time. The amount of water and food rations indicated a watch of at least four to five hours, and the amount that remained untouched upon the pair's fated arrival would allude to one, maybe one and a half of those hours served. The duo made sure to scatter the arrows and make the scene look like an accident, careful not to upset the fallen body for fear of detection. When a person ceases to be alive, the blood pools and forms white, mottled patches on the skin in places not directly leaning against another object; it is from this process of livor mortis that the experienced are able to discern a person's time of death, and if the two had decided to shift the body to another position, it wouldn't take more than a careful glance to know that somebody had suspiciously moved him.

With a newfound sense of adventure, Syngar and Ulfheonar proceeded inward toward the camp, now certain that they had a window of at least two hours with which to study and map out armaments, equipment, and other essentials before having to retreat. Silently, carefully, the pair melded into the shadows and continued their mission of reconnaissance.

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