A fantasy tale.
The town of Mondoria was in full color as the Feast of Tallier started. Banners hung from the flagpoles and windows. The inns had taken on extras staff to be open for the three-day festival. The town thrived with people coming from all over Madior province for the festival. With the growth of population in the area, Mondoria had become the principal seaport. The other harbor in the region was Kerranmore, but with Mondoria being easier to travel to, the trade routes changed. Thieves and outcasts now populated Kerranmore.
Jesters danced along the streets, and children followed as laughter filled the air. From the inns could be heard the sound of games, and men were making deals. The women folk wandered around taking in the vast array of foods brought from afar for the festival. Now was the time to treat the family to wholesome meals, rather than the usual gruel of watery stews. Money was not easy to come by, but the town always made a great show for these three days.
Decked in their Harlequinesque costumes, the jugglers and acrobats thrilled the crowds which gathered around. Their antics both daring and entrancing, held their audiences enthralled. The performers thrilled the children with their exciting acts. To the innocent, they looked dangerous, but the artists know their art and accidents were few are far between, and rarely life-threatening.
The festival is a busy time for Thomas Kelp. The town baker needed to bring help in to keep up with the increased demand for his loaves. It was during a short break in the processes that he noticed a stranger enter the town. The stranger appeared to be a man of small stature. The man’s movements aroused Tom, as much as the man himself. The stranger kept to the sides of the streets and in the shadows. Tom thought, “On such a day as this, why would a man wish to hide from people?”
The man’s clothing appeared torn and tattered as if he had traveled a long distance. He glanced around as if trying to find somebody or something. He never looked back. Was he too afraid of what lay behind him to chance a glance of his pursuers? Moving from shadowed area to darkness, the stranger avoided the many eyes on the streets as he passed out of sight of Tom. The baker’s day was too busy to pay heed to a stranger, besides the festival brought many visitors to the town. Some passed through, and others stayed. The inns and bakery would be working through the night, not until the morning of the fourth day would they rest. At this stage, they would provide a last meal for the travelers as they left Mondoria to go home.
The festival started many years ago when a man called Tallier left a small fortune for the town, to keep away the influence of the thieves and vagabonds that travel the highways. Some of the people said he had been a seer who wanted to find peace. Other people said he had been a soldier; who tired of fighting and became a hermit in the hills to the North. No matter what you believe, he left a prophecy.
“I, the one who is known to the town of Mondoria as Tallier, leave this warning to the city. If you do not change your ways and desist from worshipping the lures of flesh and coin, there shall come a day when a storm from the skies shall burn the town to the ground. Only the house of the believers shall remain untouched.”
Not long after Tallier’s disappearance; money appeared at the foot of the rock face around which the town had grown. The Church of ‘The Sisters of Tallier’ took this to be a sign from Tallier. With the money, they moved from their old church on the edge of the town. The Sisters got help from the townsfolk and moved the church to the top of the cliff overlooking the area. The Sisters thought of it as a way to watch the town’s growth as the leading seaport. This move was their interpretation of Tallier’s wishes.
With growth and wealth came many problems. Some were human-made such as the ladies who walked the streets and the increase in hostelries. More insidious was an enemy which skulked in the underworld. With shipping came the rats, a horrible plague. These beasts evolved, as species do. Before long the creatures could walk on their back legs. The town’s people called them Thrugmen, a cross between man and rat. Thrugmen have large protruding front teeth and deadly claws capable of tearing meat from the bone. Filth became the home of the Thrugmen The more the town spread, the higher their numbers grew. No matter how many they numbered, they stayed out of sight, coming out at dark to feast on waste.
All through the town’s growth, the church stood on the cliff overlooking Mondoria. Among the town’s people were a group known as Flagellants. These people saw what was happening to their once lovely town, and punished themselves for the sins of the populace; their punishment was to whip themselves until they bled. The flagellants' numbers never grew; now and then new members would join as the older members died. The town was so busy, and it never occurred to the people to look at what was happening under their noses.
The stranger passed through the town without causing a stir, as he wandered to the door of the Mondoria Arms, the large hostelry in the city, he paused to look back for the first time and smiled. Gently, he pushed the large door open and got greeted by the sight of a crowd of men, women, and children. The stranger glanced at the barkeeper and nodded, without hesitation, the barman began to pour a drink for the stranger. The stranger gratefully accepted the offered glass and went to sit by the roaring fire. It wasn't long before his presence aroused the interest of the younger patrons.
The crowd began to amass around the stranger as though waiting for important news. The stranger finished his drink, wiped his sweating brow with the dirty sleeve of his tattered cloak and began, “I have come with word from the Sisters, and the seers in the hills to the north, this year Talliers’ prophecy will come true!”
The children looked around, everybody in Mondoria had heard about the prophecy, and knew one day it would happen, but when? He’d warned the town so many times, and nothing had happened that the older inhabitants took no notice of his tale.
The town guard was patrolling their usual route, not expecting any trouble, when Jimmy Pookly spotted something, “Rider coming from the West!” he called out, “one rider on horseback, no sign of enemy action.”
People from the inns poured out to see who the stranger could be. The rider, a young lady with the long brown hair, rode her horse – a grey mare – passed the crowds gathered in the streets and stopped at the inn. She quickly dismounted, and ran to the stranger, “ Lord Tallier, your prophecy is upon us this hour.”
The stunned crowd gazed at the man sat before them, could this man in rags be Isaac Tallier, the legendary soldier? As the inn drew silent, Tallier rose from his stool, “Tell me, Lady Rachel, what of your parents and the castle?”
Lady Rachel Crannock looked at her master and then said, “They are all gone, my liege. The castle was hit with the first fireballs before I had a chance to escape the building collapsed around me. I was fortunate to get away.”
The inn emptied as people filled the streets to see if it was possible, in the distance the glow of the burning castle showed that their fate had appeared to be sealed. Jimmy asked Lord Tallier, “How long do you think before the town gets hit?”
Tallier looked with eyes filled with tears at the sky, “That is something I cannot foretell, that decision is in the hands of the Gods. They may they be graceful enough to give us the opportunity to escape before burning the city down.”
As the scared city dwellers gazed at the skies ablaze with the fireballs from the Gods, Lady Rachel asked Tallier, “Will you be traveling with the people when we leave?”
Tallier hugged his young friend and then replied, “Not on this journey, Lady Rachel. I have other villages to warn, but we’ll meet in the future, of that be assured. I leave the safety of these poor folk in your capable hands. My travels will take me far across our lands, to towns and cities even our bravest warriors have not come to know. I got appointed to the role of Lord Protector on my last voyage. I left here to seek the guidance and strength to fulfill my task. Each year at this time, I return to warn you of the prophecy, I realize you have come to view me as a man to think of as a fool; but believe me, this is not for fun. You have, but a short while before this area becomes a fire pit. Many shall perish in flames, but those who survive will start anew and build a greater city in their memory - of that you have my promise. We must part; we have our paths to take; I hope your way takes you far from Kerranmore, the last I heard was the port is in the hands of the rebels, and they do not take kindly to people with our history."
Rachel replied, "Our path shall take us over the hills; I too, heard tales about the port and made haste not to travel the roads close to the coast. You cannot be too careful, my liege."
"I bid you a farewell and ask you not to look back once you are on the road. I have heard reports of rats the size of men rising from the sewers and rampaging through the streets of other villages. Take all you can carry, anyone who chooses to stay or gets caught in the fire is as good as dead; there is nothing you will be able to do for them."
"Farewell, my liege, I wish you good fortune on your travels. May the Lord grant you his grace as you travel the lands warning of the sins of the flesh."
"Rachel, my child, I will be away a long time. The work of our Lord is a hard road, but you will always be in my heart. You and your family have been so kind to this poor soldier over the years for me to forget the kindnesses bestowed on me. Though I will be far for a long time, I promise you I shall return to find you one day. I have faith that you can rebuild the lives of these poor souls. They are not bad people; they only made some bad choices in life. That is something anyone can make a wrong decision at any time; even I have made some that is why I have come back to fight as a soldier of the Lord, not for any man."
"The path you chose, my Lord, will make you many enemies; do you think you can fight them as you are weak and not a young man these days?"
"I have traveled to many shores and made more enemies than I care to think of, the one person who has never left my side is the Lord above. If I should die in his cause, it is because he has called me as he sees my work as done. I have seen things that man should not witness, Rachel. There was a time when I questioned why I had to witness the horrors, now I understand why. I had to witness these evils so as I can know the bottom of my soul to give penance to others. I have killed in the search for worldly goods, now I shall only take a life if I feel my life is in danger, or the life of another is at risk."
"I wish you well; it is a complete change for you not to fight for worldly good but for the Lord, my liege. Can you tell me one thing before we part?"
"You know I will if I can, what do you wish to know?"
"I heard a story that Kerranmore is not safe these days, is that true?"
"I can testify to that, when I passed the city last fall there were few people there other than thieves, and vagabonds roaming the streets. When the roads took away the traffic brought by the sea trade, the evils moved in. Now it is best to stay as far from Kerranmore as you can."
"Thank you, my Lord, the route we can take is more rugged but not much longer. We are fortunate that in our troop we have Jimmy Pookly and several former members of the army. Even avoiding Kerranmore, I think their services will be needed on our travels."
The lord and his young liege turned their horses and headed in opposite directions; Rachel knew Tallier had a mission, and he'd do his utmost to fulfill this calling, but she had doubts that she could achieve the task she was undertaking. Her road was a long one, a path she didn't know where it would lead her to or if it the people would find an end at all. Slowly, she rode back to her gathering, the men were showing the signs of tiring, and the women and children looked as if the next breeze would push them over, but she realized they needed to find shelter before they could rest. Glancing down the lines, she saw Jimmy Pookly trying to keep the group together and moving, she rode over to him and said, "Jimmy we need to speak."
Jimmy nodded his agreement and commented, "My lady, these people can't go much longer, and we're in the open."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, can you send a rider ahead to see if there are any ruins we can use as a resting place, preferably one we can defend?"
"I can, but even then the rider won't be too far ahead as we're all tired, hungry and thirsty. It hasn't been a long day for us, but it has been a tiring one; most of us were waiting for the festival to begin when the balls of fire struck the town, all we have is what we can carry, and many have left things since we left so they can keep up with the group."
"Other than Kerranmore, have you heard of anywhere nearby?"
"There is a town not far from here, Farrowborne, but we can't reach there today. Farrowborne is at least another day's walk away, that is if we can keep this rate of movement, something I doubt as we're feeling the sense of loss as much as the tiredness now; a feeling that we have nothing to look forward to as we go ahead."
Rachel glanced at Jimmy, and said, "I know what you mean; I lost as much as anyone when the city went up in flames, I have no family other than Lord Tallier, don't you think I feel our loss? If we stop now, we may never get started again, Jimmy. Our aim today is to find somewhere we can rest and defend our position if we come under attack. I think there could be a shelter a few miles on if my memory of this road is correct. In the Summer, I sometimes ride out here to find peace in the day instead of the hurly-burly of being a member of being a member of the ruling family."
"Jimmy, you can forget my birthright, right now I am only Rachel, a lady with no home, family, or future unless we can get to Farrowborne and start to rebuild our lives. When can we expect the riders to return with news?"
"If they don't get attacked, the first of them should return soon; I've been watching the hills as we move, I suspect we're getting followed."
"Have you an idea who is following us?"
"I can't say for sure, but I'd wager it's Marcus Harring and his gang of thieves."
"What makes you think that?"
"I know Marcus from old; he has a big mouth, and fists to match but if he senses danger, he's the first to run, and I noticed there had been a band of riders ahead of us for several miles. If we stay together we'll be safe; he's more likely to attack stragglers than the group. We can handle Marcus and his friends, and I am more worried about the other wolves in this area as several wolf packs are roaming these hills, and with the Winter coming they'll be on the hunt for a store of food. If they attack, I am not sure that we have the strength to hold off a mass attack. Our best hope is to find a ravine that we can defend the edges of against an attack. Rachel, you know of the city we're heading toward, but I know where we can rest for the night."
"I agree with you, and we need to rest for the night; food would be grateful, but we need to find shelter more than anything tonight. We have few weapons, and little strength to fight if we don't rest we'll be easy prey for our hunters tomorrow, either human or animal."
"Rachel, we've no idea if the riders will return, you need to start to make a plan for our survival. You may not think of yourself as a leader for the people, or you may not want to lead them, but for now, you are their hope."
The sun was setting, and the darkness began to close in on the party as they dragged tired, and pain-filled, bodies on the path that Jimmy indicated. Nobody was sure that the shack Jimmy said was over the rise still stood as it had been a couple of years since he'd last been in the area, but they had no other choice; it was this or stay on the open, and dark, road; walking and getting more tired with each step.
Jimmy stopped his horse, and dismounting, he said; "Here it is; I know it's not a lot, but it is better than being out in the open and facing an attack."
Thomas glanced along the line of people, then said; "Jimmy, we're grateful for any help you can give us; we're townsfolk and have little experience in these matters."
Helen Mitchell, who had been the barmaid at the inn said; "I was able to grab some food as I left, it isn't a lot for the number of people we have, but it is something to eat. I can't think that after all those years of warning, the fireball did come and destroy our town. Do you think it was God's work, Jimmy?"
Jimmy wiped his sweaty face, then replied, "I can't vouch for who did it, Helen; all I can say is that we need to mend our ways. You saw the way those rats devoured what we left, and it was terrible to see how large they'd grown at our excesses. None of the flagellants left, not that I expected to see any leave; to them, they believe that their punishment will absolve our sins. I'm not sure if they're right in their belief, I'm only a foot soldier, a simple man of faith. The only thing I am sure of is that we need to keep our eyes open for signs of the city that Rachel said is near here; if you miss the city, we won't last another night in the open."
Helen wiped the smoke from her face and replied, "I pray to God that the city is close, Jimmy. Many of these people are at the end of their strength and patience; I am surprised that we haven't seen any fights, but if our situation doesn't improve it's only a matter of time before fighting will break out."
"Hopefully, a rest for the night will keep the peace for now; I don't wish to have to use the men under my control to stop the fights but I will if I need to, we need to keep our minds on getting to the city not on who is looking for a fight for a few bread crumbs."
When Jimmy stopped talking he took the first guard watching for wolves and the men he knew were watching the group wandering the roads in the hope of finding a city.
Jimmy held his tattered clothes to his body as he walked into the distance, while he wanted to get a good view of the surroundings, Jimmy knew he needed to keep an eye out for any riders who may appear over the hills; as darkness covered the hills. He realized that if his men didn't come back soon, they might become victims of an attack themselves, but there was nothing he could do. Jimmy turned to walk the perimeter of the camp, his eyes continually watching the shadows for a movement, he thought he saw a lone wolf's shadow crawl across the ground, but he put the thought out of his mind; he knew one wolf would not risk an attack, he was probably acting as a scout for the pack.
Out of the darkness, Jimmy heard a cry, "Jimmy, I think I saw the city, but it is still over a day's walk from here."
When he stopped and turned, Jimmy saw Peter Joiner; "Hello, Peter, how much further than a day do you think the city is from here?"
"Our men could do the journey in a day, but for these poor people, I'd say it's more like a two-day journey, and I don't think many can take much more exertion without some food. In the morning we can think of a plan."
"The main thing for this night is to make our position into a defensive stronghold, whether wolves or thieves I can sense we'll get attacked before sun-up. If I were a gambler, I'd wager we shall get attacked by wolves as they have better eyesight than us, if thieves were to attack it would be to their advantage to attack in the open allowing easy escape routes."
"Yes, something is happening, and I don't like the dark, Jimmy, we're too open here; we need to draw the lines of defense in, or we can get overrun easily."
"I'd suggest making fires, but we have little wood here, so we'll need to strengthen our line of defense and hope we can withstand an attack in the night."
The darkness of the night turned into a black so pure that Jimmy feared the light of dawn would not reappear tomorrow, the darker it became, the more afraid he got.
As a man of war, he'd been forced to fight many a foe, but those he could see, now he was being forced to fight an enemy who had all the advantages of better vision in the darkest of nights, and who knew this land better than he did. Jimmy realized this was a soldier's worst nightmare, confronting and an enemy on their ground and in the dark, but they had no option but to stand and fight.
Nervously, he fidgeted with his sheath as he walked the defenses, wondering when the attack would come?
He was shaken to the core by a scream of such magnitude that it took him several seconds to get the direction of the sound, but there was no mistake; the attack was underway. In a matter of seconds, they pack flew over the ridge tops and made any coordinated defense useless, very soon it became every man for himself as the people found the strength to take one last stand in a night of terror. So long ago and so terrible is their plight that thoughts of the previous nights' festivities had got forgotten.
Jimmy called out, "Rachel, can you guard our left flank, we need as many people on that end as you can muster, Pete and I can take those of the men who are used to fighting and defend the right?"
From out of nowhere, the men and women ran to Rachel, picking up any branches they could as the wolves moved in for the kill. The group leader paused to sniff the air, sensing if anything or anyone was closing in, then he howled to the moon, and the wolves bounded in, the defenses didn't last long before they got breached and the pack roamed through the gulley.
Because of the nature of the position, some people got left unguarded and became food for the animals, tears flooded the eyes of the caravan as they were forced to watch the ravenous beasts gorge on people they had once known, but they realized this might be their hope of survival.
The leader paused to listen to a sound on the wind, but he was too late to take action as his head got severed by a sword. The group had no time to react to their loss as many swords, and halberds were slashing through the group not long after his pack was laying at the bottom of the ditch - dead.
Once the furor had died down, mans' head showed over the ridge; "Captain Richard de Launcey at your service, milady."
The man was short of stature, but solidly built and had the eyes of a deer, soft in color, but ever watchful.
Rachel turned to face Richard and replied, "We are pleased to see you, your arrival was not a moment too soon, Richard. But, I thought you were over in Kerranmore."
"I was until a few hours ago when we saw the fireballs the men, and I rode for Mondoria as fast as we were able, but there is nothing left to rescue; save those rats that have overrun the town. Even the flagellants have now departed. We would have got here sooner, but we needed to see off some vagabonds who were following your wagons. It would do us a great honor if you stayed in Farrowbourne until you considered yourselves fit to find a new home."
"I speak for myself, but I am sure the others will agree, Richard, we thank you for your kindness, and we'll be pleased to stay in the city for now."