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Aug 15

The Youngest of the Pack

Slaughter. No other word could better describe what happened that day…

None of the ten score men whose remains now litter that ill-fated field in an unrecognizable dissemblance had the merest hope of surviving once the creature decided to attack.

A scouting force. That’s what they told them. Tasked with ranging ahead, surveying the lay of the land and turning about at the first sign of the enemy. In good order, the force was divided into files of ten men and given rotations. When they weren’t marching, details would be set to make camp, hunt in the nearby forest, stand sentry, or take rest as well as could be managed.

It was dusk on the fourth day. The waggoners broke out the caravan and dutymen began setting camp. Night had well and truly fallen by the time watches had been set and the victuallers had set to provisioning the cooks with the night’s fare. Soldiers gathered in huddled groups around scattered campfires, murmuring grizzled complaints about life and love, and swapping far-fetched tales. From one of the campfires could be heard the faintly carrying notes of a ballad being improvised, no doubt by one of the motley camp followers trying to ply their trade for a copper or two.

About a hundred paces into the woodland on the east side of the encampment, far from the warmth of the fires and the drifting, comforting scent of roasted boar and game-fowl, sat a trio of watchmen, gazing out into the deep, gnarled forest of dense oak and birch.

“I think I saw summit,” exclaimed one with hushed urgency, “out there, in the trees.”

“No, Haggan. You didn’t. There’s no-one there. What possible reason could any soul have to come to this gods-forsaken mire?” came the reply from his surly comrade, the leather flaps on the side of his thick, earth-stained coif lightly flapping as he turned his head exasperatedly in Haggan’s direction. Droplets of the rain that had mercifully ceased an hour before fell onto his grey quilted armor and the heavy iron-tipped spear that lay at ease across his lap.

“I’m telling you, Cobb…. there’s summit out there movin’ about. An’ I’m not right sure it’s a person, neither. Bryn, you ‘ave a look.”

The man called Bryn rose; his tall, muscular frame was the opposite of Haggan’s body which looked like whips of bracken twisted into the gangled shape of a man. Bryn stretched away the seeping cold of the sodden earth from his muscles with a grunt and slowly strode four paces to where Haggan stood, the whites of his knuckles showing as he tightly gripped the spear he leant upon. Though Bryn was at least a full head taller than Haggan, and twice as broad, the big man moved with surprising stealth; an ability he no-doubt acquired after many years of hunting boar in the woods near his hometown. He stood motionless for a short while, his eyes scanning every gap in the tall, pale trees which had begun to shed their leaves at the hinted whisper of the chill breeze of winter.

“W-well…” stammered Haggan, his mouth dry with anxiety.

“I see…” began the larger man, his low, rumbling voice barely audible so that Haggan needed to lean in to hear him properly, “NUTHIN’!” He roared the last directly into Haggan’s ear, sending the scrawny man tumbling backwards onto his rump in a thicket of bindweed.

“Cobb’s right. If anyone or anythin’ was out in those woods, it’d be stupider than we three ‘ere. By my reckonin’, such a thing i’nt possible, eh lads?”

Haggan was still extracting himself from the tangled vines of the plant he’d landed in, but Bryn and Cobb shared a smile at the joke. Bryn returned to his place beside Cobb at their meagre campfire, the damp but cooked carcass of a small forest creature suspended over it with a series of sticks. Cobb proffered a drinking skin which Bryn gratefully accepted, and the two began laughing at poor Haggan’s expense.

Haggan, meanwhile, had found himself completely entangled by the bindweed into which that oaf Bryn had made him fall into. Every which way he turned, the buckles on his armor and straps caught and wound their way around one or more of the strands of this gods-taken weed. Matters were not made better by the sound of his brothers-in-arms making mock of him, without so much as offering a hand. It had been this way for the longest time, having been sworn into service together some five years back. Always they would make Haggan the butt of every jape. It wasn’t all bad, though; as the two of them had become like brothers to him. Each watched out for the others, and tried to make sure they didn’t get into too much trouble. By now, Haggan had wriggled and twisted his way onto his front, hoping to get a better purchase on the ground and break the weed by whatever force he could manage.

A sudden whooshing sound, like the near-passing of a thrown spear, came to Haggan’s ears. Only that was no spear, this was larger. The sound of breaking branches, as if trampled by an animal, echoed around the small clearing. Perhaps a forest creature had been attracted by the scent of their cooking meat, thought Haggan with a start, as he redoubled his efforts to free himself. With a last exertive heave, he pressed against the ground, breaking the strands of bindweed as they freed their murderous grasp on his body. He turned dumbly about to see from whence the sound had come. Expecting to see his fellows stumbling about in confusion at the rude arrival of their next meal, what he saw instead were the lifeless corpses of his erstwhile friends, their forms twisted into a horrific rictus, their lifesblood seeping into the loamy forest floor, and their bodies not wholly intact.

Shock hit Haggan then; his mind a whirling storm of panic and fear. Ignoring the warm sensation trickling down the inside of his leg, instinct finally overtook Haggan’s terror after what seemed like an eternity of staring aghast at the mauled remains of his comrades. Whatever did this to his friends couldn’t be far, and so Haggan decided to run, run for his very life, back to the safety of the main encampment. He ran faster than he could ever remember, imbued with the speed of a man moments away from discovering his mortality. Having dropped his spear and shield, he couldn’t recall when, he flailed his arms wildly before him; knocking aside the many branches that sought to block his path with nothing but moonlight to see by. His thoughts raced. He had turned away for a minute, maybe two. His friends hadn’t screamed. There were no screams.

As the thoughts continued to turn and roil inside him, he hadn’t realized that he’d broken free from the treeline and had made his way to the sea of signal fires, tents, and middens that was the main encampment. Instinct continuing to drive him, he charged through the narrow thoroughfares of the camp, blazing his way to his captain’s tent without a thought for any other soul about him. He reached the tent, unmistakable due to the pennant which hung from a pole before the entry flap, bearing the sigil of his liege. The roof of the tent was covered in wolfskins, also. Gifts from the high lord long before they began to move south.

Slowly he opened the tent flap, the discipline of his training and the instilled awe of his captain overcoming the primal terror currently gripping him. As he entered the dim torchlit tent, its walls hung with coarse vellum maps of the local area, along with flags bearing the horned hare, the sigil of his captain’s house; he noticed for the first time how silent the camp was. His captain lay face down at his desk in the center of the tent, a goblet of rich southron wine the color of blood spilt across the papers and onto the ground. Panic returned to Haggan. His captain was passed-out drunk! How could a defense be rallied without the captain to lead them? He moved swiftly to the man’s side, took him by the shoulders and made to wake him.

Pulling the captain upright in his chair, the head lolled back revealing a pulverized collection of purple welts where once the captain’s face had been. His lower jaw was missing, the still-attached tongue hanging down onto his tunic, a stream of gore staining the once grey direwolf sigil a deep, saccharine brown. The stench of excrement, and the cloying taste of copper was in the air. Much too late it occurred to Haggan; that wasn’t wine spilt on the captain’s table.

Staggering back from the gory scene, dumbstruck by the sheer brutality, Haggan bundled his way from the captain’s tent, determined to find help. The captain could still be saved. He could. He could. Before his cry for aid had the chance to leave his lips, his voice became a draught of stagnant water as he finally perceived the camp around him. Not a sound could be heard. All about him, the ground was strewn with the dismembered fragments of men and women, their identities indiscernible as their collective entrails intertwined and their limbs lay scattered. Two hundred. They numbered two hundred, and that was without the small army of camp followers who had trailed them this past week. All dead.

Haggan stood still for a moment, staring with his mouth hung agape at the carnage that had been wrought here. For no reason he could think of, he began to walk. The scene was the same throughout the encampment. Folk had been slaughtered, eviscerated where they stood, where they sat, where they slept. Everywhere he looked, the fallen wargear of his fellow soldiers could be seen. Their quilted armor heavy with their own lifesblood, still dripping from open wounds. He brought to mind the image of his friend Cobb, the rainwater dripping onto his shoulder. All that time ago. Littering the ground were discarded vambraces, bracers and shields; laying unused, or rent asunder. He crouched to examine a dropped shield, his fingers tracing five deep gouges running the full width of it, leaving the proud emboss of the snarling direwolf barely recognizable; scrapes as from some predator, only none that he had ever seen. What creature could rend solid iron and steel as though it were parchment?

He rose to his feet, seeing droplets of water falling as he did so. In this waking nightmare, he hadn’t noticed as tears of grief began to form, welling in his eyes and falling among the blood-soaked blades of grass below. Once again, he began to walk, devoid of purpose and bereft of hope. Slowly, he left the tented city of the camp and entered into the wide plains ahead; the thin layer of frost losing its deathly grasp, revealing the verdant, green blanket beneath. It occurred to Haggan that he’d never before been this far south. He turned to take one last look at the encampment, and the people who had been family to him.

He heard a sickening crunch and felt a jarring blow to the abdomen, as though punched in the stomach during one of the soldiers’ pugilist tourneys, though the dull aching pain swiftly turned to sharp, searing agony. A coarse, scraping cry of anguish left Haggan’s mouth and he felt the flesh of his throat rip and tear with the force of it, the metallic taste of blood filling his senses. He glanced down at his stomach to see it punctured, ruptured by force and ripped open by the invasive, fleshy tendrils that were, it dawned on him, the clawed fingers of a human hand. As the hand retracted, sinuous fibers and horrifically flailing intestines grasped within its balled fist; gushing rivulets of scarlet drenched his breeks and pooled on the pure white frost as Haggan slumped to his knees, the pain so intense that he had lost all sense of reality.

Knowing that in moments he would be dead, knowing that he would soon share the fate of those he held dear; Haggan gazed upon the face of his murderer as darkness enveloped his world…

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About the author

Mr Llamatastic

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