The Darkhome Tragedy
Our forays into the frozen wasteland have yielded up some weapons and leather. We discovered the use of obsidian to attract our patron’s favored race of goblins, but the only source we know of is far off into the mists. A commander of the guard has been chosen. Her dark jerkiness shined above her peers and she has been awarded the best of the weapons and armor. We will call her Sharon, for that is a name of darkness known to us. Thus far we have learned that approaching every event with a bad attitude will yield up (at best) nothing and at worst, a butt-kicking that our seaweed-consuming villagers are not prepared for.
We encountered a pair of goblins. One of them was injured. Though we had a medic, we decided that a lone pair of goblins with one of them injured would be easy prey for our band of warriors and gatherers. Alas, we have lost two of our warriors and Sharon, the Heart of Darkness, has been direly wounded. We are returning to the village and this mission has been declared a failure.
Commander Sharon limped into Mayor Boo’s office.
“It is time for another expedition, Commander,” the Mayor said, picking some seaweed out of his teeth.
“I have heard,” Sharon growled. “We lost two warriors last trip out and we’re still healing. What has your magnificence determined that we need so desperately that it is worth risking our lives?”
The mayor steepled his chubby fingers.
“Commander Sharon … have you ever heard of … string?”
“The villagers do not understand how hard it is to be a warrior,” Miroslav said to Commander Sharon as they crested the snowy ridge and Darkhome came into sight. “We risk our lives for string and eat seaweed. The nights are filled with horrors that come out of the mists. You must make them understand. Make the mayor understand!”
As they drew closer to the village they could see fresh graves in the field. No one was along the icy shore gathering seaweed. No smoke rose from the smith’s hut. Commander Sharon counted the graves. Four. There had been six villagers when they left two days before.
“I believe the mayor understands now,” Commander Sharon sneered.
Commander Sharon stood at the entrance to the village, staring out into the frozen wasteland as darkness began to fall. The new mayor, Emilia the Crafter, was approaching. From the look on the crafter’s face, Sharon knew the mayor had an idea.
“Never fear, Commander!” Emilia proclaimed. “Our salvation is at hand.”
“I think so,” Sharon replied. “We need a wall around the village. That will help when monsters come raiding. We have enough quartz now to begin, but if we could acquire a bit more steel then we could use that instead. Perhaps it would attract orcs, who are strong and valiant warriors.”
Mayor Emilia waved her hands, dismissing Sharon’s ideas.
“No, no. You don’t understand. Clearly the reason our success has not been assured is due to lack of resources. We, the council of crafters, have came up with a solution.”
“There’s only two of you,” Sharon began, but the mayor cut her off.
“This,” the mayor said, holding up a small bundle of sticks, “is called wicker. On the far side of the frozen lake, past the lairs and encampments of the three skulls, is an icy swamp in which it grows. With enough wicker, we shall build large quantities of baskets which will aid us in harvesting almost twice as much seaweed!”
Commander Sharon sighed and as she looked away from the mayor, her eyes fell upon the fresh grave where they had buried Miroslav.
“It seems like just the other day we found him in the cabbage patch,” Hunter Tomko said, staring down at the corpse of the youth. “His first expedition. He was so proud to have been chosen for the warriors.”
“Strip his corpse,” Commander Sharon said flatly. “That bone club and leather jerkin may save someone else’s life someday.”
“Another problem, Commander,” Gatherer Lubomir added. “With the two new recruits gone, we cannot carry what we have collected back home to the village.”
Commander Sharon sighed and turned her head to the west. On the far side of the frozen lake she could see the faint tendrils of smoke rising above the village. If only they had boats, or horses then it would be a short trip. But instead it was a full day’s hard slog across the frozen hills. They had cleared the monster camps on the way out, but that had been two days ago. There would undoubtedly be more now. It was time for the hard decision. The hardest a warrior would have to make.
“Leave the bodies,” she ordered. “Leave the wood and half the food. We take the wicker and these monster bones.”
“But all this fresh meat,” Hunter Tomko exclaimed. “What will we eat?”
“What’s the matter, Tomko?” Sharon snarled. “Don’t you like seaweed?”
“Commander Bedomir,” Mayor Emilia called. “Over here!”
Bedomir walked over to the small cluster of villagers. There were only four of them now. The village had acquired eight children along the way, but who knew when they would grow up to join the ranks? And how to determine which of them would be warriors and which would be gatherers? Without both, the village was doomed.
“We’ve lain the foundations for the stockade,” the Mayor said, pointing to some scratchings in the dirt. “The dark wood and obsidian you brought back will form a wall against our enemies, turning Darkhome into a veritable redoubt.”
“It will attract goblins too,” Bedomir replied. “Are you prepared for that?”
“Of course, of course. Goblins will be a great help to us.”
Bedomir turned to look out over the icy lake. Somewhere on the far side of it, near the wicker swamp, the white bones of Commander Sharon still lay. He now wore her fur brigandine and wielded her axe. Their encounter with the orcs in the abandoned village had been disastrous. Their weakened party should have tried to share the loot, but instead they had fallen to fighting with the others. Commander Sharon had never liked nor trusted non-humans. Now the resources she had lost her life leading them to gather would be put to use recruiting them.
Bedomir tightened his grip on the handle of his axe.
“As you say, Mayor,” he muttered. “As you say.”
“Tighten up the lines!” Bedomir shouted as the unliving corpse pulled down Tomko. “Fight! Throw everyone at the leader! Everyone into the fray!”
The gatherers looked confused for a moment. Normally they presented themselves as a second line, either bolstering the attacks of the front line warriors or manning the stockade to provide more defense. To throw them into the battle sent them into confusion and their enemy would gain the initiative, but it had to be done. Bedomir knew that there was no hope of defeating this foe without such a desperate move.
Their new ally had arrived three days ago. He had not stopped complaining about the diet and insisted on eating the jerky, even though it had been explained to him that it was reserved for expeditions. In the village, they ate seaweed. But he pushed himself to the front of the fight with his warhammer and two skeletons fell before him.
Two of the gatherers, newcomers both, fell to the claws of the unliving corpses. With some luck, they would survive their wounds and recover in time. The broken skeletons were down on the field, but now it was Bedomir’s turn. He dealt a near lethal blow to the unliving corpse in front of him, but it survived. Almost as if it hadn’t been harmed at all, it turned on him and he felt its claws rip past his shield and into his flesh. The fur brigandine provided little protection from the cold and virtually none to the harsh monsters of this land.
Bedomir went down, his vision clouding. Goblin Brugg stepped forward and finished off the unliving corpse. That was the end. No more enemies stood in the field, but none of the humans were upright either. They were down and bleeding heavily. Some would recover, but in the next hour they would discover which would live and which would die. The village had no medic since Sasha had been carried off by the striga.
“Brugg win,” the goblin sneered. Even when he was being polite, he still sneered. “Brugg kill enemies.”
For a long moment, Bedomir was unsure if that meant him or not. But from the look on the goblin’s face, Bedomir knew that the balance of power had shifted. Brugg had seen the humans fight. Their strength had been measured and found wanting in front of goblin might. As he lay on the frozen ground, Bedomir turned his head towards the stockade. The dark wood and obsidian glistened in the moonlight. It could be seen from quite a distance and goblins had been seen on the horizon, admiring it. Soon they would be coming to the gates, asking to join the village. And Brugg would meet them to whisper and conspire.
Though they had won this battle, Bedomir thought, it was over for the human population of Darkhome. Soon the crude huts of goblins would be popping up like forest mushrooms while the humans diminished in number. Commander Sharon had been right all along.
“These are dark days,” Tomko said to Bedomir as they hauled dark wood from the expedition pile into the village. Two other humans were helping them while the goblins headed for the crude hut they had selected as a tavern.
“We follow Horos,” Bedomir said, wiping off his hands. The dark wood was poisonous and the strange mosses and lichens which grew on it could make one sick if they made it into the mouth or eye. “He is a dark god and we are not his chosen.”
“His chosen have taken the village,” Tomko snarled.
Bedomir glanced around but the goblins were too far away to hear. Even with their superior hearing. They seemed to be superior at everything except for hauling, crafting, and gathering. So now the humans did that work while the goblins fought. It had seemed a proper trade off at first, but pretty soon the humans weren’t even allowed the best weapons.
“Steel is for warriors,” Chief Brugg had sneered.
“We’re down to four,” Tomko whispered. “While you were out with the goblins, zmey came in the night. They took Dariush.”
“Horos preserve us,” Bedomir sighed. “Soon there will be none left. Only goblins.”
“There’s more,” Tomko added. “Look at the goblins. Look what they’re eating.”
“Seaweed stew,” Bedomir said, but as he watched he knew that it wasn’t seaweed. It didn’t steam like that, nor have that rich, savory smell.
“We haven’t had meat since we tore down the pastures to put up more stockades,” he muttered. “To attract more goblins.”
“And yet they eat meat stew,” Tomko snarled.
Bedomir glanced down towards the field where they buried their dead. Though Dariush had fallen in the night, there was no fresh grave. He felt a surge of anger rise in his gut. Something would have to be done.
“They is human,” Chief Brugg snarled, “so they is for you.”
Bedomir looked at the two half-starved children. They were terrified of the goblins. More so, in fact, than they had been of the slavers from whom they had been rescued.
“An entire caravan of slavers and you only rescued two human children?” Bedomir asked.
The goblins had been doing a great job of clearing the surrounding area of lairs. Darkness had been pushed back for the time. The humans had secretly built a pasture, working diligently to clear brush and bring in livestock which they kept hidden from the goblins. Livestock and cleared pastures would attract the more nomadic humans that occasionally passed by. And now they had some human children. Perhaps in time they could shift the balance of power away from the goblins.
Chief Brugg shrugged and picked his teeth.
“Lots of slavers. Big fight. Brought meat back too. You fix food.”
Bedomir picked up some of the meat that had been piled up at the gate as the expedition returned. The goblins, warriors that they were, would not be bothered to craft for themselves or to even pick up the loot they had gathered from the wasteland. And the few humans did not ask questions about where the goods came from. It was better not to know.
He turned the hunk of flesh over in his hand. Runic symbols had been tattooed on the skin. Symbols he had seen used by the bandit tribes of the distant south. He threw it into a basket. It was better not to know.
“They’re coming back,” Pomir shouted from the watchtower. She had grown into a slim whip of a girl and joined the gatherers. Rescued by goblins from slavers, it had been a long time before she ever spoke. She still never said a word in front of the goblins.
“Horos protect us,” Bedomir muttered. He turned to where Tomko usually stood, still not used to the loss of his second-in-command. Tomko had been chosen to go with the goblins on a gathering expedition. He had not returned.
When Pomir had joined the gatherers, Bedomir had pressed a bone sword into her hand. “Even gatherers fight,” he had told her at the time.
But how were you to fight when the monsters lived with you? When the monsters were your only protection from something even worse out in the dark?
“There’s only two!” Pomir said, sliding down the rope to land at Bedomir’s feet. Her face was more gleeful than it ought to be at losing more than three quarters of an expedition.
“Something beat the goblins,” Bedomir whispered, almost afraid to say it out loud in case that changed fate. “What’s worse than goblins?”
“Dwarves,” a voice from behind them said. Pomir and Bedomir turned rapidly to see a stranger. He had slipped in over the wall as stealthy as a striga bat and stood there in the ragged furs of a bandit. But he was human.
“I am Mscobir,” the bandit said. “And I’m here to join you.”
“You will lead Darkhome now,” Bedomir said, pressing a small stone into the hand of the young woman who knelt over him.
Blood frothed from a wound in his chest, a sure sign that the scavenger’s spear had pierced the lung. It was a wound which might have been survivable if they’d had a medic, but now it led to a cold grave far from home. No one knew that better than Bedomir.
“I am not ready,” Vaclava said. “This is only my third expedition.”
“You even look like her,” Bedomir said, as if he hadn’t heard. “Sharon, who fell so long ago on the far side of the lake. She would have led us far better than I did.”
“You haven’t done so poorly, Bedomir,” Vaclava said. “The goblins are all gone. And we are twelve now.”
“Soon to be ten,” Bedomir whispered. “I will not survive the next hour, and neither will Mihu. Take the stone, Vaclava. It will serve you well. It shields the wearer from harm.”
Neither of them spoke to the fact that it hadn’t saved Bedomir from a spear thrust. His death had been in the cards as soon as the scavengers had attacked.
“Listen to Mscobir,” Bedomir said. “He was a bandit. He has lived long in the wilderness and has the gift of folklore and stealth. He will keep your expeditions alive.”
“But what are we to do?” she asked. “We are still very weak and our enemies grow stronger every day.”
“The dwarf,” Bedomir said after a long moment. “The one we murdered. He might have told us where a gold mine was, or perhaps even mithril. Maybe I made the wrong decision. All he wanted was a drink.”
“He came from the west,” Mscobir said, kneeling down. He shifted his crossbow over his shoulder. He was never without it in these days of claws and iron. “Maybe something lies that way. Some metal or some ore.”
“We will send an expedition to the west,” Vaclava said. “If we do not find metal, we will perish. Bone and wood will no longer stand against the enemies we face now.”
But they would not know if Bedomir approved of that plan or not, for he had closed his eyes for the last time.
“Perhaps they found ore, perhaps they did not,” Pomir said. The fire was growing dim in the deepest hours of the night. It was the favored time of Horos and it was always then that the elders gathered to speak of the most important matters.
“They have been gone for weeks now,” Karina said. “Surely you do not think they will return.”
“You do not know how it was in the darkest of days,” Pomir said fiercely. “I was here, though I was just a child at the time. Goblins ruled us then. We did terrible things. It was a horror to live in Darkhome.”
“It is not vastly improved,” Sasha said. The fat crafter was not the same as he’d been since he had wandered out of the wilderness and joined the village. His previous village had been destroyed and he’d went over the wall just one step ahead of the striga.
Pomir slammed her fist down on the table. “This is not a matter for your dark sarcasm, smith! We had nothing then! Nothing! No gold, no silver and only barely enough food. And what food it was I hate even now to think of. We are so much better off.”
She stood and faced the small group of crafters and gatherers. They were seven now that the ore expedition had taken everyone else. Seven in the village and seven out in the wilderness searching for salvation.
“We struggled through those dark times and we prevailed! We win every day that we draw breath! Every moment spent above the cold, cold ground is a triumph! We are the chosen of Horos! He protects us from the dark. So many have come and gone from Darkhome that I cannot count them. They guard us now, our ancestors, from the icy graves just outside the new stockades, and from the unmarked cairns out in the wilderness. We are protected! We are guarded! We will survive anything this land can throw at us, for we are Darkhome!”
The others nodded, a rousing sense of hope and accomplishment growing within them. Pomir had gone from never speaking to becoming the de factor leader of the small village. The horrors she’d seen as a child, never spoken of, were like iron strengthening her will and courage. When the hearts of others failed, Pomir was always there to encourage them.
The door burst open and the cold night wind blew in. The darkness outside did not bother them. Their god had gifted them with the ability to see in the dark as if it were day. But the stricken look on Czeslava’s face as the gatherer came into the hut chilled them all to the bone.
“It’s the well,” Czeslava croaked out in a horrified voice. “Something is wrong with the well.”
Pomir took the small child by the hand. The other child she carried in a sling across her back. It was sleeping now, still sick and weakened from the sickness which had struck the village. Sasha dropped down from the stockade walls, his face grim. He was the last of the warriors and so terribly young. Exhaustion left lines on his face where he’d just started to grow a beard.
What monstrosity had poisoned the well they did not know, but the expedition to find curative herbs had failed horribly. Perhaps they should have searched instead for a helpful water sprite, but it was too late now to consider that choice. Dwelling on bad choices was not something Pomir preferred to do.
“A large group to the west and another approaching out of the lair to the north,” Sasha said.
The lair had appeared only recently, but orc raiders had come forth from it numerous times to lay siege to the village. Weakened by sickness and poison, the villagers had tried to put up a fight but each time they were beaten. Often the orcs would stay until dawn, ignoring the wounded as they pillaged the village stores. When the orcs left, Pomir would search among the wounded for those who might survive. Each time they had been fewer in number. Now they were only four.
“And the group to the west?” Pomir asked.
“A dragon,” Sasha said grimly.
The dragons had only recently appeared as Thea continued to wake. Perhaps if they’d had all their warriors they could face such foes, but alas, their largest expedition to the west in search of metals had not returned. No news of them had ever come back to the village and their fates were unknown.
“We are leaving,” Pomir said with a sense of finality. “Darkhome will be abandoned.”
Sasha stared at her in horror.
“You wish to stay and see which reaches us first, the orcs or the dragon?” she asked. “It would be easier to die here, Sasha, but what about these children? They are our responsibility.”
“And of the two who lay in their beds of wounds and sickness?” Sasha asked. “What is to be done for them? They cannot travel.”
“We will give them the last mercy we can afford,” Pomir said. “They will reach the embrace of Horos before we do.”
Sasha stared out into the darkened wilderness which lay outside of Darkhome, the only place he had ever known. He had been on expeditions before and seen the horrors which had assailed their stockades. Strigas, the walking dead, and now a dragon. Though still young, he was a veteran of the horrors that Thea served up on a regular basis.
“Before long we may wish we had such a mercy,” he muttered, hefting his spear. It was one of the few weapons the village had left. The expedition which had not returned had carried the best of their equipment.
“There are other gods besides Horos,” Pomir said, uttering the blasphemy she would have never uttered had fate not dealt her such a hard hand of cards. “Perhaps they had villages too. And perhaps we can find one and they will take us in.”
“Why would they?” Sasha asked. “We have failed here.”
“They will, Sasha,” Pomir replied. “Because they wish to survive too. Thea is waking.”
–Miradus, Pie Chef Extraordinaire