Hopefully you enjoyed last week’s tribute. This week is another traditional fantasy I wrote during my year in Baghdad. You never know where the world will take you. Enjoy.
A Foul Wind
A pale wind kissed the fading winter day. Spring was but a few weeks away and the lands were still being assailed by an unexpected blizzard coming down from the Darkwall Mountains to the north. Massive snowdrifts dotted the lightly forested plains. Trees drooped under the weight of gathering ice. Winds howled and screamed in tortured agony from canyon to valley. Even the skies, normally pale blue by this time, were sickened in a mottle of grey and black. Winter refused to let go.
Normally Fitch Iane would be nestled in his favorite chair built by his great grandfather, in front of the fireplace, but this winter had been especially harsh on hunting and fishing. A record six storms all but crippled the lands, making it next to impossible for most to gather food or firewood. As he tramped through the woods on the way home, Fitch wished for the thousandth time that he’d been born some sort of royalty. Living in a warm, toasty palace with marble floors and dozens of waiting servants seemed the life. A sudden gust of wind sent ice and snow down the back of his heavy coat, forcing Fitch back to grim reality.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. His knapsack was filled with three cleaned and quartered hares and a handful of plucked grouse. Not too bad considering it was just for him and his wife. The thought of Shar, with her warming smile and long, flowing golden hair stirred his passions. How much he’d give to be lying next to her supple body under the down blankets right now. Fitch shook his head. That sort of thinking would leave a man dead quicker than getting cut wrong. Besides, he still had too far to go to get distracted with thoughts of what came next.
Fitch sighed and continued his trek across the darkening landscape. He couldn’t help but shiver at the unseasonable cold. The snow should be nearly gone by now and the land was soggy from the additional moisture. A quick glance around and he figured it would be another six weeks before things got right. Six whole weeks. Fitch wondered how this year’s harvest would turn out. The farmers were all but panicking by now. As it was, this part of Thrae wasn’t known for outstanding crops or heavy farming. Most of the residents of Gend, Fitch’s home since birth, were miners. The kingdom of Thrae won ownership of the jewel mines after a fierce war with the Dwarves of the Bairn Hills nearly a generation ago.
It was left to those like Fitch to provide for their homes and right now all he wanted was to get out of the insufferable cold. He could almost taste the stew and freshly baked dark bread. A pint of heavy ale would do nicely too. Fitch stumbled, his foot snagging on a buried root. A tremendous roar shook the very ground as he dropped. His heart froze as a blast of freezing wind sliced into him. Fitch looked around but couldn’t spot the source of the fury in the gathering darkness.
“What?” he asked himself, hoping his mind could rationalize the moment.
Fitch looked up just then and noticed the entire eastern sky seemed as if it was on fire. He smelled ash and burnt meat. He wanted to believe it was just an illusion played by the setting sun. The first flicker of flames shooting up over the treetops changed his mind. He looked around. Everywhere he looked trees were blackened and dead. Fresh snow was dusty, charcoal splashed. What nightmare could have done such a thing? A tiny whisper in the back of his mind warned that the answers were much closer than he wished.
Then it hit him. A horrible, sickening thought all but crippling him. Fire. Smoke. Distance. Gend! His village was burning. Fitch dropped his sack and started running. The need to get home, to find Shar, overpowered all other thoughts and emotions. A nightmarish roar frightened the world. Fitch covered his ears and ran. Blood began to trickle from his nose.
When he got closer he could hear new sounds, sickening sounds of steel ripping human flesh. Women screaming. Children crying. Fitch suddenly grew very afraid. His body became lethargic. He found it difficult just to move. Shar. Thinking of her kept him going, but he was so afraid. A warm feeling ran down his leg. Sweat turned cold. His body shivered and trembled. He was no great hero, but neither was he a coward. What manner of demon can make me so? Fitch Iane gave in to his fears and collapsed. He used what strength remained to crawl under the boughs of a snow-laden fir and cried.
The screaming quickly drowned out his sorrow. Fitch tried covering his ears. Tears streaked his frozen cheeks. Strength abandoned him. Fear dug deeper, gaining strength and crushing him. Jagged pieces of ice fell from the pine needles and cut his face. He didn’t care. His only concern was staying alive. Just to stay alive!
What must have been hundreds of booted feet crunching through the ice-covered snow inspired new terror. Fitch reluctantly opened his eyes and had to cover his mouth to keep the gasp from escaping. He barely made out the huge, barrel-bodied figures marching by. Watching the shadows move so stealthily through the forest reminded him of the ghost and ghoul stories his mother used to tell him and his three brothers when they were growing up. These apparitions were much more real. Fitch got a good look as they marched closer.
Garbed in black and grey, they had massive bodies and spoke in a gnarled tongue. The sound of their boots crunching made him cringe. Stomp, stomp, stomp. He wanted to break and run but couldn’t. The demons wore armor and had flowing capes of the purest black. Spikes jutted up from their helmets. Axe and sword rested in their mailed hands. Some sang songs which were cruel and wicked. Fitch saw hundreds of them moving through the forest. He’d never believed in demons before. They seemed so dire, menacing. Then he noticed the tiny rivers of crimson staining their armor. Blood! Demons or not, they were pure killers. Struggling to control his sobs, Fitch watched them as they merrily went about slaughtering every last man, woman, and child in his village.
A pair of demons halted nearby, close enough for him to hear part of their conversation.
“…much longer?” snarled the first.
The second spit a wad of bloody phlegm. “Maggots take too long to kill. No honor. They run instead of fight.”
“The king’s army will come soon. We must hurry. Ramulus wants them all dead but we aren’t strong enough to fight an army.”
“One hour,” the second confirmed.
The demons stalked off, going their separate ways and leaving Fitch more frightened than before. He didn’t want to die. The thought replayed in his head over and over. He knew it was shameful to be so selfish but he couldn’t help it. Gradually, the slaughter abated and the demons returned to the shadows. Fitch was alone. The flames of Gend slowly faded. Night crawled back into the world. He nearly summoned the strength to crawl out of his self-imposed prison when that horrible roar shattered the calm. A fierce gust of wind shook most of the snow from the branches. Fitch pulled his knees up as an immense presence sailed overhead. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he cried himself to sleep.
Dawn crawled across Malweir with eerie casualness. Fitch reluctantly wiped the crust from his sore and bloodshot eyes. He was damp from melting snow and frozen to the bone. His body shivered uncontrollably in a desperate attempt to find warmth. The overwhelming sense of fear was gone but he was still loath to leave his hiding place. Some of the demons might have stayed behind.
Shar. The thought of her brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t help but feel she might still be alive if only he’d been there. If only he’d…no, he would be dead as well if he hadn’t hid. Shame and disgrace competed for his soul. Fitch Iane was a shell of a man. He held on to the sliver of hope that Shar managed to find a place to hide. That she had somehow made it out of this nightmare alive. It was all he had left.
Summoning what little strength remained, Fitch crawled out into the open. He made his way through the smoldering ruins in search of his wife. He had to know. An hour later he stood in front of the ruin that was his home. Their home. He looked at the desperate pile of burnt timber, searching for the one thing he didn’t want to find. Fitch sank to his knees as waves of raw emotion burst free. He had let her die. He let them all die.
“I’m sorry, Shar. I am so very sorry,” he whispered through heaving sobs. “I should have come back. I should have helped.”
Half a day passed before he remembered he was alone and had nowhere to go. Fear kept him alive last night. The coming night was another matter. Fitch needed to find some food and shelter before he froze to death. He retraced his tracks to his pack and contemplated returning to Gend for the night. Much of the residual heat had worn off but there was enough to keep him alive until dawn. No. The demons might return. Fitch gave in, knowing he had to get as far away from Gend as possible.
With heavy heart, he turned his back on what had been his whole world. Fitch Iane walked away with horror that would forever dominate his life. Shar’s face haunted him every time he closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before he realized he hated himself. Hated how he cowered and hid while everyone he had ever known died. It didn’t matter that one man couldn’t make a difference. Fitch was a coward.
He wandered aimlessly for most of the day before finally deciding on a plan. The capital city of Kelis Dur and King Rentor needed to be warned of the growing darkness. Fitch may not have been able to save his loved ones but he couldn’t allow the same fate to befall the rest of Thrae. Kelis Dur was more than five days away by foot, but with a little luck he might hitch a ride with a passing wagon or caravan once he made it to the major trade lanes.
First things first. You need rest or they’ll be finding your corpse once the snow melts. Fitch found a suitable campsite under a small rock outcropping and set about making a fire. After filling up on cooked grouse and melted snow, he wrapped up in his thick bearskin hunting coat and let sleep claim him. Nightmares toyed with him and he tossed and turned long into the dark hours. The fire died out just shy of midnight, right when winter decided to throw its final blast across the world.