The Promise of Dawn


What follows is what I hope to make the first in a series of short stories along the lines of those found in pulp magazines like Weird Tales. It was inspired by the characters of Conan and Solomon Kane made famous by Robert E. Howard, Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber and the various incarnations of the Eternal Warrior created by Michael Moorcock, particularly the mighty Elric of Melnibone and I am trying to capture some of the high adventure, grit, sorcery and horror of those tales. This first effort is told from the perspective of a secondary character, rather than what will become the main protagonist of these stories as I thought it a better way to immerse readers into this world I am creating, which is going to be a kind of alternate, darker version of history, set on Earth after it has been shaken by a dreadful apocalypse. This is one of the first pieces of fiction I have attempted in quite a while and it seems to have taken the shape I wanted, however I am sure it is still rough around the edges. In posting this, not only am I hoping it will be read and enjoyed but that it may generate comment that I can use to refine it or gather new ideas for future stories. That being said, read on good friends and enter my new world of darkness and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did in the writing. Cheers all, until next time.

 

 

“It appears we have some sheep who have strayed from the flock”

Gretta stared into the Captain’s sneer with all the defiance she could muster despite the pounding of her heart, so strong she felt that her whole body must be quaking. The others stood beside and behind her, heads bowed, shuffling just like sheep confronted by the shepherd’s dogs which for all intents and purposes they were.  Eight men on horseback hemmed them in including the Captain whilst two more sat at the reins of a large wagon all of them chuckling to themselves, eying their prey with dark, glittering eyes.

“Pray, where is it you think you are going, my little sheep? ‘Tis ill advised to travel such wastes in the black of night and in such inhospitable weather as well. It would seem to me that only knaves or rebels would have good cause to be upon the roads.” 

“We are neither good captain, just pilgrims on the road to Constantinople, poor and of little means so that we must travel day and night unable to take lodgings.”  Gretta’s father spoke softly, voice almost lost in the drumming rain that had churned the road to thick mud, his eyes never meeting the Captain’s, instead focusing on his hat clenched between white knuckled fists.

“So rebels it is then, seeking shelter from our gracious Lord in the arms of his enemies. It shall be a great pleasure to have you ungrateful rabble flogged back to Avignon. If you found your lives burdensome under the beneficence of this realm you will find quite quickly how much more severe they can become.”  The malice that infused his words sent waves of terror through the thirty or so people whilst the other men at arms pressed closer, leering down, masks of obscene cruelty made of red-orange and shadow torchlight. Sobs and moans where choked back, children’s cries quickly stifled by mothers’ skirts.  All had known upon setting out the risks but in the end it had been a choice of evils, the road or lives of fear in a land wholly under shadow so they had set out, only what they could carry easily, all else left behind in desperate flight over hundreds of miles with the barest of hope before them.  Then the night storm rolled in, and with it brought the guardsmen and the extinguishing of that frail light.  They stood, soaked to the bone, looking death or even worse than death full in the face and these poor people, farmers, craftsmen, the simple felt fear and despair clench their iron fists about their faltering hearts. Only Gretta would not bow her head, as terrified as she was she would not bend, a lone, slim figure in the torches held high.

“At least this one shows some spirit” The Captain spurred his horse forward, leaning down, his face only a foot from hers.  “not the cells for this one I think and there may be others of value” his breath blew hot and rank into Gretta’s face yet still she did not flinch. “Yes, fetch the dog, we must not through away anything that might please our good Lord.”

“You and your ‘good lord’ be damned!” Gretta spat full into the Captain’s face, every fiber of her straining to keep her voice from shaking. “You are nothing but the craven dogs of a…” the blow slammed high across her cheek, spinning her light frame nearly clear around, the only thing preventing her from falling as the cruel knotting of the Captain’s fist in her hair, snapping her neck back and up. She struggle painfully but his arm held her up nearly off her feet, the slick mud offering no purchase.

“Gretta, no…please Captain she does not know” Gretta’s father ran towards his daughter hands clasped together pleading.  The Captain turned and his booted foot caught the old man under the jaw, sending him sprawling back.

“You rats need a desperate lesson, one I would take great pleasure in supplying, however I have not the time.  We were on the road for other purpose and we cannot be delayed over long.  Come, bring the blasted hound before I lose all patience and simply feed these scraps to those yon!!!” At this last the Captain jerked his head to the large, rectangular block of the covered wagon.  The black draping gave an unsettling tremor that seemed more than simply the rising wind.  Thunder growled above and lightning added a fitful glare to the unsettling tableau as one of the soldiers went behind the wagon, untying something that had been chained behind it. A lump of blacker shadow followed the guardsman’s horse, bent backed, scrabbling toward the ring of torches. A scream rose in Gretta’s throat as it came into the light but was strangled quickly by the Captain’s first jerking her back. The thing had been a man, perhaps, once but now was a twisted parody, a broken thing of nightmare. A hairless head swiveled back and forth atop it’s neck as if it was peering around but that could not have been possible as a band of iron appeared to have been riveted to it’s skull. Beneath the mutilated eyes was what amounted more to a snout than a nose, nostrils wide and flaring, snuffling and animal while the mouth was a broad red slash, horribly wide, teeth sharpened to wicked points over which a long, sinuous tongue lapped in slavering licks.  It’s back was hideously bent, allowing it to move on all fours while still letting it stand at times.  The limbs and body seemed covered over in slick black leather gleaming wet but clinging so close that it could be almost a hide.  It approached Gretta, leading the guardsmen who had fetched it by the length of chain that appeared to be somehow fused to the back of it’s skull.  Gretta’s eyes rolled in her head, her body cringing in revulsion as the snuffling thing crept closer, whimpering as it came withing inches of her, sniffing at her, misshapen head moving between her skirted thighs, up to her belly.

“Yessssss…pure…unspoilt…” the wheezing, rasping voice rolled out like foul oil, the fact that this thing could make speech adding to her mounting horror. It’s mouth split into a slobbering grin and it wrung together it’s long, slim fingered hands.  It’s words seemed to please the Captain who motioned his guardsmen towards the others still huddled in a clump a few feet away. Jerking the chain the guardsman lead his foul hound to the frightened pilgrims, letting it paw and sniff at each, occasionally purring or gibbering out in delight when it found what it sought. Another guard used his horse to cull those selected from the rest, mostly children as well as the few young lads and maids, leaving the elders.

“A fine catch indeed, these will fetch us a fine price upon our return.” The obscene pleasure in the Captain’s voice was punctuated with a sudden splitting crack of thunder followed by a near blinding flash of lightning. His cruel satisfaction was short lived however, for in the instant of the sudden light another figure had appeared in their midst. Tall, covered head to toe in a long cloak, hood drawn far forward so that even in the glare only mouth and jawline were revealed the silent apparition appeared to have just been carved out of the gloom by the levin bolt itself. A few of the soldiers started at this mysterious appearance, hands clenching on hilts or pistol butts. The Captain jerked his reins moving his charger forward, dragging Gretta along, straining to keep herself from slipping or having her neck broken.

“You there, move along! There is nothing here to concern you and if you do not take the road swiftly you may find yourself sharing the same fate as this lot.” Gretta shook like a rag doll in the Captain’s grip as he jerked her forward to emphasize his point, her joints shrieking in protest. Despite the threat, the man stood stalk still, showing not even a sign that he heard. Silence seemed almost to roll out from the man in slow waves, drowning out the tempest still raging all around. The Captain moved yet closer, leaning down in his saddle as he drew along side the hooded figure, attempting to penetrate the depths of the hood.

“Identify yourself rogue, swiftly now, you try my patience” still nothing, not even a glimmer of response was issued. Another of the soldiers moved to the left side of the man at a motion from the Captain. “Tell me now, who are you!” There was a new note in his voice, a touch of apprehension creeping into the Captain’s bluster.

“Judgement” The single pronouncement was spoken low yet seemed to carry over wind and rain to find every ear. The hooded head turned and Gretta caught a glimpse of high cheekbones and shining, dark eyes as the man turned his face upwards to catch the Captain in his glare. More important to the Captain was the glint of silver about the stranger’s throat. Eyes suddenly wide, the Captain inhaled sharply, mouth open to shout out a command but whatever that command might have been was strangled sharply as the motionless figure suddenly exploded into violent action. The right arm shot out from under the heavy leather cape, the pistol clenched in gloved fist thrusting it’s long barrel into the Captain’s mouth, upper teeth shattering, sudden scream garbled. New thunder sounded as the flint struck the powder, burning the Captain’s face, blinding him in the last moments before the lead ball tore through the back of his skull, blood mingling with the rain, thick smoke pouring out of the gaping wound. Without pause the cloaked man dropped the fired piece, turning to face his next victim just as the alarmed man reached for his own holstered weapon. A second pistol in his left hand roared, the bullet catching the mounted guard under his armpit as his horse reared, shattering bone and tossing him to the ground. Gretta was herself yanked to the muddy road as the corpse still holding her hair slid backward off his mount, her face pressed into the stifling quagmire. She lifted her head, eyes wide and clouded with foul water, watching in fascinated horror.

The other men at arms marshaled themselves, shaking off the initial shock, drawing blades figuring the murk too great for shooting even with the torches, their opponent just another shadow among many. The lone assailant reached to his belt behind his back, drawing another brace of pistols, almost as if to prove his opponent’s judgement fatally incorrect. One of the men on the driving board of the wagon stood, he alone drawing from beneath his seat a large mouthed blunderbuss, bracing the weapon’s butt to his shoulder and pulling back the hammer. The loud click drew the stranger’s attention, head swiveling in the direction of the coachman, followed swiftly by the pistol in his left. Two reports sounded, the loose shot of the blunderbuss splattering just where the man had been moments before, the single bullet striking the guardsman in the belly with a sickening wet tearing sound as the dark figure lunged forward, running to meet the rest.

The guardsman holding the hound released his charge who bolted towards the hood man, growling deep in it’s throat as it bounded forward in great leaps, showing a hideous strength in it’s twisted limbs. The dark man ran to meet his foe, discarding the spent pistol from his left hand, swinging his arm around to meet the fiend’s snapping jaws just moments before they closed about his throat. The hounds hard, sharp nails scrabbled futilely against the breastplate that had been hidden beneath the cloak, allowing the still armed right hand to bring the pistol between the struggling bodies. A fourth shot exploded from the bent back of the horror, a yelp of animal pain ripped from it’s throat as the stranger tossed the twitching body aside. As if in one fluid motion he drew a sword from it’s scabbard on his hip, whirling about, seeking the next enemy.

Still laying in the mud, Gretta watched this all unfold, eyes unused to such violence unable to look away as the battle raged. As she followed the lone warrior move swiftly between his foes, using their mounts, uncertain light and slick footing to his best advantage she was overcome with a feeling she was not looking at a man, rather she was watching some deadly machine, an engine of death relentlessly and brutally levying cold wages of slaughter. She lay in the cold, oozing mud, fingers clenched in the churned earth, just beside her the gaping cavern of the Captain’s ruined skull. Terror fought with a strange elation, what to her sensitive soul seemed a perverse joy in the destruction of her would be persecutors as the scene wound to its bloody conclusion.

The last guardsman lay on his back, boot heels scraping as he tried desperately to back away from the apparition of fear stalking towards him. His lips mumbled pleading, begging mercy as tears cut trails through the grime on his cheeks. Not breaking stride, no sense of hesitation or remorse the dark figure reached the blubbering cur, driving the length of his blade through the guard’s skull, pinning the now thrashing corpse to the ground. The silence that  fell as the wretch’s feet stopped twitching was profound, even the driving rain seeming to slacken for a moment as if the world was pausing for breath. The grating of steel on bone as the hooded one withdrew his sword sent a shiver through Gretta’s spine, bringing the world crashing back. Slowly she rose, almost dreamlike in her slowness, each step forward seeming to take every bit of strength she had left. While the rest of the cowering pilgrims huddled together well outside the ring of carnage she drew close to the menacing man in black, no less afraid than them but driven forward by her curiosity and desire to thank their deliverer.

Seeming oblivious to the ragged pilgrims, the man was busying himself with dragging the bodies of the fallen towards the still covered wagon, piling them about the large wheels. There seemed to be greater agitation beneath the canvas covering the wagon’s sides, growing as each bloody corpse was dropped. Gretta found her steps now drawn towards the wagon, a morbid curiosity overtaking her first impulse. As she drew closer a charnal stench filled her nostrils, a foetid rotting smell raising bile in her throat. She paused a few inches from the loosely hanging tarp, hand raised as if to peel it back but still hesitant. Without warning a ragged nailed hand shot out at her, fingers held stiff, raking at her face. She stumbled back, slipping on the mud and falling hard on her backside, eyes locked in terror on the withered grey fleshed arms straining out of what was clearly a cage. Behind the writhing limb she caught a glimpse of a twisted face, black toothed mouth and hollow eyes impressing upon her terror filled brain an impression of unholy, ravenous hunger. She sat trembling, unable to break that gaze until a sudden sweeping flash passed between her and the thing followed by the thud of a severed arm hitting the ground and a madness inducing howl of pain. The hungry eyes disappeared suddenly into the darkness of the covered cage, the flap of the canvas tarp mercifully concealing whatever was occurring withing as the wagon shook and rocked, the air suddenly filled with wet tearing noises, gristly snaps and gnashing.

Without warning Gretta found herself yanked to her feet, an iron grip wrapped like a vice about her upper arm. The rest of the night was suddenly shut out by a dark face, Saracen features glaring at her, deep set dark eyes like pools filled from the cup of the surrounding night piercing into hers. Strange marks writhed over cheeks and brows, almost every bare inch of skin covered in tattooed writing, scripts of Latin, what appeared to her uneducated eyes as what might of been Hebrew intermixed with other strange squiggles and dots. The stranger’s other hand gripped her chin, turning her face from side to side, eyes flicking, searching.

“Fool girl, did it cut you?!? Answer me, swiftly, did it touch you at all?” Again the low voice, deep, rolled out from grim lips, shaking her roughly, his eyes boring into her almost as cruel and hard as the Captain’s had been.

“N-n-no” Gretta managed to sob out, all of the horrors of this cursed night piling upon her, crashing down as she sagged in this brutal man’s grip, body wracked by sudden uncontrollable weeping. She had always thought of herself as strong, a life of bleak hardship and want instilling in her a resolve even most of the men in her former village found hard to match but she was still young and while she had been told of the darkness that held her home in it’s sway, of brutality and acts of wanton depravity she had never witnessed first hand such things and this was just too much. She twisted in the hard grip of the man above her, twisting and beating futilely against his arms and chest, wanting nothing more than to run and run until her poor heart finally burst and she could escape this hell.

“Be still now, be still child. I am sorry to have been so rough in your handling but your rash actions put you in more danger than you have ever been this night” Gretta looked up into the savage face, tears blurring it’s lines but she caught a faint softening in it, the lines about the mouth less stern, the eyes less flint hard. More gently the grip on her arm pulled her up until she found her feet then released her, allowing her to collect herself, wiping the tears from her eyes with the mud grimed back of her hand. Now that he had confirmed that she had not been harmed by the thing in the wagon his attention went back to his grim task of gathering bodies allowing Gretta to better take in the details of his manner and dress. Most of the torches had been dropped in the melee but there were two lanterns hanging from the wagon and in this dim pool of light she noted many peculiar things about his dress. His garments beneath his long leathern cloak were simple, loose black tunic and breeches of rough spun material and thigh high boots with the tops turned down were normal enough but the breastplate worn over the tunic was of unusual make and it’s surface was scored all over with strange glyphs and wards. Around his waist was a broad baldric from which hung the sheath of his sword and the holsters for his pistols, the leather also tooled in strange mystic fashion. It wasn’t until her eyes lighted on the silver collar about his neck that a faint realization began to dawn.

“Tell me, good sir, for I would wish to know, what is your name? I would like to be able to address our savior and thank him appropriately”

“I am Nameless” The words were thrown out casually as he continued his task but they thundered in her ears. All of her life she had heard the tales, since the coming of The Corpse Moon and the rise of evil, of the Order of Uriel and The Nameless Brothers but never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought to meet one. Yet here, before her was this lone, grim man, one of the precious few left fighting back the darkness.

“I-I cannot thank thee enough Brother, you have saved myself and my kin from a bleak fate.”

“Bleak would not be the word I would use, but something much blacker. If I had not come across these corpse monger’s trail your kin would have found themselves joining yon hell-wights in damnation and those of you scented by their hound would have been bound for Avignon where your purity would have been put to blasphemous usage and the pleasure of The Apostate” 

A shudder ran through Gretta as Nameless let such fell words fall so casually. She turned once more to the covered jail, face pale as death. Glancing back she looked upon her father amongst the still fearful group of travelers, his mouth bloodied, now unable to meet her gaze. “What are they, those in the cage?”

“They were men and women once, before they found themselves in The Apostate’s clutches.” Nameless paused and looked towards the cage, a mixture of loathing and pity upon his face. “They were most likely put in a deep pit, probably more than a hundred at first, crammed together tight in the dark. They keep the starved, no food at all, growing ever more hungry and desperate. The weakest would count themselves lucky, just dropping dead. It’s the ones that held on who would suffer so much more.” He turned then to look into Gretta’s eyes, holding them with his fathoms deep eyes. “So, what do you do when you’re starving, surrounded by darkness, without hope and your fellow prisoner’s corpses your bed mates? From the first bite it takes hold, the new, endless hunger. Once all the dead ones are devoured they turn on the living, the weaker, tearing them apart. That leaves only the strongest, the hungriest you see, the ones they want. It’s a common little trick of theirs, to bring a wagon load of ghouls to a city or stronghold that still resists them and release the foulness within upon the inhabitants. The dead flesh gives them strength and they are damned hard to kill. Along with the need to kill and feed they bring plague. Twenty to fifty strong is usually enough to soften up whatever resistance exists before the armies march in and finish up.”

“God have mercy!” Gretta gasped, drawing her hand to her mouth, fresh new waves of horror threatening to overcome her again.

“As I am His instrument, they will soon feel it.” As he spoke, Nameless drew from a pouch at his belt several phials tightly sealed. Within them Gretta glimpsed what appeared to be lumps of some kind of metal suspended in thick oil. He held them delicately in his palm, his concentration momentarily absorbed before turning to her once again. “It shall soon be dawn and your passage more easy yet not safe. You had best hurry on while you have some cover in the night and move with all swiftness. About sixty leagues along this road you should come to a Bavarian way fort. Once there you should be able to shelter and gather supplies. Your ultimate journey has many more miles to its fulfillment but at least you will be beyond The Apostate’s immediate reach.”

Gretta turned towards where her folk still cowered, Nameless’ cool words filling her with purpose and at least some glimmer of hope. She had already taken a few steps away before turning back, a sudden fear in her eyes. “You mean you will not bring us hither, you shall leave us?”

“Alas, I must, although I have confidence you will not find the way held against you. There are others of this ilk” here he kicked one of the corpses at his feet “that I must thwart however I may. My task is long and wearying but I cannot lay it aside even for a short time to ensure the safety of a few when the salvation of all is what I have sworn to do or die in the trying. Go now and swiftly, the gates of the way fort close at dusk and you will be lucky to make it there even if you make good time” Nameless turned away then, focusing back on the wagon and some obscure preparations he seemed intent on preforming.

Silently Gretta turned, walking back to her people. They shuffled away at first, as if they were a little frightened of her, that she was somehow apart from them now. Maybe she was at that. She quieted their questions, explaining as much as she needed to get them back upon their journey. She went to her father, tearing off a piece of her skirt to wash away the blood about his mouth and nose. He was a good man, but simple, full of fear and in a world he could barely understand. His life had been twenty miles of Provence as had the lives of all his fathers fathers. She looked at him tenderly then to all of the others, little better prepared than he to face the hardships before them. “Come now, we must go” her soft words drew them about her and they set off, none looking back.

As they neared a bend in the road the rains began to lessen and there was a faint lightening to the gloom ahead. There was promise there, the hope that they might find some haven down this long road and their steps quickened slightly. Suddenly from behind there was a loud rushing noise, a sudden whoosh and crackling. The others scurried forward, completely unable to bring themselves to spare even a glance back. Gretta however stopped, turning around in the road way to take in the scene behind her. The road behind was still mostly pitch black, save that where the wagon stood was an inferno, huge, greasy orange and red flames lined with thick streamers of black soot clawed and waved in the black casting into sharp silhouette a lean figure, standing tall and alone. The image struck her sharply, the darkness all around pressing in from all sides threatening to swallow everything, all that stood to resist it’s onslaught a single grim, terrible, lonely man within an island of light. With that last thought, Gretta turned away for the last time and lifter her gaze forward, to the horizon and the promise of new dawn.

 

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One Response to “The Promise of Dawn”

  1. […] awaited sequel (well, maybe not long awaited, and not exactly a sequel per se) to the short story “The Promise of Dawn”. I am not at all sure about how well this one works, or how well it will stand in comparison to the […]

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