The Farmlands South of Port Karn, Early Evening
Mûggrish the Watchful took off his wide-brimmed pot helmet with its cheek pieces and lobster tail, and wiped his brow with his sleeve. It was a hot night, but then most nights during the month of Heatdaze were hot. But the sun had barely set, so it wouldn’t cool off for a little while yet. And the humidity didn’t help, either. It just left his unruly shock of long wavy black hair plastered to his ruddy tan skin. But he was an orc, and orcs didn’t complain about the weather. Unless there was someone to complain to. And tonight, he didn’t have a partner, as Gashnag ate something that didn’t agree with him, and was staying close to the chamberpots. Plural, apparently. Mûggrish figured he could handle whatever came his way.
He leaned on the pole of his halberd, and stared out into the twilight. He stood on the side of the road on a hill, the better to look out over the fields and hedgerows that defined this area. They weren’t all fields, of course…some were pastures, some were orchards, and some were woodlots. Most were delineated by the ubiquitous hedgerows, which actually made his job harder in some ways. They blocked line of sight pretty effectively, so he could only see so far.
Mûggrish was an officer in the Rural Watch, the plucky band of monster hunters that protected the city’s breadbasket from evildoers. Actually, those evildoers weren’t usually evil, just hungry, and most of those only did as their natures dictated. Predators have to hunt, after all. He just didn’t like them hunting in areas he was supposed to be protecting. He earned his epithet, by Zug! As a member of that esteemed group, it was his job to protect people and livestock from the occasional predator that wandered out of the jungle in search of easy prey, like those drowsy cattle in the pasture on his left. Sometimes he had to scare away antelope, since they liked to graze on crops not grown for them. But, for the most part, he was on the lookout for carnivores.
It had been a quiet week, so far. The last five days he had seen nothing that would threaten the farms, although he did see some tracks made by a leopard or jaguar. Maybe tonight he might see some action. He knew he really shouldn’t wish for such things, but if he was being honest with himself, he was itching for a fight. His head itched, and he ran his gloved hands through his hair and scrubbed his scalp. He closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling of the slightly cooler air on his damp head, then he picked up his helmet and put it back on his head, shifting the chinstrap past his upthrust tusks and under his chin.
His infra vision picked out some distant farmhands, walking in from the field they had been working in. Probably weeding, he thought, although he couldn’t see or tell what kinds of tools they had resting on their shoulders. Infra vision was good at seeing people or animals, or anything else that shed heat, but not tools, not at a distance. Up close, sure; wood and metal shed heat in differing amounts, and metal tended to look cold. Mûggrish didn’t know why, exactly, it just was what it was. He clearly saw the aforementioned cattle; they dotted the cooler hillside like little warm clouds.
He sighed, and, not seeing anything from the top of this hill, mounted his horse, set the haft of his halberd in its holder, and continued onward down the road, the horse’s hooves clopping softly on the packed clay roadbed. Up ahead of him, to the right, was a field of squash; to the left were the cattle. The road itself was lined with a row of poplar trees, spaced evenly every ten or so feet, and shooting upward twenty or thirty feet to their crowns.
No one else was on the road, but Mûggrish wasn’t surprised. Most people didn’t travel at night. Even many orcs didn’t, even though they were nocturnal and disliked sunlight. He snorted. Disliked was an understatement: orcs weakened in sunlight, and hated going out into it. And it made his skin itch. They did all of their business at night. In fact, Port Karn, back in the days when it was Port Kharneth and part of an orc tribal kingdom, when the Imperium wasn’t even a dream in the Emperor’s mind, used to be active only at night. Now, well… now it was an Imperial city, and thus very cosmopolitan. It was active all the time, day and night.
His horse was well-trained; they were diurnal creatures, after all. But horses used by the Watch’s nocturnal members had been trained to trust their riders, who could see better than they could. There was still a higher incidence of accidental injury among the night shift, because even their excellent vision at night didn’t catch every little thing that the horse might step on. The Rural Watch wasn’t really a cavalry operation, however; it was more mounted infantry. They used mounts for mobility, not combat, if at all possible.
He looked around, trying to see if anything was moving and/or dangerous. Set back several hundred yards off the road was a small group of buildings, nestled at the juncture of three fields. The largest, a pole barn painted green and white, was disgorging a half dozen farmhands. Orc field hands, beginning their working “day”. They carried baskets, and one pushed a hand cart. Mûggrish figured that they were going to harvest some kind of crops. Probably the squash, as they seemed to be headed that way. Ugh, he hated farming. Well, that wasn’t quite true. He used to be a field hand, and while he could see how rewarding farming could be, it just wasn’t for him. It was…boring. He much preferred what he was doing now: riding along, killing wolves and jaguar, occasionally saving some damsel in distress. He hadn’t actually saved any damsels, but he had saved some field hands, a teamster and his oxen, and several pigs and chickens. Still, he was proud of being an officer in the Rural Watch. It felt very fulfilling, and one day he would rise through the ranks and be Captain. Besides, he also liked the exercise it gave him.
His horse trudged along, following the main road southward, over the rolling hills that made up the verdant cropland that stretched out south of Port Karn. The land rose and fell in gradual slopes, slowing gaining altitude as it moved away from the Altasirya River. It is actually quite beautiful, he thought, kind of like one of mother’s patchwork quilts, the hilly terrain making it look like a rumpled bedspread. He snorted. He hadn’t thought of his mother in years. She had died six years ago, killed in a riot when her platoon was sent to quell it.
He turned eastward, onto a dirt trail that separated two fields, angling towards the margin where the fields butted up against the jungle. If a predator was to come into the area, it was more likely to be found near their jungle home. He could see, through the screen of trees that made up a hedgerow, a pastureland that was currently being used by goats. Given the hour, most were in their lean-tos to provide a little shelter in case of rain. But he could see a few moving about as he approached. He stopped at the rail fence that, for the most part, kept the goats in the field. He stood in the stirrups, stretching his legs.
The field nestled in a dell between two hills, stretching up both sides and up to their crowns. Between and through them, he could see a narrow strip of treesilk orchard, and, beyond that, stretched the dense jungle that hid so many threats and dangers. He moved along the fence line, uphill at first, then along the slope, making his way around the pastureland, toward the green wall that marked the jungle. He dismounted and stood on the slope, and watched the jungle for a little while, the light wind rustling the foliage downslope from him. Behind him, in the distance, he could see the lights of Avondale between the two hills, although it was too far away to see any details.
The jungle edge was always trying to spread into the farmland, and crews of tree cutters kept it from encroaching too much. Still, the boundary line was that part of the jungle that got the most light, much like edges of a river, and the growth there was lush and tangled. He could hear night birds calling, hidden in the growth, and the occasional call of something larger. He scanned the sky, checking to see if, by chance, one of the sky folk was around, but there was no overwatch for him at the moment. He did see a small flock of geese, but they were unlikely to provide any help. That was fine, he was confident that his trusty halberd would be enough.
A field of flax, vaguely T-shaped, grew to his right; beyond that the jungle stretched all the way around the hill he was on. He scanned the jungle, but couldn’t see any dangers. Not even a jaguar kitten. He turned, mounted, and started moving, up and over the hill, following the edge of the flax field, toward the jungle margin. He was going to walk the edge of the jungle, and dare it to spew out a monster.
He peered at the jungle as he moved the horse at a walk between it and the orchards, the first of treesilk, the second of peaches, as he made his way southwest. The ground was gradually sloping upwards, and he could occasionally see Avondale between the trees, nestled in a depression between two hills.
Twenty minutes later, he heard a low, throaty roar from within the foliage of the jungle. It wasn’t one he’d heard before, but he knew it anyway. Stun lizard! he thought, a jolt of adrenaline rushing through his body. It roared again. No, this was a second one; likely its mate, as the sound didn’t come from the same place. They often hunted together, using their calls to frighten prey into the metaphorical arms of the second one. He strained his ears, but couldn’t hear any creature crashing through the undergrowth trying to avoid the large, crocodilian beasts.
He urged more speed into his horse, heading away from the jungle towards a junction of three fences. He leapt over the low split rail fence. He dismounted, looping the reins loosely around a fence rail, tight enough to let the horse know not to go to far, but loose enough for it to escape if necessary. He grabbed his halberd, turning back towards the edge of “civilized” land, and jogged back towards where the stun lizards were. He didn’t want his horse in danger, and a stun lizard would kill it in mere moments.
There were a handful of farm workers in the fields behind him as he faced the wall of vegetation. Somewhere in there were two large reptiles, strong, deadly, and armed with a magical attack that could overwhelm the nervous systems of its prey. He flexed his fingers on the haft of his halberd, as he waited in a guard position. They were in there, somewhere. He just didn’t know where, and, if he was honest with himself, he wasn’t in any hurry to go in and find out. He backed up a few paces, checking behind him in quick glances to be sure of his footing.
The farm workers, four orcs and a goblin, were on their knees, busily harvesting greens. Mûggrish would have thought that they would be able to hear the roars of the stun lizards, but if they did, they weren’t reacting to it, except for maybe glancing up in his direction. Perhaps they thought that whatever was out there would be taken care of by their protector: him. Or they had been hearing the roars for a while, and since nothing had happened, they didn’t consider them a threat.
He scanned the foliage, trying to see the heat signatures of the two predators. There were several birds, and a myriad mix of small mammals clambering up into the trees, but he couldn’t yet see the large reptiles. He could see the heat traces through the leaves and branches to only a short depth; beyond that, and the heat was absorbed and masked by the object in front of it. And the reptiles would be slightly less warm than their mammalian counterparts, their exothermic bodies retaining heat only due to their large mass. The small lizards in the jungle were completely invisible to his infra vision, the heat they absorbed earlier long since radiating away as their bodies reached thermal equilibrium with their surroundings.
Another pair of roars, one after the other. Definitely two of them, he thought. He shifted a bit to his right, the better to put himself between the stun lizards and the farmworkers. He could feel the sweat running down his face, but he didn’t want to take his hands off of the halberd. There was a big part of him that wanted the beasts to just charge him and get it over with, but his rational mind kept hoping that the two large creatures would move off and mind their own business. But it was too much to hope for.
A shape launched itself from the undergrowth, and at the same time Mûggrish’s vision went white with the stun lizard’s mental attack. “Run!” he shouted to the field hands, and he could hear some activity behind him in the distance as they stood up and took off. His vision cleared quickly, his innate orcish magic resistance negating the most harmful effects of the stunning blast. It was almost twenty feet long from snout to tail, a mottled grayish green color, and had a mouth full of sharp, conical teeth. The beast covered the ten yards from the edge of the jungle to Mûggrish in seconds, and the Rural Watchman barely got the butt end of the halberd set in the ground in time before the reptile slammed into the bladed end. The point dug into the beast’s shoulder, and it’s weight and momentum slammed the weapon out of the orc’s hands, the set end digging a two foot furrow until it popped up, nearly hitting Mûggrish in the face as the enraged animal screamed in anger and agony.
He backpedalled, pulling his axe out of its belt loop and swinging his kite shield around on its carrying strap. He could see the stun lizard trying to pull the point of the halberd out of its shoulder, catching the blade on the ground and backing around in spastic movements. It gave Mûggrish time to get his left arm through the shield’s straps.
He moved towards the beast, axe upraised, shield in front of him. It managed to extricate the halberd’s spearpoint, and it turned toward its prey, roaring in defiance as blood streamed down its forelimb. Mûggrish knew that any moment now, its mate would come to its rescue. He had to make this quick.
He struck, darting in, leading with the shield, blocking the biting attack and counterattacking with his axe. It bit deep into the muzzle, but deflected and slid off of the bones of its face. He laid open a large, bleeding wound on the bridge of its nose, between the eyes and nostrils of its crocodilian head. It thrashed in pain, explosively exhaling and blowing bloody froth from its mouth.
His vision started to go white again, and he blinked as he could feel tingles up and down his limbs. The stunning blast was again mostly blocked by his resistance. He shook it off, blocked an attack from his side by the thrashing tail, and struck again, this time hitting its back, just behind the shoulder blades. Blood welled, running down its side, highlighting the horny scales that made up its skin. The wound looked bright in his vision, until the evaporative cooling of the blood darkened it.
It leapt at him, enraged with pain, and he was forced to leap to the side to evade its bulk. He rolled, and came up to his feet as it skidded into the furrows of the field of lettuces, dirt and plants flying. It spun back towards him, its tail swiping through more lettuces, and charged again, mouth agape. Again his vision whited out, and he squinted as throbbing waves of pain penetrated his magic resistance and coursed through his limbs. He crouched behind his shield, unable to fully see, although his infra vision was able to detect the creature’s heat signature through his impaired vision. The lizard bounced off his shield, passing to the side, and Mûggrish struck with his axe, cutting through the bone of its forelimb with a sickening wet crack.
His vision came back, and before the beast could recover, he struck it again, hitting it about halfway down the tail. More bright blood, but he detected movement to his left as the lizard’s mate joined the fray with another stunning blast that left Mûggrish blinking but otherwise unaffected. It charged towards him, its four stubby legs churning the earth beneath it, tail lashing back and forth.
He spun to face the new threat, bracing himself behind his shield, axe ready. He was really wishing he had had a chance to get to his halberd, but for now he had to make do with shorter weapons. A quick glance to the side let him see that the first stun lizard was dragging itself back into the brush, it’s broken, nearly severed forelimb dragging at its side. The second reptile struck, biting at his shield in an attempt to get it out of the way. This one was a little smaller, only about fifteen feet long, but a bit stockier. The jaws closed upon the edge of the shield, and a quick flick of its head sent Mûggrish stumbling away, his shoulder wrenched. He was fortunate that the straps of the kite shield held, otherwise it would have been tossed aside, and he was sure he would be needing it again soon.
Almost immediately after unbalancing the orc warrior, the stun lizard charged to the attack again, again preceding its physical strike with a magical one that again did little but make Mûggrish’s eyes water. His arm hurting, he kept the shield between him and the lizard, finding himself between the stun lizard and the edge of the jungle. He could see, in the distance, the field hands running for their lives, but one stopped at the wooden rack that held the signal flag and long torch. He could see some faint flashes as the worker struck flint to steel, then the torch ignited in a bright white flash. Looking at that was dumb! he thought, looking away from the torch, his eyes seeing spots.
Distracted by the flash, he was blinking the spots away, hoping his night vision came back when the stun lizard slammed into him, the jaws closing on his right forearm. Pain lanced through him as the creature thrashed, and he was knocked off of his feet. Most of the teeth scraped across the metal plates of his brigandine armor sleeves, but some found their way between them, puncturing his skin. He could feel warm wetness spreading, and the beast still held on.
He struck the lizard’s face with the edge of his shield, trying to get the jaws to loosen and let his arm free. He found himself on his back as the thrashing creature twisted this way and that, as Mûggrish struck it in the face repeatedly with the shield edge. It finally let go, but the warrior could sense that his arm was badly damaged. He could barely hold on to the axe, and couldn’t swing it effectively. He could feel warm wetness spreading through his gambeson sleeve. Pain and anger boiled in him.
But he noticed that the beast’s twisting movements had flung him close to his halberd. Dropping the shield, he rolled over the pole arm, picking it up as he passed, and, holding it using his left hand and right armpit, bracing it as the lizard came at him again. He grimaced in pain as the impact transferred energy down the shaft as the point took it just to the side of the breast bone, sliding wetly between two ribs, and the reptile was pushed up by the braced end. It thrashed there, its movements causing more damage as the point ripped back and forth within its chest, and fell over to the side, its legs trying desperately to gain purchase on the smooth steel blade to pull it out.
Mûggrish growled and grabbed his axe, left handed, and struck the stun lizard, over and over, until it stopped moving, then hit it some more for good measure. Only then did he remember the first beast, who had made it to the edge of the foliage and disappeared. But it had left a pretty easily-followed trail of disturbed dirt,weeds, and blood, and Mûggrish’s simmering anger, which he worked so hard to manage under most situations, wasn’t sated. He picked up his shield, put it on his right arm, and stalked after the injured beast with a snarl.
He didn’t even make it into the jungle when it turned and attacked, whether in pain or because he had killed his mate. It didn’t matter; Mûggrish’s muscle memory had him leading with his left leg, despite the reversal of his axe and shield, so his block wasn’t fully effective. The stun lizard got past the tail of the shield and the jaws clamped onto his leg, the broken forelimb not allowing it to reach much higher.
Screaming in pain as the conical teeth punched through the metal plates under the force of the jaws, Mûggrish slammed the axe down onto its neck, biting deeply, causing blood to spray in pulses. He had hit an artery, and the wound caused the beast to release his jaws. He hit it again, and it finally stopped moving. He paused, about to put the axe back into its loop, then shrugged, and hit it again. Why take chances, he thought, as he put his axe away, slung his shield on his back, and grabbed the tail of the stun lizard with his good hand. He laboriously dragged it back to the other one, limping, and in the distance he could see the farm hand waving the torch back and forth, hoping to get the attention of another nearby Rural Watchman. Hopefully one was in the area and able to see the signal. But the land was vast, and the Watch was spread thin.
Limping, he recovered his halberd. Then, after looking around to see if anything else came at him and finding that he was at least momentarily safe, he doffed his brigandine and gambeson to check on his wounds, wincing in pain as he did so. His leg wasn’t too bad; it hurt, and there were a series of puncture wounds and cuts, some of which would require stitches. But it could support his weight, if painfully. His arm, though…now that the adrenaline was wearing off, it was starting to throb, and the maze work of cuts caused by the thrashing jaws were bleeding pretty badly. His arm was broken, and would need to be set, and both of his shoulders hurt. Probably some strained muscles or torn ligaments. He started to bind the arm, at least to stop the bleeding, until he could get it set. He certainly wasn’t going to be using that arm for a while. And the sleeve of his brigandine would probably need some major repair; several of the plates were bent, punctured, or both.
The torch had stopped waving, and was coming closer as the field hand jogged over to him. He was a young orc, perhaps seventeen, and like most farm hands, strong. He planted the torch between two rows of lettuces, then knelt by Mûggrish.
“Two stun lizards! You killed two stun lizards!” he exclaimed, then saw the warrior’s condition. “By Zug! Are you all right?”
Mûggrish looked at the lad, debated saying something flippant, then simply said, “It got my arm pretty good. Broken, lacerated, and bleeding badly. I could use some help getting it set, if you are able.”
“What do you need me to do?” the farm hand said.
“I’ll need two straight, strong sticks to form a splint, then I will need you to pull on my arm to help me get the bone back into place. Then we can tie the splints to it.”
The farm hand nodded, looked around, and ran over to where they had left their tools, one of which was a rake. He picked it up, ran back, and said, “Would pieces of this work?” as he held out the handle.
Mûggrish grinned, nodded, and took out his axe, left handed. He could no longer say that it had been a quiet week.