Category Archives: White Runners

Excerpt from “Crumb’s Plan”

The man in black strode to the table.  A small handkerchief appeared from a fold within is shirt, and the man swabbed the inside of each of the mugs.  He took a small blade from his belt and sliced a wax seal from the cork of the bottle.  Then he carefully poured some liquid into each cup and set the bottle down on the table.

Eck sensed a command in the posture of the man, and made his way to the table.  The man nodded and smiled, and handed a cup to Eck.  He then turned and took the other back to the small candle against the far wall.

“I am called Pak.  This is not who I am, only how I am called here.”  He said in a clear voice.  He looked down at his cup and took a small sip.  With his face still down, he looked up at Eck from behind his eyebrows and nodded.  “We have our drink, now,” he said in command.  Even the hint of his smile had evaporated.

Eck bent his head and sniffed at the dark liquid in the mug.  He smelled the bite of alcohol, tempered with a slight tone of honey, and some herbs he couldn’t place.  Gingerly, he took a sip from the mug.  The drink burned as he swallowed, lighting his throat with a fire.  Eck sputtered and coughing, bringing derisive laughter from Jeb and Bill.  Eck’s tongue and teeth had a strange feeling to them, as if they were coated with a numbing substance.  The sides of his tongue tingled, and he could feel his sinuses open.  He blinked several times and gathered his breath.  Eck took another sip, as much to ease his tension in the silence as to appease Pak.

With on a slight turn of his head, Pak addressed the two thugs sitting at the table, “The time is now that the two should not be here.  I will to be speaking with this man alone now.”

“Oy,” began Jeb before Bill could stop him.  “You said we’s gonna get our turn at ‘im.”  Jeb rose to face the dark figure lurking near the back wall.  His shoulders swayed noticeably – he had obviously been drinking for some time.  Bill reached out and grabbed Jeb by the forearm.  With a twist, Jeb threw off Bill’s steadying hand and took a few steps towards Pak.

Pak tilted his head like an animal examining an unfamiliar plant.  His face showed no sign of anger, no sign of emotion at all.  With a slight furrowing of his brow, he made a small sign with the fingers of his left hand.

Jeb fell to his knees, the blow shaking the small table before Bill.  He arched his back and threw his head back in agony.  With his arms held out near either side of his thighs, Jeb screamed a silent scream.  Pak took another sip from his mug and walked over towards Bill and Jeb.

Bill tried to stand, but only succeeded in clumsily falling backwards from his chair towards Eck and the fireplace.  The bottle on the table fell, and the drink inside spilled onto the floor, covering Jeb’s knees.


Intro to Arachan

The afternoon before the battle, Tuomo brought the troops together.  

“Men,” he said.  His face was stern as he projected his voice to the twenty seven gathered around a small patch of boulders.  The group was gathered on the west side of the outcropping, the river a mile behind them, the forest half a mile to the east.  “Boys,” he said, his face breaking into a grin.  The men laughed and nudged each other.  “Tonight we take the forest.  Tonight we show these beasts that the serpents are not like the soft meat that the army has thrown at them so far.”  The men cheered with bravado.  “We are twenty-eight against countless.  But we are serpents, cold and deadly.  Tonight, we strike for the queen.”  

The men rattled sword against shield and began to chant with a low growl.  “Serpent” they said to each other.  “Serpent,” the chorus rose, gaining in volume at each repetition.  Finally, as if on some unseen cue, the entire band yelled in a voiceless roar at the sky.

A hush came over the group as a woman mounted the rocks where Tuomo stood.  She climbed to the top with perfect balance, her hands clasped beneath her crimson robes.  Standing next to Tuomo, she turned her face to look at him.  With a reverant bow, he stepped to the side, yielding his posiiton.

The woman nodded to him, and touched her thumb to her chin.  She stood tall atop the rock and looked out over the men.  “Serpents.  This battle is not yours,” she said, her voice carrying over the men.  “This battle is not the queen’s.”  The men muttered to each other.    Arachan looked to Tuomo.  The lieutenant looked away quickly – his face dark.  Arachan looked back to the woman as she continued.

“This battle is for the Mother, and for Her land.  She claims this forest as Her own.  You are Her elite, trained in battle and fire to serve, and to survive.”  The men were silent, as all eyes stared at the crimson figure.  The sunset behind her painted the sky in reds and oranges.  She seemed to be a part of the sky itself as she spoke to them.  “In all battles, there is the whisper of death.  In this battle, death is promised.”  Arachan felt a shudder down his spine.  This was the Mother’s Kiss – the soldier’s irreverent name for a form of last rites handed down before a battle.  The serpents had fought before.  They had vanquished insurmountable foes, broken defenses to crush the beseiged.  The men had burned and conquered.  None of them had witnessed the Mother’s Kiss.  It had been legend during training.  Instructors did not teach this.  Informally, the men knew of the Kiss, but officially, it was never mentioned.

“Men, tonight you are not your fellow’s brother.  Tonight you are not your queen’s guard.  Tonight, you are the Mother’s will.  Tonight, you are the extension of Her power.  Tonight you bring Her judgement onto her foes.”  The men stared, transfixed as the words spilled over them.  Time raced past at the woman spoke, though the men were not aware of it.  The sky darkened as the sun slipped below the horizon.

As if awakening from a trance, Arachan noticed that the faces of the rocks were lit with the bright yellow flare of fire.  He turned to look behind him.  On either side of a large banquet table was a roaring bonfire.  The wood was stacked higher than a man stood, and burned with an eager flame.  Embers rose into the night sky, fading to black against the dark sky.

The light of the fires lit the tables, the food laden there cast deep, flickering shadows.  Aracahn saw a feast laid before him.  All kinds of foods were arranged on the spread.  He saw fowl, roasted and dressed with vegetables, silver bowls of cold soups, loaves of bread of various shapes and sizes.  The serpents made their way slowly to the fare laid out before them.  A group of red robed figures began to walk among them, inclining shaved heads and offering goblets of diluted, herbed wine.

In several bounds, Tuomo leaped his way down to stand next to Arachan.  He took a cup from one of the priests and stared at it, an unbelieving smile stretching across his face.  “But how is this?” he asked, as much to Arachan as any other.

“Behold, the bounty of the Mother,” the woman is scarlet said laying  a hand on Tuomo’s shoulder.  With her other hand she offered a cup to Arachan.  “Feast, and be strengthened.”  she told them.  Working her way through the men to the feast table, she said aloud, “perhaps some music for the Mother?”  At this, two of the priests – a tall thin man, and a slender woman – produced instruments and began to play.  The man sat on a hollowed log covered with a stretched animal skin. His head shone in the firelight as he bent to beat the drum.  The woman plucked at a small stringed instrument, whether made of wood or metal, Arachan could not see.

“But this food, this drink?” Arachan asked.  None of the platoon ate or drank.  Instead they stood, eager, waiting for their lieutenant to steer them.  Some rubbed their eyes, as if waking early from vivid dreams.  The beat of the drum carried through the night air, a slow procession.  The woman’s voice sounded far away, as if she were singing from across the plain, and the men were hearing only the echo coming back from the face of the western mountains.

“Lieutentnat,” the woman said, approaching in a half-dance.  “Have your men eat, and drink.  The Mother commands it.”  She took the cup from his hands and drank it back in one pull.  “You will all join the fight soon enough, when the time is right.  For now, your men will drink and dance.  Now is the time for boasts and vows.  Now is the time for brotherhood and strength.  Tomorrow, you will all dine in the house of the Mother.”  Her voice was hypnotic.  Commanding and serene, yet stirring.

Tuomo took back the cup she offered.  One of the priests refilled the cup with the dark, fragrant draught.  Tuomo lifted the cup above his head.  As if on cue, the music stopped.  He stood there in silence as the men gathered around him.  “Men,” he said to the group.  The men standing around him raised their cups, feeling a moment growing.  “Men,” Tuomo said again.  “Nay, serpents,” he said.  “Honor. Courage.  Loyalty” he cried.

Arachan looked into his lieutenant’s eyes, “Clear mind  Alert mind. Balanced mind” he yelled with the men in response to Tuomo.  As one, every man in the platoon emptied his cup.  With a large grin that was echoed on Tuomo’s face, Arachan tilted his head back and yelled “Serpents, serpents, serpents” with the rest.

The drumming priest began again, now joined by several others who had set aside their serving pitchers.  The remaining priest, including the woman in scarlet, began to dance around and between the fires.  Arachan felt the liqueur working its way into his blood.  His heart beat to the rythym of the drummers, his head bobbed in time.  The night around him began to fade as the rallying beat of the drums carried him on.  The sky, the grass, the food – all of it faded in his sight.  Even as the world lost importance, the faces of his brothers became sharper, more focused.  Arachan grasped arms with many of the men, smiling broad and sincere at each of them.

As the night wore on, the commeradie grew stronger between the men.  Arachan felt his fellows as extensions of himself.  The men were no longer speaking, no longer smiling.  Arachan saw his breath as a thick cloud leave his mouth in the chill air.  He flexed his hands, feeling the leather of his gloves stretch against the changing shape of his fist.  He longed to stretch his legs.  The men around him were restless, some cracking knuckles, some bouncing on the balls of their feet.  The music had stopped, and Arachan could not see any of the priests.  Only the embers of the fires remaining, hissing softly in the descending dew.  

In the absence of the music, the sound of metal against metal sounded, shrill and cold.  Arachan touched his thumb to his chin, and took off his helmet.  Kneeling to place it on the ground, he began to prepare himself for the fight ahead.  On one knee, he checked his boot, looping a leather thong around his calf.  He switched to kneel on his other knee to check his other boot.  In this position, he lengthened each leg to loosen the muscles.

With both knees on the ground, he felt each cuisse, felt the dense metal beneath the supple black leather.  His fingers traced the rough pattern of the snake on each, stopping at the point of the hilt of the sword at his waist.  He stood and bent deep at the waist, stretching his hamstrings.  With his head bowed, head ran his fingers over the steel scales sewn to his leather tunic.  He looked at the yellow and green paint on the interlocking scales, feeling the cold of the steel guarding his chest.  

He bent again at the waist to pick up his helmet. As he raised it to his head, he touched his chin with his thumb one last time and placed the steel cap on his head.  The nasal pushed him from the open plain into the familiar cage of focus that he felt during battle.  The black line it cast in his vision would fade as his mind forgot about the armor, and knew only of dealing rage.

Finally, he drew his sword from its scabbard.  In the dark of the night, it was a dull gray line pointing from his closed fist to the heavens.  He stared at the blade in silence for a moment, mutter the serpents creed to himself, “Honor.  Courage.  Loyalty.  Clear mind.  Alert mind.  Balanced mind.”  

Ready for what lay ahead, Arachan looked around him.  The rest of the platoon were in various stages of preparedness.  Some were kneeling in prayer to the Mother, some testing the edge of sword or axe. The heightened awareness from earlier remained in his mind, not diminished.  If anything, Arachan felt his focus sharpen.  He felt the serpents not as a group of individuals, but as a collective unit.  The were become a Serpent, ready to strike for their queen, ready to die for their Mother.

Without a word spoken, the men set off at a fast walk across the plain.  They made no sound as boots struck against the soft earth of the plain.  The darkness of the forest loomed before them, blending the feet of the western mountains with the flat grass of the plain.  With each mile, the darkness loomed larger, and the serpents moved faster.  As he approached, Arachan’s focus deepened.  He did not merely see the forest as a collection of trees, but rather he perceived each tree as a living thing.  The order of the forest, blazed out to him.  Tree sheltered moss, grass held stone.  He felt the animals, smelled their fear at his approach.  He also felt a deeper fear flowing from the forest.  There was a fear of something that did not belong, something that broke the natural order of the world.  A fierce anger rose within him.  His will was swallowed in a greater will to cleanse a blight on the world, on all that was.  The anger grew and boiled into an uncontrollable rage.  Arachan’s heart ached to destroy and cleave.  He heard himself growling, even as his fellow serpents growled.

The platoon spread into a wide line, where each man was only barely visible to his nearest neighbor.  Arachan felt them all, from Tuomo to his immediate left, to the last man on either end of the line.  He felt their anger echoing his own.  When they hit the tree line, then men began to spring into the darkness of the forest, a burning spray of hot, angry death.


White runner scene etude

Rain pattered in the dark outside the small building.  Islands of frightened humanity shone from the light of a handful of flickering candles.  The flames licked at the eyes of the children, and accentuated the dark circles under the eyes of their parents.  Dom handed the stub of a candle to his wife, and kissed his sleeping daughter on her head.  He looked at his wife and looked for words to pass comfort.  She was frightened – frightened for her husband, and her flock, but mostly for her children.  Dom could not think of the words to say.  He knew that if he tried, he would break and end with an awkward sob.

Instead he stood and began to make his way to the front of the church.  He navigated his steps, working hard not to wake the huddled forms in the dark.  The small children and their mothers had been moved into the smaller rooms at the back of the building.  It was quieter back here, and the children were more at home.

Dom passed the small cooking area.  He nodded at the casual guard installed to preserve their provision for as long as they could  At least until Joe arrived with more supplies.  As it was, there was not much more – even on tight rations.  Fifty people ate much more than he would have believed possible.  And, when people eat – well, the rooms set aside as latrines were overflowing already.  Someone had hung spare blankets across the entry in a poor attempt at blocking the odors.

A flash of light shone through the gap in the barricades set up against the windows in the front of the building.  Dom flinched as a peal of thunder followed the lightning.  Thunderstorms were rare in late winter, though this winter had been anything but usual.  The smell of ozone flowed into the building, and Dom pulled his collar closer to his neck against the chill.

 

As Dom made his way to the front of the church, he paused to take in the beauty of the scene before him.  Slumped against the door were the forms of a newly wed couple.  Matt had his arm around his bride, her head nestled against his chest.  She was asleep, breathing softly while her husband looked at her face in the dim light of a still candle flame.  He stroked her hair, examining each piece as if for the first time.  Dom noted the beauty of the scene.  Even here, in the midst of this tragedy and darkness, the Mother afforded peace to her children.  He murmured a small prayer of thanksgiving.

Matt looked up at Dom.  Their eyes met, small twinkling spaces in a vast darkness.  Before all of this, Dom and Matt had not been close.  Their paths had never really crossed in a significant way.  They had been acquaintances and nothing more.  But darkness has a way of uniting people.  Through the flames of their suffering, they had become brothers.

Joe had been gone for at least a day when the first had died.  The next was not long in coming.  Dom had stepped in – a reluctant leader in the absence of a true shepherd.  Matt was the first and strongest support for Dom that first day.  Their bond started there.  It had continued as duties rose to claim more and more of Dom’s attention.

For a second time, Dom was at a loss for words.  He looked to Matt, wishing for a way to thank him, to express gratitude.  More than that, Dom wanted to be comforted himself.  He was no leader, and was as frightened as the rest of the believers huddled against the fear.

Matt and Jaime leapt to their feet as a jolt rattled the barricade across the front door.  Dom took a step in front of the couple as the door rattled again.  A weak voice from the toerh side cried out,

“For the sake of the Mother, open the doors”.

Dom looked at Matt.  His pulse beat hard against his neck.  He stroked his beard, his breath fast.  Matt and Jaime stared at the door.  Jaime rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  She look as if she was trying to figure where she was, and what his noise was.  Dom wondered himself.

Matt grabbed a leg broken from one of the tables used in the barricade.  He brandished it as a club and took a step in front of Jaime and Dom.

The voice cried out again. “Please” it sobbed, “please, open the door.  Open the fucking door!”

Dom looked from the door to Matt again, but both Matt and Jaime were focusing their attention on the door.

“It’s Bren.  Let me in, damn it.  Let me in”

Now Matt looked at Dom.  Dom tasted the name Bren.  Somewhere in his mind that meant something.  The fear was so tight, so strong that Dom could not place the name.  He couldn’t think at all.   Another flash of lightning painted the scene with white hot confusion.  The thunder sounded outside as the person outside threw themselves against the door.  The door and barricade rocked from the impact.

Clarity pierced the fear and the darkness.  Dom leaped past Matt and reach for the door.  Matt grabbed his arm, restraining Dom at the last moment.

“No, Dom.  No.”  Matt said.

“It’s Bren.”  Dom said, “It’s Bren.  We’ve got to let him in.”

“What if he’s one of them?”  MAtt asked.

Dom’s stomach clenched in fear.  He swallowed hard.  His heart raced and his palms were clammy.  What if the rumors were true?

The door shook again with less force than before.  The voice outside was barely audible.

 

“Please,” it sobbed, “please let me in”

Dom moved to the door again, pushing Matt aside.  “We have to let him in”

“But,” MAtt began.

“Butt nothing,” Dom turned and looked into Matt’s eyes “The Mother will protect us.  We act in love, and the Mother will protect us.  There is no but”.

Matt’s eyes dropped down, his features lost in the darkness outside the reach of the candle.  Dom threw aside a brace and began to slide the door open.  A wet cold rain raced in through the gap as a dark form spilled onto the floor of the foyer.  The wet wind blew out the single candle and plunged them into darkness complete.

Matt and Jaime moved and slid the door shut again.  Jaime slid the brac into place as Matt piled furniture back against the door.

 

“Jaime, go light the candle again,” Dom said.  Jaime left as Dom crouched down to the man on the floor.  “Bren.  Bren, are you ok?  Where’s Joe?  Bren?”  Dom shook Bren’s shoulder.

“He’s gone.  They’re all gone.  Everyone.” Bren began.  Jaime returned with the candle.  Bren was staring into space, his mind far away.  His gaze flicked back to Dom, “Joe’s dead.  I killed him”  Bren turned his head away and sobbed.

Matt looked at Dom, the fear in his eyes contagious.  Dom saw Matt’s chest rise, saw the club raise.

“What do you mean you killed him?  Bren.  Bren, what happened out there?  What did you see?”  But Bren was gone again.  His eyes had glazed over.  He mumbled to himself.  Dom could not hear what he said.

Dom needed information.  Bren and Joe had left days ago.  The went to look for food, and to find out what was happening.  Joe was hoping to find help, and to give help – shepherd that he was.  Bren had gone along as muscle, and, Dom suspected, to avoid the aggravation of waiting in the silent dark.  Bren had a family – a wife and a daughter.  There were so many daughters in the church.

 

“Bren, your family needs you,” Dom said, keeping his tone pleading.  He spoke as he would speak to a child – gentle yet firm.  “Bren, come back to us”

Moments passed.  Bren blinked several times in the dim light of the candle. He licked his lips and turned to look at Dom as if he had decided something.

“They’re ok, my family?”  Bren began.  Dom nodded.  “They took Joe.” he continued “It’s dark how they do it.  I had to kill him.  It’s the only way to stop them.  Joe wanted me to do it.  Joe begged me to do it.  And I did it.  I killed him.  MOther help me, I held his hand as he went. “

“I was alone.  It’s dark out there.  They’re smart, smarter than we are.  They waited.  I think they enjoyed the hunt.  They pushed me where they wanted me to go.  I think they followed me”  Bren looked at Dom, tears in his eyes.  “I think they wanted me to come here.” He spoke in a whisper.  “They’re coming here”

 


White Runners _ 1

Joah crested another hill, his feet crunching the fallen leaves – dried husks of burgundy and gold.  There was a scent to the air here, Joah felt more than smelled it – a thick patch of must.  He paused atop the hill, panting to allow his old lungs to catch their breath.

To his left, at the bottom of a small gully, Joah saw a massive slab of rock.  The boulder was moist, caked with fresh brown soil.  Up the slope to the rear of the gully was cut a fresh track of destruction from the wake of the stone’s tumultuous descent to the valley floor.  The source of the trail was lost to a curve in the hills.

Joah made his way carefully down the slope to the monolith.  He tested each step with his staff.  The tempestuous summer had left many loose stones uncovered from tremor or flood.  Joah had no intention of adding his name to the list of those who had fallen to their death from misplaced trust in old paths.

As he approached, Joah found that the stone was far larger than it had appeared.  The oblong behemoth was roughly three times Joah’s height, and half as thick.  During the fall, one end of the massive white stone had cracked off, revealing a deep blue-black slate beneath.  The severed portion had landed flat side up just beyond the stone itself.  A ray of sunlight decorated the rough surface, immaculate as the altar of any village chapel.  The fractured blacked surface was like a rough sea, frozen mid-storm.

As if  compelled by the rays of sun, Joah turned his gaze to trace the path of the stone’s descent.  He was blinded by the early morning sun as it leapt from behind low clouds, bath the stone in a blaze of fire.   He fell to his knees in rapture at the base of the stone.  Surely this was a sign from God, this was the place to be prepared.

For a long time Joah remained kneeling reverently at the altar, lost in prayers of thanksgiving.  Finally, as he started to rise, his ancient knees failed him.  Joah shot out his hand reflexively to steady his fall.  His palm slid across the edge of the altar.  The flesh was shorn nearly to the bone on the razor edge of the flint.  Joah clutched the wounded hand to his chest, watching as the blood seeped into the white shell of the altar.  The blood that spilled onto the black face of the altar was lost, its deep color a perfect match for the dark luster of the cloven stone.  This was not a frozen sea, but rather a churning roil of frozen blood.

Joah pressed a broad plantain leaf to his wound and bound it clumsily with a rage from his pack.  Swooning, he turned back to the source of the ravine.  The sun had been masked again with cloud, and no longer dazzled the eye.  Now he could see that the rim of the surrounding hill had fallen.  A shear crown as tall as a man wound around the rim of the gully.  At the head of the scree pile gaped a deep blackness – a dark portal beneath the hills.

As carefully as he could, Joah picked his way through the loose dirt and small stone up to the cave entrance.  The long walk from the village, the spiritual discovery, and the loss of blood had taken a toll.  A wave of nausea overtook him, just shy of the cavern’s mouth.  The world spun in his eyes, and Joah collapsed, his wounded hand reaching out to the darkness.


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