The Swarming in the Dark II – The Outlander

Orsog of Ha-Rend towered over the other men in the prefect’s antechamber. They wore simple tunics, and the guards wore capes with scaled armor. Orsog’s feet were shod in the boots of a forester, his

Orsog of Ha-Rend towered over the other men in the prefect’s antechamber. They wore simple tunics, and the guards wore capes with scaled armor. Orsog’s feet were shod in the boots of a forester, his legs clad in breeches, his own rough tunic supplemented by a panther skin thrown over one shoulder. The short blade on his left hip was of Asentic make, but the woodsman’s axe on his right was as barbaric as his untamed black hair, and his flint-eyed gaze.

The servant was accustomed to fierce men in the legionary camp, but this Phoidoratos was something different. He had heard rumors of Bardas—that was what the Asentic legionnaires called him—and they were unlike any tale he knew of living men. Even the First Spear of the legion feared him.

“Why has your master called me?” Orsog asked. “I still had a half-day’s scouting before Lookout Hill. That gap is unguarded.”

“Your pardon, sir. I do not know.”

Orsog said nothing. He just looked at the man.

“Perhaps it has something to do with the woman who arrived last night.”

“Woman?”

“Yes, sir. She had ridden a horse to death, then sprinted hard through the night to reach us. She was half mad when the guards let her in.”

“A villager or a merchant girl?”

“I do not know, sir. I apologize.”

“No need,” Orsog rumbled. “And that’s more than enough ‘sirs.’ I’m an outlander, not a knight of the Basilon.”

“As you say, si—uh, pardon me. As you say.”

Orsog smiled ruefully and shook his head. He knew what the civilized folk saw when they looked at him. The panther skin made it worse, but that was dress regalia, and required for an audience with the prefect of a legionary fort.

The door opened, and a servant stood aside to let Orsog in. The prefect, a small man named Nikephoros, with the curling hair of true Asentic ethnicity, stood grimly over a table, a map spread across it. A door across the room closed as Orsog entered and saluted his employer. The prefect acknowledged the salute, and Orsog approached the table.

“Good evening, Bardas,” he said, using the barbarian’s Asentic name. “I trust things are well to the north?”

“Well enough. Volaki commoners are foraging at the forest’s edge. They’re well- armed, so the Boyer’s camp isn’t close enough for their comfort. The area should be watched, but there’s no immediate danger.”

“Good. Look here.” He gestured to the map. It showed the surrounding region, not as a precise representation of the local geography, but more like a rough diagram. It took a scout like Orsog to know the details, to count the miles between one landmark and another. Still, the broad strokes were useful enough—savannah for a few miles north of Harnea’s legionary fortress, then the rolling Volaki plains. To the northwest rose the ancient hills the Volaki claimed as an ancestral homeland, though their far side was covered in timber harvested by Harthulian merchants. To the east and south lay the more civilized parts of Harthulia, where Harnea’s river ran down to meet others, filled with barges carrying goods to and from the inner parts of the empire.

“This creek here,” the prefect said. “A woman claims her trade caravan was attacked there. Could the Volaki have reached it without our knowing?”

“No,” Orsog said. “It’s too far through the forest for a raiding party from the plains, unless the Boyer were camped right in the middle of our patrols. It could have come from the hills, but that’s Tampla country. The Volaki wouldn’t risk them by staging raids out of it.”

Nikephoros nodded. “That’s as I feared. The woman says they were not Volaki. She says they were not human.”

Orsog said nothing for a moment. Most in Harnea thought he was just another scout. Smart enough, in the cunning way of the outlander, but surely hired more for brawn than brain. Few outside of the upper echelons knew his true worth.

“Describe them to me,” Orsog said.

“Small, like children. Big heads. Green skin. Snake eyes. Claws for fingers.”

“What were the ears like?”

“She didn’t say anything about the ears.”

“Were the eyes big or small?”

“She said they were squinty.”

“I take it she’s well enough to describe the attack?”

The prefect shook his head. “I put her through that once today. It took courage for her to stomach even that. I won’t put her through it again.”

“Alright. Anything useful about their tactics?”

“There were many of them. They came fast, out of the darkness, and swarmed the guards. They were unarmed. She thinks that’s why she got away.”

“That, and a good horse,” Orsog said. He looked down at the creek on the map. He knew it, and knew the part of the hills it flowed out of by reputation. “They were Gwo Belin. I did not think there were any in these hills, but it seems I was wrong.”

Nikephoros smiled. “You, Bardas ? Wrong? We live in an age of marvels. You call them Gwo Belin? Is that the same as goblins?”

Orsog nodded. “That’s the Asentic word, though the stories back east are all wrong. Gwo Belin aren’t dumb animals, and they’re not easy to kill. Not together, anyways, and they’re always together.”

“They’re not animals and not men. Are they spirits?”

“No. They were once men. They sold their humanity and their freedom for secret knowledge, and for the chance to feed a certain hunger. I would explain, but their hellish desires are not to be spoken of before the uninitiated.”

“I understand. What do we do?”

“Kill them. It’s not easy, but it’s the solution. Find their camp, attack it in the day, when they’re all asleep or lethargic, and kill as many as you can. Retreat, if necessary, and come back and do it again.”

Nikephoros grunted, the lines around his eyes bunching in a skeptical squint.

“That’s it? Kill them? No magic, no words of power, no rituals?”

Orsog shrugged. “None I know of. Besides, steel well applied is its own kind of magic.”

The prefect stood straight. “Very well. Take as many men as you need. Phoidorates or legionnaires, whoever you like. Go work your magic. You have the authority of the Empire behind you.”

The big outlander grinned broadly, looking down at the map once more. It was time for a goblin hunt.

To Be Continued…

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