Clouds Over Cogham: Part Four
“So you’re off to Cogham then?”
Squire Tormund redirects his disdainful glare to the old Lupe knight who has just appeared beside him, though the fury is obviously misplaced. For a few seconds before responding, he looks back down the castle hallway towards the dining room where the lazy Sir Harlag sits feasting, and the squire gives a frustrated grunt. “Not until Sir Stuffs-His-Face is done with his food,” he grumbles, still overwhelmingly frustrated that the green Grarrl knight told him that saving Cogham from the Ixi Raiders could wait.
The old knight’s royal gaze turns scolding. He crosses his arms authoritatively. “Remember your manners, squire,” he says sternly.
Tor’s face immediately falls into a flat sort of apology as he meets eyes with the knight. He should mind his manners, and he knows that. He’s just so frustrated that Sir Harlag apparently wants to leave Cogham to its demise... “I’m sorry,” Tor says, looking back to the dining room once more. “It’s just... people are suffering, and he wants to do nothing!” The ice begins to return to Tor’s glare as, even from this great distance, he hears Sir Harlag call out grossly for another serving of meat. He forces himself to ignore it and instead looks back to the old knight.
The white Lupe still has that royal, authoritative look on his face. “Well, what would you do if you heard your farm was being attacked?” he asks.
Tormund looks to his feet as he silently ponders the question, though he honestly already knows the answer. He kicks the marble floors lightly, his armour making a soft rapping noise against the old, worn stones. “I’d go out and help them immediately,” he says shyly.
The old knight cocks an eyebrow. “Then what’s stopping you here?”
Tor opens his mouth to speak, but then shuts it again. “I... well...”
“What does your heart tell you?” the old knight asks, his rich baritone filling the halls with an almost kingly sense strength and honour.
Tor considers the knight’s words for a few long seconds. It’s true, he’s just a squire; and, it’s true, he’s afraid he’s still not strong enough to help; but, maybe... “Hmm... Master Torak never said we had to leave at the same time...” he muses under his breath, grasping at the loophole that’s just presented itself. It wouldn’t necessarily be defying orders, he realises...
And the old knight’s gaze turns radiant with an almost fatherly sense of pride. “Good.”
IV: Dance with Fire
“Mer, you’ve been called out to assist us on another raid.”
This time, Mer is so surprised by the sound of Ajani’s voice that he actually shouts a bit into his flute, making an obnoxiously loud squeaking sound. Then, “I have?!”
Normally, Ajani would laugh at the sight of the flustered sorcerer trying to scramble to his feet, but the warrior’s headache still hasn’t gone away — and is getting worse, honestly — so, right now, the sound of Mer’s clumsy hooves skidding across the ground and his excited shouting is nothing but a cringeworthy pain.
Ajani flinches at the force of Mer’s volume and the shrillness in his bass — a bass that so desperately wants to be a soprano in this moment. His ears press back as he rubs his temples with his middle and index fingers. “Um...” He shakes his head lightly and forces his eyes to flutter open. He hardly even realised that he’d clenched them shut. “Yes, but...” He grunts. “Please keep your voice down...”
Mer is forced to inhale his excitement when he sees the intense pain painting Ajani’s expression. The spearman hardly ever looks anything short of infallibly powerful, so his almost-cowering in agony makes Mer’s chest ache in worry. The sorcerer covers his mouth with his hands and groans into his palms to try to get all of his screaming and squee-ing out of the way so that he doesn’t bother Ajani anymore. Then, when he manages to drain a decent amount of energy, he asks, “Two raids two days in a row?” at a reasonable volume.
For an abnormally long while, Ajani doesn’t move — simply applies some gentle pressure to his temples and focuses on trying to ignore the ache between them. Then, he looks up, still cringing slightly, and nods slowly. “Bit peculiar, I know, but... boss’ orders,” he says softly. “I’d led a small band of spearmen down to the village about a half hour ago, but have just received orders to fetch you and several of the archers to come assist us. We just need to... uh...” His voice trails off for a second as one exceptionally strong throb of sharp pressure hits behind his eyes. He pauses, then tries to massage away his headache again. “Just... meet them,” he concludes awkwardly when the pain doesn’t quell.
Mer’s worry suddenly replaces every ounce of his happiness at the sound of Ajani’s weak voice and the sight of his wincing in pain. He almost doesn’t hear Ajani’s response at all, deafened by his concern for his friend’s wellbeing. “Are you okay, sir?” he asks softly, taking a few hushed steps forward, letting his hooves fall slowly and softly so as to not make too much noise.
Ajani lets out a long sigh, frustrated that he’s completely unable to hide the fact that he’s hurting — he hates looking weak... He shakes his head slowly once more, as if hoping the motion will cause his migraine to come loose and fall away. As strange as it sounds, it truly does feel like it’s an outside force that’s crushing him rather than something on the inside... “I just... have had a pretty bad headache for the past couple of days,” he eventually says, deciding that it’s probably best to be honest. There’s really no use in hiding it. Attempting to would only make him look more pathetic, he figures. “Speaking of, Meretseger, do you have anything I could take for this while Onika is busy?” He taps his left temple with two strong fingers as he says this.
Mer nods frantically at the request, then turns quickly and begins to run around the room, still taking care to let his hooves fall gently. “I have cooling ointment somewhere,” he says as he begins to rifle through chests and drawers. “Umm... one sec...”
But he doesn’t get much time to search before one of the higher-ranking spearwomen — a young Christmas Ixi named Sabir — appears in the doorway to his hut, giving a few short taps of her knuckles against the wall before saying, “You should be leaving now,” in an incredibly authoritative tone.
Mer looks up towards her with a bit of a start, dropping the (thankfully not fragile) items in his hands out of shock. He looks over to Ajani worriedly — he knows full well that Ajani can’t stand being spoken to impudently by underlings... The Ixi warrior spins around to glare at the young spearwoman, the pain that comes with the too-quick motion only heightening his anger. “Excuse me?” His tone is a threat.
Strangely enough, despite the honestly terrifying fury in Ajani’s jade eyes, Sabir simply sighs at the sound of his words, looking much less worried than she probably should. “Sorry, sir,” she says earnestly, “but I was told by the boss to say exactly that.”
She definitely sounds genuine, but Ajani — and Mer as well — finds it incredibly difficult to believe that the chief would make such a strange request. As grumpy as he can be most of the time, he’s usually pretty lenient with those in the royal circle; especially Ajani, seeing as he is second-in-command...
Mer can clearly see in Ajani’s now-narrowed eyes that he isn’t the least bit happy with Sabir’s answer. The sorcerer cringes, worried about what Ajani will say — or do — to her, then quickly — now a bit frantically — continues to search for the ointment for Ajani’s headache.
Ajani takes a few slow, intimidating steps towards Sabir, and she immediately straightens her posture respectfully, though still doesn’t back away. “Why in Darigan’s name would he tell you to fetch me if he had just sent me here himself?” he asks her aggressively.
Sabir looks completely confident in herself and her explanations, though also a bit frustrated that she has to relay the strange messages herself, and face Ajani’s fury for words that aren’t even her own. She sighs. “He said something about you and Mer always taking your ‘sweet time’ ” — she mimics the chief’s gruff tenor as she says this — “and that you two would probably need some ‘encouragement.’ ”
Mer cringes harder at the sound of the spearwoman’s words. Speaking that way to Ajani — whether paraphrasing someone else or not — is never a good idea...
And it’s not. Ajani is practically growling at her now. “And did he also instruct you to speak down to me?” he questions in a horribly sarcastic tone, though also still incredibly menacingly. He quickens his stomping steps, then stops a few feet in front of her, pawing angrily at the ground. “You had better not be lying to me, Sabir Uba...”
Mer’s cringing is so aggressive at this point that he worries the expression might become permanent. Getting called by your full name by one of the tribe’s leaders is a horrible omen of punishment...
But Sabir still seems sanguine, even though she is now very obviously the target of all of Ajani’s frustration. Thankfully, her lack of withdrawal in the face of Ajani’s crushing glare makes her look less guilty rather than more insolent. She sighs again. “I’m... I apologise, sir,” she replies calmly, her voice sounding only the smallest bit more sheepish. “I’m really not sure why he gave me that command, but he did. He just said to tell you and Mer to ‘be more professional’ ” — she mimics the chief’s voice again — “and to not be lenient with you guys about it or else there would be ‘consequences for all parties.’ ”
The only thing keeping Ajani from completely snapping at her in this moment is Mer cheerily — albeit forcibly so — calling out a singsong, “Found it!” from somewhere on the far end of the room.
Mer’s forever-optimistic bass cutting through the tension in the air seems to knock Ajani off of a rather violent thought train. His gaze softens immediately and he takes a few steps back. Sabir, brave as ever, simply waits to be addressed with her fingers laced behind her back and her posture as proud as can be.
Ajani then hears the all-too-familiar sound of Mer’s hoof slipping on something-or-other and his clumsily falling to his knees as he tries to make it across the room too fast, and that combined with Sabir’s gentle giggling helps clear the rest of the violent thoughts from the warrior’s mind. He sighs long, rubbing his head once more, suddenly feeling incredibly guilty. “My apologies, Abby,” he says to the young girl, using her nickname to try to loosen the aggression’s lingering chokehold. “I should not have behaved threatening towards you.”
Sabir looks more worried now than she did when he was being hostile. Ajani looking sheepish is far more foreign and disconcerting than him looking furious. “It’s... fine, sir,” she says softly. “I, uh... I thought the order was strange, too.”
And a silence then falls over them all.
Well, silence, except for the sound of Mer’s gawkily trotting about the room as he prepares Ajani’s medicine.
Eventually, Mer finishes whatever-the-heck it is that he’s doing, then quickly makes his way to Ajani’s side, carrying a rag soaked in cooling ointment and a variety of other strange, pleasant-smelling magical ingredients. “This should help at least a little,” he says, tapping Ajani gently on the shoulder to grab his attention. “Just look here, please.”
Ajani sighs frustratedly, then turns to let Mer rub the fragrant medicine across his forehead. “Abby, run quickly and tell the boss that we are on our way,” he says, cringing a bit at the awkward tingling of foreign magic against his skin. “If he gets angry at you for not having us in tow, let me know immediately, and I will speak to him and say that you were simply following my orders. Alright?”
Sabir gives a short salute. “Yes, sir,” she says, then turns and leaves at a brisk trot.
Mer pauses in his motions to watch her shadow disappear out of eyeshot, then turns back to continue tending to Ajani, frowning a bit as he continues applying the medicine. “The boss has been acting pretty weird lately, don’t you think?” he asks as he begins to channel a soothing spell of calming earth magic to try to help ease Ajani’s headache faster.
Unfortunately for Ajani, the medicine is only half-helping — or, at best, is helping incredibly slowly — which honestly only worries him further. Mer’s magical cures for anything and everything have never failed the tribe before. He’s no doubt one of the best apothecaries and potions makers in the land. There must be something different about this headache... Something foreboding... But he forces himself to ignore the thought. No use in getting himself worked up over something that is probably nothing... right? “He truly has,” Ajani mumbles in response as Mer brushes some of his dark, overgrown hair aside to apply the cure to his throbbing temples. “It’s... probably just the stress from these storms that keep happening getting the best of him, wouldn’t you think?” Ajani asks.
Mer’s more than a bit confused by the fact that Ajani is asking for his opinion on something so serious. The effervescent sorcerer isn’t known for be the smartest Ixi alive when it comes to not-potion-related things, after all. “Um... I guess that would make sense,” he says quietly, not sure how to respond.
Honestly, Ajani was only asking Mer for his opinion in the hopes of having his theory agreed with. Hearing someone else say that they think the chief’s oddness is being caused by simple weather-related stress rather than something strange and unknown would definitely help him feel better — that’s for sure. When the sorcerer’s response comes out sounding so reserved, Ajani decides to pretend that it was more confident than it was rather than question the situation further. He sighs again. “Well... let’s hope.”
Mer still doesn’t know what to say, nor does he really want to talk about this further.
So, for a few more seconds, there’s nothing but awkward silence.
After just a few more sluggish seconds pass, Mer ceases his spellcasting, gives a halfhearted smile, brushes his fingers across Ajani’s forehead one last time, then fixes the warrior’s hair back into the same floofy mess it was beforehand. “Better?” he asks.
Ajani runs his fingers through his now incredibly tangled locks. Not really... “Yes, thank you,” he lies, then sighs for a third time before Mer has a chance to see in his eyes that his head is still throbbing. “We’d best not keep the boss waiting,” Ajani then says, his words rushed and his tone dark as he heads towards the door, fiddling agitatedly with the feathers in his hair. “Get your things, Meretseger. I’ll round up the others.”
Mer is glad that he kept all of his gear from the previous day’s raid in a somewhat-organised pile beside his Carma’s tank. He quickly trots over to the table, grabs his things, then whispers a soft, “Wish us luck,” to the lazy Miss Emmy before turning to leave.
The Maraquan Carma doesn’t say anything.
The skies seem to grow somehow darker between the time when the small band of Raiders leave their camp and when they arrive at the cliffs above Cogham once more. It’s odd, though, for the sun has moved practically none, and there are absolutely no clouds obscuring its rays. Yet despite all that, it still just seems... darker...
But none of the Ixis pay much mind to it. Try not to, at least. They’re probably just imagining it.
Collectively imagining it.
As Mer, Ajani, and the group of four archers they were instructed to gather approach the rocky ledge that frames and overlooks Cogham, they can already hear some screams and shouts from the town below filling the valley — the sounds of the spearmen Ajani had led into the village earlier just having a little fun with the panicky villagers. As the six Ixis come into eyeshot of the rocky ledge framing the town, they can see the chief and Ashanti calmly overlooking the pseudo-destruction below, but all else is calm on the cliffs above Cogham.
Mer can’t help but giggle a bit at the sounds of frenzied running and flailing as he and the other five newcomers approach the chief and Ashanti. He knows that none of the villagers are actually being hurt — just spooked horribly — and he’s always been one for practical jokes, so he finds the whole scenario delightfully amusing. He just wishes he could be down there running around with the others. He can’t wait to receive his orders and go have some fun.
Ajani and the small troupe speed up pace as they approach, rushing to the chief’s side and giving him quick salutes. “Awaiting orders, Boss,” Ajani says, his voice strong and respectful, hoping that the chief isn’t too upset about their not following closely behind Sabir.
The chief hardly seems to care about their tardiness — or even notice, really. He wordlessly continues to scrutinise the village below — overly pensive, it seems — then, with the feint of a smile slithering its way across his cheeks, he slowly begins to draw his bow. The fact of the motion in of itself is strange, honestly, considering he’s not very fond of archery, and everyone knows this. Still, the others just watch in a curious silence as the chief nocks an arrow, then begins to study the town below once more, seeming to be searching for a target, or something. “Thank you, Ajani,” the chief says, an odd colour painting his voice, still never shifting his gaze away from the valley. “You may go and rejoin the others now,” he continues. “Feel free to loot whatever you want, but be sure to keep searching for that cloak. Oh, and one more thing...” The chief raises his bow and paws at the ground threateningly, then gives a low, malevolent chuckle. “Instruct the others to usher the villagers into their homes, then keep them there. Make that your troupe’s priority. Understood?”
Ajani still has no idea why the chief has developed such a sudden interest in the lost Cloak of Heroes, as well as what good could possibly come of trapping the villagers, but... “Yes, Boss,” he says without asking any questions, then off he charges into the town, his spear held strong and his hoofsteps thundering.
As Ajani darts his way around the valley, speaking to each of the spearmen and giving them their new orders, the chief turns and addresses the rest of the group — though still keeps his gaze turned downwards. “Archers, on my call, I want you to join Ajani and the others in the village,” he says. “Flank the perimeter.”
Mer cocks an eyebrow at the sound of the odd command — the archers usually aren’t sent into the town directly — then turns to Ashanti, hoping for some semblance of clarification. She looks over to the sorcerer, her face stoic as ever, then gives the faintest hint of pursing her lips — Ashanti talk for, “I don’t know what he means either.” Still, she looks around to all of the other archers, giving them a wordless command with her gaze, and they all nod in agreeance.
The chief continues. “Ashanti, Meretseger, and you, Sisay,” — he addresses a youthful-looking skunk Ixi who is the highest-ranking archer in the group of grunts — “you three stay with me.”
Ashanti turns to Mer first this time, already knowing what he’s probably thinking. She gives him a look that reads, “Just do what he says. I’m sure he has a reason for all this oddness,” then turns her attention back to the chief.
After only a few more seconds spent examining the state of the once-peaceful valley below, the chief gives a quick wave of his hand. “Archers, go,” and they all oblige immediately, charging at full-speed into the village.
The chief begins to toy with the tip of his still-nocked arrow while the three remaining archers wait for further instructions, calmly watching as the archers try to learn on-the-spot how to deal with hand-to-hand combat. Mer feels like it should be amusing how the archers are struggling to stay on their feet and keep the villagers where they want them — as if they were trying to herd a flock of skittish Miamice — but the whole situation is just too confusing to be comical. He makes a frustrated face.
Finally, after far too long spent doing and saying absolutely nothing, the chief speaks up once more. “Alright. You three, aim for the houses,” he says to the others who still stand beside him, his voice sounding unnaturally malevolent.
There’s a brief moment of silence, then Sisay asks the question that Ashanti’s eyes read. “Boss, wouldn’t that just, you know... waste arrows?” he asks, simply stating the question bluntly, not sure how to phrase it in a more polite way.
Luckily, the chief doesn’t seem at all offended by the rather sarcastic-sounding wording of the question. It just gives him the opportunity to chuckle cruelly once more. “On a typical day, yes, Sisay,” he says, finally deciding on a target, then giving a slight nod of his head to himself. “A normal, weak old arrow striking a roof does nothing but break. But, well... today is different...”
He pulls exactly eleven arrows from his quiver, then passes them out to the three archers — five to Ashanti, and three each to Mer and Sisay. The obsidian arrowheads are sparkling delicately with a reddish, magical dust — the conflagration powder Mer had been instructed to create the previous evening. “These arrows are... special,” the chief says calmly as the archers begin to nock their first arrows. “Make sure each shot counts. There are twelve arrows total — one for each of these ramshackle little homes.”
At first, the three archers are solely confused, refusing to believe that the chief is implying what it sounds like he’s implying... but the confusion quickly metamorphoses into mortified shock as the chief snaps his fingers, summoning a small but aggressive flame that none of them knew he had the power to channel, then alights the tip of his arrow. Their fear is only intensified when he pulls the bowstring back, takes quick and careful aim, then says an unsettlingly nonchalant, “Today, my friends, we burn this horrible place down,” and lets the arrow fly.
Mer gasps in horror as he watches the arrow strike the roof of the blacksmith’s home, and it alights in a bright, half-magical fire. A reddish-black plume of smoke begins to billow up into the air. Ajani and a handful of the other spearmen who were nearby when the fire started immediately cease their running about and look up towards the cliffs with overly worried eyes, mouths agape.
The chief only looks frustrated at the sight of his warriors’ confusion. “What are you doing?! Keep moving!” he commands sternly from the mountaintops.
All the spearmen and archers in the valley look desperately to Ajani, wordlessly asking him if that is truly what they should be doing. They all feel like they shouldn’t be following this order. They know that they shouldn’t be following this order. Honestly, even Ajani seems hesitant...
But then the chief’s voice bellows loudly from above again. “Now!”
Ajani gives the warriors a quick — albeit still doubtful — nod, then continues on with the destruction.
Mer is absolutely horrified.
And the cruel laugh that comes from the chief following the violent display doesn’t help ease the terror. He reaches over to the arrow that Ashanti has nocked on her bow, alights its tip with another magical flame, then turns and casually begins to walk away. “Continue where I left off,” he says over his shoulder as he begins to head back down the path towards their camp, giving an impassive wave of his hand. “Like I said, twelve arrows, twelve houses.”
Nobody has the time to object before he’s gone.
Mer half-considers chasing after the chief and begging him for an explanation — or for a different command — as he sees Ashanti alight the other arrows with crestfallen eyes. She and Sisay both are just simply following their orders. They don’t question the chief. Why would they? He’s the boss, after all...
With each snap of another arrow shot, the terrified shouts from the village below begin to intensify, until the cacophonic symphony of terror rivals the clamour of the Battle for Meridell. Mer turns to look back into the valley, and the sight of the destruction below completely crushes his heart. It’s absolutely horrifying. It completely devastates him. His stomach is a churning mess of sickness and fear.
Then, an almost completely foreign-sounding voice comes from his right. “This is wrong...”
Mer tears his attention away from the village and spins around quickly to look towards the sound.
Ashanti sighs as she nocks the last of her arrows. Mer didn’t even realise that she and Sisay had alighted the better half of the village while he was absentmindedly staring. “We should not be doing this,” Ashanti mumbles in her deep, raspy contralto. “This is not right...”
Sisay pauses before firing off his last shot, looking over at his commander with worried blue eyes. “Should... should we stop?” he asks, his voice quivering just as much as Mer’s knees are.
Ashanti looks to Sisay, then slowly over to Mer.
There’s a long, long silence.
Then, Ashanti pulls back on her bowstring. “No,” she says darkly. “Orders.” Then she lets the arrow fly.
Mer can feel a burning pressure begin to build behind his black and hazel eyes. “Ashanti...”
The very second that her last arrow is loosed, Ashanti tears all of her attention away from the village, turning to face the teary-eyed sorcerer, refusing to acknowledge the destruction that she’s just caused. There’s a darkness in her eyes that seems almost funereal. It’s a gaze that reads, “Just get it over with.”
And as much as Mer doesn’t want to do it... Ashanti is right. Boss’ orders. He doesn’t have a choice. Following commands is just... part of his job...
Mer takes the deepest breath that his aching lungs can handle, slowly takes aim, closes his eyes, pulls the bowstring back...
Then a young Lupe squire enters Cogham with his sword and shield held strong.
To be continued…