Bit of Soul, part One

I keep reminding myself that my name is Emma and I’m from Sioux City, Iowa. I’m Emma. Emma Jonson. The biggest problem in my life so far has been getting people to spell my last name correctly. I’m Emma. I’m Emma.

“Gulud, get up you lazy barbarian!” I’m subject to vigorous shaking like he’s trying to get me out of a ketchup bottle and not the bedroll I’m currently using to keep my enormous form warm.

I growl. The sound echoes in the cave and I wake myself up in fright. I know it’s my voice, but it sounds truly frightening. Back home when my mother or sister would wake me up, I’d growl and it sounded about as frightening as a squirrel. Now, I could make a wolf herd pause. And wake my own self up. I just hope I don’t snore. Scratch that. I hope I do snore. Loudly and Proudly.

“That’s it, you’ve got it now.” I look at the annoying voice, but the bard just ignores my glare. I roll up my bedroll as he makes himself busy cooking. He’s not good at it, but none of us are cooks. There’s five of us in total, a good size for an adventuring group. They’re all stretching or getting ready for breakfast. Arandri is still keeping watch. She’s got her goshawk to warn her about danger, but she’s always got to feel useful.

The bard is warming last night’s soup and some biscuits. Noll is eyeing the biscuits. I grunt grumpily at him and he shrugs up at me as if to say, what do you expect? I’m a rogue. I pull my bowl and spoon from my kit and wait patiently. I’m joined a moment later by Stanley.

“Good morning, Gulud.” He’s not as cheerful and therefore not as annoying as the bard. I can’t help but mentally correct him, though. Emma, I think. I’m Emma. It comes out as a grunt. He nods his head and takes a seat near me. I sigh. What’s the point? I can’t break character.

“Soup’s ready!” shouts the bard. He has a name, I know, but he’s too annoying for me to care. And that isn’t like me. Emma, who knew everyone’s name and always made a point to sit with a different person every few days. But the bard is just too happy for me to like him right now. I guess I’m turning into a petty jerk, but I don’t care.

Arandri came back and we had soup. I ate a lot more than anyone else in the group, but I’d be the focus of enemy attacks and bulk and strength need fueling. I smiled to think of how shocked my mother would be at the ungraceful slurping noises I made as I tried not to dribble down my tusks. The smile must have been quite shocking, too. Gary looked a little startled.

“You like the soup?” He looked at me a little too smugly. I glare in response and burp as rudely as I can.

Stanley clears his throat. “So, what’s on the docket for today?” They all look at Arandri expectantly.

She takes a last spoonful of soup then smiled. “We should make it to the River Haran around midday. We’ll stop at the falls to refill our water skins, then follow the river as far as we can get. We might get to the Piers city before nightfall, but if not, we’ll have to find a village near the city to sleep. Piers closes its gates at sunset. The city and the river attract monsters at night. Tomorrow, we’ll see how much they’ll pay for monster slaying and then we either earn some gold or move onto the next city further south. All these southern lands are infested with different kinds of monsters.”

“I’ve heard about Piers. They’re known for exporting magicians, right? Something about a founder of the city having tons of babies?” That was the bard.

“I believe it was founded by a famous magician, yes. But I’m not sure about tons of babies…” Arandri looked annoyed.

“I have it now! There’s a story they made up about how many kids he had and how everyone in the city by now is descended from him…

“Our Fathers, Piers and Tonius, came from afar,/Princes of fire and of light, mages without par,”

I leave. At the front of the cave, I stand and look for Arandri’s goshawk. She was perched in a nearby treetop. She gave a friendly chirp when we locked eyes. I smirked. She was a lovely bird.

In the back, I heard echoes of the bard’s song. He was describing the death of the noble Tonius as Piers held him in his arms. I rolled my eyes. Tuning him out, I studied the landscape. We were in the middle of a forrested area. I had never seen so many trees in one place. I had visited national parks and they were always culled so that there weren’t so many trees together. This place looked like it was infested with trees. They were thick and bushy.

I knew we would travel north. The sun was peaking out a little to my right, so I knew we would be heading to my left. I couldn’t quite make out the river, but I knew instinctively that the break in the trees I could make out was the river we were to find. I saw the landscape and mapped out in my head the route we would take. We would skirt the hills to avoid the most dangerous of the monsters, then we’d follow the river, taking care to avoid the deep forest and cautious of the caves littering these rocky hills. We’d been lucky to find this one unoccupied.

Just one thing continued to niggle at my brain. How had I read the signs that this cave was abandoned? We had arrived and Arandri had declared the cave safe from beasts, but I had just looked at it and had agreed. How would I know that? My parents had dragged me camping and hiking with them several times, but I never got a feel for it. And I certainly was no tracker or hunter. But somehow, just looking over the landscape, I understood what I saw in a way I’d never experienced.

Just northeast of our location was a danger spot. The birds avoided it. I saw signs on the edge of the forest of wild game, scratches on posts that indicated young bucks roamed the area. I smelled the air and knew that this cave hadn’t been used in quite a while. I looked at the goshawk and knew that she was content and full from a breakfast she had hunted. I knew she ate small birds, mammals, and even some reptiles or insects. From her smug look, I figured she had caught a bird. How did I know that? How did I even know the people in my team?

I heard the cries of distress right before a flock of various birds flew out of the trees about two miles from our position. Several things happened at once. Any existential questions I had were gone. I suddenly had my axe in hand. Aisling cried out, the bard quit singing, and my team from inside ran to join me at the front of the cave. I pointed to the place where the birds had fled.

“I heard a human scream and saw birds fly away.”

“Aisling, scout what we’re facing. Tell us when we’re close!” Arandri shouted as we started our descent into the woods.

As we drew closer, we heard desperate scrambling and hard footfalls. Aisling flew at us with a warning screech.

“V formation!” Stanley shouted. I made the point with the bard and Noll forming the tips. We have our weapons at the ready as we wait for whatever is making the loud sounds to appear.

“Boars!” Arandri shouts. I groan. Boars are tough and none of us have pikes. “Space out! We’ll need room to dodge charges.”

We immediately do so. Two humans burst from the undergrowth, running for their lives. “Help!” One of them gasps as he races behind us. The other, a younger man, collapses behind the first gasping for air. “Six boars. Two big ones. We were gathering from our traps when they attacked. Please! They’re right behind us!”

“We’ll protect you,” said the knight grimly.

“Pull your weapons,” the bard said. “Get up and help us.”

The old man picked the young man up. “Now’s not the time to give up, son.” He readied his bow and positioned himself for a clear line of sight.

The young man pulled out his hunting knife. It would do nothing against a boar.

“Stay behind us. Avoid their tusks at all costs. Boars are single-minded and will change direction on their charge if they can. Swerve at the last minute if you can and lead them to one of us. We’ll get their attention.” I swing my greataxe for effect.

“We will rely on you, Gulud. You are our heavy-hitter. We believe in you. We trust you. You will keep us safe.” Confidence flowed through me as I listened to the bard’s words. He was right. I’m the barbarian. I distract the enemy, I destroy the enemy, and I defend my team. Nothing and no one can stop me. I am the strongest and no monster, no beast, no enemy would dare hurt my friends. Strength flowed through me and I saw the flash of the bear spirit surround me. I roared my warcry just as six boars rushed out from the trees and bushes and into view. Their squeals turned from anger to concern as they heard my cry. I was the biggest, baddest, and the loudest. The four smaller ones hesitated, but the biggest one squealed and charged right at me.

Chaos erupted as the others charged forward behind the boss. I waited until the boar was in range, then I brought my axe down on its head. My attack bloodied up its face and brought its motion to a stop. Using the swing’s momentum, I swung again at the same spot. The blow opened a gash on its head and took one of its eyes. It rallied with an attempt to gore me on its tusks. HOW DARE THIS PIG DRAW MY BLOOD?? I swing again and again, once at its bloodied head and I break through its skull. Another swing at its neck and it looked ready to fall over.

At the same time, around me, I saw my teammates attacking and being attacked. Stanley was using his rapier to slice through the boar’s thick hide and drawing it away from the hapless human hunters. He swirled around slicing and distracting two of the boars as the old man shot arrows. Arandri was doing the same thing, but her boars looked worst off. Noll and the bard had teamed up on the other big boar. The bard shouted insults and sliced with his shortsword as Noll sliced up the boar like sausage, staying safe as the bard confused and distracted the beast.

I started to swing again when the young man behind me jumped in the way with his hunting knife. He swung at my boar’s throat. I resisted the urge to strike the youth in frustration. He stole my kill. Who did he think he was??

I heard a shout, however, and saw a boar charge the old man. Raising my axe, I charged the boar now hounding Stanley. As soon as my axe hit the boar’s side, Stanley was charging to the old man’s defense. The boar’s side starting bleeding and I swung again, this time at its neck. It made a dent in its hide, but didn’t draw blood. It turned to gore me, but it misses. I swing again, slicing through bone and hide, and I use the momentum to swing again. Its guts fall on the ground and it gives a strangled squeal.

It gives a last attempt to gore me, but fails to pierce my skin. While it is engaged with me, the youth sweeps in again! He shoves his knife in the boar’s open side, aiming for its heart. The boar squeals helplessly. Around me, boars are giving squealing as death descends. As the youth retreats, I swing my axe down one last time. I crush its side and it goes down with a thump.

Arandri finishes off her last boar a second later. Around us lie six boars, all dead. Aisling screeches in triumph and I grip my axe tightly, willing the rage to abate. It does some seconds later. Sensations flood back into my body. I feel the wound on my thigh and see that the boar’s tusk had done some damage and I was still bleeding. I clean my axe and ask Arandri for healing for the wound.

“These tusks must be sharp if they pierced your thick hide,” she teased.

“It’s just a scratch,” I said. Internally, I laughed at myself. Since when was I the Clint Eastwood-esque tough guy? It must be part of being a barbarian. It turns you into Conan.

The humans came out alive. Stanley had attacked the boar before it could corner the old man. Stanley had also been wounded, but the bard was fixing him up. No one else had received more than scratches. The hunters introduce themselves as Pashti and Tamris. They are a father-son hunting team they explain. They are very grateful for our help and offer to cut us into the sales.

“How did you annoy the boars?” Arandri asked.

“My foolish son,” the old man, Pashti, said, “thought they would be easy to hunt. I sent him off to gather from our traps and he decided to hunt instead. He brought one down with his spear, but didn’t realize there were so many more around and was nearly surrounded by the time he started to run. His spear was stuck in the downed boar and he ran as quickly as he could. I heard the danger and shot some arrows to distract them as we ran for our lives.”

“Very foolish,” she said, glaring at the youth. He flushed bright red.

“I’m very sorry.” He bowed his head in shame. “So very sorry.”

The bard grinned. “We were all young once,” he said. “We have all been fools and nearly died. You are forgiven,” he said, “but remember that your foolishness could have killed you and your father. Let this story be a learning tale. In the future, when greed and pride lead you to-”

Pompous bards, I thought. “You were stupid,” I said. “Don’t do it again.”

The bard didn’t like being interrupted, but I didn’t care. The youth apologized again and pledged to the world and the moon and every god he could name that he would remember and never repeat such foolishness again. He had the makings of another annoying bard, I thought.

“And kid?” I said, waiting for him to look at me. “Don’t steal a barbarian’s kill when he’s enraged. Good way to get yourself killed.” I made a show of cleaning my axe. He paled.

We gathered the bodies and the hunters went to work on the corpses. We helped dig a pit for the blood and we drained them. Bits of meat were discarded as crushed or unsalvageable. I refused to feel guilty as my second boar was discarded. The hunters had produced their hunting cart and it was loaded with the carcasses. They also field dressed the boar Tamris had killed and added it to the pile.

As they worked and we assisted the best we could, we asked them where they were from.

“Tonran,” Pashti replied. “It was named after the great Tonius, co-founder of Piers. We are the furthest village from Piers known for our hunting prowess. Tamris and I are two of the distance hunters. We set traps and scout for targets for our hunting parties.”

“We came this way because we heard reports of monster attacks. Have you two seen anything?”

Tamris shook his head. “We don’t go anywhere near the river. See, the first thing that happened was the fish died out. Shortly after, word got out of a missing fisher. Three fishers disappeared in as many months and suddenly there wasn’t anyone willing to fish or even to cross the river by boat. A few weeks ago, a family disappeared. Their friends said they were going to travel along the river to visit the woman’s mother who lived a few miles downriver. They never arrived. People are afraid that a monster came and has been slowly growing. And now they say it walks on land.”

We process this. A water monster that started eating fish, then people, then started going on land.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t end up following the river,” the bard said.

“All the beasts in the forest are nothing compared to whatever settled in our river,” Pashti said.

“If we were to go to the river, maybe we could figure out what the creature is.” I say to Arandri.

“So, who would pay us to kill the creature?” Noll asked, chiming in for the first time. “Is there a mayor or council or something who might need the creature gone?”

“You can start with the Piers City Council. They take care of Piers and the surrounding villages. I know that at least two members would love to see the creature gone.” Tamris said.

“Really?” Noll perked up.

“Councilman Pactan and Councilwoman Griffa. Pactan is head of the Fisher’s Guild. He’s losing fishers and with them, his position on the council. And Fergar is head of Piers City Watch and the Security Council. She takes security seriously and has urged the council to mobilize to take care of this threat. Unfortunately, she considers most things a threat and the council has begun to ignore her.”

“How do you know so much about Piers City Council politics?” the bard asked.

Pashti smiled. “Griffa is my wife.”

“Mother always complains about the council every time she comes home. It keeps us informed, but also means we know way more than we ever wanted to about the council and what happens to run the city.” Tamris complained. “Who needs to about how hard she fought to implement a new guard system that changes how patrols are led?”

I wonder how someone so awesome ended up with a useless son.

We send a team for the pot left behind in the cave and begin to cook bits of boar’s meat with the carrots and potatoes we still had. Pashti told us where to find some wild onions nearby and before long, a delicious stew was cooking. It used the last bit of water we had, but Pashti and Tamris promised us well water when we arrived at their house.

“We’ll arrive around nightfall if we leave after the stew,” Pashti promised. We settled in to eat and I wondered at this great start to a new adventure. We had well-connected friends in our debt, information about the monster we’d come to fight, and we had a place to stay the night, and a cut in selling the boar meat and hides. Not bad for a morning’s work.

If only I knew why I was here and why I remembered a life and a world so different from this one. If only I knew- who am I?

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay