Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a wonderful story from Dirk Hammerstrike, entitled
The Ghost Horses of Crag
Background music by Smartsound.
The harsh winds carried the sound of frantic horses, and thundering hooves. Every soul in the camp instantly felt chilled to the bone, as if struck by magic.
“Boy, get over here!” the man roared at his young apprentice. “I’ve sunk too much time into training you up, can’t afford to lose you now.” Old Cobb turned back to the roaring fire and pulled a well worn cloak tighter over his shoulders.
Their guide and the hired men laughed at the boy, and all returned to staring into the fire, each largely left to their own thoughts as the night air grew heavier. All had some idea of what might lay beyond the dim light.
Adale was a young lad nearing his 13th winter. He’d been in the house of Cobb the Wood craftsman since before he could remember. An orphan of the Satyr wars near 10 years past, Cobb had given Adale all he had in this life. Adale had begun to earn his keep before he could speak: moving smaller supplies to the work area, cleaning up the scraps, bringing meals, polishing the finished goods, and acting as a lookout for pickpockets and thieves on market day. Now he did much of the prep work, ran to the merchants to refill their ever diminishing supply of wax & creosote, and anything else Cobb needed a young back to handle. But with all his experience, Adale had never been further away from home than the Elysium fields, until now.
This had so far not been the adventure Adale had imagined it would be. He’d fallen overboard on the trip from Port Phoenix to Etceter. The tale had earned Cobb a few drinks already, and much to Adale’s chagrin very little embelishment was required. But the boy knew his place in the world, and did not act beyond it. He just worried if Cobb had the same realization, and soon. They were supposed to have delivered goods and been on their way back already. Cobb overheard some men in the square speak of the quality of wood in the nearby foothills. It was amazingly beautiful stuff, a dense smooth wood with dark maroon tones. Given Etceter’s proximity to the woods, it’s price was seemingly outlandish. Cobb’s mind was made up. They would go fetch some themselves.
Here they found themselves, in the foothills of Crag, with a handful of men, gathered with promise of coin on their safe return. Only the guide was a local. The swords had come on the same ship from Port Phoenix and were eager for work: felling trees, guarding against bandits and wild beast alike, whatever was required. Most of them were friendly enough but the guide seemed to have taken a dislike to Adale.
“Boy, do ye not know what that sound is?” the guide asked Adale. Adale had not asked the man’s name nor was it given when Adale had told the man his own name. It left Adale in a bit of an awkward place. He did not wish to insult the man, but did not know what to call him.
“No guidesman… though it sounded like horses to me” Adale replied.
“It’s the ghost horses of Crag, have you not heard of them?” the guide questioned him again.
The group leaned in toward the tale, some in fear, others with a small smirk, but all paying rapt attention.
“In the days of yore they were slaughtered by the thousands. Errant men greedily searching for experience killing beasts would attack the great herds on the plains of Quel and drive them into the foothills. There the beasts were cornered and killed. Most of the time they weren’t even harvested for meat nor hide, just left to rot. The evil deeds of men permeated the blood soaked landscape. It is said to give the wood of these trees their luster”
Here the guide paused, and stared Adale in the eyes.
He continued “That is also why the wild beasts here are so hostile now. Killing intent soaked into the very earth, polluting streams, plants and animals alike. Could you not feel it from that black wolf earlier? It took all of us to bring it down.”
The swords began to look nervously at the pile of fuel for the fire. Would it last the night? Would they? Adale felt fear claw deep into his heart. His hand went to the simple knife at his hip seeking comfort.
“You would do well to mind your surroundings here Boy. And whatever other choices you make, be sure to find shelter before the last light fades.”
With those words spoken, the guide rose up and walked off into the night. The others were too stunned to respond in time, and he disappeared before they reached the edge of the fire light in pursuit.
Old Cobb laughed heartily as they returned to the fire, and suggested that the guide was simply off pissing in the bushes.
The wind blew again, and the neigh and whinny of angry horses could be heard louder than before. As the wind died down the sound of hooves grew louder still, and Adale stood, gripping the knife before him like a talisman to ward off evil. Some of the men made prayers and promises to the Oracle, others cursed her name. The pounding of hooves was all around them now, like a wall of sound. The shadows beyond the light seemed to ebb and flow, and the ground began to shake. Something flew out of the darkness, knocking Adale over, and he knew no more.
Adale woke with a terrible headache at mid-day, to the sound of birds chirping in the nearby trees. The fire was long smoldering, and the others were gone. Even Cobb. The area around the camp was heavily trampled, and there were signs that the men did not simply run off. Blood, torn cloth and blades littered the ground around him. He said a small prayer for the dead and hoped the Oracle would judge Cobb true if the time had come. He’d been a good man. Adale had some idea of which way they’d come from, and gathered what he could salvage. There was little else to do and so he set off. He did not have long, looking up at the sky. The guide’s last words echoed in his mind… “be sure to find shelter before the last light fades.”