*Please note that the 3D render of the cover is not to scale, this is a novel of approx. 290 pages.
Here is the next instalment of my posts where I share samples of my work. This excerpt is from my novel ‘Blood Rage’ from the Blood Rage Series. Conall, the protagonist, is a thief. He is hired to steal an artefact, but when everything starts to go wrong he must fight to survive in the harsh world of Armada. I hope you enjoy this slice of fantasy.
by Allan Walsh
The Tool for the Job
Conall stood opposite The Organ Grinder Inn, wondering if trouble was waiting for him. Nothing had changed since the last time he was here. The yellow thatch roof still rested upon the solid, mottled walls, and garbage still littered the cobbles outside.
His eyes were drawn to the image on the sign that hung above the entry: a butcher shoving animal organs into a grinder with one hand, while turning the wheel with the other. What kind of sausage squeezed from the end of that machine? What animal’s blood dripped from the small metal pipe at the bottom? He’d never liked that sign. Nothing had changed.
Conall crossed the street and peered in through the small squares of green-tinted glass; the circular swirls in their centre distorted the images behind. He straightened his cloak and entered through the doorway, walked past a couple of old men drinking at the bar and sat at a small wooden table, careful to choose a seat facing the door.
“Hello love, what can I get you?” the chubby barmaid asked, wiping down the table with a dirty rag.
“I’ll have a tankard of the house brew.”
“Right you are, love,” she said, shoving the rag into a pocket on the front of her apron.
The tavern gradually filled up. Dense clouds of pipe smoke hovered in the air; the smell of burning tobacco underlined with the scent of stale hops.
“Here you go, mister,” the barmaid said, slapping his ale down on the table. He flicked her a coin and she moved on to another customer. Chattering voices and laughter grew louder as more people packed into the large room. Conall sipped a mouthful of ale, watching the faces come and go. A tall man with a jagged, white scar running down his face caught Conall’s attention; the disfigurement separated his top lip with an almost vertical indented line. He entered alone, looked around and sat a few tables away, facing Conall. Patrons came and went and the man kept to himself, occasionally glancing around. Conall turned his attention back to the door. The chatter became slurred, smoky clouds turning into a mist, filling the room as he waited. A short, bald-headed man in a fur-trimmed coat walked in: O’Malley. He paused in the doorway. His eyes scanning the confines of the tavern walls before catching Conall’s gaze. A smile lit his face, clearly relieved to see Conall. He made his way over to the small table, slipped on some spilled ale and crashed to the floor. A few patrons stopped and stared. Conall watched, shaking his head.
“I’m alright,” O’Malley called, as he stood and wiped himself down. He slid himself into the empty chair opposite Conall.
“Did you get it?” O’Malley asked.
“Of course I got it.”
“Let me see it then.”
Conall dug into his pocket and pulled out a jewel encrusted broach. O’Malley’s eyes lit up and he extended his hand to grasp the item. Conall jerked it away.
“Let me see the payment first.”
O’Malley huffed. He pulled a pouch from within his coat and placed it on the table in front of Conall.
“There you go, twenty silver scillings. Now hand it over,” O’Malley said, his lip twitching slightly.
“What do you mean twenty? The price was thirty scillings. You don’t pay, you don’t get.”
“Thirty! You thieving rascal, you know that’s more than the damn thing’s worth.”
Conall stared at the man. “Thirty was the agreed price.”
“Ah, I’m only messing with you, boy,” O’Malley said. His hand trembling as he pulled out another coin purse, throwing it onto the table beside the other. “Here’s the rest of it.”
Conall plucked up the pouches and gave them a shake. They opened easily as he tugged at the string bindings. He eyed the contents, dug his fingers inside and took a silver coin from each, inspecting them closely. It wasn’t nearly enough to cover what he owed Finn, but thirty silver was thirty silver. Satisfied he’d been paid accordingly, he handed the heirloom over. O’Malley grabbed it and stuffed it inside his coat pocket. Without wasting any time, he stood up, bade Conall farewell and left the tavern.
Conall slid back in his chair, shoved the coin pouches into his trouser pocket, and took another swig of his ale. He was peering into the tankard, swishing the last mouthful of ale around the bottom when the tall man with the scar approached.
Conall sat up, readied his hand on his dagger and leant forward, gaze fixed on the man.
“Are you the one they call Conall?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“Who wants to know?”
“McCabe’s the name. I need a job done.”
“So, pull up a chair and start talking.”
McCabe drew up a stool and sat down.
“I’ve been sent to ask if you’ll retrieve a small item for the Baron and return it to his care.”
“Baron? There hasn’t been a Baron in Armada since Kirwan took the throne.”
“Times are changing, Conall.”
“First things first McCabe, only my friends and well-known acquaintances call me Conall. Until you fit one of those categories you call me O’Lorcan. Now, who’s this Baron and what’s he after?”
McCabe laughed. “You’re just what I was expecting, Conall.” He paused for a second, Conall holding his gaze. “I’m sorry… O’Lorcan,” he said. His attention shifted to a barmaid heading for the counter with a tray of empty tankards.
“Woman, bring me some whiskey and an ale for my friend,” he bellowed. His focus turned back to Conall. “The Baron’s a powerful man. That’s all you need to know about him. As for the item, well, it’s an artefact of great personal worth to him. And that’s all I care to tell you about it—unless of course you choose to accept the job at hand.”
“How long do I have?” Conall asked.
“What’s it worth?”
Conall paused. Eighty gold. That would pay off his debt from last week’s game of stones… and see him living comfortably for a while.
“Well?” McCabe asked.
“Keep talking,” Conall said, maintaining a cool outer image while his heart tried to beat a hole through his chest.
“A man called O’Cullen stole it from the Baron a year ago. The bastard’s got it under guard at his home.” McCabe inched his chair a little closer. “Understand this O’Lorcan, the artefact won’t be easy to retrieve. I’ve sought you out for the job because you’ve a reputation for being the best in your field. And as a sign of good faith, the Baron’s willing to pay you half up front. What do you say?”
“Here you are love, one whiskey and one ale,” the barmaid said as she returned with their drinks. She placed them on the table and McCabe handed over a few copper groats.
She slipped the coins into her apron and moved along.
“I’ve got another job lined up. Make it a hundred and twenty and I’ll see what I can work out. I can get you an answer in five days”
“How about I make it a hundred and you give me an answer in two?”
Conall looked up, scratching at the stubble under his chin. “Deal, I’ll meet you back here in two days.” He stood and grabbed his cloak from the chair beside him, smoke swirling as he flung it across his shoulder and nodded farewell to McCabe.
There was no other job. Conall needed time. One hundred gold was a pretty price to pay for a lost artefact, and he wanted to find out what he was getting himself in to.
As he made his way along the road towards his lodgings, two large men stepped out from the shadows: Finn’s goons. Conall slid his hand to the hilt of his dagger and came to a stop. He glared at them; fighting men, maybe bare-knuckle fighters judging by their thickset brows and cauliflower ears.
“Oi, we’ve been looking for you,” the larger of the two men shouted.
Conall recognized him, his name was McBride, but the locals called him Scar. Ex-militia, kicked out for killing one of his men and recruited by Finn a short time later
“So, what of it?” Conall said.
“You cheeky little bastard, we’ll have to teach you some manners,” said the other through gritted teeth.
“I’d like to see you try that, you ugly focker.”
The smaller man edged forwards. Conall stepped back and drew his dagger, hands raising. Ready.
Scar grabbed his companion’s arm, holding him back.
“I’m not fockin’ scared of you two,” Conall said.
“Leave it Mac, we’re not here to fight him, we just gotta deliver the message,” Scar said quietly.
“You’ve got twelve hours to come up with the money or I’m going to rip you apart, you skinny fockin’ runt,” Mac sneered.
“That’s right, keep your dog on a leash Scar. I’ve still got a day to come up with the coin.”
“You should know better than to play stones with a Rogin, O’Lorcan. No man can afford to lose money he ain’t got. But that’s twice as true for someone in your line of work.”
“I’ll have the money.”
“Make sure that you do or there ain’t nobody in town that’ll talk to you, let alone hire your services. And you really don’t want that to happen.” Scar turned and walked away.
As he hurried along the quayside, Conall scanned for the mark of the Guild. He saw what he was looking for: a small, stylised drop of blood carved into the doors of an old wooden shack. Conall approached and peered through a gap in the doorway.
The scent of stale fish and body odour assaulted his nostrils. Inside, four men and a woman sat playing a game of stones on an old crate. Their clothes were shabby and their hands soiled by years of manual labour. The biggest man had a shaved head and his shirt sleeves were torn off at the shoulders, exposing the colourful tattoos running down his arms.
Conall knocked and entered. All heads turned towards him; they stood up, hands moving to augers tucked into their belts.
“Take it easy, I’m not looking for trouble,” Conall said, holding his hands up.
“So, what are you looking for?” the woman said, pushing her greasy hair off her face.
“We can’t help you, now piss off,” the big man said.
Conall slowly moved his hand and pulled back his right sleeve, showing a blood-drop tattooed on his wrist.
“You’re a Blood, well why didn’t you say so?” the big man said, gesturing for Conall to come and join them. The rest of the crew sat down, relaxing back into their game.
“The name’s Blink,” the big man said as he reached over, extending his hand.
“O’Lorcan,” Conall said, as they shook.
“So, what is it you want to know?” Blink said.
“Have you heard of a man called O’Cullen, someone calling themselves the Baron or a stolen artefact?”
“Can’t say that I have, but old Burt the butcher on Main Street might know something.”
Conall followed a trail of names, names of people who might know something. He travelled from the docks to the butcher’s shop, the butcher’s to a tavern, the tavern to an old woman selling carved, wooden animals on a street corner. He asked his questions again.
“Have you heard of someone calling themselves the Baron?” The old woman shook her head. “What about O’Cullen or a stolen artefact?”
“I haven’t heard of no Baron or no artefact.” Conall gritted his teeth, frustrated. “O’Cullen on the other hand, now I’ve heard of him. You’ll find him at Cahill.”
“Aye, a town-come-city out in the eastern counties. Known for their horse breeding they are. You’ll need to be careful mind.”
“Why’s that?” Conall asked.
“He’s got a skilled militia and his own personal guard, but from what I been told, he ain’t no thief,” the old woman said.
“What else can you tell me?”
“That’s all I got, mister.”
“Thanks for that at least,” Conall said.
“Oi, you owe me one for that.”
Conall flicked her a silver coin. “I don’t owe you a thing.”
“Smart man,” she mumbled.
That evening Conall returned to The Organ Grinder Inn. McCabe was waiting for him. A tight-lipped smile crept up on the man’s face as Conall approached.
“So, you came back then,” McCabe said.
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Aye, I believe you did.” He gestured towards a chair. “Please, sit.”
Conall pulled the chair out and lowered himself into it.
“So, what’s your decision?” McCabe asked.
“I’ll take the job”
“Ha, good man.” McCabe extended his hand. Conall took it and they shook. McCabe reached inside his woollen coat and pulled out a parchment and a large pouch of coin. He unfolded the paper and slid it to Conall. “This is what you’re looking for. It’s an heirloom, carved from bone.” A talisman was pictured on the paper, round and simple in design. It depicted a man’s body encompassed in flames. McCabe planted the pouch down on top of the paper. “Fifty gold as agreed and another fifty on completion.”
Conall opened the pouch and looked at the golden coins. A tingle ran down his neck.
That’s a lot of money.
He pulled the drawstring shut and shoved the purse into his pocket.
“You’ve got thirty days, O’Lorcan. Fail or turn up late and I’ll drag your name down so low you’ll never work again. If you take off with the coin… you’re as good as dead,” McCabe said.
“Of course, they’ll be dangers along the way. The roads to Cahill are known for bandits and once you get there, you’ll have the militia to worry about.”
They spoke for the best part of an hour. Conall listened, writing nothing down.
He left the tavern mulling over the information in his head. As he turned into an alley on his way back to The Half Moon inn, he almost didn’t notice the three men that stepped out in front of him, blocking the exit. Conall turned to go back the way he came, but another three men stepped into the darkened lane from a doorway a little further back.
“We’ve got you now you little runt,” came a familiar voice.
“Scar let you off your leash, did he?” Conall asked as Mac moved forward out of the darkness. Mac began to draw his sword.
“Stand down,” a voice commanded. Mac froze. Scar stepped out from the shadows to stand beside him. “You got the coin?” he asked.
“Sure, I’ve got Finn’s money,” Conall replied, pulling out the coin pouch. He took five gold coins from the cloth bag.
“You’re a lucky focker, O’Lorcan, but one of these days your luck’s going to wear out, and believe me, when it does, I’ll be the one coming for you,” Mac snarled.
Conall looked at him. “Five gold as promised,” he said and flung them at Mac’s feet. “There you go, now pick ‘em up and run back to your master like the good dog you are.”
Mac stepped forward, drawing his sword again.
Scar grabbed his arm. “Pick up the guilds, Mac,” he said, holding the big man’s gaze.
Mac scowled and jerked his arm free, then bent to pick up the coins.
Scar looked back to Conall. “You shouldn’t be so quick to make enemies. One day you’ll be in a fix and in need of a friend. And you ain’t got no friends.” He turned to leave. “Hurry up, Mac,” he growled.
Mac finished collecting the guilds and stood up, his eyes locked on Conall. Conall smiled, but his eyes stayed cold. He shouldered past and continued to his lodgings.
Rats scuttled away into the cracks of the buildings as Conall’s footsteps echoed off the cobbles. Scar’s comments played on his mind as he walked down the dirty alleys.
No friends, huh. What would you know, Scar? I don’t need friends, I work alone and I like it that way. I got all the friends I need in the Guild.
Erin stood in the darkness, moonlight illuminating the shapes of the trees around her. Her legs were stiff and she bounced on the balls of her feet to work her muscles.
In the distance, she could make out a few faint, orange glows, like fireflies dancing softly in the night. The caravan was approaching. She crouched down, clasped her hands together and blew out the sound of an owl. Startled, a mouse scurried out of the leaf debris and into a hole.
Erin tied her hair back with a piece of black cloth and made her way back to camp. Just this last raid and she’d leave. It was a stupid plan, made by stupid men; she wanted no part of it. But she was stuck with it. She’d only taken up with Kearn and his gang for protection; the open road was a dangerous place for a lone woman. These men had proven just as bad. Seamus, Cogan and Niall growing more and more persistent with their advances since they’d left River Merge. It wouldn’t be long before one of them would catch her off her guard. She scowled. The Goddess help Cogan if he tried it on again.
The bird call had done its job. When she got back to the makeshift camp, they had extinguished the small fire and readied the horses. Erin took a set of reins and was preparing to mount her steed when Cogan approached her.
“Need a hand up, gorgeous?” he said, grabbing her arm with one hand as he drove the other between her legs. He smiled a predatory smile, lips curled back over blackened teeth, glint in his eyes like he was taking pleasure in doing it and enjoying the anger flashing across Erin’s face.
A sharp crack sounded out as her head met his nose, snapping the cartilage. Blood sprayed across her cheek and he stumbled backwards, clutching at his face. Cogan opened his eyes, rage flaring within them. He lunged forward.
“You fockin’ whore, I’ll—” his eyes widened as the point of her knife pressed firmly against the soft flesh of his throat. The whitened indent where metal met skin, threatening to split and swallow the tip of her blade.
“Enough!” Kearn barked. “We’ve got business to take care of. You can fock around when we’re done.”
“We’ll finish this later,” Cogan sneered at Erin. He jumped up on his horse and rode into position, hand all red, blood flowing down his chin. They all followed suit as the distant glow of burning torches pierced the darkness that engulfed the road.
A shrill cry carried through the still night air; Cogan charged in early. Erin jumped in her saddle, her stomach turning with unease.
“Yah!” Erin dug her heels into the horse’s belly. The calm hush of the forest was broken by shouts and screams, ringing out from all around. Kearn and his men galloped towards the caravan, bows drawn, arrows flying at the guards. Erin loosed a shaft. It whizzed through the trees and ricocheted off an armoured breastplate beneath a guard’s cloak. The arrow wedged itself in the cart beside him with a thud.
The others were having even less luck, un-practiced in the use of bows while riding horseback, the arrows flew hopelessly off target.
A cluster of guards broke from the caravan and rode out to meet them, half a dozen in number, another half dozen stayed back and rallied around the carts: many more than they had expected. The gang ditched their bows, unsheathed their swords and crashed into a fray of striking metal, sending flashes of moonlight through the trees. Kearn unleashed a mighty blow, knocking a young guard from his saddle, the man’s head bouncing off a log as he hit the ground and lay there, still. Erin parried a thrust and slashed back, opening a gash on her attacker’s face, blood spilling down his beard. A few feet away, a large man drove his sword into Niall’s stomach. Niall screamed like a pig at a slaughterhouse and collapsed off his mount, foot caught in stirrup, dragged by his mount as it bolted. Cogan and Seamus bunched together, swords out, horses skittish in the fray.
The sound of metal on metal rang out as the men traded blows with the guards. Cogan deflected an attack and slashed at the neck of a steed. The horse let out a sickening scream and reared up—it fell—taking its rider down with it. Erin pushed a slouching body from her blade and turned in her saddle to see a blood splattered guard pulling his sword from Seamus’ gut. Seamus flopped forward and slid off his mount, leaving a blood streak down the beast’s side. Cogan roared a battle-cry, engaging the guard as he pulled his horse around. Swords flailed in the air, steel clashing against steel, each time deflected away from their target. A slash. A parry. A thrust. Cogan’s body went rigid, veins bulging from his neck, a grimace stretching across his face like a hide across a drum. Wet steel jutting out through his stomach, dripping, red. A man stood behind him, blood running down his sword, his knuckles, his arm, and onto his hose.
“Erin, to me!” Kearn shouted. Erin wheeled her horse in beside him as three riders raced towards them. The lead stallion’s hoof landed heavily in a hole, throwing his mount headfirst into the dirt, evening the odds.
A whistle screeched out. The guards turned their horses sharply and fell back. Erin and Kearn looked at each other, confused.
A volley of arrows flew from the caravan, thudding into the trees, and ground, and horses. Kearn’s mount screamed and reared in agony, throwing him from his saddle. Erin’s horse charged into the trees; a low branch knocking her from her seat. The rider-less horses bolted into the shadows, bleeding haunches, bristling with arrows. Erin and Kearn leapt up and scrambled into the cover of the trees—mounted guards crashing in close behind them.
Dreams of the Past
The sounds of revellers brought Conall out of his musings; he shook off Scar’s words and peered upwards. The sign over The Half Moon Inn swung gently on rusty chains—chains that had worn grooves into the heavy wooden beam protruding above the entrance.
He walked up the rough stone steps and through the entrance to a small cubicle just inside the doorway. Above the cubicle was a crude board chalked with rough writing. It read ‘1 nite, 1 silva’. A grey-haired woman sat beneath the sign, behind an old wooden plank that acted as a counter. She acknowledged him with a nod as he entered. Conall reached for his coin purse, then paused as a man came down the steps to his left. Conall’s eyes followed the man until he was gone, then he turned back to the old woman and placed two scillings on the counter. She gave him a small smile and slid the coins from the counter into her hand.
Conall ascended the stairs. They creaked in protest, the time-worn timber complaining with each step as he made his way to the hallway at the top. As he passed into the corridor beyond, the sounds of drinking and laughter grew muffled. He took the second door on his right, entering the room that had been his home for the last four nights. It was a small room, small enough you couldn’t swing a sword in it, but as far as the inns in Kilgoul went, this was one of the better ones. The extra silver piece for a little additional comfort and security was a small price to pay.
He lit the candle atop the small wooden table and bolted the door behind him. The candlelight flickered as he removed his long black cloak and threw it onto the wooden chest at the end of the bunk. With a sigh, he sank into the canvas. It was stretched across two thin logs, a crosshatch of stitches where old tears had been repaired, over and over, but it was comfortable. He pulled a dagger from his boot and placed it under the pillow: a hessian sack stuffed with hay. Then, one foot against the other, he prised his boots off and wriggled his toes.
Ah, that’s better.
He slid his hand into his pocket, pulling the coin pouches out, and stuffed the small ones into his boots. The larger one he pushed down the crotch of his pants. Not feeling too tired, he lay down and stared out the small open window, the odour from the shit-stained alley wafting up from below.
The faint sounds of the people in the tavern beneath reminded him of the small village he grew up in. When he was a young boy, the villagers held seasonal celebrations around a bonfire that went on long after he’d gone to bed. Back then the din of the celebrations would keep him awake, but the sound was comforting to him now and he found his mind drifting to thoughts of his mother: Siobhan O’Lorcan.
He remembered her emerald green eyes. Her long, fiery-red hair flowing halfway down her back. Her pale skin, with freckles that spanned from cheek to cheek. He could almost hear her soft voice in his head.
“My home town, why it’s only a small hamlet they call Moss. It sits at the bottom of the most raggedy mountains you’ve ever seen. ’tis a peaceful little village, full of farmers breedin’ their animals and growing their crops.”
Her expression grew pained.
“Then one bitter winter’s night, the krags crashed down from the peaks and poured into the village…”
Conall searched for a memory of her that was happier. He pictured her in the warmth of their hut, teaching him how to brew tinctures and how to develop and control his powers. They had been safe in Hedge-Wicca. His mind began to drift and without knowing, he slipped into a dream.
… he was running towards the village, following the sound of sobbing, his heart hammering in his chest. He dreaded what he was going to see, but he was helpless to stop his feet from carrying him into the village square.
His mind struggled against what was coming but it was no use.
His heart plummeted as he realised it was his mother’s body swinging from the oak in the centre of the square. He roared in anguish, the sound echoing into the distance. Anger burned within him, streaming through his veins, filling them with fire. An uncontrollable blackness filled his heart, his vision turning red as fury engulfed his mind.
Conall cried out, a burning sensation shooting up his arms, the ends of his fingers splitting open as claws pushed out from under his nails. His face twisted into a snarl, huge canines growing down through his gums; his human teeth ejected by the long fangs that replaced them. Thick black hairs crept through his skin, his form changing as he writhed on the floor. His clothes ripped beneath the pressure of the huge muscles tearing their way out. His senses heightened and his screams turned to howls.
A huge, wolf-like creature arose from the ground where Conall had been kneeling. He stood on his two hind legs like a bear, and let out a skin-bristling roar. He dropped onto all fours and circled the oak, growling as he sniffed the ground and air in turn. He smelt the tree and the ropes that had been tied to the base of its trunk, before they were flung over the long, thick branches. Then, without hesitation, he bolted towards Sindale.
Ten miles he ran, the fire in his blood pushing him on. When he reached the township, the rage exploded inside him. Cries of terror shrieked out around him as he ran through the streets, tearing out throats, silencing the screams. He tracked them down—everyone who’d left their scent in his village— tracked them down and ripped them apart, bathing the streets in red. Doors shattered before him, as if he willed the wood itself to get out the path of his fury. He dragged people screaming from their beds into the street. He ravaged them until the life left their bodies. Those who tried to stop him were cast back by a surge of power that sent shockwaves through the air…
Conall awoke with a start, sitting upright in his bunk. A film of sweat covered his brow. It was the same dream that had plagued him a hundred times before. Only it was no dream.
That night had changed his life. That night, his people had realised he was tainted by the blood of the mountain folk. That night, their fear had driven him away.
Pale morning light streamed through the gap in the ragged curtains. Conall gave up on his quest for sleep and sat up. He grabbed his boots, removing the coin pouches from inside, before pulling them onto his feet. The coin sacks felt heavy as they sank into his pockets. He added the heavy pouch from his crotch and retrieved his dagger, slipping it down the inside of his right boot. Then he gathered the rest of his things and left the room.
The marketplace was just starting to fill up with morning traders when Conall arrived. Provisions were easy to replace, but replacing the equipment he’d lost on the last job was a little harder. None the less, it wasn’t long before he found himself a bedroll and a small kit of cooking utensils. As he browsed the stalls a mahogany box caught his eye. He purchased it and filled it with everything he needed to make traps: small bells, pulleys, wires, barbs and the like. Conall was about to leave when the scent of basil carried on the breeze. He followed the smell and found a stall selling a selection of herbs not common to the area. The price was reasonable, so he purchased a few, along with some small, dark jars and a cedar box to store them. Satisfied, he made his way to the north gate.
The weather-worn doors of the stable opposite the gatehouse were open, ready for business.
“Anybody there?” Conall called as he walked in.
“I’ll be down in a moment,” a lad called from the loft.
Ten stalls ran along the wall opposite the doorway and an old wooden ladder led up to the loft, where stacks of hay were stored. Most of the stalls were occupied by horses with bags of feed hung over their heads; some looked healthier than others. A long rack, stacked with saddles, bridles and stirrups, along with other items of tack, stood beside the doorway. Conall studied them while he waited, wondering how best to use them as weapons if the need arose. Three horses in an enclosure opposite the rack, stood, tails swishing lazily at the flies buzzing around them.
Conall heard scuffling; he looked up, and bits of dust and hay fell through the cracks of the boards. A bundle of hay fell from above and thumped to the ground amid a cloud of dust. He looked from the bale, back to the loft and saw the stable boy making his way down the ladder. He was a young lad of around seventeen, with long, red hair in a single, thick braid that ran down his back. He jumped down the last few rungs with a grin.
“I’m Seamus, what can I do for you on this fine mornin’?”
“I’m looking for a horse. Have you any for sale that I can take off your hands?”
“Aye, too many. What with that stupid law says only the king’s men can ride through the streets of the Western Province, people have to leave their horses somewhere.” Seamus pointed at the three in the enclosure to the side. “Them three there are set for the market this morning. You’re lucky you turned up early, I was just about to get them ready to go.”
There was a young tan and white stallion, an old brown mare and a pure black one at least two full hands taller than the other steeds.
“Take your pick, but I wouldn’t choose that black one. She’s wild as they come, she’ll not let anyone near her.”
Conall stood at the edge of the pen and held out his hand. The old brown mare snorted and moved away towards the back corner, followed by the young stallion, but the big black mare whinnied and reared up on her hind legs. Her front hooves hit the ground a shoulder-width apart and she came to a stop. Her head held low. She fixed her eyes on Conall. He stood firm and didn’t flinch. She snorted and shook her head at him. Conall stood firm again. After a few seconds, she slowly lifted her head and edged closer until her muzzle came to rest below his fingers. He stroked her nose with a firm, but kind hand.
“I’ll take this one,” Conall said.
“Well I’ll be.” Seamus stared. “She’s been nothing but trouble since she got here. How’d you do that?”
“I didn’t do anything, she chose me. How much do you want for her?”
“One gold,” Seamus replied.
Conall frowned. “What? One gold… why only one? She’s worth four times that at least.”
“I’m not doing you no favours, mister, believe me. Even her rider had problems when he brought her in. I reckon he beat her.”
Conall inspected the mare’s length and scowled. Scars marked her side. “I can see that.”
“I was told to get what I can for her,” Seamus said with a shrug. “These ones aren’t worth the trouble of shifting all the way to Clune when they might not sell. And to be honest, you’ll be saving me a bunch of trouble trying to get her up the road. So, I reckon a one gold is a fair price. And you’ll have me thanks for helping out.”
“How about we call it two gold. I wouldn’t want you in to catch a floggin’ from your master.”
“That’s very generous of you, mister. I tell you what, for that price I’ll throw in her tack, seeing as it’s a bit worn and I wouldn’t get more than five scillings for it anyways,” Seamus said. “But feel free to pay more for it if you want.”
Conall smirked. “Alright, two gold for the horse and tack. You’ve got yourself a deal.” He counted the money out as Seamus fetched the tack from the wooden stand. A few moments later the boy returned carrying an old leather saddle over one arm and a matching black harness and bridle over his shoulder. Seamus hoisted the saddle onto the top beam of the horse enclosure and Conall handed over two gold coins.
“That’s what she came with,” Seamus said as he rubbed the leather down with a cloth. He took the bridle from his shoulder and held it out. Conall eyed it with a blank expression. “What?” Seamus asked. “You don’t think I’m getting in there to put that on her, do you? That wasn’t part of the deal.”
Conall laughed. “No trouble lad, I can do that.” He flicked an extra silver in the air, sending it spinning towards Seamus, who promptly caught it in his right hand. “That’s for looking after her. I reckon you done a far better job than her previous owner.”
Conall placed the bridle upon the saddle, climbed over the wooden fence and prepared his new companion for riding.
“Don’t worry girl,” he whispered in her ear, “I’ll take good care of you.”
The mare gently nuzzled up against Conall’s neck.
“I think I’ll call you Nim.” He stepped back and gave her a pat on the neck, led her out of the enclosure and collected his sword from the gatehouse. Conall patted her neck again, speaking softly in her ear. “I’m going to climb on now girl,” he said as he placed a foot in one of the stirrups. With a small jump, he cleared the saddle and came to rest upon Nim’s back. She let out a quick snort and stood steady. “Good girl, Nim.” He gave her a little tap with his foot and she trotted off through the gate, heading north towards Clune.
Up until now, the journey had been uneventful; Conall had been taking things easy, trying to establish some trust between himself and Nim before he started to push her. Still, they’d made good time and he could now see the outskirts of the Kilarnoc Forest in the distance. The road continued ahead, disappearing into the darkness of the trees. Conall turned Nim away from the road, towards the river: the forest was a frequent haunt of bandits who’d lie in wait for travellers and he wasn’t interested in meeting any.
Riding along the grass was easy enough, but before long the ground softened and it soon became muddy. They were definitely nearing the banks of the Krag now. He steered Nim onto firmer ground until he found a spot where he could get in closer to the water.
Conall dismounted and led Nim to a fallen tree at the river’s edge. She dipped her head and began to drink.
“Good girl,” he said as he bent down, cupping his hands into the clear water. He took a sip and shook the drips from his fingers, watching as a dragonfly hovered over the water before it darted away. Conall grabbed his water skin and filled it from the river, chewed on a stick of dried meat, and climbed back into the saddle.
The sun arced across the sky as they travelled and after a while it began to set behind them. The trees grew thicker, edging closer to the water; before long they would have to go through the woods.
As dusk crept in so did the gnats, a swarm buzzing all around them, whining and stinging. Conall jumped down from Nim’s back and led her to the riverbank, leaving her to drink while he scouted around. He found what he was looking for soon enough: a tuft of long, yellowish, grass that wrenched easily from the soft ground. He crushed the leaves and rubbed them between his hands, releasing a fluid that gave off a strong, citrus scent. It felt cool on his skin as he covered himself with the liquid. Conall took another clump and wiped the bruised grass over Nim. The insects disappeared and he tucked some of the grass into his pocket.
A short distance from the river they came upon a small clearing. Thick brambles sprawled out on one side, dense forest on the other and a few large rocks scattered between.
Nim snorted as Conall tied her to a tree and removed her saddle. She dipped her head and chewed at the grass as he gave her neck a rub. When she was settled, Conall retrieved his mahogany box and went to work setting traps around the clearing, dragging branches for cover and dusting the ground to hide his tracks. Satisfied, he stalked further into the darkness, disappearing into the scrub.
When Conall returned, he had a dead bush turkey, a bunch of herbs and some bush weed in hand.
“Good fortune Nim, I happened onto this bird, it’ll make a nice dinner. I even got you a little treat while I was away,” he said as he took out a couple of large apples and threw them gently over to her. She chomped at them as he placed his backpack on the ground beside the turkey and grabbed some sticks to make a fire.
The flames danced higher, glowing embers fizzing out like tiny shooting stars as Conall stoked the fire with a thin branch. He placed the stick down and took up the turkey. Bits of feathers fluttered over his trousers as he plucked and cleaned the fowl. The waste sizzled as he threw it into the fire, then crackled and burned as he stuffed the bird with clumps of sage and thyme. Before long the turkey was pinned together with a few twigs, wedged onto a thin branch and suspended above the heat of the flames.
Darkness was falling. He stuffed the bush weeds into his backpack, left the bird cooking and prepared for bed. The cooking meat smelt delicious, filling the clearing with its mouth-watering aroma. By the Goddess he was hungry, and bush turkey tasted far better than dried rations. Something else must have thought so too: a short distance away the bushes began to shake.
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Allan Walsh writes Fantasy and Horror. If you’re looking for something new to read in these genres, why not check out his books here
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