The streets of Slaghtaverty were bare and made a hollow ringing sound as the horses hooves struck the cobbles.
“Where is everyone?”
It was midday now and the streets were barren and silent as the grave. The only sound heard was the occasional shutter slamming as presumably a dweller locked their house up tighter than before.
“Some kind of peasant holiday perhaps” Bres joked atop his elegant horse. His men laughing nervously as their eyes darted here and there.
“I smell magic in the air” Dian said led along as their prisoner on the back of Ogma’s horse.
Ogma himself had a bandage over his ear that Dian Cecht saw fit to administer with a sly grin at the corner of his mouth.
Their procession continued through the empty streets slowly. Cautiously looking at every window and door frame until they came upon a stream that flowed adjacent the outer wall.
At that stream was an old washer woman on her knees furiously scrubbing something in the water.
Their processions stopped with a clattering of hooves and chainmail hauberks. Bres motioned to one of his men to approach the hag by the stream.
He did so with an air of caution which seemed puzzling even to him. Everyone felt it, a sense of distinct and terrible foreboding, they could smell it.
The old woman began to hum over the sound of her thrashing the clothes in the water.
Bres and his men approached her but she didn’t seem to notice, continuing to wash her clothes in the stream unburdened by their presence.
The soldier approached close enough almost to touch her rags and then he saw the water, red and thick with blood. “Hag, who’s clothes do you wash?”
Her humming sank low and then stopped. “I wash the clothes of those fallen in battle.” She muttered flatly.
“What battle? Who’s clothes?” The soldier craned his neck to try and see the clothes and stood stunned and frozen at the sight of the crest emblazoned on them. For it was their own.
“I wash your clothes sir knight” She said. “The one you seek, the broken king, he waits for you in the glade- blood and bone and death he wears as his mantle.”
The hag turned, her face hideous, ravaged by age and twisted by evil. She let out an ear piercing shriek which made all clutch their ears in pain.
Ogma acting quickly covered his remaining ear and with his free hand clubbed the hag from his saddle. With a sickly thudding crunching sound felled her in one blow.
The soldier fell back gripped by fear “It’s an evil spirit, a tide of ill omen sire! We must abandon this quest!” He screamed. “We shouldn’t have burned the newgrange! We’re damned!”
“Silence, superstitious nonsense, some mad old woman means nothing of our luck, now away with you!” Bres realigned himself in his saddle and spoke softly “We’ll find somewhere to recoup, a bit of rest will do us all good.” His words felt practised and empty, his eyes fearing to rest on any of his men.
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A dry morning wind lashed at the dusty emptiness of the wasteland as the sounds of muted activity echoed over all the stark nothing. The ambience of a frail egg shell headache, a morn after the night before, everyone tip toeing around busily packing up their lives. Still cool and dank but the sun bright and blinding coming up over another centuries old pile of garbage in the distance.
A slight figure blotted out that bright sun and cast an angular shadow on the side of a circus tent. One of the boys taking it down turned his scruffy dirty face in the direction of the shadow maker. He squinted with his hand attempting to block out the sun, a strange blinking collar around his neck.
“Mornin’” The young carny said as if it were a phrase buttoned to his tattered coveralls. He squinted harder trying to make out the figure. Rubbing his eyes as strange images of malformed birds filled his mind and he saw a grotesque heron mask. “Oh lady Hero, I didn’t know it-“
“The Ringmaster, where is he?”
“Oh, the boss, he’s-he’s still up in the big top, they’re getting ready to pull it next.”
“Thank you” Heron said flatly, slowly walking in the direction the boy gesticulated to.
The boy nervously returned to his tinkering, loosening the ties on the tent and scratching under his bomb collar.
Heron walked in between the stalls, more carny’s tinkering away to dismantle and pack away games and rides. All so they could move on to the next town, she could feel them they trying not to look directly at her.
“Hows tricks bird girl?” A voice mocked.
Heron looked coldly out of the corner of her eye, the voice came from a tall gaunt figure leaning out the window of his icecream van. He laughed and stared with his sharp dagger like beady eyes as he smoked from the corner of his mouth letting ash hit the counter without a care.
She turned her head to the front and continued saying nothing.
The Icecream man laughed and watched her go tapping ash out the window.
At the foot of the big top the dogfaced boy sat sullenly falling in and out of consciousness.
Upon seeing her he decided to be awake and quickly bound over to her.
“Ya bring me anything?” He said.
“Not this time, the big man in here?” Heron said.
“Yeah, he and Tanner are arguing about how the mutant sea lions are kept again, it’s really boring.”
“I see” She said as she patted him on the head and went on through into the big top.
Inside it was even cooler without the sun, the smell was so familiar; woodchips and blood and vomit and piss. Death and life, love and hate, there was nothing that wasn’t under this big top.
Heron looked up at the rigging, staring at it without knowing why, for a moment she couldn’t take her eyes off the tightrope.
Then remembering her purpose she pushed on into the ring.
As she was fortold the Ringleader was having a heated discussion with Tanner the animal tamer.
The Ringleader was a large man with a round belly but without hint of sagging. His roundness was almost perfect and complete, spherical and tightly packed, as if he were a baseball that could tuck in his arms and legs and roll away. But attached to the baseball were strong ropey arms and legs and a head he used to hold an oversized black top hat. His face always carrying the merest hint of a jovial smile betraying a wicked set of eyes which poked into every corner. He stroked and twirled his vaudeville mustache as he gestured wildly with his free hand.
“My good man, you realise these ‘creatures’ of yours cost an arm and a leg to feed, quite literally. I simply cannot afford any more lavish accomodations for them and certainly can’t spare the water to give them a dipping pool.”
“But you don’t understand, the heat is worse than ever this year, they’re going crazy, they need a way to cool off.” Tanner said as he stooped. Tanner was a large man with soft eyes, a lover of animals and wildly homicidally protective the particular species he’d trained from birth.
A rather unusual species of sea dwelling creatures that had with the drying of the oceans evolved to live on land. Undoubtedly with the help of the rampant radioactive fallout after the first war. One of the creatures playfully practised a routine where it would stand to attention on a podium. Then accused criminals would be dropped from the rigging for him to catch and eat. In this instance a side of beef or some other indistinguishable meat was dropped. The huge thing lumbered into position on the podium wobbling back and forth comically.
The creatures were huge twice maybe three times the size of a human. Scaly shiney skin but rough and course like sand paper. They had huge heads with large teeth and tusks but oddly reptilian features, with clawed hands ridged flippers for digging in the sand.
The ringmaster looked the creature over. The creature almost seemed to be trained to beg and look as cute as a giant reptilian mutant man eater could.
The meat was dropped and in an instant the creature timed it’s movements perfectly and snapped the meat out of the air with it’s ferocious jaws. The power of the bite bisecting the meat without need of sharp teeth, just the power of the jaw was enough to rip anything apart.
It moved with so much power, all those large muscles moving at once, spurred by instinct and training, the ground seemed to quake, the air shifting. The amount of power necessary to move that bulk would astound any crowd. The amount will to train the beast even more so.
Heron stared at the Ringmaster and he turned and noticed her out of the corner of his eye. He turned back to Tanner to dismiss him. “I’ll see what I can do”.
“Very well” Tanner said also having noticed Heron waiting. He left abruptly without saying anything more. Exiting through a large opening in the back. The creature bounded after him flopping around comically dragging it’s large finned tail.
“Yes?” The Ringmaster said crossing his hands behind his back he tilted his head as if he were talking to a child “Do you have something to say?”
“They’re all dead”
The Ringmaster showed no great surprise in his stoney features, he only let out a long disappointed sigh “I see”. He turned to walk up the steps towards his ‘throne’ on the edge of the big top. It was a monstrosity made of collected pieces of wood and metal. Different discarded weapons of the long dead clans that came before. The scattered remnants now making up most of the circus a generation or so on.
He sat and waited for her to say more “Is there more?”
“The ronin clown Pookie lives” She said flat.
He hid it well but at the corner of his eyes, wrinkles started to appear. “And why didn’t you stop him?”
Heron stood not moving, expressionless behind her mask. “That was not my mission”
“Your mission was to bring back a body, so where is it?” He gestured spreading out the fingers of one hand.
Heron said nothing.
The Ringmaster tutted “Forgive me, you’ve lost your friends and I’ve lost a headline act” He paused and thought about the implications. “I want his head atop my throne by this afternoon”
“Yes Ringmaster.” Heron said.
“Wait, I changed my mind!” He tapped his lips with a long finger “I want you to shadow him for me. Report to me on his movements through carrier pidgeon” He sighed deep in thought. “More information is necessary.” He said to himself. The ringmaster straightened his moustache and tugged at it a little more before he noticed Heron was still standing there. “You’re dismissed.”