Bewildering Stories

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The Engines of Manta-Geth

part 1

by Kenneth Mark Hoover

On an exposed hill, its circular stones reddened by the westering sun, sat a temple surrounded by heather and gorse.

Tired after a long day’s travel, I took the hand of my master. “Sir, I see a temple of Ord in the distance, and people. They are probably headed for the Folk Moot in Toldhaven, as are we. Shall we stop for the night?”

Master Bayard lifted his nose and sniffed, his sightless eyes hidden under a great furze of white hair that passed for eyebrows.

“You’re right, Murt. I smell the smoke of their camp fires.” He placed a gnarled hand on my shoulder. “Lead on. We can’t be caught defenseless by the creatures roaming this wild land at night.”

We traveled slowly across the desolate heath. “Careful,” I warned. “There are many stones and clumps of thick grasses that can turn a blind man’s ankle.”

Bayard grumbled under his breath, squinting at the ground. “Is there no better path from the road to the temple?”

“Afraid not, sir,” I replied, ignoring the carefully raked trail winding a few footsteps away. “This temple lies in some disrepair; the path is greatly overgrown.”

He nodded sadly. “Few honor the old gods any more. Pity.”

“Careful, my master. Here’s a small ledge we must navigate around. No, to your left. A little farther.” I had, by the guidance of my words, positioned him at the very lip of the ledge. “Now, your way is open, but be careful.”

He stepped forward into empty air and fell into a dank puddle of stagnant water.

“By the blood of Ord,” he spluttered, “what happened?”

“You didn’t step far enough out. I told you to be careful.”

“Is it much further?” He hitched his backpack with all our goods onto his thin back. “This weight is loading me down.”

“I offered to trade backpacks this morning, sir.” What he didn’t know was that mine had been loaded with heavy stones. These I had thrown out on route so that now I only carried my bedroll, a blanket, and waterskin.

“Indeed you did,” Bayard said. “Oh, well, let’s proceed to the temple.”

We approached a great circle of weathered stones covered with lichens. There were a handful of camps, too, with about a dozen people going about their business.

I helped Bayard off with his backpack and unloaded our goods before striking a small fire.

The sun touched the horizon. “Can you see now, my master?”

He passed his hands over his eyes. “It’s much too early for my vision to clear. Oh,” he moaned, “such a hard life I lead. Why did I ever agree to become a nightcaster? What was I thinking, Murt?”

“Stay here, sir. I’ll find water for our soup tonight.”

Bayard groped. “Where shall I sit?”

“There are few burr bushes about. None are near you. Rest yourself, my master, and I’ll be right back.”

I had only gone a few paces before I heard a wild cry followed by oaths — and an occasional yelp as he commenced to pull burrs from his backside.

I continued on and borrowed water from a wain outside the circle of stones. I then made a temple offering of a copper piece to a spindly and tonsured priest guarding the water casks.

“Thank you, my son.” The copper disappeared into one of his voluminous sleeves. “But, why did the two of you come across the heath with its hidden meres?”

“It’s my master.” I rolled my eyes and pointed to my head.

“Poor man. Does he suffer much from his affliction?”

“Yes, but he doesn’t complain.”

“And you are his companion?”

“I don’t mind giving my loyalty to an old and feeble man. Perhaps some day the good deeds I do now will be repaid in kind when I am in my winter years.”

The priest looked at me in awe. “What a good, stout fellow you are. Here,” he offered me his bowl of alms. “Take a few copper pieces to help you on your journey to Toldhaven.”

I waved it off. “I could never do that, kind sir, though I worship Ord with my heart. I do my work not out of noble pride but simply because he is an old man who needs my help.”

Tears appeared in the priest’s eyes. He pressed ten copper pieces into my hand. “This temple is here to help good wayfarers like yourself.” He gave me five more coppers. “No, I insist you take them all. Rarely have I met a bold and solemn fellow like yourself.”

I kissed his hand. “Thank you for your blessing. Forever will I honor the name of Ord and all that he protects.”

“Go kindly into the world, my son.”

Taking my leave of the priest I wandered behind one of the temple stones and relieved myself upon it. After having left the mark of my name to slowly dry in the late afternoon air, I returned to camp and made supper. Later, as Bayard’s eyesight improved with nightfall, he began to rummage through his kit.

“What are you looking for, my master?”

“My ground mummy powder. I bought a packet in Salonica, before we crossed the Whispering Marshes.”

He suffered from intestinal ailments and this concoction was the only thing that relieved his distress.

I unstoppered the vial and brewed a weak tea. He drank it carefully so as not to scald his lips. When he finished, the stars were dusting the night sky in beautiful splendor.

Bayard’s eyes, clouded with milky white substance throughout the day, were now clear and bright in the flickering light of our fire. He looked around and noticed several men gathered near a central fire in the middle of the temple stones. From where I stood I could see one man sitting apart from the others.

“Looks like a meeting of the minds,” he said. “Come, Murt. We’ll join them, if it be permitted.”

I wanted to sleep, but there was little else I could do but follow my master. In fact, there was little I could do but follow him through the rest of my life. As much as it pained me, I was his retainer; sold by my parents to meet their debts. Thus had my life over the past years become one of slow torment and dull boredom to an old and pompous fool. To assuage my sanity I passed some small measure of my abuse back towards my master — and the world — whenever I thought I could get away with it.

Bayard greeted the men around the fire. “Good evening, gentlemen. I am Bayard. This is Murt, my loyal retainer. May we join your fire?”

One of the men, a portly fellow with an oily pate, offered us a log to sit on. “Welcome, friend. My name is Flint. From whence are you borne, and where are you headed?”

“The same destination as yourself, I’ll warrant, though we hail from Alkwith in the good land of Cypriem.”

“Alkwith!“ another man, he whom I later learned was called Nye the Blacksmith, said. “That’s several hundred leagues distant. Across the Skaar River, if I’m not mistaken. Aye, and beyond even the Empty Lands.”

“You’ve come a goodly distance, sir.” Flint used a brand from the fire to light a pipe of spiceweed. “Too far to attend a local festival of brightly colored cloth and newly brewed ale.”

“True, I have business in Toldhaven. I am a nightcaster. Our guild meets every five years at the time of the Moot.”

“Ah, I thought mayhaps you had the manner of a spell weaver about you.”

Another man on the far side of the fire whispered to his friend, “Nightcaster?”

His companion answered in like tones: “A weaver who can’t stand the sun. Makes ’em go blind.”

To my joy someone passed a flask of blackbeer around. The liquid burned my tongue and lit a bonfire in my lower gut. I gave the flask to a quiet man with long blonde hair and burnished copper bands of military service around his arms. His face was tattooed and scarred in the customary fashion of pay-by-kill mercenaries, yet he carried no weapons.

I nudged his elbow. “Good sir, would you also drink?”

He started suddenly, as from a trance, before taking the flask without comment.

“Coming from such a distance,” Flint said to Master Bayard, “and the nature of your profession, methinks you’ve encountered many strange sights. Or am I much mistaken?”

Bayard puffed himself up and gave an account of our trip. When he reached the point when we were set upon by durgs and hobgoblins, one of the men remarked that he, too, once saw a party of durgs.

“Near Anvil Gap it was.” He spat into the fire. “Ugly t’ings, wit’ black faces and fiery red hair. After we killed ’em their bodies disappeared into the air like wood smoke.”

Nye the Blacksmith piped up. “I, too, have seen durgs. But once, passing through Tanglewood, I encountered an ancient dragon skeleton. Though overgrown with creepers and vines, its eye sockets glowed with an inner fire.”

Now that the round-robin was started we took turns relating the strangest sights we had personally encountered. I told of the morning I witnessed a flock of salt-wraiths laughing in the Whispering Marshes.

Silence fell, heavy and palpable, as we each contemplated the ghostly tales just heard. Then, quite to my surprise since he had been quiet much of the night, the soldier beside me spoke.

“I,” said he, “have seen the death engines of Manta-Geth.”

A knot popped within the fire and a multitude of sparks whirled into the sky.

No one moved. The soldier stretched his legs towards the firelight.

“My fondest memories as a child,” he said, “are of caring for, and treasuring as my own, the most ferocious military engine in the world, the ballista we called Hammer Bastard.”

“What is your name and home, soldier?” Bayard asked.

The soldier lifted his eyes from the crackling fire. “I am Gunter Shatterbone. From Stonekeep, in Gima.”

“Gima,” someone remarked under his breath. “Manta-Geth,” another countered, his voice shuddering.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Mark Hoover

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