"The Owl and Gristle Murders"
A Flintloque Short Story by Gavin Syme
Back in Albion for Cryptmass, Lieutenant Wullam Rossorc and his rifleorcs stopped at the Owl and Gristle coaching inn near Londinium for a warm meal and good cheer. They did not in any way expect what they found there...
Old Garforc stamped his rag wrapped feet and once more cursed the army and the wearers of the green jackets. It was a bitterly cold evening and though the sun was barely setting the dark clouds and falling snow make the elderly Orc shiver despite his many layers of tattered clothing. He stood inside a small wooden sentry box which was placed into the thick wall that surrounded the Owl and Gristle coaching station. The Owl and Gristle was only a few miles from the outermost hovels of Londinium but in this weather it could be have been a thousand leagues and the coaching station was for all intents and purposes alone in the white drifts.
It was Garforc's task to spot the approaching riders and coaches and for a penny he would emerge from his sheltering box and take their reins allowing the weary travellers a quicker entrance to the inn while their horses were taken to the stables. All of the expected travellers had arrived except for a group of soldiers of the infamous 105th Loyal Sharpshooters 'the Rifles' who were staying the night before going on presumably to Orseguards when the sun rose. Jessorca would not be happy, the serving wench, would have to keep the fires stoked and a stew hot for them regardless of how late they arrived.
Off in the distance Garforc could see a dark shape moving through the snow and he thought he could hear the crumping thumping rumble of a heavy coach approaching. He shook himself over and over trying to get some heat into his gnarled hands and then stood up from the stool that held his weight with a groaning protest both from him and the stool. He was happier now, he could feel the end of the day's labour and his own pile of straw calling him to slumber. Leaving his wooden cudgel propped against the inside of the sentry box he stepped out into the gently falling snow.
The Orc died happy. He did not see the looming bulk that had silently and skilfully stepped up next to the sentry box. He did not see the massive clawed hand that reached down and simply tore the Orc's head from his shoulders in one fluid movement. Dead before his body hit the ground Garforc would never again see his warm straw again. By the time the Coach rolled through the gate into the yard of the coaching station all that remained of him was a rapidly fading stain of blood and drag marks that the snow was busily covering over. As if he had never been.
With a resounding bang the oak door of the Owl and Gristle thumped on its hinges against the wall before swinging back. Its progress was halted by the same green jacketed Orc who had given the door a solid kick as he passed through and on into the inn. Several more rifleorcs followed close on his heels all of them shaking loose snow from their shoulders and pulling off their tattered shakos. They moved straight to the roaring fire that dominated the stone floored room. The few patrons who were not already asleep rapidly moved aside or else were given a helping tap with the butt of a Bakur Rifle to encourage their passing. From the bar Jessorca watched them warily.
Jessorca was a comely Orc who had been employed by the inn ever since her mother had decided to run off leaving her and her brother at the Owl and Gristle in favour of a commissariat officer on his way to Al-Garvey. That had been seven years ago, she thought, and since then the pox had taken her brother and she was now the harassed object of the affections of every Orc that came to the inn. Soldiers were the worst and the green jackets with their blackened tusks and blue inked tattoos were amongst the very baddish of them all she reckoned. But she had a job to do and she would do it otherwise there would be trouble and Jessorca did not want more trouble than Sentinel chose to dole out to her by virtue of her position.
Taking seven rough bowls and hunks of stale bread she filled the bowls with bubbling stew from the pot that hung over the bar fire and making sure any visible rat fur and bones were pushed under the surface she took a deep breath and arraying a tray she walked towards the group of soldiers. They saw her approach and a couple made crude gestures and one whistled long and low through broken teeth but they were quietened by their officer. The officer wore a sword and was easily the smallest of the soldiers but he was obeyed without question.
Jessorca handed a bowl to each Orc and then passed each of them a piece of the stale bread. Each of the rifleorcs thanked her with an exaggerated politeness that was completely at odds with their earlier behaviour and the officer even bowed slightly as he took his bowl. They sat down and began to eat with their hands and the bread scooping at the stew. All except the officer who drew a small silver spoon from his pocket and began to delicately eat with his smallest finger raised. Jessorca retreated to the bar and was pleased that the soldiers had not tried to interfere with her more than a couple of comments and a whistle.
Her job done the serving wench left the bar and headed for the cellar where she had been told to move a full cask of ale up to the bar room to replace the near empty one already in situ there. Jessorca used to have her brother for this but not any more and it was a horrid and back snapping thing to move the casks. Down a set of rickety stairs she went and was glad that earlier she had lit the torches along the walls that give a flickering and shadow spawning appearance to the rows of casks; empty on the right, full on the left. She selected one at random, it looked easier to handle and indeed it looked recently moved so there was not likely to be stuck in place with filth or rat droppings. Jessorca would take any course that made this horrid job easier.
The cask moved easily enough; in fact it seemed empty. Jessorca hauled it into the middle of the cellar and then froze as she felt a chilled gust of air against her neck. From where the cask had sat a breeze was issuing. She walked back and looked down. There was a hole in the floor. A very dark hole. This was very wrong; she had been here a thousand times and there had never been anything in the cellar like this hole. She considered it a moment and then decided that whatever this hole was it was not her problem and it was time to pass it on as troubling news to her master even if he was abed at this hour.
Jessorca turned but before she could make for the stairs a shadow among the row of empty casks moved with a speed seemingly impossible and came at her. All she saw before a clawed hand closed about her neck was a blur of red with white teeth. She screamed once long and loud and then all was silent in the cellar.
Lieutenant Wullam Rossorc dipped his silver spoon lightly into the stew and considered the murky fat covered liquid before sipping at it lightly. Around him his rifleorcs had no such qualms about the stew and were ramming it into their mouths as fast as orcishly possible. Rossorc adored his lads but despaired at their lack of manners and course language. He did his best to improve them and their behaviour with the wench had been impressive especially since they had just spent the best part of a day crammed into a coach which had bounced and rattled its way towards the Owl and Gristle. It had seemed strange that no one had been there to greet them but it was getting late and his rifleorcs were still happy enough. An evening of stimulating conversation lay ahead and a warming fire too; that was better than they had been given in Catalucia of late.
A scream broke the tranquil mood and sounds of rapid consumption too. All of the Orcs stood up as one and pulled their weapons from their shoulders. As they were accustomed to battle all of their rifles were loaded and the soldiers quickly added priming powder to their pans so that they could make fire when ordered. No one else in the room moved or even stirred. In fact he did not remember seeing anyone move since they had arrived. That was odd but Rossorc had never put much stock in ordinary folk, too slow, too stupid. With a nod he directed the rifleorcs towards the door that led out from behind the bar.
“Sergeant Horc. Let's see what is afoot eh. No shooting until I say, I do not want a repeat of La Massacra de Insosenties.”
There was a grunt of remembering and agreement from all the Orcs and they proceeding through the door and down into the cellar one at a time.
“ What occurred here eh. Hummm. Any ideas Horc. I swear it was that girl what made the utterance but no bally sign of her.”
The Sergeant looked around the cellar and considered his reply. He moved down the rows of casks and then stooped down and picked up a piece of skin which had long hair hanging from it. Horc then looked down the hole from which cold air was coming up fast enough to make nearby torches gutter and struggle.
“Sir. I reckon the lass got bonked on the noggin and then dragged down this here hole. Might be that she is still breathing?”
Lieutenant Rossorc walked to the hole and then agreed with what his sergeant had said. He waved away the piece of scalp which was offered to him. Horc tucked the scrap into his cross-belt and ordered the rifleorcs into the hole. Each of them took a torch from the wall so that they could see their way. Rossorc went second after the sergeant and with a last glimpse at the rickety stairs dropped into the gaping blackness. Rescuing a lady from villains unknown; that was a role for a gentleorc!
It was a drop of some seven feet to a hard mud surface that was flecked with ice crystals. All of the Orcs made it down without harm though Rifleorc Kurke did land on his face much to the merriment of the others. By the light of the torches they could see the tunnel lead off into inky nothingness and the breeze was now much stronger. There was little sense in remaining here and Russorc ordered the troops of the 105th forward into the unknown.
They had only walked for a few seconds before Sergeant Horc put up his hand and stopped.
“Sir. Have a looks at this here. Seems the buggers is keen on murdering and no doubt of it.”
On the wall of the tunnel a severed head was firmly embedded with a trail of blood frozen below it. It did not belong to the serving wench that was clear. The head was Joccian, its fur a dark brown and a pair of brass rimmed spectacles over its nose. Russorc thought on it and seemed to remember that the owner of the Owl and Gristle was from Glasgee and was a notoriously mean spirited Joccian. Perhaps this was he? The head was held in place by an errie green blade that had the neck flesh pinned to the frozen mud. Sergeant Horc pulled at the blade and with a huge effort tugged it free. The head now unsecured fell to the ground where a quickly placed foot stopped it rolling away. Handing the blade to his commander the sergeant lifted his rifle back from his shoulder and pointed it once more down the tunnel.
Rossorc held the blade. It was deceptively light for its size and it was longer than his own thin blade. He had never seen anything like it in all his life. It seemed carved from stone; all angular surfaces than shone with any light put to them. The stone was green and varied from translucent to solid all along its length and the grip with wrapped with what seemed like leather. He waved it back and forth for a moment and then tucked it uncomfortably into his belt. Whatever this blade was it would fetch a pretty penny in Londinium he was sure. The officer was about to order the rifleorcs to proceed when Sergeant Horc shouted a warning.
“Halt in the name of the Kyng or I will give fire. By the gods and Sentinel what are you. Stop, that's an order. Stop!”
The group of soldier caught sight of a shadow cast in deep red further down the tunnel. It seemed to be coming at them with great speed. Horc's warning either was ignored or not understood as whatever it was came on regardless. A glimpse of claws before Horc's Bakur Rifle boomed in the confines of the tunnel and there was a bestial roar of pain before the shadow vanished back down into the darkness. They waited, rifles pointed, for the grey smoke to clear and they were alone once more. A smell of blood was in the air now.
“ I hit it sir. I'm sure I did. It's blood is on the ground here. Perhaps it took the girl? We should go after it.”
Yes, Rossorc thought. Now they were committed. An act of aggression on commoners was one thing but such an act upon troops of his majesty Kyng Gorge was quite another.
“Onwards lads. Let's see where this confounded tunnel comes out eh.”
The tunnel it seemed went on for miles though it could only have been several hundred feet but in the darkness it seemed endless. With each step the wind increased and by the time the end of the frozen mud tunnel came all of the Orcs had ice clinging to their uniforms and tusks but any thoughts of cold were banished by what they saw upon leaving the tunnel.
A chamber spilled out all around them and incredibly as soon as they stepped into it the cold vanished and was replaced with a sweltering heat that made water pour from their clothes and hair as all the ice trapped there melted rapidly. The chamber was long enough for a rifle shot to require careful aim and its whole size could plainly be seen by the light given off by the incredible object that hung suspended midway between the floor and roof of the chamber. It was a stone easily the size of an Orc that glowed in every colour of the rainbow.
The soldiers of the 105th Rifles stood open mouthed looking at the stone. Every one of them knew of Wylde Magicke in stories from their time as youngsters and had met those who possessed the smallest measure of magicke talent that remained in their world. But this, this was a lodestone, a centre of magicke power that could not exist any more. The sheer size of it was wondrous to behold but suddenly Lieutenant Rossorc felt a chill run down his spine despite the profound heat and light in the chamber. He clutched for the strange blade and took it out with what was now an intense and focused interest. His eyes and mind strained as he looked at the sword.
Wylde Magicke was a dangerous thing. It had driven the age before the Mordredian Wars and had brought life to all the creatures and monsters that had killed Orcs by the score every single day. Magicke was powerful and this lodestone held a very large amount of it. That meant that whatever had ended the owner of the Owl and Gristle, taken the serving wench and possibly much more had come from here and was no ordinary foe. Red shadows, claws of white, a preternatural speed and carved stone weapons. Rossorc knew this, he had schooling, but what did he know. What had these things been; something from a vanished age. What. What was it he was looking at?
“Sir. There on the other side of the chamber; up on the ledge. The girl, she's alive! What's that with her. Its not an Orc or a damn Elf... its...”
Rossorc looked and then remembered and then he screamed the word with all the horror that a racial memory of slaughter and pain brings from the deepest part of the mind.
At the mention of the very word the creature that stood over the bloodied and torn Orc girl went bolt upright and roared. It was more than twice the height of any of Rossorc's troops and even bigger than the largest of the Krautian Giant Legion Ogres that he had served alongside in Catalucia. Its arms were like the limbs of a mighty tree knotted with ridges of muscle under scaly flesh that was a deep red colour and its head was to him little more than a mouth crammed with razor like white teeth under two eyes that shone with the purest malevolence possible. One hand held a huge sword which was black as the coal that the new factories of Albion burned for fuel but more than this it had wings. Actual wings like a bird. On its back two wings that were the same red colour and tipped with sharp single claws. Russorc did not know if his rifles could kill this monster or even slow it down; it was like something from a nightmare.
Before he could act the huge Dracci finished its roar and two more of the Dragon Children appeared below in on the floor of the cavern. These two were much smaller than the apparent leader but both were easily bigger and stronger than any Orc had a right to be. One had a bullet wound that seeped blood in its shoulder and was holding a large wooden club. Its eyes were on the jade blade in Rossorc's hand. That had to be the shadow that Sergeant Horc had fired upon in the tunnel and it would seem that these Dracci could indeed be hurt by black powder.
The other Dracci wore long robes and held a large chunk of jade in its hand. It took the Lieutenant a moment to realise that the creature must be a mage; a wizard. There were no magicke users on Valon now but here was one who looked as is his might was not diminished by the Usurper Mordred's seizure of the Power Ring. This robed Dracci was chanting and to his horror Rossorc saw what he had assumed were the savaged corpses of the inn's patrons begin to rise to their feet. The damned mage was raising Undead to do battle with his Orcs.
Sergeant Horc broke the mesmeric moment by firing his rifle at the nearest of the now shambling Zombies that was coming towards the group of Orcs. His lead bullet blasted through the upper chest and neck of the cadaver and it toppled over. It kept trying to rise but without a head it simply flopped around ineffectually. Magicke could make the dead live once more it seemed but bullets would put them down again none the less. As Horc began to reload his Bakur Rifle the chaos really began.
Rossorc's troops did not need to be told their trade and all had assumed firing positions from which they loosed a well aimed volley at the oncoming Zombies. This small hail of lead downed all but one of the slow and graceless creations though two of them began to rise again even though their spines were shot through. As the Orcs began to reload their rifles they found that the black powder in their pouches would not fire. It had turned the colour of soil and was for all the world just like dirt. The magicke stone it seemed had annulled the power of the modern age on Valon. Rossorc realised this and sent two of his Orcs back to the chamber mouth and into the cold tunnel. From there they shouted that their black powder once more was potent and they kept up a long range procession of shots that knocked down those Zombies that kept on towards the soldiers.
The rifleorcs who remained in the chamber fixed their long sword bayonets to the ends of their rifles and prepared to fight at close quarters. Rifleorc Kurke suddenly vanished and then re-appeared shaken some ten feet to the right of where he had been. Rifleorc Banak who had been standing next to Kurke was surprised by this and he immediately floated up into the air before falling with a thump back to the chamber floor. Rossorc put out his hand to steady the rifleorcs and a stream of flame shot from his palm and surged across the ground. Magicke in the lode stone had affected the Orcs and brought out talents that had lain dormant in them since the end of the Darke Age.
Taking advantage of the confusion among the Orcs the Dracci charged towards the soldiers making sure to go around the floating stone. The wounded Dracci was the first to reach Rossorc as it had been the nearest and for that he was thankful. The leader was far larger but it was still coming on after it had leapt down from the ledge leaving the wench in a bloody heap. Rossorc met the creature with its own blade. His swing with the jade sword was not precise but it still smashed through the wooden club the Dracci carried with ease. He drew back his arm for another swing but the Dracci was so fast that it lashed out and knocked Rossorc back and down. He dropped the sword and that saved his life.
The Dracci bent down to lift its weapon and as it did so Horc and Kurke stabbed at it with their sword bayonets piercing its scaly hide in the chest and abdomen. They had it caught now and Rifleorc Bulgus moved in to deliver the killing blow but the Dracci lashed out and caught Bulgus across his stomach. Its claws eviscerated the Orc and he died screaming in pain in a pile of his own intestines. Sergeant Horc pulled a large horse pistol from his pack and fired it into the trapped Dracci's face. The pistol worked perfectly and the ball smashed the creature's face into a pulped ruin before blasting out the back of its skull. Both the rifleorcs pulled their bayonets free and allowed the Dracci to fall to a crumpled heap. Horc opened his cartridge box to discover his own powder for the pistol was now like dirt. Perhaps loaded fyrelocks would only work once in this magicke place.
Back from the carnage the Dracci mage was chanting and swirling the jade rock in its hand as it summoned up spells to destroy the Orcs. Pointing one clawed finger it singled out Rifleorc Banak and a ball of lightening silvered across the chamber and enveloped the soldier. Banak died without seeing what had ended him. All that remained of the Orc was a scattering of burnt cloth and his boots which smoked long after the smell of roasted meat and ozone had drifted on.
The mage began his swirling chants again but the two rifleorcs at the chamber entrance had seen the fate of Banak and now aimed all their shots at this Dracci who had killed their friend. One bullet then another and a third struck the mage who seemed unable to stop his chanting despite blood flowing freely from wounds in its chest and legs. The chanting reached a zenith and the mage pointing a finger at Rifleorc Kurke who was wrestling with the last Zombie who despite being a frail old Orc whose head was seemingly sown in place was beating down the strong young soldier. Kurke was saved by a forth shot from the distant rifleorcs. The bullet caught the mage in the elbow of the arm holding the jade rock which instantly sagged dropping the rock to the ground. If it were possible for a Dracci to scream in terror then the mage did as all the force built up and intended for Rifleorc Kurke detonated at its feet. The Dracci was shredded and its limbs and chunks of its torso were thrown all over the chamber in a mighty belch of gore.
Lieutenant Rossorc had regained his feet and now drew his own steel sword and his finely in engraved pistol that his elder brother had given him when he had gained a commission in the 105th. The massive Dracci was now almost upon him its body moving rapidly and well despite its bulk; its wings were folded down against its back and as it reached Rossorc it brought down its own sword in an arc designed to split him like a log. The leader's blade was obsidian a black rock studded with jagged pieces like teeth. Rossorc, as he dived aside, could see his own reflection in the six foot length of its blade. He looked and felt scared.
Roaring the Dracci lifted the black sword again and swung for Rossorc once more. The down stroke was interrupted by the impact of a rifle bullet that smacked into the great creature's chest with a noise like a pea hitting an oak plant and with as much effect. But it did defect the sword swing and Rossorc rolled away and stood. He took aim with the pistol, though if a Bakur Rifle could not hurt the monster then the light ball of the pistol would do nothing. About to pull the trigger he paused as Rifleorc Kurke materialised on the Dracci's back. The rifleorc had rapidly learned his new magicke talent and was using it to pull a fast one on the creature. Kurke had the discarded jade sword in both hands and managed to get it around the Dracci's neck where he then began desperately to try and saw through the knotted muscle.
Two more rifle shots smacked into the huge Dracci though they seemed not to bother it as all its attention was on getting a hold of Rifleorc Kurke. This it succeeded in doing after a few attempts and Kurke's fate was duly sealed. A huge clawed hand closed over the Orc's head and shoulders and with one sharp tug the Dracci tore off both of Kurke's arms; which remained attached to the jade sword about the monster's neck. The Dracci flicked the screeching body away in a crimson shower of blood to crunch messily to the chamber floor. As the severed arms and the sword dropped away it turned its attention back to Rossorc and the few Orcs left alive.
Inspiration is a rare thing but it came to the Lieutenant in that moment as he remembered two things. Firstly that it was magicke that lit the chamber and gave the Dragon Children their life force in this new age and secondly that magicke had given him a gift long lost to Orcish kind. The Dracci was now bleeding from a score of wounds and in a hurricane of rage. Its fellows were dead and their bolt hole discovered by enemies. It had nothing left to lose but it was going to kill this Orc if it was the last act it ever carried out. The obsidian rose once more and Rossorc stood quite motionless and dropped his own sword. The Dracci roared in triumphed and prepared to deliver the deadly stroke. But then Rossorc raised his hand and the breath of the long vanished dragons was visited upon their kin.
Flames leapt from Rossorc's outstretched palm and played across the face and torn neck of the Dracci who staggered and then tried to protect its eyes from the intense heat and voracious appetite of the fire. As it turned away Rossorc raised his pistol but instead of pointing it at the creature he aimed past it at the magicke load stone in the chamber's centre. He pulled the trigger and the pistol bucked.
With a noise like a clap of thunder the lodestone exploded into fragments and suddenly the chamber was pitched into darkness.
Sergeant Horc helped his commander back into the tunnel where the cold now felt more natural and the biting wind was gone. Only these two plus the rifleorcs who had been in the tunnel already had survived the encounter. They made their way slowly back along the tunnel until they reached the hole that led up to the cellar of the Owl and Gristle. Behind them they heard the sound of the chamber collapsing with a muffled crash. Horc helped Rossorc up through the hole and then the officer offered his hand to Horc who took it and pulled himself back into the guttering light of the cellar.
“Well sergeant. I think we had best keep this to ourselves eh. Orseguards would never believe us anyway and I will have to tell the local magistrate that a band of highway orcs, yes that will work, a band of those rascals attacked this coaching inn and us. We will morn those lost to us and not mention this again.”
Horc reflected on this and then said.
“Best tell them it was a bloody big band sir. Otherwise they will think the 'Rifles' a bunch of flowery Elves for dying so cheap.”
“A fine notion Horc. A fine notion. And as we know we sold ourselves anything but cheap this night.”
Out in the snow, far from the walls of the Owl and Gristle the ground sank where the chamber had been and a few trees toppled over. A patch of snow was thrown aside in a shaking heap of soil as a single arm thrust up to the surface. The arm was bloodied but it was a deep red in colour and ended in a set of the most wicked claws.
An Orcs in the Webbe Exclusive !
Gavin Syme is the creative manager of Alternative Armies and head of the World of Valon and Flintloque. Gavin has known of my love of the Dracci species for years and for my birthday each year he kindly puts something Dracci related together for me to read, enjoy and share with the readers of Orcs in the Webbe.
Gavin has also written a companion scenario in which you can take on the role of Lieutenant Rossorc and his brave rifleorcs against the Dracci menace under The Owl and Gristle - just click here.
"The Owl and Gristle Murders" was written exclusively for Orcs in the Webbe's 2011 Advent Calendar and was first published on Sunday 18th December 2011.