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The Ragged Man


The Tale of an unlikely hero...

The ragged man dreamed. He knew he was dreaming. There his children laughed and played in the rose garden. Here his wife smiled at him, the love in her eyes like the touch of the Sun. Gone were the blood and the screams. Gone was the rage, pain and fear as they staked him down and forced him to watch the savage torments they inflicted on those he loved more than life itself. While he dreamed like this he was sane again and happy for a while. Sometimes the dreams were darker and he was forced to watch the ruination of his life and love again. Sleep was an enemy then. A betrayer unimpressed with the screams of his children haunting his every waking hour, allowing the agony to intrude into his fortress of dreams. Rarer still were those times when he watched the tragedy unfold dispassionately, a mere observer watching with a curious detachment. In these dreams he could see the point when the screams snapped his mind and his old self fled deeper and deeper into the false sanctuary of madness. There almost seemed to be another watcher in those dreams, railing impotently at him, at what he’d become. This others voice was always quiet as though shouting from a distance. The ragged man ignored it. One thing was constant. Whenever the ragged man awoke he wished he hadn’t. His first waking act of every day for the past few months had been to sob like a child, curled wherever he had lain the night before. The villagers were kind enough and gave him food in exchange for odd jobs. Mad he may have been but the ragged man was strong as an ox. There was always some work simple enough for him to do, usually work that would have taken two or three of the stout village men to accomplish. Balisong knew none of this as he paused in the act of opening the small tavern door. He looked at the huge, rag-clothed man sobbing at the side of the street, and a sense of almost recognition touched him. He let the door fall shut and turned towards the ragged man for a better look. As soon as he moved the ragged man looked up, eyes wild with fear and fled down the single street "He never takes to strangers that one" came a voice. Balisong turned to regard the speaker and saw a slim young man standing in the now open door of the tavern. Wisps of blonde hair had struggled free of the dark blue kerchief that covered his head. His green eyes, rare this far north, regarded the short gray haired bowman before him intently. It was a small enough village that strangers were always a source of interest, and often of suspicion. Balisong inclined his head. "Strange to see so large a man so frightened" he said his eastern origin making the northern tongue suddenly musical. "The ragged man isn’t quite right in the head" replied the youth. He stepped back into the doorway, making room for Balisong to enter the inn. "I’m Arvin," he continued. "Please come in and we can talk inside. I’ll wager the dust of the trail is still coating your mouth". Balisong bowed deeper this time, moving his arms clear of his body, palms facing the young innkeep. "I am Balisong of Charthas and I thank you for your invitation and your trust". He stepped smoothly past Arvin who was impressed despite himself at the strangers’ courtesy. The inn was a small but well kept place with large windows that let in the pale northern sun. A large oak table ran along the western wall with a single long bench on either side for the patrons to seat themselves. Smaller tables dotted the rest of the floor and a sturdy looking bar ran along the southern wall, pitted and scored from years of use but still polished and clean. A small doorway led from behind the bar, probably to the kitchens guessed Balisong. Indeed a plump young woman was peeping round the frame at the sound of voices. Balisong looked at her pretty round face with approval. He rarely admitted it, even to himself, but one of the reasons for traveling so far from the empire of Charthas was that the women there were too delicate for his taste. Arvin noticed her to and a smile broke out on his face. "Lena my dove this is Balisong, come from Charthas of all places". Balisong bowed again as Lena smiled warmly at him. "Welcome to you Balisong" she said, smiling at the sound of his name. "Would you like some tea? You strike me as a man who has the decency to let the sun awaken properly before his thirst for ale does." She looked pointedly at Arvin as she spoke and he rolled his eyes. Obviously this was a conversation often heard in this household. The small bowman found himself warming to the young couple. "A glass of water would see me in your debt good lady" he replied. "I do not drink." He smiled apologetically at Arvin, knowing his wife would probably add this to her store of arguments against his drinking. Lena grinned at Balisong as if she shared the same thought and moved back through the small door. Arvin motioned Balisong to a chair and they both sat at one of the small tables. "So our ragged man interests you does he?" asked Arvin, eyebrows raised. "I would have thought that a man as traveled as yourself would have seen many things more interesting than that poor soul." Balisong divested himself of his unstrung bow and placed the weapon and quiver onto an adjoining table. "He seemed familiar to me," replied the easterner. "Would you have time to tell me how he came to be here?" Lena arrived back in the taproom and handed Balisong a large clay cup full of cool water. Balisong raised the cup to her in thanks and turned his attention back to Arvin. The innkeep shrugged. "Little enough to tell my friend" he said. "He arrived here one night some months back, red eyed and wailing like a child." Arvins’ eyes took on a far away look as he thought back. "Naked he was and covered in wounds, the skin around his ankles and wrists were black with blood". He stood and moved behind the bar, casting a guilty glance towards the kitchens as he poured himself a small measure of ale. "I can hear you well enough Arvin" came Lenas’ voice from the doorway. "Make sure that’s your one and only before tonight, there’s work to be done". Her voice carried an undertone of amusement and Balisong guessed Arvins’ drinking was no real problem, merely a vehicle for some good-natured wrangling between husband and wife. Arvin grinned like a naughty child as he sat back at the table. "Caused quite a stir he did," he continued. "No-one knew what to make of him at first". Arvin took a small sip of ale, licking the froth from his lips with obvious relish. "Some wanted him driven away in case whatever had wounded him so followed him here". Arvin smiled and looked again to the kitchens as he spoke. "Others, my Lena among them, would hear nothing of such an action. They bathed him and treated his wounds as best they could." The inkeeps’ smile fell. "Sobbed the whole time he did, rocking back and forth. Nothing we could say seemed to get through to him. Wherever he was that night his spirit is there still". He locked eyes with Balisong. "You don’t need to be a priest or a thaumist to know wherever he is it’s somewhere bad". The eastern bowman looked somber as he heard the tale and shook his head, wondering anew at the cruelty that the world allowed to crawl across her skin. Arvin moved his cup and leant his elbows on the table. "Now he does the odd job around the village for food and shelter in barns and the like. He was no beggar before he came here that’s for certain". Balisong also leant forward, his interest piqued. "How so?" he asked. "You’ve seen the size of the man," he said. "It’s not simple bulk. He’s muscled like I’ve rarely seen. My own father was a bear of a man and the ragged man would have dwarfed him". Arvin shook his head wonderingly. "Sometimes his eyes almost seem to clear and he stands tall and proud. Most of the time he’s almost crouched as though he doesn’t want to be noticed." He sighed. "I suppose the weight of such terrible memories, whatever they may be, can bow the strongest back". The small easterner nodded slowly, mind searching across the brief glimpse of the ragged mans’ face and trying to fit it to his memories. Try as he might he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had seen this man before. Balisong shook the thoughts from his head; he had more corporeal matters to attend to. "Would I be able to lodge here Arvin?" he asked. "A night in a real bed after so long on the road would be most welcome". Arvin stood, picking up Balisongs’ small pack as he did so. "Of course my friend" he replied. "The rooms are both small but Lena keeps them well cleaned. It’ll be two copper pieces for a night and that will include your meal this evening." He led Balisong through the door behind the bar and through another door on the immediate right. This led to a cramped staircase that led a short way up to the guest rooms. The innkeep chose the furthest door and motioned Balisong into the room. As Arvin had said it was small but clean and the large window looked out onto the village street. A table stood beneath the window, bearing a jar full of fresh mountain daisies. Balisong felt at home almost immediately. He counted out two copper coins and handed them to Arvin, smiling his thanks. Arvin nodded in return. "If you go into the village you can expect a lot of questions my friend. The last bit of excitement we had here was the ragged man and you’ll cause almost as big a stir as he did, seeing as how most of us here have never seen an easterner before". Balisong bowed slightly, grateful for the warning. The bowmans’ voice stopped Arvin as he turned to leave. "And do you have no questions of your own Arvin?" he asked, eyebrows raised. Arvin pulled the blue kerchief from his head as he spoke. "A few if I’m honest" he admitted. "Firstly though I’m an innkeeper. I’m here to make sure you’re comfortable and happy here if you stay, not to badger guests with questions". He laughed as he left the room. "And of course I’m here to charge you for the privilege. Dinner will be served an hour after sundown Balisong, I’ll see you then if not before." The door closed leaving Balisong alone with his thoughts. He moved to the window, throwing it open to hear the sounds of the village children and the hammering of the smithy. Such sounds comforted the easterner, accustomed as he was to the sounds of the bugle and horn, the screams and shouts of too many battlefields. Should the townsfolk ask him questions Balisong thought they would be disappointed with the simple answers he had to give them. There was no mystery as to why he was here. The northern highlands were simply one place he had never seen and so here he was. His skill with a bow, far above the ordinary if truth were told, had allowed him to wander as he wished, mostly as part of some mercenary force but sometimes his money was won in tourneys. On the whole Balisong preferred to fire his arrows at straw rather than living targets. Living targets simply paid better. Balisong moved the bed closer to the wall and sat cross-legged upon the floor, allowing the everyday sounds of simple life to lull him into the dream state. Perhaps here would come the elusive answer to the puzzle of the ragged man. At sundown the easterner was still deep in the dream state. Arvin had neglected to mention that today was the birthday of Kalliy Forswelds’ three young daughters. The triplets had been born eight winters ago, nearly coming into the world as orphans as the long labour exacted a terrible toll on poor Kalliy. She had lived though and the villagers saw her three golden haired daughters as a special gift from the All-Father. As such their birthdays’ were a time of togetherness in the small village and the people gathered in the small square outside the inn to thank the Father and make a fuss of the girls. The noise of the gathering did not intrude into Balisongs trance, even when Arvin and Lena began distributing rounds of free ale, as was their wont on this occasion. Neither did the sound of hoof beats rouse him, or the startled shouts of the villagers as the score of horsemen enclosed them in a rough semi-circle. They were all well armed but less well armoured. The riders all had a hard look about them and a coldness in the eyes. Their clothes, once well made, were now travel-worn and moth-eaten. One of them, a broad shouldered man with an axe slung across his back leapt from his horse as two others knocked arrows to their bows. The leader of the men smiled nastily as he looked at the frightened villagers before him. These small hamlets were always the same he mused. Never enough money or women in them to make it worthwhile really. He smiled again. They were just so easy. He unslung his axe and raised his voice so the assembled villagers could hear. "Who we are doesn’t matter," he said in a voice made harsh by strong drink and a meanness of soul. "You know why we are here." He glanced around the frightened group, satisfied that none would meet his eyes. "What little money you have and maybe a woman or two and we’ll be gone". Behind him his men laughed quietly to each other, confident of another easy raid. They hadn’t even had to kill anyone for weeks. They still did it of course and found it to be a much more pleasurable experience when the victim wasn’t trying to kill you in return. To these men murder was a far better proposition than actual fighting. The leader turned as Arvin walked towards him, ignoring Lena's clutching arm and frightened look. "What little we have we work hard for" he said, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice. "You will take nothing from us without a fight". It looked as though Arvin was about to say more but the bandit leader simply backhanded him across the face, lifting the young man from his feet and pitching him into the dirt. His expression never changed as he watched Arvin roll onto his back, clutching at his shattered jaw. The horsemen laughed again, louder this time. The leader glanced toward the three pretty blonde girls clutching at their mothers skirts and gazing with wide, fearful eyes. "Choka, Tom, cover those girls". The bowmen swung round to point their arrows at the triplets. "If anyone else tries anything the young ones there will be the first to die." The girls began to wail as Kalliy pulled them closer. "Not my babies!" she screamed. "Don’t kill my little ones!" The bandit leader began to walk towards the children, pulling a knife from a scabbard with his free hand, determined to show these idiot villagers he wouldn’t balk from the slaying of babes. Everybody turned as one at the bloodcurdling scream that sounded from behind the inn and in his room Balisongs eyes flicked open, a name burning across his mind. "The Ghosthammer," he whispered, just as all hell broke loose in the village square. The ragged man had hidden as soon as the riders had appeared. Dimly he remembered men such as these. Cold men. Killers. He cowered behind the inn almost gibbering in his unreasoning terror, tears streaming down his face. Then he heard once more the screams of children and the voice "Don’t kill my little ones!" The screams tore into his mind like a hurricane and he fell to the earth, hands over his ears, trying to block out the terrible sounds. He could not escape them. With the voices outside shut out he fell prey to the screams inside his head. The screams of his own little ones as their lives were taken from them. The ragged man screamed himself a shocking sound of pain and loss and again something in his mind snapped. This time it was the prison in which his old self had languished for so long, driven there by his madness and grief. His scream changed to one of rage, a fury denied for too long, a fury that could cow the dark lady herself. The ragged man rose, his tears stopping as his eyes cleared and he charged from behind the inn. The bandit leader was hurled from his feet as the huge warrior, no longer the ragged man but the Ghosthammer once more cannoned a fist into his face. The crunch of bone was clearly audible as his neck snapped under the force of the assault. As he fell the Ghosthammer plucked his axe from the air without slowing and tore into the shocked horsemen like a black wind. Two arrows slashed into the throats of the bowmen, following so fast upon each other that the villagers believed there were two bowmen in the inns front bedroom. The Ghosthammer was moving with a speed that belied his great size. In the midst of so many riders he should have been dead in the first charge. His axe was a blur as it hacked and slashed into the now terrified bandits. Arrows continued to rain down, each one perfectly targeted, each one finding its’ mark in unprotected flesh. The Ghosthammer slammed a backhand blow with his fist into the face of a horse pressing in behind him. The beast fell as if pole-axed, crushing its’ rider beneath it as it went down. He dodged two slashes from a cavalry sabre, disemboweling the wielder even as he plucked another rider from his saddle with the other hand, throwing him to the ground with crushing force. Between the unceasing hail of death coming from the inn and the savage attack of the huge warrior what little nerve the bandits had broke and those few that survived wheeled their mounts to escape. Again showing uncanny speed for a man so large the Ghosthammer gave chase. Balisong felled another three, one of his arrows punching through the back of a riders’ skull and somersaulting him from his saddle. The huge warrior hurled his shoulder into one horse, pitching it from its’ feet. The last rider had made too much ground to catch on foot. The hurled axe cannoned into his back, smashing his spine and tearing from his chest such was the force with which it was thrown. Now Ghosthammer towered over the last bandit whose wide-eyed terror was like a soothing balm over his tortured soul. "And now you die killer of children" he said, his voice low and chilling. The Ghosthammer raised a huge foot and slammed it into the bandits’ skull, crushing the life form him instantly. He turned back to the village square to see the villagers looking at him in amazement. Moments ago there had stood the ragged man. The weeping giant who was to be pitied. Now there stood the man who had broken the ranks of the black priests’ elite guard at the battle of Darkisle. There stood the man who had stood over the fallen prince Wickliffe at Taramir, killing the dozen men who had sought the young princes life. Here stood the unkillable. Here stood a legend. Here stood the Ghosthammer.



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Thanks to Ian Anthony King for this contribution!

 


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