The Long Retreat No. 2

“Are you sure?” Hrothgar began. “I was—”

“—among the last working south of the city, yes.” Falthejn made a dismissive gesture. “We have some few minutes yet.” Petty predictions such as that were little more than lodge hall tricks, as far as divining went, but in this case, a lodge hall trick had made his point well. Hrothgar shifted nervously from foot to foot, but remained quiet.

Minutes passed, and evening passed into twilight. A sudden grinding of stone caught Falthejn’s attention. On the south wall, a tower, abandoned by now, yielded to the ontlig catapults. Half of it sloughed away, tumbling down the inner face of the wall to add to the pile of debris at its foot. Falthejn watched a moment longer, then said, “We must go.”

At the same time, Alfhilde pointed down a narrow alley to their left. “Look!”

A dirty-faced girl in boy’s clothes sprinted toward them, putting on a further turn of speed as she registered their presence. She came nearer, and skidded to a stop a few yards off, breathing hard.

“What is your name?” Falthejn said. “Are you alone?”

The girl eyed the sword sheathed at Falthejn’s side. Her eyes went wide as she saw the blood drying on Alfhilde’s hatchet.

“We aren’t going to hurt you,” Alfhilde said. “We’re leaving the city. You have to come with us. It isn’t safe to say. What’s your name?”

“Sif,” she said, still keeping her distance. “The others—” A deep breath turned into a sob, and she grew quiet for a long moment. “we were hiding, but the monsters found us, and we ran, and…” She trailed off, and looked between Falthejn and Alfhilde with tears rimming her eyes. “I don’t think anyone else is coming.”

Falthejn held her gaze. For a moment, no words came. “I’m sorry,” he said, with all the gentleness he could muster. “We have to leave now, if we intend to leave at all.”

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The Long Retreat No. 1

The sun sank low over the western horizon. As the shadows deepened, the fires raging across the city blazed brighter. Falthejn Arnarsson watched a moment, convinced it was no trick of the light. A moment later, the fires swirled, swelling thirty yards high, doubtlessly under the direction of an ontlig shaman. The firestorm spat dozens of tongues of flame, kindling new blazes no more than a hundred yards from Falthejn, then blew itself out.

He resisted the urge to tap his foot. His visions had been maddeningly unclear, but he was sure enough that there were survivors, two groups which would find him here shortly after the firestorm he’d just seen. Sooner, he thought, would be better. The last of the refugee columns had set out an hour ago, and the last delaying force south of the city was likely already overwhelmed. Unchecked, the ontlig tide rolled down the foothills outside the wall in that direction.

Movement down a broad avenue—Skogholm had been a beautiful town before all this—caught his eye. Two people ran toward him. One, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a shock of dark hair and a full beard, hefted a long, heavy axe. The other, a hard-faced, brown-haired woman of average size, bore an infant strapped to her chest. Tied to her arm with strips of cloth was an iron pan, and in her other hand, she carried a hatchet. As she drew closer, Falthejn saw it was already dripping with ontlig blood.

“Have they gained the town?” he called.

“At least one did,” the woman said feelingly. “Why are you still here?”

“I am Falthejn Arnarsson, diviner with the army. I’m taking the last few stragglers out of the city.”

They regarded him cautiously—rightly, too. Falthejn knew how poorly regarded his fellow föraningsmagiker tended to be, and the self-centered lot of them ordinarily deserved it. Finally, the man spoke. “I am Hrothgar Hrafnssen. This is my wife, Alfhilde Asgeirsdottir, and our son Jakob. We should not delay.”

“There are others.” Falthejn kept watch down the streets opening onto the marktplatz in which they stood.

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Commentary, The Long Retreat No. 1

Today (as I’m writing this notation; yesterday as it’ll run) is (was) my birthday, and in celebration, I got you new story content.

The Long Retreat is, of course, a return to the setting for the very first content I ever posted at Many Words, and to date, for the about 90% of the content I’ve had published. (At around this time last year, actually. I’ll run it around Halloween.) For this story, I’ve pushed the Norse influence angle, and I think it makes for a more cohesive-feeling world. Before, you had Viking names for things in a traditional high-fantasy sort of world. Now, it feels a little more grounded to me. We’ll see what you think in the coming months.

At the Fish Bowl, more procurement posts are in the pipeline, and I hope to keep those updating once or twice a week, so if you’ve enjoyed our foray into defense affairs blogging, good news for you.

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Friday content update

I have another defense-affairs-oriented blog post up at the Fish Bowl.

I’m thirteen notebook pages into the next story, and so far, so good. It’s flowing nicely. I have a feel for the characters, and the nature of the action lends itself to your getting to know them. I’m excited to start posting for, uh, next Tuesday? Man. That break really flew by.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 87

“That just about wraps up our business, doesn’t it?” said Cannon. “Except for one thing. What are you, really? I’ve had about enough of the monk act.”

The abbot glanced sharply at Masaracchia, who shook his head. “It was not my secret to tell.”

Lasalvatore mulled that over before he made his answer. “We are humble men of God, ministering here to the poor and the lost. We are also more. There are those who would see us destroyed—not persecuted or driven away, but stamped out forever. We, among others, are Rome’s answer.”

“Warrior monks?” Cannon said, eyebrows raised. “Never thought I’d see the day.” The abbot smiled tightly, saying no more, and Cannon shrugged. “No further questions.”

The abbot nodded, and seemed about to speak, but Masaracchia interrupted. “There is one more thing.” He took a small, paper-stuffed, leather-bound notebook, yellowed with age, from his pocket, then passed it to Cannon. “I found it in the tomb, after the lights went out. Only after I read through some of it did I realize its significance.”

“Van der Hoek’s journal,” Cannon breathed, turning the first few pages. Reverently, he folded the notebook closed and tucked it carefully into a pocket, hand hovering nearby as though to reassure himself it was still there.

“That does conclude our business,” said Lasalvatore. “It is possible, at some later time, that we may have need of a man of your resources again. May we contact you by the same means if we do?”

“You pay what you promise,” said the captain. “Make me an offer, I’ll listen. It’s been a pleasure dealing with you.”

di Giacomo and Lecocq lifted the last chest into the Albatross and climbed the ladder. Cannon followed them a moment later, and all three of them hauled the ladder inside and slammed the loading door closed.

 

Masaracchia joined the abbot, watching the Albatross claw into the sky from the ramparts. As the buzz of its engines faded, Lasalvatore spoke in Latin. “We would have preferred you kept the journal.”

The set of Masaracchia’s shoulders changed, and he drew his feet together. “I took notes, sir. The captain is a formidable personality, and I judged the goodwill worth the price.”

“A formidable personality indeed.” The abbot watched the Albatross for a moment more, as it faded to a speck nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding sky, then turned to face Masaracchia. “As you have shown yourself to be. For that reason—the ceremony will come later, of course—it is my honor to be the first to call you Brother-Knight.”

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Commentary, Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 87

The end!

Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross began posting on May 7th, 2013, and ended a full seventeen months later. It totals 28,300 words, just about.

I’m glad to finally see it finished, and I hope you enjoyed the ride. As I mentioned in another post, I’ll be taking a two-week break to get further ahead on my next story. Hopefully I can maintain a better pace into that one.

I’ll be around between now and then with updates on the writing process, and possibly some further gaming and livestreaming content. (Follow me at hitbox.tv/fishbreath.)

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross No. 86

A minute passed, and a small procession of monks shuffled out of the gate, which closed behind them. More appeared on the ruined ramparts, watching the surrounding hills and the town below.

The Albatross’ cargo door opened, and a ladder appeared from within. Cannon, Lecocq, Masaracchia, and di Giacomo clambered down.

“Brother Masaracchia, Captain Cannon,” said the first monk in line—Lasalvatore, the abbot, Cannon recognized. “I am glad to see your safe return.”

“More or less safe.” Cannon limped up beside Masaracchia. “Why the welcome party?”

“So that we may finish our exchange in safety.”

Cannon looked between di Giacomo and Lecocq, and the dozen monks he could see. Wryly, he said, “I thought we were better friends than that.”

One of the monks chuckled, and the abbot smiled. “You are not my only iron in the fire. Do you have the cross?” Masaracchia nodded. “What did you find?”

“Cultists,” Cannon said. “They attacked us in the tomb.” A look passed between Lasalvatore and Masaracchia, which Cannon chose to ignore. “Do you have our payment?”

The abbot spoke in Latin, and the castle gates creaked open again. Four monks pushed out two carts between them, each cart carrying four small chests. Cannon nodded, and di Giacomo and Lecocq began to heave the chests up into the Albatross.

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