A tale inspired by and written for The Ninth Age, a tabletop fantasy war game. For more information on this wondrous hobby please see hither: The Ninth Age
CAPTAIN PALING: The Better of Two Evils
“The Mercs have arrived, Captain! They’re currently tearing up the pub” Bawled the militiamen round the door in what he hoped was an efficient delivery.
“Yes thank you, Corporal. I’ve already heard them…” Captain Paling sighed and withdrew his pipe from his mouth. He smoothed his greying moustache and added as the militiamen smartly slammed the door behind him, “…And smelt them”.
He took a long sip of tea, rest his pipe and quill on the table and stepped out of the barracks in to the glaring dusk to meet Grunthemberg’s latest guests.
Paling had been a State Trooper then a sergeant for the best part of his life, fighting in the Emperors’ army out of Middenstaad. After retiring to Grunthemberg he redirected his energies into enhancing the Town Militia. The township was a hub on a major trade route and a sink hole for renegades, despots and rich merchants alike. Dwarves brought gold from the north, various cousin states brought goods from the east and the Kingdoms of Equataine brought wine and exotic produce from the west.
It’s fair to say that throughout his years the Captain had seen his fair share of combat and the freakier side of the Empire and its dubious inhabitants. He often wondered what possessed him to settle here of all places – his own subconscious self-destructive nature or that he’d always been a soldier and needed to keep busy in the thick of it. But all of that being said, he was always a little wary when dealing with ogres.
In the Captain’s experience, Ogres were usually as civil as they could possibly be as long as they knew there was gold to be earned (and you didn’t mind the belching. And the smell). They never purposefully did too much damage to the town as long as they knew they were going to get paid. And it’s always nice to see people with hearty appetites; no matter how much of the town’s precious livestock they went through.
All the same it was always unnerving for the Captain having, for all intent and purpose, an 8ft-tall-built-like-a-fortified-outhouse-thug standing in front of him speaking the Emperors’ tongue; furthermore, he knew full well that each one of them not only had the strength to kick down a barn door, but more importantly the rest of the barn and half the farm house to boot. Only after the inevitable beer break would the rest of the house come down.
They also had a mean streak when it came to gold. Their ugly craterous features contorted and leered whenever there was even mention of money. T’is a fool who flaunts his cash within ear shot of an ogre.
However, it was in desperate times like these that the old veteran thanked Sunna that these freakish humanoids came along when they did and was determined to treat them as a blessing in disguise. A very, very, very good disguise.
Anomalies were afoot in ‘The Hallows’, the shadowed forest east of the township. Not only were there disconcerting happenings in the forest but things were also going bump in the night throughout the town too. The usual ragtag of Greenskin raiding parties and Beast Herd hunts had suddenly lifted. There hadn’t been a peep out of either of them in over a month.
Now, Captain Paling was no thrill seeker nor megalomaniac, but he had sworn an oath to stand by his duty: These things had to be investigated. The only problem was that the last few patrols he’d sent out to have a nosey about came back either in a state of petrifaction or just hadn’t come back at all. Furthermore, every time the Captain himself went out to find out what had happened to his men he found nothing, no bodies.
What’s more, it had been noted that there had been a lot more fog than usual and a constant drizzle of rain never experienced by the township. Perhaps just as strangely, both the eastern watch towers had had strange callers knocking in the dead of night. When watchmen answered the door or called out there was never anyone there.
There were reports from the villagers of ghastly things abroad. Unholy noises and dark stalking things. Orcs are noisome, awkward things that don’t care for the finer points of ambush or strategy. Beast folk are quite the opposite and would be quite happily chomping your face off before you knew you were being ambushed. In either case, both species would leave similar evidence of their passing; namely carnage, fire and defecation. And anyway Orcs wouldn’t think of actually trying to take the towers; they’re just bored. Nor the Beasts. They’re just hungry and hateful. No this was something else.
There had been reports from the town folk of strange figures lurking on street corners just outside the light of the street lamps. Even his beloved granddaughter, Ellisa, had seen something strange in the wood shed. Paling himself had on several occasions seen a mysterious unidentified coach rattling over the cobbles at ludicrous speeds before vanishing into the fog; sometimes with a cowled or hooded figure at the whip, and sometimes with no driver at all.
In his wisdom the veteran had doubled the night watch and the Assistants of Ullor were on full alert. A Warrior Prelate was on his way from Middenstaad to take up residence in the rectory following the strange and mystifying disappearance of his predecessor a few weeks back.
There had also been reports of strange lights emanating from the derelict wizards tower in the heart of the Hallows.
The captain didn’t want to admit the niggling suspicion in the back of his mind and knew better to garner some proof first before allowing panic to run riot through Grunthemsberg due to the careless chit-chat of his Militiamen.
He marched across the village green towards the noise of revelry. The Landlord of the Giants Head Tavern must have seen the mercs coming and erected ‘The Pen’ just in time. This was a temporarily fenced area that was basically the ogres own private beer garden with a shelter off to the side of the main beer garden. This was to help stem interaction between the outsiders and the townsfolk- so the ogres don’t intimidate any of the regulars or bar staff. There they could drink, eat and brawl to their hearts content. It appeared these frivolities were already in full swing. Barrels were hurriedly being taken out by wheel barrow and stacked under the makeshift marquee of canvas, timber and sheep skins.
The Pen was largely Captain Paling’s idea. The landlord and townsfolk magnanimously helped erect it, rightly reasoning that it was preferable to having inebriated ogres staggering through the midnight streets of Grunthemsberg.
The Captain recognised the leader of the ogres instantly. Regor, The Old Dodger, bailiff and wrangler extraordinaire. Him and his band had been plying there trade around these parts for years now-The hulking great beast was using a table in the beer garden as a chair, happily glugging from a barrel of Grizzly Badger XX and guzzling a mound of trottered flesh. As the captain approached it looked up with its one good eye, adjusted the patch on the other, and pulled the biggest, evilest, greediest grin. The monsters tusks were cracked and a disgustingly discoloured state. His skin was scarred, pocked and whiskery. He was armoured and armed to the hilt. And judging by the leer, it was clear the ogre smelt gold.
“What ya got for me Cap’?” rumbled Regore nonchalantly, although with a tell tale glint in his one good eye.
“Reconnoitre. Anything moving in the forest, kill it. Unless of course it’s one of our lads; in which case you are under strict instructions not to eat him. Instead, bring him back to the barracks. Got it?”
“Yes sir, Cap’. Said the ogre slowly and deliberately, a touch of sarcasm in his delivery. “An’ how much will this little adventure cost the good people of Grunthemsberg…Sir?”
The veteran didn’t miss a beat, “We don’t have a lot, Regore. As I’m sure you and your…men are aware, we’re a poor rural community on the fringes of the wilds. A merchant hasn’t come through here in more than a month. We pride ourselves on being able to provide for ourselves. As a community we…”
“Cut to the chase Cap’, I’m a busy…man.” The ogre leered at him once more then took a long deep swig from his barrel. The force of the resultant and overly humid burp made Captain Palin struggle to maintain his balance.
However, he carried on relentlessly, “we have half a dozen oxen ready for spit, three dozen loaves and a dozen barrels of Grizzly Badger…”
“Yes sir,” The Captain continued. “Three sacks of Grunthem Vine and a handful of gold.”
“Your handful or my handful, Cap’?”
“Erm, my granddaughter’s handful actually. Quite literally…”
The ogre shook with laughter. The bench creaked, his talismans rattled, his armour clanked and the ground tremored “Alright Cap. Whatever’s in that forest ‘ain’t gonna be there for much longer. You got yourself a deal.”
The monster stood blocking out the sun, shadowing the captain and making him suddenly quite chilled. The bench tipped over behind the ogre and with an audible groan collapsed. Regore shouldered his enormous, notched broadsword and bellowed “Boys, tool up and ship out. We gotta job to do!”
There was much bawdy cheering and adulation.
Captain Paling couldn’t help himself, “Aren’t you even going to ask what’s out there?”
“‘S’all the same to me Cap’. If it’ll bleed, we’ll smash it.”
The ogre stomped off to round up his band. His comrades immediately halted their drinking, eating, urinating and intimidating and armed themselves. The Captain watched him go with a mix of shame, perplexity and awe. He caught himself but called after the ogre anyway.
The ogre half turned with a look of almost bemusement.
“We’re…we’re counting on you, Regor.”
The ogre pulled his biggest grin yet. “I know” and turned back to his mob.
Paling didn’t know whether to spit at him or kiss him.
Ellisa ran up and grabbed his leg. “What have you let those big bad men in here for Granddaddy?”
The old vet stooped down and hauled the mini human up to his chest. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and said. “Because they’re good big, bad men, Princess. And I’m hoping…praying, they’re going to help us out.”
The Captain then turned his attention to the dark wooded horizon between the two eastern towers and his eyes narrowed. The sun was dying. As if by some mocking sorcery a shrill shriek came over the tops of the withered trees. It was answered by a blood curdling howl then another and then another. Thin black silhouettes exploded out over the top of the withered and contorted canopy.
Captain Paling furrowed his brow, bit his lip and tried to make light of this dark omen “look at all those birds, Ellisa. How many do you reckon there are?”
“They’re not birds, Granddaddy. They’re bats.”