Phil Athans and I wanted to do a barbarian character in the vein of Conan, so we came up with Arron of the Black Forest. We hope you enjoy his adventures.
With Hounds on His Heels
The driving rain made the dog’s feral snarl gurgle before it was lost to another deafening crash of thunder. Arron’s stolen horse kicked back at the dog close on its hooves, and both animals stumbled.
The dog was fast, and of a breed Arron had never seen before. It resembled the big white wolves of the Frozen Vast, but its coat was darker—a mottled red-brown. Its fangs shined white in the darkness in a long, pointed snout under big, sensitive, upright ears. Its long legs were a blur of motion, and it was surprisingly surefooted even in the patently awful conditions. Someone had bred this dog carefully and trained it well.
Arron tilted precariously in his saddle but dragged himself back to center with both strong arms.
“Sovitta-Maton awaits you if you fall!” Arron shouted at the horse, invoking the name of the God of Darkness, Cold, and Cruelty that his lost people both hated and honored. The horse didn’t pay any attention to his curse.
The hound tripped, too, giving Arron’s horse a stride’s lead, but that wasn’t going to be nearly enough. The barbarian gritted his teeth and squeezed the horse’s flanks with thighs like temple columns. The animal grunted, but it obeyed. Arron allowed a quick smile for both the horse and himself as the beast put a few more strides between itself and the pursuing hounds.
A brilliant flash of lightning revealed the wide-scattered trees, still mostly bare of leaves in the first few weeks of spring. Arron had lost track of anything like a trail long ago, and he’d done so on purpose. The men who followed them meant to take him back to Townshend dead or alive, and since Arron had no intention of going back there alive, he was once again in a fight for his life.
He’d gone to Townshend, the Heteronomy’s stinking little fishing village, a thousand miles south of the southern edge of the Black Forest, having hired on to guard a trade caravan. It was the first such thing he’d ever seen: a line of ox-driven carts half a mile long. He was used to the sea, the bogs, and the wild lands.
Arron didn’t get on well with the other guards, or the caravaneers. They constantly harangued him about the color of his hair, insisting he’d dyed it—likewise the first time he’d heard of such a thing.
It was hard enough for Arron to work alongside even the common folk of the Heteronomy, the faceless empire that had destroyed his people, his home, his way of life. But what made it harder still was that the colonists seemed barely to remember the war at all, as though it was but a distant memory.
Arron had no idea how long he’d lay in the mud—long enough for the Heteronomy’s magi to conjure the great glacier—but it couldn’t have been as long as it seemed. It couldn’t have been years. Could it? His people—forest hunters and coastal seamen with only a rudimentary written language—didn’t share the Heteronomy’s complex calendar. Their dates were of no use to him.
Regardless, he’d found himself in Townshend, among fishermen he grudgingly recognized as simple folk, not his enemies, not warriors, and not the magi who’d entombed his people in ice. He sat with them in their tavern, drank with them, and learned more of their language. Every once in a while a scuffle broke out, but Arron always held back. He broke a few noses, blackened a few eyes, but always his opponent crawled home to sleep it off—until that night.
The man was drunk when he came in, as were his men. To Arron they seemed no more sensible than the bog apes he’d challenged months before. They sang songs Arron didn’t understand, were coarse with the serving wenches, and drunkenly confronted one fisherman after another. The commoners only nodded, forced smiles, and got the hell out of there.
Arron didn’t like that at all, but was willing to ignore them, even when the insults were finally hurled his way. They commented on his rough hide clothing, the homespun wine-colored cloak on his back, his worked-leather bracers, his notched and well-used axe … But most of all they hated his red hair, held up with a beaded band that had been a First Hunt gift from his mother. The people of the Heteronomy didn’t dress like that, and they didn’t have red hair.
Then he said it, the leader of the drunks: “Oi, Ginger! You’ve the look of a barbarian of the Black Forest!”
That got a laugh out of his men, and Arron tightened his grip on his heavy pewter mug.
“I thought we took care of the last of them forest monkeys years ago!”
Though he had no idea what a monkey was, Arron clenched his square jaw.
“Guess them brutes’re like fish—there’s always one gets away!”
That’s when Arron hit him, and hit him hard.
Whether or not he meant to kill the man, he did—caved in the side of his skull and dropped him right there in the middle of the drinking hall. His own men, staggering drunk, just stood there and watched their boss shudder to a stop on the floor.
“General?” one of the men slurred.
“Holy stinkin’ shite, you killed the general!” another of the men—soldiers, then—accused.
Arron shrugged, then he had to kill a couple more of them to make good his escape. He stole a horse and headed south only because it was the shortest way out of town. He wasn’t headed anywhere in particular because he had nowhere in particular to go.
It took the better part of a week before they even started to chase him, and even though Arron hadn’t been moving too fast, he couldn’t help but be at least a little impressed that the posse had caught up to him as fast as they had. They chased him for a month, at turns getting a little closer then a little farther behind him, as Arron rode ever south, hugging the east coast of the second of the four Hooks: great peninsulas that curled out from the east coast to reach a few hundred miles out into the Sea of Ghalon.
It wasn’t necessarily the smartest path. He should have gone west, deeper into the colonies. As it was, he figured he had a few days at most before he literally ran out of land. If he made it to the tip of the Hook, he’d be trapped—and he’d have to fight his way out.
Lightning flashed and Arron smiled.
Thunder rattled his ears, and as it faded he heard the dog growl behind him.
Then a flash of brilliant blue-white light stabbed into Arron’s eyes. He winced and squinted while a bolt of lightning as big around as his solid-muscled waist dug into what was left of a tree. Sparks flew and Arron could feel the heat of it—it felt as though his skin was lifting off his body, every little hair first.
The dog behind him yelped and the horse reared up, echoing the dog’s scream, only louder. The horse’s hooves slipped in the mud and its next scream was overwhelmed by thunder that rattled Arron’s teeth.
The horse began to fall on him.