Joining the Ride
By Jack Holder
They always got boys.
Harsk took another drink. The tavern was home to him and his Riders, as much as anywhere was. There were barely enough lamps to bathe the taproom in a pale glow. The chairs were scattered around, two or three leaning against a wall to hide a missing leg.
He breathed deep. There was a lot to be said about the truth of a scent. Sights could be blocked, sounds muted, tastes overwhelmed, but the scent will always remain. Like the cigar smoke that hung in the chairs, the ash long sunk into the seats. Or the beer stains of a lager the bartender broke out for a new birthday, or one of the serving girls having a baby. There was blood from a bar fight, and there was old rain soaked into the roof, the scent of iron mixing with musty wood. It spoke of a place that had grown settled into the dirt, and happy being humble.
It was perfect.
Harsk scrunched his eyes shut, enjoying the burn of whiskey as it hit his gullet. He knew behind him were two of his Riders, three tables away. Far enough away that Harsk could be considered alone, but ready to jump in if anyone with a grudge walked in.
They were good boys, both of them. Harsk couldn’t remember their names. They hadn’t been there long enough to worry about the simple things, like pain, worry, death.
Wait, wait, no…there was a name coming up. Parson? Carson. Carson, the laugher. Killed a vampire goat before he joined up. Couldn’t stop laughing about a bleating bloodsucker. Harsk coughed, hoping it would hide his own little laugh.
The other one…no, nothing. No name was coming up. He was new, and alone. Carson sat next to him, but no interaction. The Rider had joined up just a few months ago. Something about a ghoul. Solid, though.
Nobody walked in looking for trouble. This was a recruiting day. Rael had been killed in an exorcism last month, and the mourning was over. The bones had been destroyed, salt had been mixed into his ashes and spread out over his favorite river. Rael had been a good boy, just kept his sword on his back to stop it from slapping against his manhood. He wouldn’t be using either again.
The Riders were used to death. Three Riders had died this past year, it was part of the job. And there was a bigger take of the bounties when a brother died. More to send home, or spend on a night of carousing. A few drinks spread here and there, and the Riders were forgiven for murder. They were good boys.
The Riders looked up, and moved to one side, Carson grabbing a drink at the bar as one of the patrons moved away. It was a decent enough crowd, quiet. At dusk the crowd was not raucous, looking for some excitement in a fight or a song. But neither were they so far into their mugs that melancholy choked away all semblance of decency. It was a small crowd, just a group of people sharing the same space for a time.
A boy walked up to Harsk. The boy was tall, and strong. His shirt rippled with muscles underneath, though Harsk knew the boy had been building his courage up for the past hour. He moved to the left, to the right, reset again, and smiled when he bumped into the table.
“Captain Harsk,” The boy began.
They always got boys. Harsk took another drink.
Harsk’s Hell Ride was a legend unto itself. He took any job, and his Riders had followed him into realms that only existed in a child’s twisted dream. Always without question, always for a better cause. People idolized the Ride, worshipped them. Harsk hated it.
People idolized the idea of fighting demons. Of fighting beings that crawled out of an infernal pit, the stink of the Deep still clinging to their flesh. To boys, fighting beings that could rip puny humans to the bone was fun. The chance to feel those claws wreathed in fire, the risk of adventure, the thrill of it all.
Boys are stupid.
“Captain Harsk,” The boy tried again.
“Stop.” Harsk said. He stared at the young man, trying to make sense of him. There was dirt on his jeans, good soil from a field tilled for generations. The hands were calloused, but to hold a hoe, not a sword. There were burns on the left hand, a hearth-fire perhaps. The closest thing to a weapon those hands had held was the axe when wood needed chopping, or a torch to keep the wolves at bay.
A farmer. A recruiting day brought him a farmer-to-be. Some idiot boy who had what he considered a puny future, a paltry destiny. Nothing compared to the glory and riches of Harsk’s Hell Ride.
Who cares about the cost? Who could compare a wife, a child, a home, to the thousands that had screamed Harsk’s name as he rode into one town after another? What is a legacy of a solid line, compared to a legend? A legend of blood, the blood you spilled defending a home. A legend of fear, wiping a cursed farmstead off the face of the planet rather than it infect the countryside.
“Where do I sign up?” The boy slammed his hand on the table, that big grin back on his face. Harsk took another drink.
“The chance to join Harsk’s Hell Ride is once in a lifetime. I’ve followed your tales, the messenger makes sure to drop by the farmstead.”
“What do you grow?”
“Does your mother bake the bread herself, or maybe a sister?”
“I, I bake the bread.”
There were the burns on his hands. Calloused burns, for hands used to the burn of black iron. It followed a good smell, smell of grain and a warm fire. Must have just finished his chores and ran into town when he heard about the opportunity.
“Wheat only, right?” Harsk asked, leaning forward. “None of this terrible barley?”
“Wheat, sometimes honey wheat when I manage to beat the rooster out of bed.”
“Good boy. Good boy.”
“But, but it’s boring!” The boy said. “And it’s nothing compared to your tales. You and your Riders are the saviors of Headtown.”
Headtown. Bandits raiding a small mining town before striking up north. Three, no, four seasons ago. That was when Jorry died in my arms and Klaer lost his pinky. Klaer always joked about how many demons he had ‘thrown down,’ to lose something to a simple bandit was just embarrassing.
“You stampeded through Glittervale, stopping a rampaging troll in its tracks, all without a single dwarf harmed.”
The dwarves weren’t harmed, but they weren’t pleased when Harsk toppled a refinery in his charge. But a troll wasn’t going to be stopped by a mere crossbow. Young learned this when he was bashed to death with Denton’s body. It was a small comfort that only two died against a troll.
“And then there was Mount-”
Harsk snapped back into the present. “Don’t talk about that. Tale is big enough as it is.”
The boy started, taken aback. “But the dra-”
Harsk stood up, and the boy fell silent. The smell of smoke had filled Harsk’s nose, a noxious fume of burning flesh as Klaer stumbled out of a cave hidden away in the hills far above civilization. He had been writing a girl, a world away from this nonsense. He was going to leave. And so he did.
“Somebody through this brat out before he loses some teeth.”
Harsk’s Riders appeared behind the boy, one of them laying a hand on the farm hand. The boy shoved the hand away. “But I want to join you!”
“To, to help people!”
Harsk laughed. It rasped out of him, scratching against the wooden table. “People need help chopping wood, and tending a field. I know several homesteads looking to rebuild and could use a strapping young lad. That is of course if there isn’t a family on one that has a claim to you.”
As soon as he said it, Harsk regretted that last word. The boy’s eyes flashed, and the old man could see the resentment sit on the boy. There was nothing wrong with wanting a better life. And if one can’t have riches, glory is a glad second choice.
He’ll stoop soon, hunched from a terrible lot in life. A back broken by bad circumstance and toil. His wife won’t be the prettiest, and he’ll have more girls than boys. A certain lot in life, a defined lot. Better to hunch in a field then to have garlands over an early grave.
“But there’s no glory in the dirt, is there?” Harsk murmured.
The boy stood there.
Harsk turned to the Riders, shaking his head. Perhaps the next town over would have some recruits that weren’t searching for glory.
The Riders turned to look at the boy. But he had turned as well, fists raised in the direction of the voice.
“You think this is funny? You want something you son of a-”
He stopped short, confused.
Harsk smelled turnips. The girl standing before them was covered in turnip shavings. He could see three sticking out of a torn apron, and a travel sack had a turnip sitting beneath it on the floor, waiting for its owner to notice the vegetable had taken a short flight.
The girl did not look like a turnip. She looked pretty, and average for the girls around the area. Dimples that had not been used often enough, her eyes were waiting to brim with tears. She seemed to want to cry, but not sure about what.
The boy puffed himself up. “Get out of here, girl.” The voice had dropped an octave, or as much as he could manage. “This is man talk.”
“Mister Harsk wants you gone, sir.”
The boy smiled, and laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Listen, why don’t you just-”
Harsk winced as the girl’s foot lashed out, catching the boy right between his legs. The whole tavern seemed to cross their legs as he crumbled to the floor. A soft whimper resounded between Harsk and the turnip girl.
Harsk gave a quick nod to the Riders, and sat down as they dragged the boy away. The girl rushed into the empty chair, and stared back at the man.
They said nothing.
“Well?” Harsk asked.
Harsk drained his glass, and frowned as he felt the glass run dry. He stood up, looking towards the bar. “I don’t tell tales, or give handouts. Or much of anything you’d be interested in. So run along.”
He’d made it a step away when she finally spoke. “Are all demons evil?”
His back was a board. His fingers twitched, the sword at his side begged to be called. He took a quick sniff, but there was no brimstone. No sulfur. Just turnips.
“Just? Aren’t there those that are, you know…not?”
One of those questions. Harsk sat down again. He most likely wasn’t going to be able to get another glass for a while.
“Not enough to note.”
Harsk looked at her crestfallen face with little pity. He did not want to hear another bad romance. Demons reached this realm to destroy and corrupt. They were not tortured souls, they were not pretty, and they did not fall in love. They killed, they tortured, and any love they wreaked was nowhere nearing consensual.
This girl had to realize that. She may be meek, but that kicking foot was attached to a quick mind. Either that, or had too much experience being touched.
Harsk’s eyes opened, and he looked at the girl. Really examined her. He saw the matted brown hair, the eyes that caught every sudden movement. The mouth was open a hair, ready to scream if help could come. The legs that were spread just a little too wide, feet planted and ready to run.
Harsk’s hand reached for his sword, patting it underneath the table.
“How far along are ye?”
The girl twitched, her feet slamming against the floor. The bar turned again, and Harsk raised his hands.
“Easy girl, I was just going to buy a drink.” He raised a hand, and Carson walked over to the bar.
Harsk leaned closer. “How long since a spawn of Hell got you?”
The girl looked down. “Two span.”
“Da didn’t make the rent.”
Harsk waited for more of an explanation. It wasn’t coming. He rolled his shoulders, the girl jumped. He held up his hand, taking the offered drink from his man. He took a long drink, keeping an eye on the girl. She let herself relax.
“He couldn’t beg, so he sent me. Dodgkins, the owner, had a quota. We didn’t make it.”
The girl trailed her hand on the table. Harsk noticed his unknown Rider watching, not even hiding his gaze now. The young man’s eyes were locked at the girl’s back. He wasn’t alone.
“Dodgkins had a hobby. He liked to watch things…mate,” She rolled the word on her tongue. It wasn’t a word she liked the taste of, but it was the kindest she could manage for such a thing. “If I let it, Da would get another month, if I didn’t, it would happen anyways.”
Harsk looked at the glass. It was the whiskey, and he wished it were an ocean now. Maybe an ocean of whiskey could drown out the question. He downed it, and hoped it would be enough.
“And?” It wasn’t.
The girl looked up. “It happened.”
The girl held her hands together. “Da died a week later. After stabbing Dodgkins six times.”
The girl finally looked Harsk in the eyes. “Da died of a broken heart, and a snapped neck.”
She ran. The Riders gawked for a moment, still unsure of the cause, but Harsk was already after her. She burst out the door, a hand snaking after her.
Harsk grabbed a hold of the girl, scattering turnips.
A sound of thunder and earthquake shook Harsk to his bones. He looked up to see a monstrosity rear and face him. It was short, coming up to his height at full stature, with yellow hair that clung to a stocky frame. Steam raised out of its nostrils, and the scream shook the windows.
Harsk could not believe what he was seeing. A goblin-bred horse. The goblins bred horses with the caves and the temperament in mind. A goblin fought both above ground and beneath it, and a horse it had to leave behind was better as food. But a goblin-bred horse was fast, was mean, and might eat the goblin instead. A goblin-bred horse was a prize amongst broken perversions.
The girl slipped out of his grip, running to the horse.
“You rode a goblin-bred horse here? How?”
Harsk could feel the tavern empty behind him. It had not been a busy night, but it was busy enough. He could feel the gaze of many eyes on him, sense their questions. Who was this girl, what was her crime? Better yet, what was her punishment? He wasn’t sure if he had the answers.
The girl had none to give. Wait, yes she did, she mumbled something. “What?”
Harsk stepped forward.
The girl laid a hand on the horse’s shoulder.
“Clari-Anne likes turnips.”
The Riders looked to their hero. Knives were out, for lack of a better option.
“I burn them for her.”
Carson would hold the girl back. He wouldn’t kill her, couldn’t, not yet. They would both mourn the horse as they slaughtered her. It was a rare breed, a true wonder.
Harsk walked up to the horse, and glared at Clari-Anne. The horse glared back.
He took a deep breath in. He smelled a little rust, one of the Riders forgot to get the dagger cleaned last night, Carson. Sweaty horses, sweaty men. Clari-Anne had a matting of deep mud, underneath the road dirt and a sour smell for herself. An undertone of sawdust, common enough outside a tavern surrounded by a mob of folk that did their own carpentry. Solid folks, with beliefs that won’t change.
Burnt turnips. What did that even smell like?
Harsk faced the crowd.
“My name is Harsk, blessed in fire. I watched my family, torn apart by fiends whose chief love is our despair and destruction. I’ve exorcized almost everything that can crawl into a soul. I’ve slain three demon princes in single combat, and have walked the stone docks of Chirronae and returned unscathed.”
Harsk drew his sword.
“This girl has demon spawn within her. She will give birth and her child will stink of hell.”
He kneeled in front of the girl, laced his fingers, and held them out to the girl. She stood, and jumped onto Clari-Anne. The Riders moved to the sides of the horse. It breathed heavily, and they moved a step away.
“We’re riding out of town.”
Harsk faced the tavern.
“Anyone have a problem with that?”
Harsk wondered if he would be so welcome the next time they rode into the tavern. The night wind chilled him more than such thoughts. The old man was content. He no longer smelled burning flesh, or burnt bread.
He wondered how swaddling clothes would smell with a touch of brimstone. He pushed the thought away with a shudder. He’d get used to it.
copyright 2016 Jack Holder