Opportunities

Here’s a fantasy entry for Rachael Ritchey’s weekly Blog Battle, this time centered on the word, “troop.”
Anyone who is willing to read all the short stories posted today (until midnight Tuesday Pacific time) is allowed to give three votes for their favorites. Check out the other participants’ works and let Rachael know what you think.

—-

Mokreesh watched the oncoming merchant caravan with hungry yellow eyes. His misty breath slipped through sharp teeth slick with saliva.

A line of human travelers wound its way like a serpent through the hills south of Aulivar’s glistening white walls. Several mules–tasty if stewed long enough–pulled creaking wagons burdened with crates and barrels. Human scrawl marked the contents, but Mokreesh couldn’t make any of that out. Besides, the mystery was half the fun of collecting the spoils.

First, we have to win… which means breaking the streak of bad luck. His gloved finger traced the scar tissue that covered the right side of his face, a constant reminder of an Arcanist’s fireball.

That was two months ago, Mokreesh thought. And every raid has gone to piss since. Supplies are dwindling, and anger is brewing.

His second in command Grunnash drew his massive blade. Metal rasped and gleamed in the afternoon sun. Grunnash stood with hands on hips, glaring down at the humans. Never one to stoop or kneel, even if it risks giving us away.

He grinned at Mokreesh. “These sheep are fat for the slaughter. Surely this opportunity is ours to seize. On your signal, my chieftain.”

The other marauders hunkered in the bush and bramble along the hillside, awaiting the word. Mokreesh looked on them with pride. He would restore theirs soon.

“Watch out for your troops” had been the previous chieftain’s last words so many years ago. Mokreesh understood. If you take care of your men, they’ll get the job done. In the two decades since Mokreesh became chieftain, that wisdom brought the clan greatness and wealth.

Until that old crone Kalgha cursed him as a stubborn oaf before the altar of Kurnn. Then the bad luck started. Broken weapons in the middle of a fight, unexpected enemy reinforcements when victory seemed certain, the stray spellcast with a one-in-a-million chance that “happened” to sear off half his face.

Mokreesh didn’t buy into all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo Kalgha used to keep the clan in line. But every time he passed the altar now, he felt the flaming eye of Kurnn watching him. And he’d even tried prayer once, using a young human merchant guard as an offering. The man seemed devout; for six hours he had cried out to his gods for deliverance.

Neither of them got the answer they wanted that day.

Today changes everything.

Mokreesh hefted his battle-axe and raised it high. All around him, his warriors tensed, ready for the charge. Bloodlust and hunger shone on their grinning faces.

Mokreesh opened his mouth to bellow a war cry–

A glint of bronze on a merchant’s face struck fear into Mokreesh’s heart like an icy spear. Unbidden memories of anguish and flame filled his mind. Is that an Arcanist’s etching? This caravan may have magic users protecting it.

He noted a flash of armor beneath a wagon driver’s cloak. Are those trained guardsmen disguised among the caravan?

Was that a Gracemark on that woman’s hand? What powers might she possess?

“No good,” he muttered. “No good.” He lowered his weapon to the ground. The thick axehead thudded into the dirt.

Grunnash hung his head and shook with rage. “Fifth time in a row.”

“It’s a trap,” Mokreesh said. “Let them pass. Let’s relocate to the north road. We might catch some craftsmen bringing wares to–”

A sudden searing pain flared to life in his chest. He blinked at the length of bloody metal thrusting out of his ribcage. Words failed him. Weariness rushed through his body, and standing seemed impossible.

Mokreesh slid down Grunnash’s blade and fell to his knees, clutching the gaping wound. His vision blurred, but he could make out his warriors turning their backs and striding away through the brush. Following Grunnash.

Breathing became beyond difficult, and no amount of pressure stopped the flow. Mokreesh gurgled in the leaves and grass. Stabbed through the heart, from behind no less.  

An image of Mokreesh’s former chieftain floated into his mind–a glimpse from the day Mokreesh bested him in combat and took control of the clan.

“Watch out for your troops,” he had whispered as he died.

And now Mokreesh understood.

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