Sometimes a story just comes to you. That’s what happened with this one. Just because I’m stuck in the sci-fi trenches right now doesn’t mean that The Fallen Crown series isn’t on my mind, begging to be written. Hence why I couldn’t resist getting this particular tale down on paper. Set prior to the events of Book 1, this short story offers a bit of insight into one of that book’s most interesting characters – Larch West. Enjoy.
A MAN WITH PURPOSE
Men from the far North looked a great deal older than they were, but in Larch West’s case, he truly felt worn out. The unrelenting cold bit at his skin as he worked the farm, herding the sheep from one field to the other. Their coats were heavy now, ready for shearing. Nelly would loom a lot of the wool herself; the rest of it, she’d sell in one of the market towns.
Larch had always reckoned that a man gets by any way he can. He’d been out of the military no more than a season and felt more tired now, living a life of quiet simplicity than he ever had before. Larch was known to ride hard, fight hard, never give an enemy an inch if he couldn’t help it. More so than that, old Larch West had been popular among the men. Very popular. Cause he had his head screwed on, knew when it was savvy to avoid a fight and walk away. Similarly, he knew when it was best to kill first and work out the wherefores and whynots after.
He straightened, hands at the small of his back. It was colder than a grandmother’s teat, but damn that sun was strong. It almost made it hard to see the men riding toward his farm, steam rising from their horses mingling with the dust from the rough trodden road. He gripped the stick he’d been using to coax the sheep, the only thing at hand, if you didn’t count the knife tucked into his boot.
You can take a man away from killing, but you can’t take the killing out of a man, it seemed.
They rolled up to the wall at the front edge of the pasture, three men. Only the heavyset chap in the middle got down and approached. Larch wondered if Nelly had heard them draw near, hoped she wouldn’t be coming out to pitch in with whatever was said.
“I know you, son?”
The man shook his head. He had thick, curly hair and small black eyes that gleamed like glass beads set in an honest face. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“If I just so happen to be this West fella you’re looking for, what’s it to you?”
The man’s hands rested on his belt. Larch’s eyes flicked to the sword on one side and the long knife on the other. A fighter.
“There’s trouble brewing. An uprising,” he said.
Larch shrugged. “Yeah? So?”
“They say the King’s been kicked off the throne. You not heard anything?”
Larch laughed a little. “Look around you, what makes you think I’ve heard more than the crows squawking, eh?”
“I guess so,” the man said.
“Anyway, what’s your name?” Larch asked him.
“Kal,” he said. “Jub Wit’s boy.”
Larch’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the mention of his old riding mate. “Jub’s boy? You were only . . .” He set his open palm high as his waist. “Yay high.”
“Don’t remember meeting you myself, but my Da’s told me plenty. Told me you used to lead men. You used to have a name meant something in these parts,” Kal said.
“He did, huh?” Larch looked to the other two riders. “Who’re they?”
“That there’s Softly Jenkins and Fin Burrowes,” Kal said.
“I know ‘em,” Larch said.
Kal shifted on his feet. “Seems people are taking a side. You’re either for the King, or against him. We’re getting together some men loyal to the throne.”
“Yeah?” Larch said sarcastically. “And what’s the throne ever done for you? Or your folks? All it is, is a big seat for a dirty, fat bastard to squat his spotty arse. You think that man gives a shit about you or me?”
“What’s the alternative, Mister West? They reckon this fella Wagstaff’s even worse,” Kal said.
Larch chewed that over. “I reckon you’re right, boy. So what do you suggest? I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m out of that game now.”
“I know that. But Da’ said I should ride out here, see you. Offer you a place in what we’re doing.”
The sound of Nelly calling to him from the house made him turn. She waved at him. Larch did so back, a pang of regret weighing on his heart. Sometimes you can’t fight the river. You’ve just got to go with it. Let it take you where you’re meant to go.
I was out, he thought. Or thought I was. Just a delusion. The river grew quiet, is all. It didn’t go nowhere. Bided its time before pulling me back in. And the water’s no warmer, I’ll bet.
“Be along soon!” he called across to her, unsure she’d even heard him until she nodded, blew him a kiss and went back inside.
Larch remained that way, looking back at the house. “And what was it again you’re going to do?”
“Band together. As many men as we can get, and ride against these Breaker bastards,” Kal told him.
“Already in the North, are they?” Larch asked.
“Popping up all over the place like mushrooms on cow pats.”
“If I come along, and I’m just saying if . . . I’ll need my own crew. I pick ‘em, and they answer to me, you hear?”
Kal nodded. “Figured I’d do the same myself. Or ride with you.”
Larch drew a deep breath. “I’ll need to talk this through with the missus. I got a life here. I’ve settled. Removed myself from the politics and bloodshed.”
Kal’s face grew serious. “One they’re trying to take from us, West. And there’ll be plenty of bloodshed then, and you know it.”
He couldn’t argue with the man’s logic. Larch West looked away to the horizon, to the point where the sky met the land in a haze. Something brewing, stirring up in Starkgard. No rest for good men trying to live quiet lives. No rest for the wicked.
“Wait here,” he said, shoulders slumping. “Guess I’ll be breaking bad news.”
Later that same day – Nelly in tears as she saw him off – Larch West left the promise of a quiet retirement behind.
* * *
Months of travel, months of fighting the Breakers back from the North places, the towns and villages where people dug in and made their lives. Months of struggle to keep what they had, to stop the change, to stop the storm . . . and the Breakers were winning. One by one, they sacked every Northern town, every village, every mud hut in the hills. They rooted out dissention, their wrath swift and immediate.
Larch’s boys had no other choice but to hit the road, find another way, stick together.
Still no word from Nelly, Larch thought as they entered a wooded glade and were greeted by a canopy of green leaves shifting in the sharp light. Dappled shadows everywhere, the air sticky. All this time I’ve heard less than nothing about her.
He horse shifted from side to side as it walked under the trees and Larch took a moment to look up, close his eyes, and think of home. As he’d done back in the day when he’d been a young man, fresh-faced and missing his Ma and Pa. He’d close his eyes and picture their faces, try to hear their voices talking to him. Larch did the same with Nelly, seeing her face in front of him, hearing her voice, soft and low. Her fingertips tracing the scars on his body . . .
Something went twang in the trees up ahead. Then a thud. Larch spun about in the saddle in time to see one of the men riding behind, Miles Boggs, fall to the side, an arrow jutting from the middle of his forehead, eyes pushed in toward it, blood gushing down over his nose, his mouth. “Get cover!” Larch yelled.
He rolled out of his saddle, got behind the horse, and felt an arrow whip past his face, heard it hit the ground at his feet with a soft pop. He dove to the right, into the trees, got behind a trunk that was barely wide enough to hide his considerable frame.
Some of the men had filed in behind him, the others were on the opposite side of the track through the woods. The horses fled this way and that, scared witless by the sudden commotion. Larch paid them no mind.
“Who’s over there?” he called.
Arrows struck the trees around them, a volley that embedded themselves in the trunks, the roots twisting their way out of the earth.
“Softly Jenkins!” came the reply.
- Good. A man of ability, Larch thought.
“We’ll hook ‘em, lad. You take the lead, whoever’s on your side of things,” Larch shouted through the woods. He pulled his great sword free from its sheath, spared it a glance before turning to those behind him. “You’ll all follow me, you hear? No mercy for these bastards.”
“How many, Larch?” Fin Burrowes asked.
West thought back to the snapshot of the trees he’d seen as he dived out of the way. Figures up there in the branches, moving back and forth.
“At least a dozen, maybe more. Hard to tell,” was the best he could offer.
“Right,” Burrowes said with a slight tremor in his voice.
Larch raised his sword, his eyes wild with fury.” Ready lads? CHARGE!”
He was first through there, always had been. The trees were columns of smoke to him. The ground beneath his feet might as well have not been there. The sky above was some kind of sick joke. A Breaker stood facing him, raised his bow, an arrow cocked and ready to fire. Larch brought his steel down on the man just as he fired. The arrow went wide, up into the trees. The sword cut the archer through the shoulder, into his chest.
Larch ripped his sword free, fixed on the next man before something flew into him, knocking him sideward. He stumbled against a tree trunk, felt fists hammer into him, the air smashed out of his lungs. Larch turned his head to see a face up against his, snarling, eyes hard set with concentration. His sword arm was useless; he couldn’t lift it with the Breaker so close. Sometimes a man has to do what he can. Larch West tipped his head back and put everything he had into driving his forehead into the Breaker’s face.
The man recoiled, hands to his split nose, blood spraying everywhere. Larch drew a hearty breath, the crisp air filling his lungs. He drove his sword into the man’s gut, lifted the blade up to his chin, slicing him wide open. The Breaker let loose a blood-curdling scream before clattering to the woodland floor, dead.
His pulse booming in his ears, head throbbing, Larch scanned the treeline, caught sight of his men engaging the Breakers, cutting, stabbing, punching, kicking. Arrows still flying from the treetops.
“Bow men!” Larch called. “Bow men! Target the trees. Take ‘em out!”
He watched as Softly Jenkins ducked from an axe intent on taking his head clean off. As the Breaker tried to recover from the swing, Jenkins came up with his knife, stuck it under the man’s chin. Across the way, Drury fought two at the same time, dodging their blows by flitting from one tree to another, choosing his moment to jab back at them, a manic grin on his face.
Back near the path, Larch saw Fin Burrowes take a knee, lift a bow and take aim. He let loose one arrow after another into the tree tops. A Breaker crashed through the branches on his way down, one long shaft protruding from his chest, a strangled look on his face.
“Fall back,” a big voice filled the woods. “Fall back!”
Larch West narrowed his eyes and stalked forward, sword at the ready.
“Boys . . . Fall back!”
He pushed his way through thick foliage, squeezed between two tree trunks before emerging into a clearing. A big man climbed up on to a horse; heavy set, red hair beneath his hat, an empty hollow where an eye had once been.
“Get down and face me like a man, you one-eyed fuck,” Larch spat. He rushed at the horseman, the man whipped the reins to make the horse turn. At the same time, he pulled his own sword free, swung down. Their blades scraped together.
“Shit on you,” the man growled. He stabbed down at Larch, and the old man from the North backed off, parrying with his sword.
Breakers rushed past, arrows nipping at their heels. Larch took cover. The lump on the horse glared at him.
“You’re fighting a losing cause.”
Larch swallowed. His mouth was all sour spit and salty blood. “Ain’t nothing lost, so long as you believe in it.”
“Keep tellin’ yourself that,” the man on the horse said, then he kicked his spurs and was gone with the rest of his men.
Softly Jenkins fell in by his side. “You all right?”
Larch nodded, still looking at the spot where his opponent had stood seconds before. “One-eyed bastard. Employing all sorts now, eh?”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“War’s like a rough sea,” Larch said, putting his sword away. “Churns up all the shit.”
* * *
“Any wounded?” Larch asked as he walked back through the trees, noting his men picking over the corpses of the fallen Breakers for weapons, supplies, the occasional pouch of tobacco.
A smoke’s a smoke, as his father had said back in the day. Larch smiled at the memory.
“Couple, nothing serious. Lost one though,” Jenkins said.
Softly didn’t need to answer. Larch stopped in his tracks at the man propped up against a tree, stabbed more times than a pin cushion. Kal Wit had lost so much blood he’d already turned a waxy grey. At least his eyes were shut. He could’ve almost been confused for having a doze if it weren’t for the flies settling around his open wounds.
Larch dropped to his knees in front of him. “Ah, shit.”
“Nobody saw it happen,” Drury said from behind him. “We just found him that way.”
“Hope we killed the bastard what did it,” Jenkins said.
Larch didn’t say anything. Couldn’t. The man who’d asked for his help, asked him to walk away from his home, his wife, to fight a change that threatened to destroy everything they held dear . . . was no more.
He was sore and he was tired and he felt old. Too old to be back in the fold, killing men. But oftentimes a man has his gifts, and it’s foolhardy not to use them.
Larch reached forward, took Kal’s knife from his belt. He stood, tucked the knife into his own belt, and started walking off. “Bury the lad in a nice spot, then get ready to move. Let’s hunt these fuckers down.”
* * *
They camped for the night on a hill overlooking the darkened land and made a modest fire, though none of them cooked. Nothing kicks an appetite out of a man more than killing folk.
Larch sat by himself, filling his pipe with weed. He lit it, drew on the mossy tobacco and felt himself relax instantly.
Fuck, he thought. Why the hell are we out here? What’s it all about?
Hadn’t he asked himself the same question, repeatedly, over the years? Every war, every campaign. Men and women fighting and dying in the mud. Wasn’t that what they fought for, in the end? Mud?
“Larch,” Raul Bigfist hissed. “Someone coming up the hill.”
West put the pipe to one side, but didn’t get up. Not yet. Only move if you have to, his father had said. The man had been full of wisdom.
A shaggy haired man approached, wooden staff in one hand, the other held open in front of him to show he had no hostile gestures. He stepped into the light, and Larch got the impression he was neither old nor young.
He simply was.
Raul Bigfist stood at the ready, blocking the man’s path. “Easy there, friend. That’s as far as you go,” he growled.
“Raul,” Larch said. “Let him through. He ain’t gonna be no bother, are you pilgrim?”
The man shook his head. “No bother. I just need to talk with Mister West then I’ll be on my way.”
What, at first, looked like a dog ran into the camp, nose to the ground. Larch had to admit, it was like no dog he’d ever seen before.
“What the–” Raul said, looking down at the ground as the creature scurried past.
“Pay him no mind, he’s harmless,” their visitor said.
Larch indicated the ground in front of him. “Take a pew, pilgrim,” he said.
“Thanks.” The man sat cross-legged on the ground.
“Care for a draw?” Larch offered the pipe.
“I’ll never turn down a smoke, especially when it’s free,” the man said. He relit the end and puffed on it, skunky vapour trailing away into the night. “Good weed.”
He handed the pipe back.
“I’m curious what brings you here, friend. Ain’t never met you before. I’ve a thing with faces,” Larch said. “I never forget one.”
“You’re wondering how I found you, am I right?”
“That and how you know my name.”
“There are some things I cannot tell you, simply because you would not believe me,” the stranger said. “However I can tell you that I have tracked your merry band for some days. You boys are quick on your feet.”
“We don’t stick around,” Larch admitted.
“I came upon your battle, in the woods,” the man said. “A terrible business, to be sure. Did you lose many men?”
Just one, Larch thought. “I’m not being rude, or blunt, but how about we cut the crap and get to business, eh?”
The pilgrim smiled. “Fair enough.”
By the fire, the dog-like creature that had followed him into camp nosed through one of the men’s kits and pulled a scrap of jerky free. He then lay there on the ground, the jerky pinned under his paws and proceeded to gnaw at it.
“There’s a town not far from here,” he said in a hushed voice so none of the others could hear. “Head South for a day and a night and you’ll find it. Nice place. Sleepy like, you know?”
Larch did. He’d known enough such places himself over the years. “Go on.”
“There’s a man there goes by the name of Rowan Black . . .”
Larch sat up a little straighter. “Excuse me?”
“Rowan Black. A former mercenary of some renown,” the stranger said with a grin. “A man not only with ability, but purpose.”
“What bullshit is this?” Larch asked, shaking his head with disbelief. “No-one knows where Rowan Black is. Next you’ll be telling me he packed it all in, started digging potatoes.”
The stranger chuckled. “It might just be so,” he said. “In any case, if you want a good man for your team, you be sure to go seek him out. I’ve a feeling he might be looking to get back in the game. Pick up the sword again.”
“Black’s a legend in these parts,” Larch whispered. “There’s no man more deadly.”
“Then he’s everything you’ll want,” the stranger said. He got up, extended his hand. Larch got to his feet. They shook hands, Larch’s boys looking on. “Thanks for the smoke.”
“Yeah,” Larch said with a snort. He watched as the man walked past the creature and gave a little whistle for it to follow along.
He walked away from the glow of the firelight and dissolved beyond the curtain of the night. Larch looked at the others, still trying to understand what it was that had happened.
“Strange,” Raul said. “And what the fuck was that furry thing he brought with him, eh?”
“Any idea what all that was about?” Fin asked.
Larch looked at Jenkins. “Softly, is there a village or some such near here? About a day’s ride south?”
Jenkins thought for a moment. “Yeah, think so. Why?”
Larch shrugged. He started plugging the pipe with more weed. “Think we better head on down that way. We’ll strike out before sun-up.”
“As you say, Chief,” Jenkins said.
West lit the pipe and smoked. He looked up at the night sky but there were no stars, no light but the dancing fire. Black clouds overhead. It wasn’t until he’d finished the pipe that he realised he’d never caught the pilgrim’s name. Perhaps that was just as well. In his experience, he’d learned that some things are best left unanswered.
“What’re we going there for, anyway?” Raul asked. “Didn’t think we were heading south.”
“Gotta sign someone up who might help us out,” Larch said. “A man I hear is round these parts.”
“What sort of man?” Raul asked peering at him across the fire.
“The best kind, if he’s there. A man with purpose.”
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