Marissa, Trajan, and Etjar – Gree-Kin

As noted I the introduction, this was the first pastiche I wrote. The idea of Trajan and Etjar being childhood friends, and meeting up with Marissa on the road made sense. But they needed some shared trial to bond them. Being tracked for hundreds of miles by carnivorous monsters seemed like a good idea.



“Hal, did you ever fight a gree-kin?” asked the boy, his eyes shining with excitement.

“Gree-kins? Huge monsters that suck your brains out your nose?” The old duffer quaffed half his ale, dribbling some down his chest. He snorted in disgust, spraying ale from his mustache in a three foot arc. “There’s no such thing. It’s just a fairy tale.” With that he sucked down the remainder of his ale.

David’s eyes dimmed with disappointment and chagrin. Boys his age were easily excited and just as easily discouraged. He turned his crestfallen gaze to his best friend Jake.

Jake sniggered with contempt as only an eleven year old can, dismissing the old man. “He doesn’t know anything. Gree-kins are real. Besides, most of his stories are cow manure.”

The old man swatted at the defiant boy but came nowhere near close. Both boys fled out the door, laughing. Seeing there was no story the few others in the tavern wandered out behind the boys, onto other business. With his audience gone, and more importantly no more free ale, Hal grumbled unintelligibly for a bit then started his afternoon nap.

It was late afternoon. Trajan watched as Hal swiped at the boy and then as the few travelers left the tavern. Trajan mused that Hal had stayed awake longer than usual. “He must be getting old if he didn’t make up a story to cadge more ale from those travelers. Can’t be that he’s too drunk.” Hal emitted a snore that rattled the windows. “Maybe he is that drunk.

Walking out of the common room of the inn/tavern, Trajan found the boys sitting outside, going back and forth about gree-kins. Sitting down between them Trajan cut off their arguing. “So you want to know about gree-kins?”

Volatile as children are, both boys dropped their argument and rounded on the old man with excited questions. It took him a minute to quiet them down so he could get a word in.

“Gree-kins are not a fairy tale. They are VERY real. My best friend Etjar and I met some while traveling with an exiled wizard and a small group of pilgrims who were coming up from Sathea to Kerr. We ran into the pilgrims and the wizard north of Sathea and we all agreed we’d travel together for safety. Their safety. The weather was good and the traveling was easy. Too easy …”

Trajan and Etjar strode the dirt road, their long strides eating up the distance. Both were big men, well over six feet in height, young and powerful. Anyone observing would realize these two could travel from Sathea to Kerr in a far shorter time than their companions bringing up the rear. Periodically the pair stopped to wait for them to catch up.

The dirt road meandered through the lightly forested hills, although it was more straight than not. Sometimes the forest grew dense but it was mostly scattered clumps no closer than forty feet from the road. Later the forest road would grow claustrophobic amongst dense trees, but here it was bright and open. It was the trade route between Sathea and Kerr and both the Empire and the City cooperated to keep the brush from encroaching on the road, which reduced the frequency and success of ambushes.

In contrast to the Kerreans, the Sathean pilgrims were easily a foot shorter, their swarthy features another contrast to the fair Kerreans. Although they were fit and healthy men, their shorter strides could not keep up.

Bringing up the far rear of their procession a young Sathean woman in riding clothes struggled along, trying to keep pace. She didn’t appear to be used to walking, her clothes more suited to horses, and her limp demonstrated her feet were unused to this effort. Over her brown riding clothes she wore a dark green vest that was covered with many pockets. Clothes too heavy for the weather and a weighty backpack made her struggle worse.

As she shambled up to the resting group the young woman, whose plain face was coated in road dust, grimaced when the others made to resume walking. “Wait,” she snarled. “I need a rest, too!”

Trajan had little patience and nothing resembling tact. “If you walked faster you’d get more rest!”

“If you walked slower I wouldn’t need to!” These two rubbed each other the wrong way from the first moment they met. Etjar tried to jolly her up, but she snapped at him as well. She glared at everyone as she sat down, pulling her canteen from her pack to clear the dust from her throat. None of the men moved until she got up twenty minutes later. Trajan would bait her and argue, but even he had enough sense to not invoke her ire more than he had.

This scene repeated itself during the long day, making the long day even longer. Trajan’s attitude towards the woman didn’t make things easier.

As the sun edged toward the horizon Trajan and Etjar started looking for a defensible site for a camp. The sun was still barely above the trees when they found a site, a ring of large rocks sixty feet across in the middle of a much larger clearing. Now in their early twenties, they had been training, working, and fighting together for nearly fifteen years. They didn’t discuss the decision. Both knew this was the spot, dropped their packs, and started preparations for the night.

The leader of the pilgrims, a squat man named Hax, accosted them. “What are you doing? We have another hour of daylight for travel!”

Etjar, always more genial than Trajan, answered promptly before his friend could stick his foot in his mouth. “We need a good, defensible spot for tonight’s camp. We may find one farther on, but by the time this one is prepared it will be close enough to dark anyway.”

Hax bristled and started to reply but Trajan cut him off. “We are camping here. If you don’t like it pick a different one.”

Hax looked like he wanted to argue, but his compatriots distracted him and started work to setup the camp. At the soldiers’ direction the pilgrims collected brush and made a ring outside the rocks. While this wouldn’t stop anything determined to get into the camp, it would slow them down and give some warning. Hax grudgingly assisted the preparations with poor grace.

About the time they were finished the woman, Marissa, trudged up to the camp site and dropped her pack.

“Glad you’re here to help,” Trajan jibed her.

Etjar appreciated that she was too tired to do more than glare at Trajan. “This is going to be an interesting trip, even if these two don’t kill each other,” thought Etjar. Trajan took charge and organized watches. “We all take two hour watches in pairs. Stay awake and pay attention to what is around us.”

“Why do we need to keep watch?” growled Marissa and Hax at the same time, turning to glare at each other as much as Trajan.

Etjar cut in, “Because we don’t know what’s out there and we’re all going to live longer if we’re warned and awake before something kills us. Would you rather be warned after you were killed?”

Trajan laughed and bit back the response he was going to make. “We don’t know what is out there. I’d like it to be nothing, but we’d best not count on nothing.” For the easily irritated Kerrean, that could pass for a polite rejoinder.

He paired Hax and Marissa for first watch, figuring the tired woman would be hard to wake later on and feeling the need to punish the thankless Hax by pairing him with her. Etjar and one of the pilgrims had the second watch, two other pairs of pilgrims had the third and fourth, and the last man had watch with himself for the last stretch before dawn. “Anyone who doesn’t want to share the responsibility can travel on their own.”

Etjar shook his head. Sometimes it seemed like Trajan went out of his way to irritate people.

While everyone grumbled they all, including the woman, wanted the two soldiers with them. Trajan and Etjar were big men, heavily armed and wearing chainmail shirts. Trajan wore a hand-and-a-half bastard sword slung over his shoulder, while Etjar bore a long sword and shield. They carried themselves with confidence and were no doubt experienced in dealing with trouble.

The pilgrims and the woman all carried walking sticks that could maybe double as fighting sticks, but Trajan guessed none had ever had to save their own lives with one. Maybe knock a few heads, especially the woman, but not anything serious.

The pilgrims arranged their bedding together, as did Trajan and Etjar. Marissa set herself up away from both groups, although given her prickly nature it wasn’t likely that any of the men would make any moves in her direction.

Trajan was in the middle of an oddly comforting dream which somehow involved Marissa (later he couldn’t remember for sure) when a shout woke him. Used to snapping from deep sleep to instant alert, he was on his feet with his sword drawn before he was even aware that he was awake. Nearby Etjar was in the same exact state, sword and shield ready.

An impossibly tall creature, hairlessly naked and looking like an emaciated, dark green giant, had crossed the brush line and had knocked one of the pilgrims to the ground. He grabbed the other guard with hands larger than dinner plates and bit into the man’s forehead with a horrible grating of teeth on bone. The five foot tall human looked like a doll in the giant’s claws. The Sathean screamed like a mortally wounded rabbit, sharp and piercing. The creature bit again, crunching through skull. The scream shut off as quickly as it began, although the man was definitely not dead. Before he or Etjar could react, the giant turned and bound over the brush and out of the light.

Hax and the other sleeping pilgrims had just pulled themselves to their feet, while Trajan noticed that the woman was on her feet, standing ready with her staff in hand. His opinion of her rose two notches.

“What was that?” blurted Hax. “We have to go after them! To save Horrus!”

Trajan started to reply, but Etjar cut him off. “Did you see that thing move? It was running as fast as a horse. No way we could catch it … and besides, if we did catch it we wouldn’t be doing your friend a favor.”

“We can save his life!”

“Did you see what it did to him? It bit the top of his head off. If he lived, which isn’t likely …” Etjar spit and looked queasy. “We wouldn’t be doing him a favor,” he trailed off.

Trajan interjected, “I am NOT chasing that thing into the dark. Your friend had really bad luck and I don’t want to share it.”

Marissa cut in, “Besides, we don’t know how many of them there are. Chasing into the dark is stupid. Especially after someone who is already dead.”

Hax turned visibly red in the firelight and made to argue more, when the second guard moaned. His shirt was ripped and six parallel claw marks were visible across his chest. They didn’t look deep and hadn’t bled a lot, but they looked puffy and his face looked feverish. As they watched he sat down on the ground with a barely controlled thump.

Rushing to him the woman checked his face and his wounds. “Poison,” she said, “the claws inject poison.” In the light of the campfire they could see the wounds were already inflamed and puffy. “Nasty stuff.” He moaned again. Dashing to her pack she pawed through it, taking what seemed like forever to find a small copper bottle. Before she reached the wounded man, he uttered another small moan and released his breath a final time, relaxing into death.

Swearing in a language none of the others recognized, she slid the bottle into a pocket on her vest. “Even if I had been quicker, it would not have mattered. The poison was too virulent, he was already dead.” Shuddering lightly she continued, “He didn’t have a chance.”

“We’ll bury him when it gets light.” Turning to his pack Trajan strung his bow. “It’s a couple of hours until dawn. Get some sleep if you think you can.” Hax started to argue but his remaining followers shushed him. It didn’t appear they were happy with the turn of events but didn’t want to alienate the two soldiers. Hax grumbled more as Etjar strung his bow and lay down with it across his chest, a quiver of arrows close by. Marissa lay back on her pad while the surviving pilgrims formed their clump. Their dark looks at the others showed their dissatisfaction with the general reaction to the attack and deaths of their two fellows, but they said nothing the others could make out.

As the others lay down Trajan sat as far from the fire as possible while still remaining within the circle of rocks, gazing into the darkness with his bow in his hands. He didn’t bother to keep awake the pilgrim who was supposed to keep watch with him.

Time passed, maybe an hour, and Trajan felt a change in the night air. Not moving a muscle, he listened carefully both with his ears and his mind. Something moved silently in the darkness.

He stood, drew the bow, and fired in one swift motion. The arrow traveled less than one hundred feet into the darkness when it impacted something with a meaty thunk. A shocked moment later a shrill scream pierced the night, wakening the sleeping humans. Etjar was on his feet instantly, his bow drawn and pointed in the direction of the scream. Trust him to arise from a sound sleep ready and able to fight. Marissa was just a moment slower, while the pilgrims uttered confused cries as they struggled with their tangle of bedding.

The soldier shot another arrow into the shape he barely perceived in the darkness, shooting by instinct as much as sight. The shrill scream cut off as suddenly as it started, leaving a stunning silence in its wake.

A pair of growls came from either side of the falling shape, and Trajan’s third arrow missed its target as two huge humanoid shapes hurdled the barrier, both intent on the dwarfed human soldier. He blocked a slash with his bow but the force snapped the bow in half and ripped it from his hands.

The second shape spun him from his feet as its claws opened his left arm from shoulder to elbow with three neat cuts. As he fell the second clawed arm slashed across his back, snapping links in his chain mail shirt, opening bloody gouges. As the first one moved in for the kill an arrow sprouted from its side, followed by a brother. Screaming in pain and rage the creature spun and charged Etjar. He dropped his bow and swept his sword from its sheath, lighting the scene with its magical glow, slashing and blocking the ugly claws. The claws must be made of something as strong as steel because the magically sharp sword failed to cut through, screaming in a clash sounding like metal on metal. The light of the sword surprised the creature as it back pedaled.

Meanwhile the second creature yanked Trajan from the ground in preparation for biting into his skull. Before it could bite three bolts of brightly green glowing magical energy punctured the creature’s side, leaving burn marks on its dark green skin.

Dropping the helpless human in a sprawled heap it turned at the woman who struck it with magical energy. Rushing her with unreal speed it raised its claws to slash her to ribbons. Frantically casting another spell she completed it just as it reached her. A fan of flame burst from her right hand, striking it in the face and leaving blisters in its wake. Recoiling blindly in agony the creature slashed futilely at the air and turned to flee. Moving with the same unreal speed it cleared the rocks and piled bushes in a single leap to disappear into the darkness.

The other feinted at Etjar and bound over the barrier to join its companion in the darkness.

Trajan groaned and his face was already covered with the sheen of perspiration. While he didn’t look anywhere near as bad as the pilgrim had before he died, he didn’t look good. The woman rushed to his side, plucking the small copper bottle from her pocket, unstopping it, and pouring its contents into his upturned mouth. Nearly choking on the liquid he managed to swallow most of it. A minute passed and his breathing steadied.

“What is that stuff?” Etjar asked.

“A potion that is an antidote to most poisons. I got to him quickly enough.”

“But not soon enough to help Hessan,” Hax sneered.

Rounding on the man Marissa snarled, “No, not soon enough. We didn’t know they were poisonous.”

Hax started to snarl in return when Etjar poked him in the shoulder hard enough to spin him half around. “Be thankful we were here. If we hadn’t been you’d all be brainless now.” He looked thoughtfully at the man. “Although I’m not sure anyone would notice.” Normally a tactful man Etjar instantly dredged up insults when the mood took him. The smaller man backed off with fear and anger on his face.

Turning back he saw Marissa kneeling, cleaning Trajan’s wounds. The wounded man started to thank her but groaned when she scrubbed hard at one wound. “Hey, take it easy, won’t you!” he complained.

“If you ducked faster I wouldn’t need to do this. Stop whining.”

Etjar shook his head. When they decided to kill each other, he wasn’t betting which would win.

Three days later the trio stumbled up to the southern gate of Kerr along with a single pilgrim. Hax and the others lay dead behind them along the road.

“They killed the other pilgrims?”

“There were six of ’em, two adults and four half-grown young-uns. After I killed the one young-un the big ones kept after us, trying to ambush us.”

“What did they do?”

“Kept trying to ambush us. Instead of straggling we had to stay bunched up. We lost Hax and another pilgrim ‘cuz they got too far from us. Almost lost the wizard, too. We finally killed both of the adults and another of the young-uns. No idea what happened to the other two.”

“You didn’t like the wizard, did you?”

“Nope. She and I rubbed each other the wrong way from the first moment we met.” Trajan was about to expound further on the topic but David interjected another question.

“Gree-kins are poisonous?”

“Yes, David, gree-kins are poisonous. Deadly poisonous. Most people don’t survive a clawing.”

“Why did they keep attacking you?”

“Gree-kins mostly travel alone and attack lone travelers. The group we met was a family, and after I killed the young-un the parents seemed bound to kill us all.”

“Why do they bite people’s heads off?”

“They don’t bite heads off, they crack the skull so they can eat brains. And they don’t suck brains out through your nose.”

“Why …”

“DAVID!” Standing beside them was a young man or an old boy, depending on point of view. He had arrived unnoticed in the flurry of questions and answers.

“Bisonbit!” Jake and David yelped in harmony.

“Time for lessons. Get your butts moving or I’ll kick them all the way to the temple!”

Trajan cut off the grumbles. “Time for you boys to get to your lessons.” Silently he added, “And spare me from more questions.” ‘Why’ was David’s favorite question, no matter what the previous answer was. As much as Trajan liked the boy, some time off from him was good.

The two boys trundled dejectedly off behind the older boy …

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