A Wee Waffle About Reading

I love reading.  It’s rare when I don’t have at least one book on the go, and sometimes two or three and it’s something I’m very passionate about.  Before I was able to read them myself, my Mum would read them to me. *

It would be a lie to say I came to it early; in fact I found it frustratingly hard to pick up.  I believe it was particularly wearing on the patience of my long suffering Mum and my teachers.  I’m not sure what age it was, but I struggled with it for most of my time in infant school.

Once I made the breakthrough though, there was no stopping me and I’d read almost anything that was put in front of me; some of it was even age appropriate.  Some of my early favourites were an Asterix five book omnibus and a Rupert the Bear book.  My Grandad however, had a vast and awesome collection of history books that ran the gamut from Military History, to Natural History, Ancient History, and many others.  I’ve spent many happy Sunday afternoons sat on a stool in a cupboard under the stairs where he kept his bookcase, leafing through books that I wasn’t quite old enough to understand properly.

One of the first grown-up fiction books I read was Fever Dream, when I was ten, or eleven. ** A period, vampire, horror, set on a paddle steamer that plied its way up and down the Mississippi.  A bit of an odd one, but a decent read.

From there, it was James Herbert books and adventure Gamebooks (Mainly Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy).

I don’t have quite as much time to read as I used to, but I mitigate this somewhat with Audiobooks.  If I could afford it I could probably go through a dozen a Month, but I usually have to content myself with my monthly credit.

I’ve just realised that I’m not actually heading towards a point and have just been banging on about how awesome books are.  I suppose if I had any point to make, it would be that I genuinely believe that books are good for the mind.  Not just the highbrow stuff, but anything; fiction, non-fiction, trashy romance, whatever floats your boat.  They take you places you’ve never been and show you things you’re never likely to see.

Books might even spark an interest in something new.  When I was a wee nipper, the Asterix books sparked my interest in history, and then my Grandad’s collection of books let me run with it.

I could ramble on about this all day, but I’ll draw it to a close here, before I get all arty-farty, and simply say, reading is awesome and I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it.

 

*The Mr Men, by Roger Hargreaves.  I was never lucky enough to own all of them, but I had a fair collection and I loved them.  I could say I treasured them, but I was a small child and I treated them very badly.  The only one I’ve managed to preserve into adulthood is Mr Messy.

**I only realised a couple of Years ago that it was written by George RR Martin.  It was the mid-eighties and Game of Thrones didn’t exist, so although I remembered the book, I’d completely forgotten who wrote it.

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The Last Gunfighter

Ringo’s Schofield clicked on an empty chamber, and just like that, he was dead.  There was no time to reload, or even a last word; they gunned him down before he could even duck behind cover.

He been the best of them.  Everyone had thought Ringo was invincible, sometimes even Ringo himself; now he was dead, and Joe was the last man standing.  He wasn’t going to die here, not if he had anything to do with it, it would be pointless.  The last wagon full of townsfolk had rolled out nearly fifteen minutes ago.  Maybe if he could get to the horses and could catch up with them?  It wasn’t more than a sliver of hope, but it was all he had.

He loaded his shotgun with the spares he kept in his pants pocket, the bandolier long since exhausted.  If he could get to the horses there was plenty more in his saddlebag, but until then he’d have to make every squeeze of the trigger count.  Steeling himself, he leapt from behind the water butt he’d been sheltering behind and ran across the street as fast as his legs would carry him. He slowed only to shoot the nearest of the bandit things, as it came a little too close for comfort.

The abominations weren’t human.  Joe knew there were some strange things out there these days, but these were some of the most deadly and downright unsettling sons of bitches he’d ever seen.  Deadly enough to take down some of the fastest, most dangerous guns he’d ever rode with.

It wasn’t just the fact that they were faster, tougher and seemingly tireless; or that they didn’t always stay down when shot, but the way they looked, the way they moved, it just wasn’t right.  It was difficult for him to get straight in his head, but they sometimes seemed to move without covering the distance they’d just travelled, and their limbs jerked erratically, as if they struggled to control their own bodies.

The most unsettling thing of all though, were the eyes, or lack thereof.  The eye sockets of every single one of these bandits were empty; empty and emitting an unwholesome grey, green smoke.  How they could see was a mystery to Joe, but not only could they see, they could shoot and shoot well.

After dodging down an alleyway he was now sprinting parallel to main street, willing the stable to come into view, expecting to be shot in the back with every second that passed.  He was gripping his shotgun so tightly that his knuckles throbbed; his life depended on the powerful weapon and he was convinced he would drop it.

Running past Doc Coffey’s place, Joe was almost stopped in his tracks by a hail of gunfire from one of the bandit things that had managed to get ahead of the main group.  How it had missed him, he had no idea, but he wasn’t going to make the same mistake. He skidded to a halt, kicking up dust as he did so, pivoted on the spot and blew the things head off, even as it jerked and juddered towards him.

Joe planted the but of his shotgun on the ground and leaned hard on it for a moment and sucked down lungs-full of air and tried to catch his breath.  Hearing a crash from the street, he got moving again, not daring to linger any longer, despite his near total exhaustion.

‘Almost there.  Get moving you worn out old bastard.’ He growled to himself.

Working himself up to his new top speed, a slow, but steady trot, he reached the end of the row of buildings and the stables hove into view.  Unbelievably they looked clear.  Realistically he knew it didn’t matter how they looked, there could be a dozen of those things in there and he wouldn’t know until he came close enough for them to shoot him to death.

There was no choice, there was nowhere else to go, so keeping up his pace, Joe made for the stables, crossing into the open, exposed street.  His skin crawled with apprehension.  Every step he took towards the building and the hope of salvation, he expected to be his last, the shooting would start, and he’d go down in a hail of bullets.

Upon reaching the stables alive, he breathed a sigh of relief and muttered a quick prayer of thanks.  He wasn’t an especially religious man, but he was happy to throw out a quick prayer if it’d keep him alive a while longer.

Leaving the big double doors shut for the moment, Joe crept in through the small, man size side door that was off to the side and was pleased to find that all appeared to be well.  The horses were skittish, sure, but that was no great surprise really, given the things that were in town.

He went straight to his own mount, Welwyn, a massive, ill tempered brown stallion and was immediately glad to see that the horse was still saddled.

Opening the gate to the stall, Joe led Welwyn to the big doors and unbarred them as quietly as possible.  He took a deep breath, threw them open, hurled himself into the saddle and urged Welwyn onwards.  He took a last look at the stables behind him and felt a pang of guilt at leaving the rest of the horses penned in like that.  There was no choice though, if he lingered long enough to free them, then he’d become a permanent resident.

Shots rang out, all at too great a distance to be unduly worried about.  They’d almost caught up with him.  He spurred Welwyn to a gallop and found the brute only to happy to oblige; it seemed his horse wanted to get out of town as badly as he did.

He was almost clear of the town when one of things appeared almost from thin air, to stand right in his path, firing fast, and without hesitation, emptying its gun in his direction.  A bullet scored a red-hot line of pain across his ribs and another holed his hat, but the rest missed.  Before it could reload, or move out of the way, Welwyn barrelled into it and trampled it underfoot.

“Good boy,” he told the horse.

Stealing a quick look at the town receding into the darkness behind him, Joe let out a breath that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.  He was away.  He had no clue how he’d survived and he didn’t care; he had survived, and that was all that mattered to him at this moment in time.

It was dark, but the road was easy to follow.  It was well travelled, so he reckoned he’d have to try damn hard to lose it.  The townsfolk didn’t have an insurmountable head-start and If he rode hard, he could probably catch up with them in an hour or two.  They’d no doubt be glad of an extra gun and he’d certainly be glad of the company.

Although he loved a good thunderstorm, this one was started to unnerve Mike a bit.  It had been going on for most of the day and according to the news and weather forecast it was part of a massive storm front that had already wreaked havoc across swathes of western Europe.  The official advice was for people to stay indoors, unless absolutely necessary, as the storm presented a threat to life.

The storm had started rolling in around mid-morning, and the power went off not long after that; they’d guessed that maybe a substation had been struck by lightning.  Neither of them had any clue whether that was something that could happen, but it sounded possible.

Until a couple of minutes ago the only unusual thing about it seemed to be its duration.  Experts and assorted meteorologists on the telly had been getting worked up about it, but that was nothing new.  They were always blowing things out of proportion in effort to turn everything with even a bit of mileage into the next big story, and of course there was no shortage of experts to come and talk about whatever the latest hot topic was.

Mike and Stacy were standing at the window of the spare room watching the storm and had been for nearly an hour now.  The back of the house had an unobstructed view all the way to the river a couple of miles away.  What had appeared to be a powerful, but relatively normal storm changed, almost like a switch had been flipped. The lightning strikes started coming down on the wide stretch of water with an intensity that neither of them had ever seen, with two or three bolts at a time striking the river, and the sound of thunder was constant, with one blast merging into another.

“That’s not right Stace; thunder isn’t supposed to do that is it?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied, sounding a little uncertain of her answer.

He was about to speak again when his train of thought was broken by the first lightning strike they’d seen hit land.  The crack of thunder that followed it barely a second later was ear-splitting and the pair jumped back from the window as if it had hit the ground in their back garden.  Stacy caught her heel on the corner of a rug and staggered back a couple of steps, managing to keep her balance, but Mike wasn’t so lucky.  He backed straight into a pile of boxes full of random clutter and landed in an untidy heap.

“That really bloody hurt.  I think I’ve broken my arse.”  He was only joking, but he had come down hard on his backside, so he was lucky he hadn’t done himself a mischief.

Stacy offered her hand and he pulled himself up, just as there was another blinding flash of lightning and crack of thunder, but they were ready for this one.  They returned to the window and their eyes were immediately drawn to a fire near the river, where the first strike on land had hit.  They hadn’t heard an explosion, but they might have missed it considering the racket the storm was making.

“It must’ve struck a car or something,” Stacy speculated.

Lightning struck a few streets away, causing a car alarm to go off.  Then across the road, hitting a satellite dish and sending up a shower of sparks, all this accompanied by the constant, manic drumroll of thunder.

Stacy backed away from the window and put her hand on Mike’s shoulder.

“Let’s go downstairs, it’s not safe standing here like this Mike.”

“Yeah, alright.  We probably shouldn’t be this close to the window.”

By the time they got down to the living room, the lightning was coming down in front of the house too.  Stacy was sitting in an armchair as far away from the window as possible, but Mike, reluctant to miss the spectacle of the storm had half opened the curtains and was standing a couple of feet from the window.  He had no idea if he was in any less danger than he had been upstairs, with his face almost pressed to the glass, but he felt safer and that was enough for him.

There was a flash of light that he momentarily mistook for more lightning, until it started getting brighter.  He chanced a closer look and was shocked to see a car driving down the road.  It was driving much too fast for the weather and had its high beams blazing ahead of it.  He took a step back but kept his eyes on the window.

“Jesus Christ Stace; there’s a car out there,” he exclaimed, barely able to believe his eyes.

Stacy sprung out of the armchair and joined him at the window, needing to see the car for herself.

“What kind of soft arse would be out in this?” She said, almost as a statement of fact, rather than a question.

They watched as the car continued down the road, skidding one way and then the other, as the tyres kept losing traction on the rain slicked tarmac.  A few more seconds passed before disaster struck.

Another jagged fork of lightning came down and although it didn’t hit the car, it wasn’t more than a few feet in front of vehicle.  The unseen driver swerved, causing the car to go into a spin on the wet road.  One of the back wheels hit the kerb, sending sparks flying and causing the car to ricochet back into the middle of the road.

It looked for a moment as if whoever was behind the wheel would get the car under control, until the slide pulled it to the other side of the road; only this time it mounted the kerb, and at the speed it was travelling, there was no stopping.  It crashed through the garden wall of the house three doors down from Mike and Stacy’s and rather than slowing, seemed to speed up as it crossed the small front garden.

The car smashed through the large bay window like a missile, then disappeared into the house and even though all this happened barely fifty feet from them, they hardly heard any of it over the constant sensory bombardment of the storm.

The pair just stared at the house across the road that the car had just fired itself at.  The rain was still pelting down, so it was impossible to make out anything in any detail.  It was possible to discern a glow coming from the hole in the house.  Something had caught fire in there.

“I think the house is on fire Stace.”

“I don’t know what to do, my phone isn’t working.  They probably wouldn’t send a fire engine out in this anyway, would they?” She asked.

“Probably not, but we’ve got to do something.”

“No we bloody haven’t.  Leave it to somebody else; I’m not going out in that and neither are you,” she said with finality.

He was about to continue arguing when somebody came staggering out of the house, over the mound of rubble and into the storm.

“It’s the feller that has that dog that’s always running about, out of control,” Mike stated.

The man seemed to be dazed and was staggering about like a drunk.  He’d barely made it across his garden before he was struck by an almost blindingly bright bolt of lightning.

For the briefest moment it was like daylight and they watched in horror as the voltage from the strike lifted the man off the ground and hurled him back the way he’d just come, smashing him into the wall of his house, like he’d just been fired out of a catapult.  Almost certainly dead, he bounced off the wall and tumbled to the ground like a discarded ragdoll, where he landed out of sight.

They continued to stare, in shock at what they’d just seen, and it wasn’t until more lightning grounded itself in the streetlight right outside their house that they both managed to shake themselves out of the stupor they’d been in.

“We should get away from the windows, before any of that lightning strikes the house,” Stacy said, more than a hint of panic in her voice.

“Yeah.  The cupboard under the stairs? If we throw the crap out of it there should be enough room.”  Mike realised he didn’t sound any more calm and collected than Stacy did.

“There’s already a torch in there, and some batteries.  I think there’s some cans of pop left over from Christmas too,” she told him.

They both moved together, glad to have something to do to occupy themselves for a bit.  It was the work of just a few minutes to clear enough space in the cupboard for them both to fit with a modicum of comfort.  At the last minute Stacy dashed back into the living room, and Mike was about to follow, to see what she was doing, when cushions started flying through the door.

“Put them in there love,” she shouted.  “We might be in there a while, and I’d at least like to be a bit comfortable.”

 

EPILOGUE

 

The storm had gone on right through the night and into the next day.  It had got louder and louder, and at one point there had been the sound of an explosion that they assumed was the crashed car across the road.  The storm got so bad that the whole house had shook, and it had gone on like that for almost an hour.  They’d been convinced with every lightning strike, that the next would be the one that struck their house, and given how powerful the storm was at that point they could only guess at what would happen then.

At one point, about four in the morning, going by the time on their phones, they’d thought they’d heard people shouting, but discounted it as their ears playing tricks on them.  Finally, at some point after nine in the morning the storm had started to die down.

There were still some pretty loud rumbles, but nothing like the constant barrage that had bombarded them through the night.  After so long, the sound of relative silence felt strange, and they stayed in the cupboard under the stairs for another half hour, afraid of what they would find when they came out.

“We’ve got to go out some time Stace.  It almost stopped now, it’s probably safe.  Besides, I need a wee so bad it’s going to come spurting out of my ears in a minute.”

It wasn’t that funny, but they both laughed anyway.  After the tension of the night it was a way to relieve some of the stress.

“Seriously,” he told her, standing up and opening the door, “I’m about to piss my pants, I’ll only be a minute.”

Mike was on his way back to the cupboard when Stacy called him into the living room.  The room looked like somebody had set a hand grenade off in it.  The windows were smashed, pictures had been blown off the wall, furniture was overturned.

“The kitchen window’s broken as well.  It’s going to cost a sodding fortune to sort all this out,” he said, as much to himself as Stacy.

“Mike, come here; look,” she told him, gesturing at the broken windows.

He looked up from the ruin of their living room and the sight outside took his breath away.  Walking over to the window, he took in the devastation.

When the crashed car had exploded, the fire must’ve spread fast without the intervention of the fire brigade.  It had probably been aided by the lightning that had sounded like it was almost coming down like rain at one point.  Almost every home on the opposite side of the road had been gutted by fire, with the houses closest to the explosion being nothing more than smoking piles of rubble.  Only the couple of houses at either end of the row of terraced houses had survived.

They’d been lucky the rain had been coming down so heavy, or the fire might’ve jumped across the road, and the consequences of that were too terrible to consider.

“I’m going out to have a look,” Stacy told him, so he followed her.

Some of the houses on their side of the road had caught fire, but it looked like most of it was just roof damage, no doubt caused by lightning strikes.  There were a few other people, looking around disbelievingly, like themselves.  The sound of sirens floated on the breeze, lots of them.

“Do you think this is everywhere?” He asked.

“Maybe.”

“Shit,” he exclaimed.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, as the sirens came closer.

Hero Time

ONE

They’d finally been able to do it.  The Tower had been destroyed, Heroes Vale was in ruins and every person that The Last Heroes had pledged to defend was dead; killed by the pettiness and spite of lesser men.  Although those under their protection were gone, and the order was in tatters, the scum from The Town had made one mistake; they’d left one of the heroes alive, and Savage would make them pay for their sloppiness.

Savage knew he’d only survived because of the Heroic Vengeance protocol.  It had long been known that the people of the Town were capable of anything, so the protocol had been created to ensure that there would always be one hero, no matter what happened.

A hardened shelter had been constructed far beneath The Tower and whenever the Conclave was in session and the Heroes at their most vulnerable, one of them would go to the shelter, and this time it had been Savage.

He settled his shoulder holster and rested his hand for a moment on the grip of his massive black pistol, Justice.  They were going to pay, not just for this but for every foul misdeed that had ever been committed in the name of The Boss.  The Town, and their callous, indifferent leader had been a blight on this world for far too long, and he intended to something about it, or die trying.  Savage was almost overcome with rage at the destruction laid out before him.

Whatever had destroyed Heroes Vale, it had been big, and it had been a spectacle, so Savage knew that at least some of the forces responsible were nearby, they wouldn’t be able to help themselves; if he knew anything about them, they’d probably filmed the whole thing.  The Town had a reputation among those settlements that remained not only for being spiteful and petty, but also being vicious, vengeful, self-deluded, and very thin skinned when it came to being humbled.  The Last Heroes had, it seemed, foiled the plans of The Boss one too many times and he had decided to deal with the problem in the most overblown way possible and had almost certainly had an advance team record the events for him to gloat over.

Savage needed to move fast.  He wanted to catch up to the team before they got back to The Town and he intended to kill them all.  It was the only way to stop them.  They wouldn’t learn, they were incapable of it and deadly violence was the only thing they understood.  It wasn’t exactly the most heroic line of thinking, but there was no longer any conclave to mitigate his more aggressive tendencies.

It didn’t take him long to find their tracks, they’d made no effort to conceal them.  It was over confidence, or ineptitude, perhaps even a little of both.  This suspicion was cemented a moment later when he heard some sporadic shouts of excitement, random gunfire and a single explosion off in the distance.  If they kept that up, he wouldn’t need tracks to follow.

 

TWO

The pair laughed raucously as the round from the bazooka hit the cliff face, triggering a landslide of rocks and assorted detritus to come sliding down into the wooded valley, startling the local wildlife into flight.

“I don’t know about you Harvey, but I feel pretty bloody awesome.”

“Damn right! We were there when those hero knobs were finally snuffed out.  Those guys were dangerous, and we were there, right in harms way; we’re a right pair of tough guys.”

Dennis simply nodded, with a big ear to ear grin plastered across his face and threw the bazooka to one of the men that the pair thought of as nothing more than expendable cronies.

“Let’s go fellow tough guy,” Harvey added, doing finger guns at his friend.

The pair turned and began walking to where they’d parked the transport, simply expecting the rest to follow.  They’d had to park a good distance away, so their arrival wasn’t clocked, and none of them had enjoyed the walk in; there was no direct road from The Town to here, so it had been a tough slog.  Dennis breathed a sigh of relief when they crested a small ridge and spotted the rugged ATV hidden in the gulley.

“We are tough guys,” he said, after a near five-minute break in the conversation, “but I’m the toughest.”

“Frig off Dennis.  Everyone knows I’m tougher.”

“In your dreams mate.  They probably can’t even remember your name, because they’re too distracted by my awesomeness,” Dennis retorted.

“Distracted by your face more like,” Harvey said,with a grin.  “You look like a …”  That was as far as he got before the panicked shouts from those behind the pair began.

Harvey and Dennis both turned to see what was going on.  Three of their ten soldiers were on the ground and it was clear that they wouldn’t be getting up again any time soon.  A fourth dropped as a man leapt from the cover of the trees and did a power slide into the midst of the remaining soldiers.  Taking advantage of the panic Savage deftly unscrewed the silencer, cast it aside and fired two more shots.  The first ricocheted off the helmet of a soldier and caught the man next to him in the leg, and the second killed the wounded soldier with a perfectly placed shot to the head.

“We outnumber him you idiots,” Dennis shouted at the five soldiers running around like headless chickens, “shoot the bugger.”

The remaining soldiers pulled themselves together, at least up to a point when they realised they still had the numbers to gang up.  Poorly aimed gunfire sheeted towards Savage as the soldiers emptied their rifles in an effort to bring the hero down.  Support fire from Harvey and Dennis killed another soldier, causing a snort of laughter from both men, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Savage leapt to his feet, sprung forward and Judo chopped the nearest man in the neck, causing him to drop like a sack of spuds.  Before the man had hit the ground Savage was moving again, combat rolling towards the nearest men and unleashing another salvo of deadly gunfire.

Harvey and Dennis were far enough from the action to see that the writing was on the wall.  There were only two of the soldiers still standing, one of them was running away and the other was so blinded with terror that he was attempting to reload his empty rifle with a half empty water canteen while begging for his life.

The pair didn’t wait to see what happened to their remaining men, they just turned and legged while there was still something to distract the combat monster that would end them as completely as their team had been ended.

 

THREE

Savage surveyed the carnage he’d wrought and nodded grimly.  He felt nothing but hate for the soldiers he’d just killed.  He just wished there’d been more of them.  The army from The Town had shoddy discipline and were poorly trained, with the only thing going for them being their numbers and lack of moral compass; he could’ve taken three times as many and barely broken a sweat.

He released the magazine from his pistol, letting it drop to the floor and slammed in a fresh one.  Justice was a powerful weapon, but that power compromised its capacity and all the shooting must’ve nearly emptied it.

“Clumsy, Savage,” he growled.  What if he’d run dry at the wrong time? The red mist had descended, and he’d lost his focus and that was when mistakes happened.

He quickly searched the bodies for anything of use and set off in the direction of the fleeing transport.

“It’s a start.”

Vigilus Excitement

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Warhammer Community site today, much like a lot of people have I suspect, and along with the stuff that’s been on Twitter it’s left me excited for the immediate future as far as releases are concerned.  I can’t afford any of it this side of Christmas but that doesn’t stop me getting excited about it all; anyway, I’ll get there eventually.

I’ve been a fan of the Ultramarines for nearly thirty years now, so it was awesome to see the Primaris Marneus Calgar, complete with embiggened honour guard.  My bro having a deeply rooted dislike of the Ultramarines, for not entirely unjustified reasons is less than chuffed.  After all GW have hardly had the most even-handed approach to them over the years.  Despite this, seeing the picture of him this morning still made my day.

I also like Genestealer Cults and was starting to wonder when their Codex was coming, and whereas I still don’t know exactly when it’s coming, I know it’s coming soon.  The best bit for me though were the pictures of the Genestealers on dirt bikes and the guy standing over the holographic map.  A lot of the current crop of Codexes haven’t had much in the way of model releases, so it was cool to see that the Genestealers are going to be bucking the trend in that respect.

The last thing that really caught my eye was the Noise Marine that’s being releases right on top of Christmas, and as is entirely appropriate, it’s eye wateringly gaudy and in a nice little nod to the model it’s based on, it has a bright green flocked base, which is nice to see.

There were of course other bits and bobs, but that’s the stuff that caught my eye, and I’m going to be sinking quite a lot of any spare cash I have in the post-Christmas period into all of the stuff I mentioned above.

Given the impending release of all this stuff, and the GW stuff I already wanted to get, next Year is going to be pretty expensive for me.

Strength Of Will

It was shaping up to be a really bad day for Frank Choos.  He was miles from the nearest Town, he’d been robbed, and his horse was gone; having been shot twice and left for dead was going to slow him down too.

‘I’ll make it back if it’s the last damn thing I do.  I Ain’t leaving my gizzards for the critters,’ he told himself.

With that he labouriously hauled himself to his feet, staggered forward a few steps and went crashing back to the ground as a spasm of pain from the most serious of his two wounds, the one in his side caught him by surprise and robbed him of his strength.  He wasn’t going anywhere until he did something about those bullet holes.

Gingerly lifting his shirt, he inspected the wound in his side.  The blood looked like common old blood.  He’d been worried that his liver had been nicked, if it had he’d have been done for.  It wasn’t bleeding much either, so maybe he wasn’t as badly off as he thought he was.  Folding his handkerchief into a rough square, he placed it over the wound and secured it by cinching his now empty gunbelt tightly around his midriff, grimacing in discomfort as he did.

“Didn’t even get a shot off,” he complained, “and now the bastards have got my shooting iron.”

The most serious wound dealt with, he inspected his blood-soaked shoulder.  It was a mess alright, and it’d bled something fierce, but he’d already been falling from his horse after the first bullet had hit him, so it had ricocheted off his collarbone, instead of killing him.  He hadn’t even known that was possible, but he was glad it was.  It hurt like hell, but it wasn’t going to kill him.

“Right, time to try again.”

He lurched to his feet again and bracing himself for the pain he knew was coming, managed to stay upright this time.  Taking a few uncertain steps, he determined that he probably wasn’t going to fall over again; at least not immediately.

After a couple of minutes and a couple of close shaves, he developed a gait that seemed to be a good compromise between speed and searing pain.  It was the kind of walk that might be seen on the deck of a ship in rough seas, but it was working for him, and that was all that mattered for now.

“How in tarnation am I going to make it back, it must be nearly three miles?”

“One foot in front of the other, that’s how, you stubborn old cuss,” he reprimanded.

Choos kept on in the direction he reckoned the town of Burnett to be in.  He was weak and getting weaker and was finding it increasingly difficult to remain lucid.  At one point he noticed that the sun had set.  Strange, he’d thought it to be mid-afternoon.

He’d already fallen a few times, and it was getting harder to stand every time he went down.  Worried that the next time might be the one he didn’t get up from he watched the ground for anything that might cause him to trip.  No amount of caution could overcome his failing strength though, and it was a wave of dizziness put him flat on his face.

Rolling over, he tried to stand, but struggled to even sit up.  Sixty years and he was going to die because of some two-bit bushwhackers.

“At least it’s a nice clear night.  I guess I’ll be seeing you soon Mary.”

Mary and he had been set to get to get married, but she’d been taken from him by a bout of pneumonia when he’d still been a young man nearly forty years ago.  She’d been the love of his life and he was no quitter, but he still missed her and had been counting down the days; he reckoned it was finally time.

He stared at the sky, waiting to die.  His mind started to drift, and that was when he heard the music.  The sound of a piano drifting through the night.  At first he couldn’t wrap his head around it and then it came to him, he must be close to Burnett, the hotel was a classy place and had its own piano.

“I don’t care,” he muttered angrily, “I’m ready.

He could almost hear Mary scolding him.

‘You get your backside out of the dirt Frank Choos, I didn’t fall in love with no quitter.’

“I’m sorry Mary, I’m just so tired,” he said, apologising to a memory.

He couldn’t go, not like this.  Mary wouldn’t want some self-pitying old fool, who’d quit because he was too chicken to fight for the scrap of life he had left.

Flopping onto his belly he got moving again.  First in a kind of half crawl, half drag, before managing to get to his feet and stagger forward like a drunk.

“One foot in front of the other,” Choos told himself, “one foot in front of the other.”

The Saga of Berit Christendottir

The last creature went down with a vicious slash to the neck, and not a moment too soon.  Berit was exhausted and she wondered, not for the first time today if she was getting to old for the life of a sell-sword.  Sorely in need of a breather, she slumped against the rough wall of the cave and wiped the ichor off her broad bladed short sword, on a rag tucked into her belt.

She couldn’t keep this up.  The day had been one long running battle, and now she was the only one left.  Egil and Erik had gone to the Allfather, the brother’s selling their lives dearly in the cavern down below.  Berit had tried to fight her way to the pair, but there were too many of the goblin things and after the pair had been overwhelmed retreat had been her only recourse.

A hissing sound came from the direction of the cavern.  That was all the rest she was getting; it was time to move.

Berit moved through the cave at a steady jog.  In part to maintain what little stamina she had left, but also because visibility was poor, and she had no intention of being finished off by a broken ankle.  Egil had been carrying the lantern, and all she had to light her way was the glow-stone set into the bracer that protected her off-hand; that and the vague luminescence of the moss that seemed to grow all over these tunnels.

The tunnel sloped upwards, she hoped that was a good sign.  This was not the way they’d entered the cave system, and for all she knew, she could be heading into certain death.  Stopping for a moment, Berit held her breath and listened.  The things were still behind her, that disconcerting hiss dogging her every step, but that wasn’t what she was listening for.

She was about to give up, but then she heard, and felt the slight whisper of a breeze.  Her heart leapt, and she started to move again, hope refreshed.

It was mere seconds before she heard the hissing of the things in the tunnel ahead and Berit knew she’d tarried too long.  Somehow, they’d managed to find a way around her and they now they were in front of her, as well as behind.

“Berit Christendottir is not dying today, you Hel spawned sons of whores,” she cursed at them, before raising her blade and picking up speed as she moved towards the enemy ahead of her.

She threw herself around a corner, ready for the fight she knew was coming and crashed into the leading edge of the enemy advance party.  She’d badly misjudged their position, the unpredictable acoustics of the caves making the things sound further away than they were.

The glow-stone on her bracer flared up and knocked the creatures back with a mighty concussive blast; saving her life for the second time today.  Before the goblinoid abominations could recover, she was on them.  Momentum was her only ally.  The things were small, weak and poorly equipped, but they vastly outnumbered her and if she gave them even half a chance, they would overwhelm her, just as they had Egil and Erik, no matter how skilfully she fought.

Berit stabbed one through the neck, just as it was staggering to its feet, the broad blade almost decapitating it.  She backhanded another with her off-hand as it desperately threw itself at her, catching it in the chest with the full, devastating impact of her bracer; she finished off the twitching, gasping goblin thing with a kick, caving in its skull with the impact.

On Berit went, slashing, stabbing, kicking, punching.  She opened one of them up from groin to collarbone, spilling its reeking guts onto her feet before pivoting and taking off the arm of another with a vicious chop.

It was like scything wheat.  They were collapsing before her onslaught, with almost half of them dead or dying in less than a minute and she was beginning to feel invincible.  It was as if the power of the Allfather was flowing through her.  She should have been exhausted but she felt invigorated. She shouldered into a small knot of the goblin things as they were trying to form a flimsy shield wall.  Scattering them, she killed anything within arms-reach; this wasn’t a fight anymore, it was a slaughter, and her foes turned and fled the charnel-house that the tunnel had become, disappearing into the cracks and crevices that were all over these caves.

Berit moved forward, not even stopping to sheath her sword.  She had felt this unnatural vigour many times before and recognised the first signs of it fading from her limbs.  In mere minutes it would be a struggle to keep moving, so great would be the feeling of exhaustion.  She needed to get out fast.

She could feel the breeze in her skin now and could see the first hint of daylight.  Using the last of her ebbing strength, Berit staggered forward and into the light at the end of the tunnel.