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May 11 2009

The Raven

The RavenThe hole stank worse than a troll’s armpit. Dead meat, rotting straw, human waste. Perhaps it was a blessing that there was barely enough room to sit, let alone lie down. If I had given myself up to lying full length in that filth, perhaps I would have given up the will to live as well. Thankfully, I stood; my wasted, skinny body leaning against the dripping stones. I looked up at the small circle of light above, and I planned. Planned escape, of course, and revenge. Bloody revenge.

Think you that the Raven has sent his last dispatch? Think you that my days of spying, plotting, scheming and politicking are behind me? Think again. For though I languish now—stuck like a rat in a pipe at the behest of a fat, greasy dwarf whose beard was not worthy enough to wipe clean this pit—I would again fly free like my namesake. And like my namesake, my flight would mean ill omen to my enemies and oppressors. Where I had watched, now I would strike. Before, I had sold my services to the highest bidder, now I would play the mighty like pawns on a chess board. Where before they had heard the name Raven and been afeared, now they would forever cower in their beds, never more knowing the comfort of their stone bastions.

“Curse all dwarfs and their damned beards!” I shouted at the mocking light. After a pause it was blocked out by a knobbly silhouette. It was my troll jailor again; checking to see that I was still there, no doubt.

“Shut your ‘ole, noisy man-thing!” it shouted back. The head retracted.

Damn. One comment, one aspersion cast on the thickness of Mac Dhonnchaidh’s beard, and months of hard work—and hard drinking—blown away like the leaves of autumn at the onset of winter. Victory at the Stirling had done little to ease his temper, or his quickness to take offense. And then, my damnable pride … there had been time to grovel to the stumpy king, but the drinking, the heat of the hall, the weeks of dwelling among the belligerent Dwarven folk … a further observation on the baldness of his body, and I was lucky to escape with my head—though cast it was into his stinking dungeon.

Well, the Raven may not yet have the power of flight, but he could climb as well as any man in the known world. I stretched my battered arms and legs out to full length, found whatever slimy cracks in the stones I could, and began the long, slow, painful crawl upward. An hour later, I peeked over the lip of the well. The troll, clutching a huge rusty meat cleaver, was standing directly in front of me looking surprised and confused.

“Perhaps you’d be kind enough to give me a hand, good troll?” I quickly asked. Thankfully, trolls are as stupid as they are large. A strong pull while he was leaning out, unbalanced, and he was over my head and plummeting downwards–strangely, without a sound. Until he hit the bottom.

No doubt the world has forgotten the Raven, I thought as I finally crawled out of the oubliette. Time to remind them.

This was a revenge I could not fully execute on my own; I needed allies, however temporary. Two nights later, clad in the livery of one of his sentries, I entered the camp of Edward, self-proclaimed hero of the land and scourge of Dwarven-kind.

Hero perhaps, but still a bastard, I thought. It was well known that Edward was borne by a lord’s scullery maid swiftly dispatched to an abbey. Of course, Edward’s father begat no male heir, and his bastard was swiftly returned to the castle upon his death. Twenty-five years of growing up among men of God had not made Edward a pious man. On the contrary, it was said he spent his youth searching through ancient tomes in the abbey’s library, and had managed to give himself an education that God would most likely have frowned upon. Instead of taking the path of a warrior, like most bastards eager to usurp their fathers, he had become skilled in the ways of wizardry.

Or so the peasants gossiped over their ploughs; it mattered not. Whether masters were warriors, wizards, clerics or rogues, it was all of a muchness to those who rummaged in the mud for a living.

As his father coughed his last, our bastard hero Edward established himself as lord and rightful heir and began raising an army of conquest. Some said the army was invincible, and that Edward had used his powers to enlist demon beasts to fight on his side. All the better, I thought.

It was a simple matter to walk through the main part of the army camp. The men were drunk with victory and cheap wine, and I passed many boisterous games of chance, fist-fights and shaking tents. I stepped over soldiers passed out in pools of vomit, and once a group of men threw their arms around my shoulders and forced me to join them in a few verses of ‘Where Have All the Young Girls Gone?’. Eventually however I reached the other end of the camp, where the ground became higher and was crowned by scores of rocky spires, and where large, ornate tents denoted the presence of the king and his retinue.

Now for the tricky part, I thought.

Even in torchlight, Edward looked far older than his twenty-seven years. His lanky hair and beard were already flecked with grey, and crows’ feet crowded around the edges of his deep set, red-rimmed eyes. He sat hunched in a high-backed oak chair behind a table covered in leather bound books and loosely-rolled scrolls, and looked up at me with the angry air of a man interrupted from a far more important task.

“I would have you killed on the spot for entering the inner compound unannounced, but you say you know something of the Dwarven defences,” he said. He squinted at my features as though studying his books. But I was not so easily read.
“The damn dwarves have it comin’ to ‘em” I said, putting on a peasant’s drawl, “an’ as a loyal member of yer lordship’s army, I ‘ad to come and tell ye meself about the best and quickest way to see ‘em all on spits by tomorrow’s end.”

“I’m listening”, the Lord replied, leaning back.

“It so happens m’Lord, that I worked in the castle brewery before the stumpies took over the place and cast out us hard workin’ human folk, and I knows its ways well–in particular a certain way into the dungeons that’ll get you in faster than a tuppeny pint goes down a soldier’s throat”, I said.

“Really?” said Edward, “and tell me—Raven—whose army lines your pockets this time? The Dwarves? My father’s old men? Some other petty lord eager for glory?” His voice rose. “Think you that I have not ways of seeing through any disguise? Think you that I need the help of pitiful mercenary spies—I, who command dragons?” Beckoning to the guards, he strode for the tent opening. “Bring the arrogant fool. Let me show you, black bird of ill omen, how a wizard goes about making war.”

Dragons? Dragons?! Spend but one month in a castle dungeon and how the world changes, I thought, as the soldiers began dragging me after him. Behind the tent we crossed through a natural wall of boulders and into a natural amphitheatre that truncated the top of the hill. A great spike of iron, twice the height of a man, had been driven into the centre of the rocky bowl, and from it stretched chains thick as my arm. The chains were attached to iron collars, which in turn were fixed around the throats of three enormous beasts. And what beasts! If I had not already been on my knees I would have fallen to them. I have traveled far and wide and across the sea, and never have I seen the like. Monstrous serpents they were, great scaly creatures whose tread shook the earth as they circled the spike, heads pulling and lunging at the air, wings beating in anger, glowing eyes brim-full of malice and power.

“Well Raven, what think you? Do I require your help to defeat the Dwarves?” said Edward without turning to face me.

I did not bother to reply. Ah well, a Raven can also wait until the battle is over before taking his meal. A dead dwarf is dead, and revenge is taken, whether by means obvious or subtle. Perhaps, in this case, the time for subtlety had passed.

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January 07 2008

The Raven

The Raven“Mister, mister, please, help my sister, please help!”

I had been lost in my thoughts as I walked the road, and this small scruffy urchin managed to run up behind me and grab my cloak. Proof that the greatest could fall from one small lapse of concentration, I thought, as I shrugged him off. He was a persistent scrap however, and ran beside me with hands outstretched, pleading.

“Help me mister! The ugly troll’s got her, he does! None from the village’ll help her, they’re all scared of ‘im!”

I had no time for this. Without a word I turned and shoved the annoying little brat into a muddy ditch.

Ignoring his cries, I strode on, hoping to reach the next village by nightfall. The sky had already dimmed and the first stars appeared by the time I came upon a stone bridge across a wide stream; in the distance I could see the smoke from cooking fires. Half way across I felt a presence and turned, and there stood the boy again, leaning over the bridge wall and shouting down into the dark underneath:

“He’s here Moon-Gnawer – I got you ‘im! A man for my sister you said, a man to feed on!”

Instantly I was fully alert. A huge knobbled hand reached up and took purchase on the wall near me, then another. With startling speed the beast had dragged itself up over the side of the bridge and stood, nine feet tall, dripping wet, huge shoulders supporting powerfully muscled arms that ended in hands that scraped the ground. One held an enormous rusty meat cleaver.
The horrible face slit open and a voice like ancient rocks speaking said, “Little grey man, ye be my supper. Keep still while I chop ye!”

An interesting proposition, but I had no intention of complying. From the folds of my cloak I whipped out my long thin knife. Slish, slash, snicker, but the troll’s hide was thick, and it was like trying to cut into ancient stone. This was a battle I could not win by force.

I drew my arms apart, palms upward. “Wait, Moon-Gnawer, am I not thin and stringy? Hardly fit for the pot, just bone and gristle!” It paused slightly, cleaver half-raised. “A hungry troll requires a man large and fat, juicy with easy living! I can get you such a tasty treat!”

“Speak, skinny one,” it said slowly, head cocked.

“Behind me on the road I passed a fat tax-collector on a donkey, trying to reach the village before the fall of night. He has but one guard. Allow me to return and dispose of the guard with my long thin knife, and the fat man will be yours for the taking. Not to mention the gold he no doubt carries.”

“Hmmm …” Was that slow grinding the sound of it thinking? “Very well, but be quick about it. I want my dinner.”

“Excellent. I will return quickly with your delectable dish, bridgekeeper.”

Turning tail, I fled back the way I had come, passing the wide-eyed guttersnipe. “But … my sister! He promised to free my sister if I brought him dinner.”

“You’d best find another for his plate as I did, snot-nose.” I shouted over my shoulder, still running. “I have a detour to make!”

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November 07 2007

The Raven

The RavenWhen I had crossed the Stirling and fulfilled my commission, I found myself at leisure within the army camp of my own kind. It was there that my predictions for the coming battle—correct, as it turned out—were first formed. Watching the slovenly Hugh de Cressingham eating put me in mind of a pig at a trough; if he had known he was fattening himself up to be flayed by the dwarves and worn as a sword belt he would no doubt have been put off his dinner. And Surrey was a self-serving man with heavy-lidded eyes, skillful only at snoring in his bed, not planning battles.

But despite the arrogance and overconfidence of their leaders, the cavalry were still a sight to be seen, arrayed in their gleaming armour and bestride their powerful mounts. The horses stamped and steamed in the cold morning air as the army began the crossing at Stirling Bridge, and the knights held their lances high, anticipating they would soon be plunging them into a dwarven rabble and returning in time for a light lunch.

I’d seen the dwarves in their camp and alone thought otherwise. They were no rabble. I took one last look at the mighty army heading for oblivion, wrapped myself in a dark cloak and headed south.

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August 14 2007

The Raven

The Raven Mac Dhonnchaidh was slumbering heavily, a thick river of drool running down his chin, when I finally managed to sneak out of the dwarven dining tent without stepping on too many beards. My head was woolly, but I knew this would be my best chance to reconnoiter the camp and find out what surprises the doughty little men had for their next enemy.

Once I’d got upwind of the tent I caught a whiff on the night air of some unfamiliar beast. Threading my way through the sleeping tents required little stealth—a Dwarf encampment by night shakes with the sound of snoring—and soon I had come upon the outskirts where a fenced enclosure held several score dark, shambling, hairy shapes. Not more dwarves, as one would think by my description, but large black bulls. At first I thought them to be camp provisions, but a long row of solidly-built saddles slung over the corral fence revealed their true purpose.

How the dwarves had managed to domesticate the beasts enough to ride them into battle was a mystery. Perhaps they share some common bond—they are both bold, hairy, aggressive breeds, after all. Perhaps, in the no-nonsense manner that is the Dwarf way, they merely held on for dear life and pointed the bulls in the direction of the enemy, who would scatter in panic, like the revelers who run before the bulls sometimes let loose on the streets in Spanish cities during the festival.

Only with more blood.

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June 15 2007

The Raven

The Raven After the ‘flower of French chivalry’ (I had dealings with some of those men, bugger their own sisters for a ducat, most of them would) fell at Azincourt, the Dwarves put their prices up. Those thick-headed and thick-tongued mercenaries began to look prettier to your crusading Kings than a wholesome village maid after a spell in the Holy Land. Your average dwarf wouldn’t shy at a row of stakes and a few arrows falling from the sky, mark my words.

So I often found myself negotiating in the Dwarven camps, usually soaked with the spray from fifty beer tankards—they love their toasts, those Dwarves—and the spittle of a mercenary captain as he barked orders into my face. None can touch the Dwarves for feasting and carousing, and few for fighting, so I did not even try. Instead, I employed a simpler strategem to win their trust.
I drank.

Since my younger years, and despite my slight build, I have had an impressive capacity for beer. In a profession such as mine, having a clear head can often be the difference between keeping it and losing it, so it is a skill that has come in handy more than once. When dealing with dwarves, for example while discussing the price to engage Bearach Mac Dhonnchaidh’s band of spear-chucking miscreants in yet another petty skirmish, I repeatedly interrupted my host with such enthusiastic shouts as “to your mother’s beard!” and “to the lochs and glens of your homeland!” and watched him drain tankard after tankard as big as his head.

After five hours or so of keeping the beer flowing, old Mac Dhonnchaidh was ready to bequeath me his family farm.

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May 31 2007

The Raven

The RavenFor the peasant used to living his entire life in one village, a chaotic Normandy port such as Harfleur can prove a daunting, even terrifying experience. But places such as these are my element. Here I can walk among the crowds, ever watching and recording as is my want, but without the elaborate precautions that I must take on many of my expeditions. I am just one more face among hundreds.

On this day I was by the docks, noting the composition of the fleet, when a ship came in from distant Araby. Even my eyes, accustomed to so many wonders, widened at what came off that boat. Flanked by huge, obese, dark-skinned guards with curved scimitars at their hips, chest after chest was swiftly loaded from the ship to a waiting caravan. Once, several struggling slaves tripped and their burden fell to the dock, spilling a load of riches that sparkled blindingly in the sun. Instantly, a frenzy of overseers, a closing of ranks of guards, a rain of blows upon the slaves’ backs!

But after the slaves, the many chests, the jugs and jars and carpets and bundles—in skittish, tramping rows the strangest beasts I had ever beheld were led, with much difficulty, off the boat. Like giant birds they were, yet on long, powerful legs. They had sharp beaks that pecked at anything foolish enough to come too close. Their beady eyes were full of fear and anger.

I watched these creatures as they were loaded into special wagons and then, following my instincts, kept an eye on the merchant overseer, who slipped quietly into a nearby warehouse. I soon found a window off the street through which I could witness the heated negotiation that followed. A negotiation with goblins.

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May 24 2007

The Raven

The Raven“Hell’s teeth, cannot a man enjoy his dinner in peace!” John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, threw his half-gnawed turkey leg at the back of his manservant, who had been his manservant long enough to know that interruptions to Shrewsbury’s dinner were best delivered prior to a quick exit. Shrewsbury drew the back of his hand roughly across his greasy lips and sat back, cradling his goblet of wine. “Send him in, fool!” he shouted.

Two men-at-arms entered quickly to stand at either side of the tent’s entrance. The light from the flickering braziers outside was blocked and a tall, heavily cloaked figure entered. He glanced from right to left. “Leave us” he whispered. The men-at-arms looked to Shrewsbury in surprise and confusion, until he nodded assent.

When they were alone, the cloaked figure moved forward and sat on a nearby divan. He threw a scroll upon the table between them.

“A glass of wine and some food perhaps, Raven? Or do you feast only on corpses?” Shrewsbury asked with a smile.

“I am in the habit of preparing my own meals” was the reply. The figure leaned forward, his face still in shadow, and tapped the scroll. “Besides, this information will buy me many, many excellent feasts.”

“Perhaps, mysterious one … and perhaps not. I have reconsidered the terms of our little agreement. I think perhaps the information you have for me should be considered a good deed for king and country—and therefore one not requiring pay-”

Suddenly Shrewsbury lurched forward, spraying wine in a wide arc from his mouth, and threw the goblet across the tent. He gasped for breath, clutching at his throat, going red with the effort of trying to breathe.

“Indeed?” said the cloaked figure. “You’ll not be needing this then, I take it?” he said, drawing a small vial from within the folds of his cloak. “Tell me, how is the wine?”

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March 06 2007

The Raven

The RavenI was trudging along the muddy verge of an ancient highway, heading south back to the land of my birth, when I first heard the distant rhythm. I immediately stopped and hid myself among the bracken that lined the muddy ditch to the side of the road.

I had not long to wait. The clanking of metal upon metal became louder, accompanied by the martial rhythm of hundreds of feet marching in time. And then, around a bend in the road, the vanguard of the invading army appeared. Knights caparisoned for war, their bright banners flapping violently in the fitful breeze, the horses snorting clouds of vapour in the still-cold air of the morning. Behind the knights came the main force of men drawn up in disciplined rows, their short swords banging against their thighs, the companies identified by banner bearers who held the symbols of the army aloft. Then, the mercenaries, groups of grubby goblins in stained bronze armour, and behind them goblins mounted on restless scaly beasts that sniffed the air as they rode by, and made me retreat further back into the bracken.

Finally, the army was gone, and stillness descended again over the old road. I emerged from the ditch and with a last glance at the dust cloud that marked the arrmy’s passing, hurried onwards to my rendezvous.

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February 14 2007

The Raven

The RavenThe land of the Iron Dwarves is harsh and unforgiving—much like the mercenary bands who call it home—and I have dared much to travel here, ever in thrall to the sound of the pipes that have beckoned me onward.

At last, I can send you this, which I ask you to forward to my usual employers. More information will follow, but for now, I look forward this night to a bed far softer than mountain heather, and a tankard of ale as large as a Dwarven grudge!

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February 12 2007

The Raven

The RavenI have been wandering far afield, following a sound that beckons me onwards. Always it seems to echo from beyond the crest of the farthest hill, and always it eludes me. The nights grow colder, and the wind whips the heather into pools and eddies. I stumble over the exposed rocks, scratching my palms cruelly as I fall. The rain is like shards of ice as it hits my face.

Ever the sound calls me. I know I am on the brink of some new revelation, something that will change the way I have come to understand the battles of this world.

There are some who will pay handsomely for this information. Soon all will be revealed. Perhaps … just over that next hill …

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