Beneath the Boughs of the Greatoak

Author’s Note – I’ve been planning to do things in this ‘literary universe’ for some time. In fact I have a little black book full of details and facts about the fictional ‘Andalia’ that I’m consistently adding to. So much so that it’s been a little daunting to start, but if all goes well, this will be the first of several short pieces following ‘Oran’ on a small adventure. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll tie it into a greater novel. Enjoy!

Oran knelt beneath the Greatoak, head bowed and secured between the wooden brace of the stockade. Before him, from what he could see with one eye glued shut with dried blood, the crowds jeered and roared in anticipation of the spectacle to follow. In some ways, Ordriswode was one of the sophisticated territories in Andalia, her tribes had come together peaceably and accepted the rule of the Ordri from their mountain across the bay. There hadn’t been a civil war in centuries. And yet, this appearance of peace was simply a masquerade, enforced by the very penal system Oran was currently experiencing.

The Greattree grew hundreds of feet tall in the centre of Oakholde, the epicentre of Ordri power on the mainland, from which their vassals ruled and maintained a steady supply of tributes to their overlords. The city was the largest in Ordris-controlled territory, hosting a population of thousands, and now much of that number thronged the central square beneath their venerated tree, baying for Oran’s blood. Paelis stood next to the stockade, surveying the crowd, his silver-gilt chain hanging to his sternum and displaying the ornate Oak medallion of his office. A skinny man, his eyes betrayed only a glint of the malevolent cunning within. His neat black hair curled down to his shoulders and his eyebrows gave his expressions such venom that rarely did one bother finding his eyes, sunken and shrouded beneath.

The Consul breathed deep of his followers before bending down to find Oran’s ear.

“This is your last chance,” he said in that sibilant whisper which cut past the racket deafening Oran. The smell of piss from the last prisoner of the stockade filled Oran’s nostrils, forcing him to gag. He retched and would have spewed vomit on the front ranks of the crowd if his stomach had been occupied.

“All you need to do is agree,” Paelis continued, fingers gripping Oran’s shoulder tightly, “and I shall release you from these confines after you admit your guilt.”

Guilt. That was a funny word for it. Oran was guilty of nothing more than naivety and believing that his ‘friend’ would keep his word.

He had been so ready, waiting by the door. Ready to be rid of the cursed idol forever. It had plagued his luck since his escape from Ordeholde, a shadowy figure stealing through the night with a bundle of blankets hiding his sacred cargo. An idol, depicting the banishment of the mighty dragon Kargol from the shores of Andalia by Tormon of the Order of Castis. A mastery of metalwork fused with ebony and albony it was said to have been paid for with blood money raised by the Ordri by selling the slaves taken from their bloody expansion south into Thalisse. Oran had escaped easily enough and stowed away aboard a tradeship bound for Indris, the small fishing town on the shores of Lake Indris, connected to the shielded bay of Ordholde by the River Northrise. Arriving in Indris, he bartered passage with what few belongings he had remaining in order to reach the great city of Oakholde, where his patron would be waiting for him.

He met the Shadowed Man at an inn, not far from the water’s edge, having left a dead Gull by the Temple of Rhei as means of contacting the patron. That evening, the Man appeared beside him at the inn, after Oran had bought his third flagon of the night.

“Come.” He simply instructed. “Bring the package.”

And so Oran followed him through the streets, right up into the city itself.  Fear had gnawed at his gut, anticipation of patrols and guards leaping at him made every stumble as loud as war-drums, but they were not disturbed on their way to the Carven Hall. It was the only way Oran could recognise it, a great house in the finer district of the city, with a simple brown thrush painted upon the door. But the walls, and the door frame and the eaves too were all exquisitely carved into shapes. A tactile tapestry showing story after story after story, and in the twilight as they approached, the carvings seemed to move. Surely nothing more than the changing of the light, and yet, there was something otherworldly about the Carven Hall.

Inside, he was lead to a great chamber laid out for a feast, before being invited into a study. Here he met his patron, a thin, rich looking man, with long, manicured fingers and a quick smile. His eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own, raising one in lighthearted jest so that they seemed to dance around his face. He was given his payment and told to spend only one night at the inn before leaving for warmer climes.

Oran had experienced far more sour deals than this. In retrospect it had perhaps gone too easily, but he had too easily assumed that this was just another wealthy noble with more money than sense. After the meeting he had almost skipped back to the inn, and drank raucously long into the night.

It was when he drunkenly returned to his room in the morning that his luck began to turn. Oran had entered his room to find three corpses splayed out in the room with signs of a struggle apparent. Later, Oran would be told that HE had murdered them using foul sorcery to choke and corrupt their bodies, literally squeezing the lifeforce out of them.

He hadn’t thought of much in the few moments that he stood in the room before the Town Militia burst through the door and began beating him into submission. He didn’t think of much after either, as they dragged his unconscious body through the streets, shouting to the gathering crowds that they had caught a sorcerer at the Inn-By-the-Water.

Two days passed, in the dankest, darkest dungeons offered by his hosts, with regular visits to the Keep’s Inquisitor and all of his clever little devices. Oran had never endured pain such as he did at the hands of Master Erlon Pearl, and although he told the truth almost immediately, his reason for being there, and his deal with the Shadowed Man, they refused to believe that he was, in fact, not a sorcerer.

On the third day, he received a visit from his patron. Who finally introduced himself as Consul Paelis Mummer to the smuggler hanging from the rafters by chains. That whisper which had before seemed so conspiratorial and familiar now grated against Oran’s ears, and he could barely raise the strength to imagine his fingers closing around that long, pale neck. Until the gasps and struggles subsided and he could throw the body into the lake and watch it sink. Paelis, however, had other plans. He had grand designs in place for the territory, against the rot which had set in during the rule of the Ordris Family.

Paelis explained at length;

“Life comes to an end, just like everything else, Mr Drake. And normally I would be content in waiting for Lord Ordris’ long slow demise to come about in the fullness of time. However, time has become a factor. The plans of our neighbours to the north and far south are beginning to bear fruit and if stern control is not taken of this Kingdom, then Ordriswode will become nothing more than a footnote in the histories of either Boorlund or Vernisse! Now, I am offering you a choice. Should you agree to travel to Ordholde and accomplish three simple tasks for me, you will be allowed to live out your life in whatever way you see fit. You will be well provided for, and I shall see to it that any other outstanding warrants for your imprisonment are ‘lost’ or burned away. Disagree, and I shall leave this disgusting place, and tomorrow you will bleed until dead whilst suspended from the Greattree.”

Oran had argued he wasn’t a killer, he had no experience or reason to help Paelis with his plan, and like as not he would be caught anyway! But the Consul laughed as he left, the plans had been laid, and Oran had until the morrow to decide if another man’s life was worth more than his own.

A rock hit Oran in the lip and split it, he bit back a curse and spat blood as it erupted from his mouth like a red tide, desperate not to burst out in tears in despair. He didn’t really see Paelis step out in front of him, but when he looked again, to search for the source of the stone, he saw the Consul holding his arms outstretched, grey and silver robes of office billowing in the breeze that brought the stench of the city wafting through the central square.

“Peace, good people, peace!” proclaimed Paelis, his whispery voice somehow carrying throughout the square, reaching the furthest recesses without trouble while remaining as soft as ever. Behind him, Oran spat another mouthful of clotting blood and snot. Silence descended slowly on the square until the last heckler had spoken his part.

Trying to blink away the blood running from the reopened cut on his brow, Oran looked up to see Paelis pause before his speech. He was going to die, he knew that now, and the closer he came to his doom, the less he wanted to embrace it. It was all very well declaring himself against murder while he was alive. Imprisoned, but alive. Now, however, he knew exactly what was about to happen. The guards would open his wrists with their knives, or his neck, depending on how quick they wanted to make it, and then they would hoist him into the boughs of the Greattree, as sport for the vicious crows which nested there. The only question was whether he would lose his eyes to the crows before or after he bled to death.

He bowed his head. He didn’t want to die, he had so much to live for. And even if he didn’t really, he still didn’t want to die. Behind the stockade, his legs were trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was the awkward angle he was being held at, or if he was just that frightened. At least he hadn’t pissed himself. Not yet at least.

All this for one old man. Three tasks. Three tasks were doable. And if he completed them, he would never take life for granted. He wouldn’t die here. He wouldn’t just give in.

“Alright!” He croaked, not knowing if he was audible to Paelis who was continuing his oration. Oran’s heart was beating too fast in his ears for him to even try to hear what web the Consul was spinning to the mob.

“I’ll do it!” he said again, voice crackling with lack of use, or was it emotion? Again the Consul gave no indication he had heard, but instead began talking louder and gesturing with his arms. He held all present under his spell, and gradually some words seeped through to Oran’s terror-clouded brain. Words like “merciful” and “penance to the community”.

Suddenly the cuffs were being ripped open and the wooden neck clamp was torn upwards, its overpowering weight suddenly leaving Oran’s neck. He gasped in surprise and alarm, but was too weak to resist as the guards hoisted him by the shoulders and dragged him down to the jailor’s cart. Rapturous applause greeted his release, a reaction which could not be further from the crowd’s opinion before Paelis began to speak. Oran felt a stab of fear at the power of the man’s voice. There was no doubt now, the Consul held absolute power over his life now. As he was bundled gracelessly onto the floor of the wagon, he saw Paelis descending from the scaffold, stalking down with a smug little smile on his face. And before the doors closed upon him, Oran saw a dangerous glint in his eye…