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Authors: AC Cobble

Benjamin Ashwood

BOOK: Benjamin Ashwood
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Benjamin Ashwood

 

 

by

AC Cobble

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Copyright © 2016 AC Cobble

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

Hero

 

The
tricky thing about living in a society that allows you freedom is that everyone
else has it too. 

 

Some
people can’t handle that.  They can’t accept their neighbor making a different
choice than they did.  That’s the tricky part, letting someone else have the
freedom to choose.  A choice isn’t really a choice if there is only one
option.  It’s inherent with real choices - with true freedom - that everyone
can make their own decisions.  For us to be free, we have to come to terms with
that.  We have to understand that not every decision is our’s to make.  Not
every decision is a good one.

 

People
call me a hero.  They say that because I fought for them.  Let me tell you,
that was the easy part.

 

The
hard part, the part that really mattered, is what happened after.  That’s what
I want to be remembered for.  Not because I fought.  Not because I killed.  Not
because I survived.  Remember me because I tolerated.  Remember me because I
accepted.  Remember me because I understood that I’m not here to make your
choices.

 

If
I had done that, if I had been just one more dictator sitting atop a golden
throne, then it would have been for nothing.  I didn’t free you from your
oppressive rulers.  I freed you from yourselves.

 

I’m
sorry if you don’t like it.

 

 

Unattributed lecture series notes

37 A.W. - City University

Farview

 

Ben
peered into the dense fog.  The mist blanketed the forest in an unnatural
silence.  The only sounds were the coughs and nervous shuffling of the men
stretched out around him.  The men were in a ragged line that quickly
disappeared into the impenetrable wall of white.

He
imagined the men on the ends of the line could easily slip off and head back to
town and none of the rest of them would ever know.  He tried to remember who
was out there on the end and picture if they were the type to leave their
neighbors to this task alone.  Dale Catskin was one of them he thought.  He
wasn’t the type to be out here any longer than he had to.

His
reverie was broken when his friend Serrot emerged like a wraith from the fog
and moved silently towards the men.  He waved an all clear and the men passed
it down the line in hushed whispers.  They started moving slowly forward again.

Serrot
fell in next to Ben and adjusted his grip on his bow.  He was clutching it with
an arrow knocked and had a long hunting knife strapped to his belt.  Ben knew
that in normal circumstances Serrot would never have his bowstrings out in this
damp.  The hunt they were on had all of them acting skittish and his friend
wanted to be ready.

“Did
you see anything?” whispered Ben.

“No,
I made it up to the stream and it’s all clear,” answered Serrot with a shrug.  “I’m
not sure how I’m supposed to see anything in this fog.  Hopefully when we get
up on the ridgeline it will have burned off some.  It’s only another two leagues.”

Serrot
was acting as their scout.  He hunted small game and deer in these woods and
could pick up a track better than any man in Farview.  They had been friends
since Ben moved to Farview years before.

Ben
ran his hands along the smooth ash of his quarterstaff and wished for the
hundredth time he’d asked to borrow a real weapon.  He was good with the
quarterstaff.  Last year he’d placed second in the tournament at the Spring
Festival.  For this though, he wanted something more substantial, he wanted
something with an edge.

Serrot
hissed, “what if we can’t see it in this fog?  I don’t want the damn thing
dropping down on top of me.  Old Gamson told me they can fly and he’s seen them
swoop down behind a man and take his head off without a sound!  I can’t believe
the tight ass on the Town Council wouldn’t hire a Hunter for this!”

Ben
glanced to his left where Alistair Pinewood, Ben’s adopted father, was walking
with his true son Brandon.  Everyone knew who the ‘tight ass on the Town
Council’ was. 

Years
before, Ben was adopted by the Pinewoods when his real father passed away.  Alistair
had assumed ownership of the Ashwood family timber holdings to cover unpaid
debts.  Taking responsibility for Ben in the bargain was one of the few times
the rest of the Council got their way and made Alistair bend.

Outstanding
debt to Alistair was not unusual in Farview.  He was by far the wealthiest man
in town and earned much of that wealth by lending to his neighbors.  The ‘tight
ass’ moniker came because he didn’t always see eye to eye with the rest of the
town on what he should contribute to the common good.

Ben
had a unique view of what life was like with the Pinewoods.  They had money,
but it didn’t make them any happier.  Ben’s friends never understood that. 
Watching Alistair and Brandon walk together now, Ben didn’t miss the connection
the younger Pinewood had with the older or the gold and property he would
eventually inherit.  Alistair was a cold, hard man.  The short time Ben had
with his real father was better than a lifetime of that.

Ben
sighed and responded to Serrot, “Old Gamson claims to have seen an awfully lot
for someone who’s never been more than 10 leagues outside of Farview.  A demon
this small can’t fly.  When they’re this small they don’t even have wings. 
It’s like hunting down a rabid dog.”  At least Ben hoped it was like that.  He
hadn’t seen any more demons than Serrot had.

In
fact, it had been years since anyone in Farview had seen a demon.  In the
stories there were big ones who could rip an ox in two.  But Ben talked to some
of the men down at the Buckhorn Tavern who’d actually been on demon hunts long
ago and it didn’t sound too scary.  The ones they saw weren’t more than a yard
tall and weren’t any more dangerous than an angry bear.  Reason for caution
certainly, but nothing the men couldn’t handle.  Sending for a Hunter for something
like that was unnecessary.  Still, with this fog, Ben wished again that he’d
brought a weapon more lethal than his quarterstaff.

 

As
the day wore on, the thick fog stubbornly remained floating throughout the
forest.  It was the early days of spring and this high in the mountains the air
still carried a bitter chill.  Ben rubbed his arms and strained to see further
into the murky white.  The eerie silence was unnerving and Ben couldn’t help
but wonder where the normal birds and forest creatures had gone.

He
was peering so hard into the mist that he missed seeing a tree root which
caught his foot and nearly sent him sprawling.  He uttered an embarrassed swear
and stole a glance at Serrot who was effortlessly gliding around obstacles. 
Serrot spent nearly every waking moment in these woods and moved in them as
naturally and silently as the animals he hunted.

Ben
hoped Serrot knew what he was doing.  He was counting on him to be ready in
case the demon came at their section of the line.  The tactics for hunting a
demon this size were fairly simple.  Demons fed on life blood and had a
supernatural sense for when it was near.  A smaller demon would rarely attack a
large group of men on it’s own, but if stumbled upon, it would not be able to
resist charging.  So, the men spread out in a loose formation and stalked
through the forest.  When the demon was attracted they would let the archers
wound and slow it down, rush in with spears to pin it and then finish it with
an axe or sword.

The
demon would sense their life forces long before they would see it, but a demon
is not a cautious creature.  It would make no secret when it began it’s
charge.  The stories said it would bellow a challenge as it rushed towards it’s
target.  With plenty of visibility and skilled archers, there was little danger
with a young, small demon.

The
topic of demons is not exactly dinner table conversation, but they are a fact
of life and Farview is like any small town.  There were always plenty of men at
the local tavern to tell a story or two.  Generally accepted knowledge of
demons and how to face them was passed down with the same care and assurance as
crop cycles and telling a proper weather forecast.

Because
he was largely ignored by Alistair Pinewood, Ben had the freedom at a young age
to spend far too many hours at the Buckhorn Tavern hearing those stories.  For
many of the Buckhorn regulars, the young Ben became something of a tavern
mascot and they delighted telling him about demons, Hunters, grumpkins,
hobgoblins, wyverns, Mages, the long lived and other stories that seemed mythical
to a boy in Farview who hadn’t seen anything more dangerous or exciting than
logging accidents and the Spring Festival.  Ben was certain that the most
exciting and vivid story tellers like Old Gamson didn’t have any more
experience with these things than he did, but he could never resist hearing
about a good adventure.

And
finally, he was getting his to live his own adventure, even if it was turning
out to be a bit boring. 

For
the last month and a half, many of the farmers who lived on the outskirts of
Farview had reported mysteriously losing livestock.  Rumors ranged from
mountain lions, to bandits, to refugees, to theft by jealous neighbors to every
manner of magical creature.  Last night though, Farmer Ell rushed into town calling
for a full meeting of the Town Council. 

Still
in the middle of the square, he claimed he’d seen what was taking their
livestock.  Ell said he saw a small black shape no larger than a sheep dog dragging
away one of his pigs.  He started running across the yard and when he was
halfway to the creature the full moon came out from behind a cloud and there it
was – small curved horns on it’s head and wing buds on it’s back – it couldn’t
be anything other than a young demon.

The
Town Council immediately called for a posse to track the demon down first thing
in the morning.  Ben spent the rest of the night thinking about what it would
be like to see one of the creatures he’d only heard of in stories.  It wasn’t
nearly as exciting as seeing a wyvern or meeting a long lived, but still, it
was something.

At
least, it seemed exciting before they started trooping around in the cold damp
forest all morning without seeing anything more dangerous than drifting mist.

No
one really knew where demons came from.  Usually when first spotted, a demon
would be small, weak, slow and confused.  As they fed on life blood, they grew
in size, strength and speed.  Most dangerously though, they grew in
intelligence.  A demon the height of a man is incredibly deadly and there were
stories where dozens of trained warriors couldn’t take one down.  When faced
with the threat of a grown demon, a town like Farview would hire one or more
professional Hunters.  Hunters were men and women who made a vocation of
hunting down demons and other dangerous prey.

 

There
were around 60 men in the posse, nearly a quarter of the healthy men in
Farview.  Ben could only see the closest five or six though as they made their
way through the gloom.  Massive pine trees loomed out of the mist and
disappeared into the curtain of white above them.  The silence of the forest
was oppressive.  Moisture dripping off the pine needles was the only sound that
accompanied the ones the men made.  Ben glanced at Serrot who was at home among
these trees and could see that he was nervous too.

Serrot
saw his look and whispered, “it’s about 500 yards down the slope until we get
to the stream.  There’s a clearing there and we can regroup before pushing up
to the top of the ridge.  Up on the ridgeline we’ll get better visibility.

“I
hope you’re right,” muttered Ben.

Alistair
Pinewood dramatically grunted and glared at them.  When he caught their
attention he hissed, “stay focused!”

This
section of forest was part of Alistair’s timber holdings so no one objected
when he declared himself the leader of the posse.  It had been years since he
spent much time in these woods, and as far as Ben knew, he’d never encountered
a demon.  But Ben had to admit, Alistair was able to use his influence to
gather such a large group of men quickly.

As
they continued the advance another sound faintly intruded on Ben’s conscious. 
They were approaching the clearing and he could hear the rushing stream. 
Alistair curtly motioned Serrot forward to go scout out the clearing as the
rest of the men hung back amongst the trees.

Demons
were said to avoid water so they did not expect it to be near the stream, but a
demon in a clearing with this little visibility was dangerous.  Even a young
demon could gain a lot of speed across open ground, and if it was at speed,
they would have little time to react in the fog.  Back in the trees they would
be somewhat protected because the confused creature could not take a straight
line of attack.

Serrot
shifted his grip on his ash bow and drifted off to make a circle of the area. 
The fog swirled around his legs as he disappeared to Ben’s right.

In
minutes, Serrot reappeared on the left and nodded at Alistair that it was clear
to move forward.  Alistair whispered up and down the line, “move towards the
stream and we’ll take a break there.”

As
the men gathered by the water, Ben watched the snow melt swollen creek rush
by.  It poured over heavy rocks, tumbling branches and other debris caught up
in the seasonal torrent.  In about four leagues these waters would pass through
Farview and on the other side of town they would meet more mountain streams to
form the Callach River.  From there the river ran by Murdoch’s Waystation and
if followed far enough, eventually all of the way to the coast and the port
city of Fabrizo.

Serrot
nudged Ben and handed him a bite of tough salted jerky.  Ben glanced around and
saw that most of the men were digging into their belt pouches for something to
eat or taking long pulls on their water skins.  The way some of the men gave a
face afterwards made him suspect there was more than water in those skins.  He
dug into his pack and pulled out a small loaf of bread and wedge of hard white cheese. 
He broke the loaf in half and passed it to Serrot in exchange for another
handful of jerky.

It
was only mid-morning but already it felt like they had been out there all day. 
For any resident of Farview, a four league hike up into the mountains was not a
great difficulty, but the constant need for vigilance and the stress of
attempting to peer through the fog was taking it’s toll on the men.

Alistair
must have sensed the strain as well because after conferring with his head
logger William Longaxe, who spent even more time in this particular valley than
Serrot, he allowed the men several minutes before standing up and calling
everyone closer.

“Alright,
Will says there is a shallow crossing about 100 yards upstream.  We’ll head up
there to cross over, spread out again and make our way up to the top of the
ridgeline.  From there, we’ll work back towards town.  None of us want to be
out here after dark and if we haven’t seen the thing by then, it’s probably
moved out of this part of the forest.”

BOOK: Benjamin Ashwood
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