First published by TANSTAAFL Press as part of the ‘Witches, Warriors, and Wyverns’ anthology in January 2020, Follies Of The Proud is one of my short fantasy stories that explore issues of refusal to change and the ignorance that comes with pride.
Follies Of The Proud
by Richie Billing
The surface of the Hidden Lake shifted and stirred as if some great beast was rising from its peat-stained depths. Squirrels darted up trees to their dreys, birds swooped back to their nests. Safe, warm, sheltered, unlike Jyn. He sat beneath his leaky canvas, teeth chattering, numb fingers clinging onto his fishing line. He wished he could scurry home too, out of this vicious wind and rain, but that was the one thing he couldn’t do.
Jyn looked up at the unbroken blanket of gray and shuffled his knees further under his chin. The thrum of rain bored into his head. It hadn’t let up since yesterday evening. His receding gray hair clung to his forehead, hiding deep lines of age and hardship. Raindrops trickled down his crooked nose and into his unkempt beard, the tip of which looked as if it had been dipped in gray paint. He pushed back his shoulders to a chorus of clicks, worked out the stiffness, and forced open his weary eyes.
Nature, it seemed, conspired against him, first taking the fish from the River Sinann, then forcing him a day’s walk through woodlands and over moors in search of them, and now plaguing him with gods-awful weather. It was the last thing he needed. Judging by the dip in temperature, the first snows of winter would arrive within the fortnight and, after such a pitiful summer harvest, the family stores didn’t appear as if they would last. The winter would be tough for everyone in Grenda, and that meant trouble. Jyn glanced at his sword, thrust into the ground. Only fools travelled the Hills of Moragon unarmed. His tabac box hung from the crossguard. He opened it and sighed. With his little finger, he scraped up the last bits of leaf, rolled them into a ball and began to chew. He should have shown more thrift with his rations. It hadn’t been his intention to be away for so long, though. How are they faring without me?
Nico, his brother, had found this backwater lake when they were kids. That day, they’d returned home with enough fish to feed their families for a month. “No other fisherman knows of this place,” Nico had said. “Only you and I.” Despite his brother’s assurance of years past, another fished these waters. In the canopy of the trees on the opposite bank, a hoary orb hunched against the rain. It unfurled its broad wings, pushed itself into the sky, and with a lazy grace, glided down into the water before a clump of reeds. Meandering neck straightening, it turned its fiery, sword-like beak toward Jyn and stared as if in challenge.
Jyn frowned and looked back to his line. He forced himself not to look at the heron, to watch for takes, but his eyes kept returning to the bird. For minutes it remained still as a cloudless night, until, in a flash of movement, it plunged its head into the water, reappearing a moment later with a flapping trout in its beak. The heron tossed its prey into the air, catching it more cleanly, before swallowing it whole. Jyn ground his teeth. It mocked him, like a fat lord licking his fingers after a hearty meal. The heron made a scratchy cry and flew back to its perch. Jyn watched it go, hatred intensifying with each beat of its wings. The bird had stolen the food from his wife and daughter’s mouths. He hawked and spat.
The line coiled around Jyn’s square reel suddenly tightened. It was the moment every fisherman lived for: the commencement of the hunt. Hope’s crescendo. Standing, Jyn yanked back his line to sink the hook into the fish’s mouth, only for him to fall on his arse, slack line coiling upon him. He lay there on his back a while, staring at his hole-ridden canvas, rain pattering his face.
Eventually, Jyn sat up, a sense of defeat hanging over him as he wound in his line and examined his dwindling supplies of worms and snails. The fish had shown no interest in anything he offered. He had half a sodden loaf of bread too, but he was saving that for himself. How can I eat when my family cannot? He tore off a chunk, rolled it into a ball and slid it onto his cast iron hook. He had just one left. A streak of bad luck with snags would see this fishing trip end and his misery compounded.
Where are these scaly bastards? Jyn lamented as he rocked back and forth on his heels, hugging his knees, spitting out tobacco leaf. Never in all his summers of fishing had he seen the River Sinann so empty. Stories hovered about Grenda of things happening upstream. Sightings of a race he and everyone in the Hills of Moragon knew well. Jyn had laughed them off.
The Oruks had been exterminated, never to return, but those were the words of the Old King, and that swine fucker had long since abandoned the harsh moors and hills of Moragon. Perhaps he knew they’d come back. But surely the stories of their return were indeed just that—stories. Jyn fought in the final battle of the Hill Wars with the Oruks. He’d seen the last of them fall, for none of them retreated. No, the Oruks wouldn’t be back. Something else affected the fish. Or perhaps it was just his dismal luck. Either way, he desperately had to change his fortunes, for his family’s sake.
So far he’d fished the deep pools he and his brother had enjoyed such success with all those years ago. The heron seemed to catch freely by the reeds, an area he’d avoided up to now in his fear of snagging his line. Beside the reeds, a willow stooped over the water’s surface—a good place for fish to shelter. With a well-practised underarm throw, his lump of bread, led by his stone weight, arced through the air to plummet into the water before it. As with all fresh casts, a sense of hope descended. He watched the line sink and settle, then wound it in a little so it sat tight in the water, and, like a father trying not to disturb his new-born baby, he returned to his damp seat on the ground and waited, eyes never straying from the point the line kissed the water.
The rain grew heavy once more, droplets slow and foreboding. Swollen clouds, menacingly dark, loomed on the horizon. Suddenly, the line wrapped around his square reel began to tear away. He yanked it back, only to be pulled forward. He staggered, slipped in the mud, fell on his arse and was pulled beyond the bank, into the lake. The coldness of the water seized his body, stole his breath, but he would not let go. Could not let go. Even if it dragged him to the bottom.
He found his footing in the mud of the bed, dug in his feet and breached the surface. Gulping in air, he began to fight back. The pulling ceased and slowly he began to gain line. He heaved, gained a little, risked a step backwards. Too strong for a trout or barbel. A catfish maybe. The water retreated to his ankles and he found himself looking across the lake at the heron with brimming pride. The heron watched, stone-still.
Whatever he’d hooked dove down once more, sensing its demise. Jyn resisted, conceded nothing, and soon the surface began to swell. Twisting, turning, the fish panicked, doing anything and everything it could to free itself of the hook. I cannot lose this.
Jyn gave one final pull, and with a rush of foam, the fish departed its watery realm. From the bony plates along its back, he recognised it as a sturgeon. A giant one at that, bigger than his own five-and-a-half feet in height. Jyn sank to his knees and beheld the creature flapping its tail against the mud of the bank—a beast every fisherman dreamt of catching. Something the heron could never do. Exhaling his tension and allowing relief to flood through him, Jyn looked at the golden eyes of the sturgeon and smiled. It didn’t feel right to kill such a beautiful fish, but he had no choice. The next one, if he was so lucky again, he would let go. He pulled out his knife and ended its life quickly.
Jyn sat back, body and clothes sodden, smile fixed upon his face as he regained his breath after the struggle. The ache in his arms eased and he shook them to help them along. He whooped to himself, lay back on the ground, his mood in stark contrast to the last time he found himself in this position. At the top of his vision, he saw a sight that stilled his heart.
Two figures stood watching him. A head bigger than Jyn with broad shoulders and arms of pure muscle. Their legs were like tree trunks, lacking human definition, with giant feet tipped with claw-like nails. Their skin was a blue-green hue. Their forehands, forearms, chest, back and legs were smothered in coarse dark hair, and they wore vests and breeches of boiled leather with odd patches of metal plate stitched to it. Their faces possessed the features that even after decades Jyn had been unable to forget—eyes crimson where their whites ought to be, their pupils black slits. Dagger-like fangs protruded over their lips and around them were rows of smaller, overlapping teeth. Horns, like those of a ram, grew out of their foreheads and curved back over their heads. Beside them grew pointed ears, bending inwards and looking like horns themselves. They had black hair, like that of a stallion’s tail, which hung down their backs. From here he could smell them—a foetid mix of body odour and rotten meat. Oruks.
The one to the left, a scar over his left eye, carried a trunk-like club, the tip of which bore jagged stone points. The other, hair longer and greasier and tied back in a tail, carried an axe with a stone-edge that even the strongest man would struggle to swing. Their weapons were crude but that hadn’t mattered during the Hill Wars. Oruks bore strength enough to crush a steel helmet with their bare hands, something Jyn had seen in battle. Their small horns and relatively smaller statures marked them as juveniles. A full-grown adult Oruk stood three times the height of a man and took near ten men to kill. Jyn had seen some battling on with two dozen arrows in their backs. But while the adults may have been bigger, the young exhibited the worst tempers.
Jyn darted for his sword. The scarred Oruk made to cut him off. For creatures of such tremendous size, they could move with the speed of mountain cats. Jyn wrapped his fingers around the hilt and plucked the blade from the ground with just enough time to roll away from a heavy blow from the Oruk’s stout, stone-tipped club that left a depression in the soft mud. The other swung its axe. Jyn ducked, his knees grumbling. He slashed as he rose, catching the young Oruk in the side. It yelped and growled and came at him with twice the ferocity. Two-handed, Jyn caught on his blade the blow from the sharp stone edge of the axe. It sent a numbing shockwave up his already weary arms. His veteran instincts helped him shuffle away from the follow up blow. He rolled away and the next swing splattered mud just to his left.
Fighting Oruks again felt like some nauseating dream. It had to be, for never had he fought as well as this. The point of his blade nicked at the thick flesh of both Oruks, drawing more of the seaweed-color blood. Both of them bellowed and lunged. Their rage gave him more openings. His confidence grew, though the slow-witted Oruks changed tactics—they attacked together. Jyn ducked beneath the first hack with the axe, but the club caught him in the shoulder. He felt a crack and the air expelled from his lungs. He tumbled into a stunned heap some feet away from where he’d stood.
The scarred Oruk barked laughter and closed in while Jyn fought for breath. The other went for the sturgeon. Somehow his sword remained in his grasp. He felt unable to move, but how could he give up? How could he let these thieves take the food from his family’s stomachs, food that he had worked so long and hard to catch? The beast loomed over him, grunting with delight. Prone, Jyn slashed, catching the back of the Oruk’s legs. It sunk to the ground in a writhing heap. Jyn scrambled to his feet, crying out himself as he strained his injured side. Jyn’s gaze locked onto the other beast, his sturgeon in its hands. Something possessed Jyn. He charged. The Oruk tried to block the blow with the unwieldy fish. Jyn raised his sword and drove it through the fish and deep into the Oruk’s throat. Blood gurgled from its ugly mouth. Jyn yanked free his blade. Thankfully, the massive creature didn’t land on his fish. Jyn turned for his other foe. It wasn’t there. A pool of green blood rippled in the rain, and a trail of it headed into the trees. His growing fear was that it would follow him, try and attack again. And in his flight, he may lead it back home to Grenda. In numbers, they’d wreak havoc on the little village. He hoped it’d fled, that he’d deterred it, but he knew retreat wasn’t something Oruks understood.
Jyn raced to pack up his camp, shoving everything into his bags and fighting the pain screaming out from his side. A few cracked ribs, at least. He strung a rope through the mouth and gills of the sturgeon and slung it over his back, hauling it over his good shoulder. His knees buckled from the weight and he clenched his jaw with the pain, but adrenaline still coursed through him. With one last look at the hulking form of the Oruk body, he set off.
Dusk had taken hold of the day and rain still fell, though it had eased since the afternoon. He found himself somewhat sheltered by the thick canopy above. He knew the way home without light—he had lived in these lands his whole life. He tried not to think of the eight-hour journey ahead, up and over hills and through thick forest. His legs and back burned and the throb down his left side intensified with each step. Whenever his pace faltered he imagined the Oruk bearing down on him, or imagined his wife and daughters clutching their swollen and empty bellies. That put a brief spring in his pace. But his adrenaline was waning, and upon the windy moors, he had to stop. Over his fast and heavy breaths, he heard a howl, like a cross between a hound and a man. He’d heard it plenty times before, but not for decades. Time hadn’t numbed its chilling influence. And upon the moors, he had no clue how close it was. The wind played tricks with the ears—it may be miles away or it could be right behind him. Jyn shouldered his load and hurried on, following the dirt road up and down the peaks and troughs of the land. The rain had stopped at least, and the light of the moons occasionally broke through clouds to light his way.
Jyn descended once more into forest and felt paranoia grow as the trees closed in. It all seemed too quiet. No chirps from the crickets or hoots from the owls. Fatigue bettered him once more and he stopped, drank deep from his water skin. He could almost smell the peat from the fires of Grenda. Not long until he’d be free of the burden upon his shoulders. He would sleep for a week before the hearth.
Off to his right, he heard the loud snap of a branch. Jyn didn’t think, just ran, fish slapping against his back as if urging him on. Rustles and grunts to his side told him the beast followed. Jyn pushed his legs to breaking point. He knew he couldn’t keep it up. Oruks could run all day and night. It would catch him eventually. But the sounds of pursuit faded away and Jyn slowed. He broke through the trees looking down over the valley below to see the lights of Grenda.
On and on he ran and the worse the pain became. He thought of Bertha and the girls seeing the sturgeon. A deafening roar banished that image and from the murky trees leapt the Oruk. Axe abandoned, it tore up the ground with its giant hands. It bellowed its rage and then charged head down towards Jyn with its horns. Jyn hurled himself out of the way, but the Oruk turned quickly and charged again, limping as it went. Jyn left the sturgeon on the ground. Sword drawn, he waited then twisted to his left, away from the charging beast, slicing its other leg. The Oruk lost its feet and slid face down along the muddy trail. It grunted furiously, trying to push itself up but lacking the strength. Jyn stood over it. When the beast realised he was close, it threw itself at him. Jyn thrust the point of his sword through its gaping mouth and out the back of its head.
Two nights he told Bertha he’d be away for. She’d warned how the girls would grow distressed if he didn’t return by then, especially with stories of Oruks flying around the village like pox. A week had passed. When he’d left they’d been hungry. Surely now they must be starving, if not already… He banished the thought from his mind. He dreaded to turn the door handle. From somewhere, he found the courage.
Before him, his wife and daughters sat around the table, sipping steaming broth from wooden bowls. A fire, the warmth of which touched his cheeks, crackled in the hearth behind them. His daughters leapt from their chairs, their faces erupting into joyous smiles that he’d not seen in what felt like a long time. Bertha met him with a kiss. He wasn’t quite sure what he’d expected. Certainly not this.
“How?” was all Jyn’s weary mind could think to say.
“I couldn’t sit idly any longer. I know you said not to, but I accepted the help of our neighbours. I took no charity. I worked for what food they could offer: sewing, mending, cleaning. They wanted to help us, Jyn, but you were too much of a proud fool to say yes.” There were tears in her eyes.
The girls hadn’t seen a sturgeon before, let alone a fish so big, and they marvelled over it while Bertha looked at him with grave eyes. She knew something was up, but Jyn didn’t want to tell her with the girls around. So for the rest of the night, he enjoyed the company of his family and tried to forget about Oruks and the injuries they had inflicted on him. Instead, he poured his attention into the excited stories of his daughters and the gentle corrections made by Bertha; the touch of Bertha’s hands as she kneaded his own, and he appreciated how close he had been to never experiencing them again. The girls fell asleep before the fire and he and Bertha carried them to bed, Jyn grimacing, and then when all was quiet, he settled by the fire once more. Jyn told Bertha of the Oruks and how they’d jumped him by the Hidden Lake. How he’d slain one and been pursued by the other until at last, they fought not far from home. He unsheathed his sword and showed her the stains of sticky dark-green blood. In silence they sat there, staring at the blade. Jyn couldn’t quite believe what had happened, and judging from Bertha’s silence, nor could she. The bedroom door creaked open and his daughters rushed out, cheeks wet with tears.
“The monsters aren’t coming for us are they, Pa?”
“You’ll keep us safe, won’t you?”
“Of course they’re not,” Bertha said, tone wonderfully reassuring. “Your father slew the monsters. He’s a hero. The bards should sing of him. Perhaps we’ll think of our own song tomorrow?”
“Yes!” they said together.
“Now to bed with you girls,” Bertha said and led them off.
His family had gotten by without him. All that worry and pressure seemed so foolish now. He expected that to anger him, to diminish him. Instead, he found relief. No longer did the pressure to provide hang over his shoulders, a weight that had been there too long to recall what it was like without. Why did he feel the need to be provider? To be the one that looked after them? Why had he let pride make him such a fool? It seemed so ridiculous to not trust in Bertha. Each day she looked after them all. They couldn’t survive without her.
Jyn glanced at the sturgeon hanging from a hook upon the wall. He had seen it as a symbol of hope at first, a sign that they would survive the long, harsh months ahead. He looked down at his sword, fire glowing in the dull steel. He knew that just as mountains turned to dust, all things must change, and so must he. His time as provider had ended, for now at least. A mantle new yet old awaited him now—that of protector.
Jyn crossed the room and opened a wooden chest with rusted bands. From inside he pulled out a small polished box. He took it back to his seat by the fire, brushing off the dust. From inside, he took out his whetstone, cloth and polish, and set to work on his sword.
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