"... and thank the ancient ones for our eternal protection..." the crowd droned. The great hall echoed with voices repeating a mantra they never considered. Minds were wandering to what work they had to finish, what food they had to cook with and the rest of life's every day banalities.
Incredible that in the tallest building in the town, the Great Hall, a building literally made with dragon bones, walls bedecked in tapestries woven from werewolf hair and a floor stained blueish-purple with a giant's blood, in this place, here, the people were more focused on picking their nails, probing that bit of food in their mouth with their tongue and holding in coughs, sneezes and farts than praising their protectors.
How the extraordinary so quickly becomes mundane with repetition.
How familiarity can rob us of wonder.
How the very fact you see something every day makes you completely blasé about its existence.
With the great praise ended, everyone trooped out. Even the high-priest wasn't bothered about what had said. His mind was on how that small boy had stomped all that mud in from the West Bog. He'd have to clean that up now. Of course in the Great Hall at Chief's Town there'd be an army of Praise-Maidens and Hall-Lads to clean that up. Not here in the provinces.
There had been. He himself had started as a Hall-Lad in this very hall. Marth-hall. Named after the great beast whose bones became the building blocks of the grand building the priest stood in. The children all learnt the story. How Batair, with the help of his tribe of course, had finally cut the dragon's throat. The long details of the campaign were remembered by the bards, but the details of how you actually kill a dragon were pretty much forgotten. All abandoned as the story became one of daring, courage and hope rather than a practical handbook on what to do when your village is perennially burnt by a creature the size of four houses and a penchant for eating your livestock.
The High-Priest continued idly considering this as he swept the driest bits of bog mud towards the entrance of the hall. Course the reason he had nobody to help was that any young girl or boy who was moved to follow a religious path always chose to head to Chief's Town. Why hang about in the place you grew up in when you can be at the centre of the greatest feasts, hear the most talented bards and, crucially, earn gold rather than being paid in wool, meat and slightly chewy beer?
No, ever since the pass between Marth-hall and Chief's Town was made safe, levelled out and had a rest-inn built a day's travel between the two settlements, there was nothing keeping young folk here. Not if they wanted to be priests anyway. That's the problem with religion, too voluntary. Bloody military can send the kids to the back of beyond and they'd have to do it. You're chosen to be a warrior, by which I mean you're not a complete failure at holding an axe and your father doesn't have enough land to give you a farm, and you get no choice in where you live. A better choice of partner, sure, but not on living arrangements.
Clearly making the pass safe and comfortable was a good thing. It had helped Marth-Hall. The building had lasted a thousand years, but this had never been a town of artists and craftsmen. You have to get those from the capital. When the priest grew up it was a dark, foreboding hall which terrified you when the stories of giants and gyphons were described in all their excruciating detail. You sat on shoogly benches that were almost always a bit damp. Gazed at the priest in the centre, lit by the central fire he seemed like the most powerful man in the town. With only one light in the centre you couldn't see how tall the building was, couldn't appreciate how grand the hall could be, but instead, you were drawn in, your whole attention focussed on one man and his words.
That was probably when he decided he wanted to be a priest. That and there wasn't much other choice. Marth-hall was a frontier town. Which was crazy to think of now. It was so close to the capital that with a good horse you could probably reach the centre of Chief's town in a day. How can that be considered the outskirts? The Curtain Mountains of course. Apart from Giant's Pass there was no real way through those Highlands for miles.
On his hands and knees now. Damp pad of cloth in his hand the priest began to scrub. The cloth started to fall to bits but it was working. His back ached, his knees protested but the floor was clean and that made a pair of old eyes a little happier. Most of the mud had gone but the big dirty brown blob on the floor was unsightly and he'd be damned to the evil spirits if he had a stain like this in his entrance way. Plus he had nothing else to do this evening. No, he'd clean this, go to his camp just behind the hall, finish writing his chapter and drink as much wine as he could till he fell asleep.
You see, that was the best thing about the opening of the pass. Wine. Here in the cold, west side of the mountains you couldn't get wine. Folk couldn't even guess what a vine looked like. The small bits of farmland had good soil, but were cold and windswept. More and more of the boglands were being reclaimed and the town was doing well, but nothing as fancy as wine. Even the beer they made wasn't that nice. Something about the water, that's what they said. Didn't help that all the rains fell on the other side of the mountains. You can filter it, boil it, filter it again, bog water beer always somehow remembers the bog.
Wine from the capital. That was the priest's thing. As he sat up writing up the old stories in a room gradually filling with smoke and the smell of burnt animal fat, he'd get drunk in style. He wasn't sure it helped his writing but it was hardly creative work. Just write down the tales as you would if you told them to someone. The priest enjoyed this, but it hardly taxed him. Plus the wine, made it feel more vivid. Made him feel like he was reliving the sagas. Made him feel like he did when he first heard them. When the "Winter of Werewolves" felt like only months ago, not decades. Course, during the "Winter of Werewolves" writing down the old stories wasn't possible. Half the town on guard duty, the other half getting a few hours sleep before they were woken up to relieve the others. Kids these days wouldn't know what to do if a werewolf came to the town now.
Not that the priest lived through those times either. His parents had though, so he knew from them how terrifying they were. How the folk learnt to tell the difference in the howls. A deeper howl, a more human howl, that terrified you. Wolves could be scared off with fire, werewolves couldn't. It wasn't just at night either. There were no werewolves during daylifht, but there were other dangers. More human ones. The town turned on each other. The legends said that if you were bitten you'd become one. One of them, a wolfman. It never happened that winter, but that didn't stop the accusations, the recriminations, the analysis of every cut, scar and scratch. So he didn't know, but he knew. He knew what it was like, and that's why he cleaned those tapestries, that's why he wore the wolf-tooth necklace, that's why he was writing this story. It wasn't a story.
Fire extinguished. Flowers strewn across the floors to give the hall a fresher feel for the Elders' meeting tomorrow. Bog mud dumped on the midden. Time for wine.
One thing to do first.
The priest went to the cairn. Not the large one. Not the big one. Not the one for fallen heroes. No, they had enough painted stones, enough locks of hair, enough broken swords. No, he went to the other. The one that should be larger. The one that represented more lives. The one remembering real people. The one for the tragedy of that night.
Death is a part of life. It can come early or late. It can be personal and individual, or it can come to many at once. Heroes die young, but they die separately. You can remember their story and their sacrifice. That's why they get remembered and that's why people come and give thanks. They paint a stone to honour the works, they cut their hair to remember their life and they break a sword to vow to continue the fight.
Sometimes life is short but you're not remembered. Just part of a crowd. Just a face in the crowd, sometimes only a name, at worst just a number. Your death becomes only a contribution to the magnitude of the catastrophe. It helps create the shock when it happens, but helps people forget as time goes by. Numbers don't mean anything. Not really.
Fifteen years ago it happened. A rumble in the night. Woke up the whole town. The crashing scared everyone awake. Children didn't scream, they were too terrified to make a noise. Adults are another thing. They'll make noise. They'll shout. They'll scream. They'll say something stupid.
Rushing out of their tents, men and women alike grabbed torches and stared into the night. Still bangs. Still crashes. Still nothing to see. What was happening?
The noises were close, and yet far away. They came from the mountains and they came from the forests by the foothills. Soon there were giant splashes in the bogs. What was going on?
Nobody ever admitted making the first shout. Maybe they didn't realise it was them, maybe they didn't survive the night. But someone, someone somewhere, shouted it first and that started it all. One lone voice. A man, the priest remembers, a man with a terrified sound in his voice, a man racked with fear.
That should've been a clue. Thinking back. A man that terrified wasn't acting clearly. They were panicking. They weren't shouting a descriptive warning, their mind had raced and plumped for the first answer it got, no matter how ludicrous, no matter how little proof, no matter what consequences that shout, that false cry, that lie, would have.
People ran. Scattered in all directions. Ran to the hills, ran to the bogs, ran to the trees. In their panicked mind it all made sense. Hide in a cave, hide in the reeds, hide up a tree. Whatever you do, hide. Nobody knew what to do when giants attacked. Nobody knew what to do when giants were just passing by. Nobody knew, what to do if a giant was standing there picking its nose. So they ran. They ran clutching children. They ran carrying weapons. They ran kicking and screaming.
The next day bodies were found. Some burnt as camp fires lit houses, others trampled in the rush. In the hills and marshes corpses were picked up. A few had drowned. Mostly they had died of cold. None of them were killed by giants.
Because there were no giants. Not that night and not for hundreds of years. The last giant in this area was slain by Aba. Aba the Broad and his men had hunted for it after its footprints were seen near the lookout point halfway up the mountains of the pass. The blood that stained the great hall was dry, dirty and had been diluted with a bull's blood when they first realised the giant hadn't been fully grown. Not that they told the children that part of the story. Not that they told pilgrims to the great dragon hall of Marth-Hall that it wasn't all 100% painted in a giant's blood.
People don't need facts. People don't need real fears. People don't need enemies in the dark. When people are scared they just act. Sadly for this town, that action had cost lives. In a small town you can count the exact cost. Twenty three. Twenty three lives lost because a landslide, admittedly a large one, but just a landslide. A landslide outside of the town. A landslide that would've hurt nobody. But it was a landslide was mistaken for a giant. Twenty three men, women and children would never ask their ancestors for protection again because their ancestors couldn't protect them. Not from each other.
The priest cut his hair. He didn't have much, not at his age, but that wasn't the point. You trim off a piece, tie it up, and place it in-front of the cairn. You promise to remember their lives. You vow to honour their spirit. You say that you'll learn from their sacrifice.
He meant it, the priest. He meant every word. He wasn't sure exactly when, but after that night, his stories had changed. No longer did he terrify the children with how awful the monsters were. No longer did he stand in front of the flame and re-enact with passion the fights and the deaths of the heroes. No longer did Ulum the High-Priest warn of the next time the wolves, or the giants or the dragons would come. Never again would panic cause more deaths than the monsters ever did.
Instead they had to learn. These stories were from the past. The werewolves won't come back, but we learn from them that people have to stick together. Dragons haven't been seen for centuries, but we learn that hard work overcomes impossible odds. Giants aren't coming from the mountains to smash our town, but we learn to be watchful and to look for clues and trust facts, not rumours. Especially on a dark night.
The flagon was nearly empty. The priest uncorked another and filled his cup. The Priest's cup. His cup. He was in his camp. He was warm. The room stank of burning animal fat, his eyes were watering and his throat clogging up, but he was home. Another week had begun. Another peaceful week, from a peaceful year, in a peaceful town. His peaceful town, where he was at peace, mostly. Not so tonight.
He couldn't write. These thoughts and memories were too intense. Writing of monsters made so little sense in a world without them. Farming accidents claimed the lives of more little boys than the deep, dark woods. Woods, incidentally that had now been thoroughly investigated, cut down, and were devoid of anything more dangerous than an angry badger or drunken squirrel. Over-eating at feast days caused more pain to priests than the worst witch's poison and idleness cursed more young-folk than all the evil-spirits put together. Times were changing. Times had changed.
You didn't fight beasts any more. If anything it was people you had to compete with. Chief's Town demanded more and more grain each year. Marth-hall had plenty food for now, but not every harvest was kind. It wasn't just food they demanded. Fighters too. And timber, wool, and worst of all, gold. This was never a rich town, not in gold. In the past a werewolf hide could be sold for a pretty penny. Problem was that even then, when this place had actual monster artefacts, that it was only the raw material. Craftsmen in Chief's Town made it into something and sold part of it back to you for twice the price.
Draining his cup the priest lamented these problems. Lamented more their solutions. Every new project embarked upon seemed to be worse than the issue it was supposed to deal with. The bogs were reclaimed to make more farmland, but as soon as the sales of grain went up so did the tax claims from the capital. Forests were cut down too. The great trees of the Darkwood made strong buildings, no dragon bone but better than any others in the Chief's lands. However, once they were cut down the ground around them was sliding into the bogs and actually getting to the other trees involved another grand scheme, which, of course, included cutting more trees...
At least there was one pie-in-the-sky idea that had been abandoned. Searching for gold. Probably a few prospectors were searching round the foothills of the Curtain Mountains hoping to strike it lucky but most of the town frowned upon that sort of behaviour. Of course if the town was close to a goldmine it would only be a matter of time before Chief's Town's grubby paws got involved. "Gold Tax" on the gold people only searched for in order to pay Chief's Town requirement for gold. That wasn't the reason the people didn't like the gold hunters. No. It was the search for gold up in the hills that everbody suspected. That everyone blamed. That everyone knew was responsible fifteen years ago.
Eyes opening in the dark, the priest groaned. The burnt fat smell had subsided a bit so it must be hours since he went to bed. However, it was still dark, so dawn was far off. Why was he awake? A dry throat gasped for water and a full-bladder ached for release, that was why. Booze, you're the real monster he thought. An aged back complained as the old-man tried to right himself. Scrubbing floors is clearly bad for him, if only he had some assistance he thought, for the second time in one day, for the fiftieth time in seven. Grasping for a flagon the priest quenched his thirst with the tangy taste of once boiled, twice filtered, still boggy, water. Levering himself up with a stick he refused to admit he needed, the pious man hobbled out of the tent. His muscles warmed enough that his vanity could allow him to leave the building unaided. Not that anyone would see him in this light.
A few fires dotted the darkness but it wasn't pitch black. Autumn hadn't set in just yet and the darkness was never total for long. A lazy moon would've helped illuminate things but the clouds were interrupting its pale glow. Squinting till his eyes could tell the edge of his building and the annoying low, jutting out roof of the next, the priest padded round through the gap between the buildings, leaning to the left to protect his head from another midnight whack, he reached his midden. You weren't supposed to piss here, but he did. He was the High-Priest. Didn't mean much in this town but it should mean you can empty your bladder wherever you damn well please.
The stream came easily for a man his age, something to do with the half-empty flagon of wine strewn across his floor. Late night drinking has one benefit he thought. As the bladder joined the throat in respite from the ravages of a boozy night, the priest looked out into the dark. Torchlight shadows flickered. The mind is easily confused at this hour. Half-asleep, not enough light, a primal fear of the darkness. Every corner seems to shadow a beastie, every tree hides an enemy and every rock seems obvious once a bare-foot has struck it a little too strongly.
The priest didn't see beasties, didn't see assassins, did see that rock, this time, instead he saw, nothing. Nothing strange. Nothing unusual. Nothing dangerous. He didn't feel scared, but he did feel cold. Didn't hear scary noises, but then again he couldn't hear that much these days. He didn't think he was in danger, but then again, the real, real dangers are often not the ones you see. They don't shout and scream. Don't rush you when your back is turned. Don't get announced by panicking men or charged at by foolhardy martyrs. The real dangers are everyday. The real dangers are quiet and you have no idea they are there. All our stories end, some loudly, most quietly and just have to hope they final chapter is a happy one.
The priest tried to sit on his bed, felt his knees hurt, so just fell backwards onto the bed. This was how he sat down now. He really regretted cleaning that mud. As he gingerly pulled hides and blankets over his body, he shivered one last time. Cursed the wine for being out of reach, and fell asleep. He never woke up.