Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Prologue: The Madman of Zenres

The three old men sat in the market square watching the madman.

It was a dank and raw autumn morning. A heavy grey band of cloud sat over Zenres like a sodden cloth cap, blurring the distant mountains. The cobbled square was streaked with wet mud, and the air was full of tiny droplets of mist that dripped from the red tiles of the tall wooden buildings.

"Doesn't he ever get tired?" Abel wondered aloud, swirling his palinka in its green shotglass.

Bartel shook his head, pulled on the brim of his hat. "Nope. Been at it all morning. Last night too, when I came out of the Sow and Shoats. Yelling like a new-cut barrow, he was."

Abel raised an eyebrow, mildly impressed. Anyone who could scream and cavort all through a clammy Erntezeit night in the Border Princes was owed a little respect. He toasted the shrieking figure with his glass and swigged; Janci and Bartel followed his lead.

The madman's wandering path took him briefly out of sight, behind the big statue of Sertéshúsi. The bronze pig, largest ever bred in the town, had been commissioned by its proud owner some fifteen years ago. Depicted fancifully as carrying home the harvest, it was solid, ugly and badly weathered, much like the farmer had been himself by the end of his weary life, after the famous porker had faded into legend and bacon. Even from here, they could hear the ranting voice continue its declarations of doom, war and the end of civilization, the usual kind of thing.

Janci sighed. "I don't know," he said, his heavy cheeks swaying sorrowfully. "There might be something in what he's saying. Ibolya's been sick again. I don't know what I'd do without her. I'm worried out of my mind. Maybe it is the end times, come to claim us all."

Janci paused to run his hand down his jowly face. He looked exhausted. He went on fretfully, "She won't eat, she's stopped nursing. The children were up all night, crying with hunger. She just stands and stares all day, up in the direction of the Barlog."

All three farmers glanced instinctively at the dark mountain, visible as an ominous shadow through the dank day. Even though was a couple of days of hard riding away, over the Howling River, it seemed closer, the way it hung over the town.The eastern road out of Zenres pointed directly to it before leaning away to the south, so you always saw it there, looming like a warning for travellers. The first outrider of the great World's Edge Mountains beyond it, it was only known for its name in folklore. The ancient Dwarven limestone works on its peak were long abandoned. Nobody went there now. Nobody sane.

Abel shivered. "Aw, listen, Janci, that's nonsense. Don't you go letting that lunatic unsettle you. Whatever's up with Ibolya, I'm sure it's nothing serious."

"You don't know her!" Janci said. "It's not like her at all."

"We could come and look at her for you, if you wanted," Bartel offered.

"What good would that do?" Janci said, moodily pouring himself another palinka. "She won't talk to you."

Bartel and Abel exchanged glances.

"She's been sick before," Abel said.

"Like in Spring, you said she was going to die. Always sick, that one, seems to me," Bartel opined.

"She's not! Not like this!" Janci said, hotly. "I've never seen the like. It's like she's pining for something. Dreaming about it all the time. I tell you, I'm terrified."

"I didn't know she could dream," Abel said cautiously.

"Then you don't know her like I do, Gombos Abel!" Janci said. He stood up angrily, threw down a final shot of palinka and rammed his hat down over his head. "I tell you, the madman's right! The old warriors are stirring in their lair. Dark times are coming!"

And with that, he stormed off as imperiously as his portly frame would allow him. Abel stood, alarmed.

"Janci! Wait! I didn't mean it, I'm sure she does dream!"

"Of what, turnips?" Bartel threw his hands up in disgust. "Sit down, Abel, he's not worth chasing. Getting all worked up over that damned pig. He should get out more, he's turning into a shut-in since his wife left."

"Well, I didn't mean to upset him, that's all," Abel said. He sat down heavily. "Talking about the Barlog like that. He's got me rattled and all."

"Nothing a drink can't cure," Bartel said, pouring for both of them. The madman's perambulation was bringing him back round the square towards them. Right now, he was standing in front of the butcher's, bawling at the butcher's boy. The butcher's boy was stoically ignoring him, sweeping dirty sawdust out of the shop. The madman gave up in disgust, looked round, then trotted towards the two old men.

"Here we go," Bartel said.

The gaunt figure was a fright, all bushy hair streaked with filth and ragged robes. His lips seemed unnaturally red over a black mouth full of missing teeth, and his eyes were bright and crazed.

"You! Will you not listen? What will it take? Ignorant pig farmers, do you not realise what is now upon us!"

"The Warrior's Harvest," the two old men replied in unison.

"The Warrior's Harvest!" screeched the madman, obliviously. "The sleepers will awake! The Black Banner of Blancvik will rise over the field, and the souls of a thousand thousand will be slaughtered! Beware the Sword of Zwickan! Beware!"

"Beware!" Abel and Bartel chorused, toasting the fanatic with their brandy.

"Damned! Damned and dead, I pronounce thee, Zenres! Your boars will root in the shells of your homes, and your bones will feed their litters! Yaaaargh!"

With a final, insane scream of laughter, the madman ran totteringly from the square.

"Fourth one this month," Bartel said, watching him leave. "He followed those mercenaries all the way from Lakoras, yelling all the way. That's what their captain told me over a beer or two last night. Ought to be locked up. There should be a law."

Abel nodded in agreement. "Bloody fanatics."

And he reached for the palinka.

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