Here it is folks! Sorry for the delay. Many thanks go out to my writer buddies who vetted this for me and got it up to snuff. Hope you enjoy.
When Casey Met Staruff
Casey choked mid-snore and coughed out a mouthful of woolly yak hair, realizing he’d fallen asleep on Boob’s back again. The giant sat up in the saddle and rubbed his face, trying to slap some wakefulness back into his brain. The cold wind whipping over the shoulders of Mount Yarrowmane helped with his efforts. The lichen-littered boulder beside him was the same dark basalt as all the others, standing as islands in the long golden grass of the high plain. He wondered if the yak had even moved from this spot.
The massive animal under him, named for the big dark spot in the middle of his creamy head, shifted his stance and continued cropping at the long grass. Casey looked up at the sun, veiled by the brooding clouds. How long had it been since he’d dozed off? It was hard to determine how far it had proceeded, especially since he couldn’t remember where it had been when he’d last looked up.
It had been long enough for his ass to go numb, at least. He swung his stiff leg over the saddle horn and jumped off to stretch. It was usually useless to keep track of time given that nothing of note would happen until one of his brothers came up to relieve his watch with ale and food. He leaned his forehead against Boob’s shoulder and sighed; another grey day. The wind slid icy fingers up his neck and he pulled up the fox-fur mantle to stave off the chill. Soon it would be winter and the plains would be a misery of cold, driving rain and irritable yaks. The animals ate far too much to keep them in corral for months.
At least it was too late in the year for raiders. The Twungu would be holing themselves up in the foothills of the Great Wall Mountains to the north until the weather improved. Winter rains made it too muddy to swoop in and snatch a few yaks safely. He felt almost sorry for that fact, as the skirmishes to keep the thieves at bay were the only source of action beyond a couple of bulls getting surly with each other. It was rare, given that for all their massive size and strength, mountain yaks were depressingly lazy. So much so that one could pull a bull’s tail and it was a dice toss as to whether or not he could actually be bothered to kick.
He wondered if he could persuade his father to let he and his brothers ride into Ferrgun to the alehouse for the evening. A nice long night of getting shit-faced would relieve the tedium, he was sure. Then, he remembered he’d been disallowed from doing so for a month for instigating a bar fight. It was all the more insulting because he’d been too blitzed to remember it. Not even a good story to be had for his trouble.
Maybe he could find a rabbit or a fox to hunt? “Hey,” he said to Boob, elbowing the yak. “Hey fucker, I’m bored. Yeh wanna-”
The animal let loose a waft of pent-up gas and walked forward a couple steps, flicking his tail. Casey sighed and covered his nose. “Goroth dammit …” Casey reached up to grab the saddle horn. At least sitting astride the yak meant keeping his feet out of the mud. He paused though, some agitated mooing further down field catching his attention.
The herd had drawn closer together, heads facing outward. The giant frowned. He knew what this meant of course; they assumed this defensive position whenever a predator was present. He recognized the subtle vibrations under the thin leather soles of his boots as the thunder of mounted raiders, but still could not grasp the situation. The first of the winter rains had already fallen and it was now too muddy to successfully sweep in and capture a few stray yaks. The mangy Twungu ponies were nimble little bastards and could get away from a giant fairly easily but the heavy bovines slowed them down if conditions were not suitably dry. On good ground, he could catch one or two, but in muck like this he could thrash the lot of them before they could make their escape.
Casey shook his head in disbelief as the first of the riders crested the hill above him. “The flying fuckshot d’they think they’re doin?” he said aloud. Boob was not interested in his question and promptly turned his great horned head in the direction of the invaders. As the largest bull, it was his herd and he did not take kindly to any of it being spirited away.
Casey swung up into his saddle and pulled the two short wooden staves from where they hung on his back. For the length of them, they might have been swords and indeed they had a handle protruding from the shaft about where a sword would possess a hilt, but he held them straight along his forearms, couched like a bird’s wings. He kicked his mount toward the approaching riders.
His heart sped as Boob gained momentum over the sodden ground. There were five raiders, close enough now to see the leather masks they wore over the lower half of their faces, sculpted to look like snarling wolf muzzles.
Only five? Must be some young shits out fer a joy ride, he thought. Five less sonsobitches t’ come back raidin’ later. Years ago he might have been moved to pity. That was before they’d caught his mother alone on the field.
The riders tried to split on either side of him, staying out of his range with their bows drawn taut. One pony stumbled, sending its master’s shot wide. Two more hit Boob in the flanks where the saddle didn’t cover, sticking into thick wool and tough hide. Casey’s whackers whipped out, faster than the eye could follow, smacking another two shots out of the air. Then, the giant swung his leg over the saddle and leaped off his mount, knowing there would be little time between the first volley and the reload. Being atop a yak made him a great target. Being behind a yak made him very hard to see.
Boob circled around Casey and charged the pony that was limping from its fumble. The giant followed in the yak’s wake, sticking close enough to get clods of dirt flung in his face. He struck the leg of the nearest raider who was trying to get around the charging animal enough to get off a good shot. There was a satisfying crack and scream that brought a grin to his face. He tossed his other whacker in the air, flipping it around and hooking the man’s shirt with the handle. He yanked him off his mount and brought his other weapon around, driving the pommel into his temple. The raider’s struggles ceased immediately as red flooded his left eye socket and trickled from his ear.
Casey withdrew the stained whacker and straightened just in time to be caught in the chest by another arrow. With a snarl of anger, he pulled it out and tossed it on the corpse at his feet. One of the other raiders wheeled his mount around and took off toward the ridge.
“Come!” he called to his compatriots in Kewhen. “Come! He’s alone!”
The other two followed and Boob gave up his chase, part of a vest hanging off one long horn from the rider he had gored.
“Where the fuck you goin?” Casey yelled at their receding backs. He bent, ignoring the pain from his wound as he picked up a fist-sized rock. He threw it in the air and belted it hard with his right whacker. The missile struck one of the riders in the back of the neck and he fell as easily as a hunted bird. The giant looked around for another rock but the last two Twunga were already out of range. “Come back here!” he bellowed, this time in their language. “Bitch-faced skunk fuckers!” Admittedly, most of what he knew of their tongue were curses but it got his point across more often than not. They did not turn at his taunting, instead speeding away on their scrubby little ponies over the shoulders of the mountain.
Casey found a decently sized boulder and sat, examining the ragged hole where he’d ripped the arrow from his chest. It didn’t seem to be deep, thankfully, and the arrowhead had come out in one piece with the shaft. He got up and ambled after Boob, approaching slowly and making his presence obvious in case the bull was still aggravated from the fight. He was not. He was interested in once again cropping the grass beside a fallen pony and not the giant searching through the supplies in his saddle packs.
He wadded up some bleached wool strips and yanked his sleeveless tunic off. He began awkwardly winding a bandage around himself to hold it snug while he waited for the bleeding to stop. He returned to his boulder seat and plunked himself down. While his yak had calmed quickly, the fire of the skirmish still roared through Casey’s veins. To distract himself, he began mending the small tear in the chest as best he could.
What had the rider meant when he said “Come! He’s alone!”? He was pretty certain that he understood the words properly. But upon learning he was by himself, why had they not pressed their attack? It seemed a bizarre thing to say upon retreating. Maybe he’d misheard? Oh well. He broke the thread and put away the mending tools, too tired for the moment to go stuff them back in his packs. Maybe he could claim the injury was bad enough to return from the field early? He could just see the scowl of disapproval on his father’s face in his mind’s eye and pushed the thought away. He didn’t fancy being called a whiny bitch on top of the sting of the wound.
He looked over the rest of the herd down the slope from him and frowned. They had not extricated themselves from their defensive formation and continued lowing in distress. Was the smell of blood attracting predators? It was a bit soon for that. The blat of a hunting horn had him up on his feet immediately and a spike of fear drove through his gut. The rumble of hooves vibrated the dirt under his feet, so strongly he would have thought it a landslide if he hadn’t known better. He ran to his mount, jumping up on the bull’s back and kicking him hard. Boob protested but Casey turned him back to the herd and thwacked his sides with his whackers.
“Go! Now, ya summbitch!” he snarled.
“He’s alone!” That was what the rider had meant. They weren’t running away. He looked back over his shoulder, wincing as Boob’s awkward gallop jarred his wound. At least ten raiders had already crested the hill and he could hear more shouting and howling war cries behind them. He’d seen the Twungu use scouts before but never had he known them to attack in such numbers. He struggled to count and control his mount at the same time. Twenty? More?
He had to get the herd out of the high plains or he’d lose the lot of them. Hopefully his brothers would see the yaks returning far ahead of schedule and realize that something was awry. He’d have to hold off the raiders until then. There was no way he could outrun them on this sodden terrain. If he could block them at Falconer’s Pass, he’d have a chance. Maybe. His heart matched the thunder of the hooves, every hair on his skin standing out straight. The first of the yaks had reached the pass far ahead of him, funnelled between the high rock walls. He wheeled Boob around to gauge how far behind him the riders were, head snapping back and forth between them and the herd. Would the animals make it through before the Twungu reached him? If not, he was going to be caught out in the open and surrounded. Heavy cloven hooves splashed through the pass, the mud from the recent rain slowing them further.
C’mon ya fat fucks! Go!
Just above the gap, sitting among the damp rocks and grass, Casey spotted something small and pale. He squinted. There was a man crouched there looking down into the ravine. How had he gotten around behind the giant? Perhaps during the skirmish with the scouts? If he was a raider, he was a strange-looking one. His long hair was unbound and it was blonde, not dark. He wore no wolf-snarl mask. There was no pony to be seen nearby and that ultimately decided the matter for Casey, for raider’s life depended on the fleetness of his mount’s hooves. Whoever he was, Casey hoped he would stay out of this mess.
An arrow zinged past his ear and sank deep into the ground behind him. He cursed, returning his attention to the oncoming raiders. They were in bowshot now and the giant laid flat against Boob’s back as the animal stamped and snorted under him.
The smart thing to do would be to back up slowly as the yaks receded, to try to keep the herd close to his back and discourage any murderous Twungu from getting around behind him. He knew this, and yet, as his heart raced, lightning arced through his veins; a visceral force drove him forward. He wanted to charge them and feel their bones break under his whackers. Boob sidestepped and turned in a listless circle, unsettled by the indecision of his rider.
Is this how it felt, Mum?
He’d always assumed she’d been frightened in the end. Now, as the raiders began to split their ranks in preparation to pelt him with arrows, he wondered. A trail of twelve broken arrow shafts had followed her to her resting place in a nest of raider and pony corpses. She was smiling when they found her.
Casey was smiling now as he slid from his saddle and stepped forward. What kind of gods damned cruel joke was it to wake up, to feel alive, to burn so brightly just before being snuffed out? The arrow that grazed his shoulder sent lightning through his skin and he let out a bestial howl as he broke into a run. There was no herd, no pass, no desperate plan; there was only the crunch of a pony’s breastbone as it met his whacker. Hooves flailed in his face and he knocked them aside to get at the man in the saddle.
“Come on!” he screamed as he wrenched the raider up by his head wrapping. The Twungu’s short sword was caught in between his leg and Casey’s chest as the giant’s weapon whipped around and collided with the back of his neck. “Come on ya scabby whore-shits!” He put his foot on the flailing pony’s shoulder, leaping over the panicked animal and onto the back of the next one. The tip of an arrow cut into his belly as he snapped his quarry’s bow with the weight of his body. “Come on!” He shouted it over and over again; a mantra, a prayer, a supplication not for salvation but slaughter. The blood on his face was the hottest and most sinful caress he had ever known. A succubus kiss each time it showered him. A shot stuck in his shoulder blade and he turned, following its path like a fishing line. The bowman’s pony quailed and tried to turn away, fighting for control as it sensed impending death.
Casey hit its forelegs, denying it any chance of flight, and as he caved the man’s skull, he saw a flash of light near the mouth of the pass. A few of the riders had gotten past the rampaging giant but they could not follow the receding tails of the yaks. The blond man who had been perched above the ravine had leaped down onto the hindquarters of one of the ponies and he held onto its rider’s neck as he sliced into the raider’s cheek with a long dagger. The wolf-snarl mask came free, along with half of his face. The manic grin on the stranger’s mouth called to Casey and sang in his veins.
Here, on this field of battle, this man was his brother. That he had never met him before had no bearing on this fact. All he knew was that there was nothing more pure and true in his life than this moment.
The stranger jumped from the flailing rider’s back and shrieked, a golden eagle stooping on its prey, as he stabbed into his nearest foe’s leg. He grabbed the stirrup and towed the hapless pony in circles until it slipped in the mud. The blond madman darted out from under it at the last instant.
The other raiders quailed at the butchery before them and some of them turned back, only to break like a wave on Casey’s whackers. Between giant and madman, the Twungu bunched together, ponies milling in panic. They were too close together now to use their bows and their doom fell upon them from both sides, crushing and hacking. A few managed to squeeze out from the clot and ran for the crest, away from the pass and away from the carnage. Casey let them go. There was enough blood for him here. He felt like a great mountain bull himself, his whackers as his long goring horns.
At last, his trembling legs bent and he sat down on the neck of a twitching pony. He could not understand why the motion around him had stopped as he scanned the massacre for any raiders left alive. He had no idea how many corpses there were. The giant found himself unable to count properly as his eyes followed the blond stranger, flitting from body to body, slicing the throats of any that yet lived. When he came near and crouched by Casey’s knee, the madman reached out and touched his hand, making his skinned knuckles sting. He said nothing. There was no need; it was all there in those too-wide ice-pale eyes.
“Who are you?” Casey asked at last, feeling sacrilegious for breaking the silence.
“Staruff Azrum,” the man said, the same grin still on his face. The expression sent shivers up the giant’s spine.
“Yer a crazy fuck, Staruff,” he said. He’d meant to introduce himself, to thank him for his help, for the salvation of the herd, for the blood that slicked his skin. His brain wouldn’t form the words and instead he sat staring while Staruff laughed. The sound crackled like fire in his ears and drove his heart faster.
“Casey!” A deep voice boomed and he jumped, looking up as his elder brother Bram leaped from his yak and sprinted toward them. “The flying fuck happened?” In the pass, he could see the red mops of hair of Selyard and Munder, his younger brothers, emerging from around the bend.
“Raiders,” he responded, unable to think of anything else to say.
“Raiders?” Bram pushed his dark hair off his sweaty brow. “This is a fucking army! The f-” He stumbled and removed his foot from a gaping rib cage. Casey couldn’t remember if he’d killed the man or if Staruff had. Inexplicably, he started to laugh and couldn’t make himself stop. “What …” His brother stared at him. Bram pointed at Staruff. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Staruff Azrum,” he said. “I was doing some trading up north when I heard these Twungu talking about taking over a yak-herder village to the south. Seemed an asshole thing to do. I decided to follow them and see what came of it.”
“T’ warn us, or to help ‘em?” Bram wrinkled his forehead, fixing the madman with a sceptical glare.
“I wasn’t sure. But his wildness inspired me.” He jerked a thumb at Casey.
The dark-haired giant looked back and forth between them but the slaughter defied explanation. Casey could find no words for the blood they had shared, a bond forged in screams and shards of bone.
“He saved the herd, Bram,” he said finally. “We owe ‘im a horn o’ mead at least.”
Bram looked over the arrows sticking out of his brother, the slashes decorating his chest. Casey glanced at Staruff and wondered how much of the blood on him was his own.
“Maybe we should patch yeh up fir-”
“Drink first!” Staruff thumped his fist into the mud where he sat.
Casey felt the laughter bubbling up in him again. “I like ‘im.”
Bram put up his hands. “Fine. Selyard! Munder! Salvage what yeh can here ‘n come back down t’ the corral. ‘M gonna get these crazy fucks some drink.” To Staruff, he handed his wineskin. “Here’s a bit fer now. You c’n ride with Casey.”
Casey helped the madman up onto Boob’s back and climbed on behind him. The animal didn’t even notice the extra weight. He just yawned and began wandering back in the direction of the pass. Bram rode far up ahead of them, almost out of sight and Casey frowned at this.
“Wha’s his problem?” he wondered aloud.
“Scared of catching my crazy,” Staruff said with a sagely nod of his head.
“It’s catchin?” Casey snorted. “Good. I want s’more.”
“Yeah? Ever considered mercenary work?”
The giant shook his head but that smile was beginning to etch itself onto his face again. What would it be like to grin at death every day, to feel every pulse of blood through his body, every breath? The crackling fire of Staruff’s laughter had burnt away his fears, save one: falling asleep on a yak on yet another dull, grey day.
You can find the next part of this story, A New Life, right here.