“I dare you to go and touch the Black Stone on Heimsuchen Pier!” Cried Timothy, a scrawny boy of seven with hands and feet that seemed just a tad too large for his tiny frame. Timothy was a boy that lived on the other side of the island, with his father he said, but came over to our side to play with the rest of us.
“Don’t do it Harmony!” Squealed Charlie, his knees literally quaking at the thought of even going near that haunted pier.
The Heimsuchen pier was a rickety old wharf that’d been abandoned when old man Hofner had passed away nearly ten seasons ago. On the island of Ensel, the weather was harsh and cold; the winds blowing up from the North Sea were kept on the island by the great rim of mountains framing the Northern and Eastern sides of the island, with the majority of the Western side of the island essentially a great cliff. This made the village of Ensel a place where only the strongest survived, the men tall and barrel-chested; the women stout and vicious. Even then, we lost people to the sea, at least a few a season.
But we were just kids. Vandal children, but still children none the less. And while children may do dumb things from time to time, Vandals were known for doing that their entire lives!
I was just entering my thirteenth summer, and I was well aware of the looks I’d been receiving from the boys-becoming-men around me. My hips were becoming well rounded from my great-grandmother’s battle hammer I always had slung on them, while my legs were lean and strong from the games of “Hunt the Dragon” we’d always play (with me usually capturing the poor kid labeled the dragon and bringing him down to the ground tied up like a hog ready for the slaughter). My ebon locks, despite my father’s well wishes, were long and fruitful, bound in a long plait that, I admit, was simple vanity; but I shut him up by adding a three pound weight at the very end of it, allowing me to use my hair as a flail should I get the chance, which I did one night when he tried taking a slice of roasted ham from my plate.
He doesn’t say it, but I still see him rubbing his wrist where it broke, especially when the weather changes.
“Alright Timothy,” I say with a bit of haughtiness, cocking my hips as I plant my fists on them, “I’ll do it. I’ll go touch the Black Stone. But only if you do it with me!”
He looks a little green at the thought of it, the meek little rat of a boy. Unlike Charlie and our other friends, Timothy was small and thin, with no muscles to truly speak of. True enough he was fast, and a damned fine swimmer, but overall he wasn’t what Vandals were made of blood and fire. My parents often told me to stay away from the lad, that they hadn’t seen his father in nigh ten years due to his demented thoughts making him a hermit. The rest of the village only tolerated him and his father because they made some of the finest weapons you could ever set your eyes upon, once a year Timothy rolling in on a rickety cart laden with spears and blades, axes and crossbows, all made from the finest iron and silver to be found on all of Ensel.
“Alright Harmony, how ‘bout this? Whoever holds onto the Stone the longest owes the other a favor?” Timothy asked with a wry grin.
I roll me eyes. The legend of the Black Rock was that it was cursed, that old man Hofner hadn’t fallen into the sea during a storm, bit been pulled in by a Scrag… a Sea Troll. After one torrential storm of sleet and snow, the Black Stone had been found sitting at the end of the pier, a great hulking piece of crystalized black rock, jutting up from the water and piercing the rotted wood of the wharf like the horn of a great beast. The Chieftain had forbidden everyone from going anywhere near the cursed thing, but, of course, kids will be kids.
“And the favor you’d ask Timothy?” I ask saucily, smiling at him like my mother had taught me to do with the younger men of the village.
“Your hand in marriage.” He replied simply. “And if I lose, I’ll have my father make a custom set of armor for you, along with a brand new sword and shield. Which you’ll get anyway if you become my wife, but that’s beside the point.”
Being Timothy’s wife? I can’t help but sneer at the thought, but being married to the son of a blacksmith could have its advantages… and he wasn’t likely to try and boss me around, seeing as I was twice as strong as him on any given day.
The true selling point being the custom set of armor made by the master himself; mad he may be, but his equipment never tarnished nor faded, never dented or got scratched. It just persevered, most of the time longer than the person who purchased the item.
“You’re on then Timothy,” I say boldly, our friends gasping and talking low amongst themselves. “Let’s go do it then, shall we?”
“Oh no, if I’m risking a full set of armor on this, we do it at night!” Timothy said with a wicked smile. “The full moon approaches, so if we all sneak out tonight, everyone can watch as I prove once and for all I’m braver than you! Plus, I’ll have the most beautiful girl on all of Ensel as my bride-to-be.”
Blushing faintly at the blatant praise, I merely roll my eyes and laugh. “Fine, we’ll do it your way twerp; tonight at midnight.”
“Tonight at midnight it is then.” Timothy agreed, the two of us spitting into our hands and shaking on it.
The wind howled in protest as I opened my cabin’s door before slipping outside into the bitter chill of the darkened night, closing the door as quietly as I could. Just as I closed the door, I could see the coals of the hearth flaring from the wind, and my parents shifting in their bed of furs next to it.
I wrap my own coat around me, my very first kill: one of the wolves from the mainland. A great towering beast, I’d claimed its life over three years ago with the same sword and shield I’d used to slay its mate and three pups. We’d ate well that night, and Lesotho, the village tanner, had made me a nice set of heavy, thick clothes that warded away the cold night air with ease. Hopping down the steep stone stairs leading from the hillock where our home was built into, I begin slowly making my way to the village port, ducking behind statues and houses to avoid the few guards we would post during the night.
All around me I could see the shadowy figures of my friends doing the same, all of us slowly converging onto the lone, haunted wharf. Timothy was already waiting, wearing several layers of sleek looking leather that were as black as the very night around us. The cracked veins forming web-like patterns all over the vest and leggings showed the age of brilliant suit of armor, but for the life of me I knew of no animal that had a black hide suitable for such a set of garments.
Timothy smiles at me with a lopsided grin. “It’s made from a mythical beast from across the seas, where Leif went so many years ago. Some of my kin served with him and helped to fell a mighty bear the three times the size of the ones we know, with fur as white as snow and skin as black as coal. The locals called it Nanuk.”
I reach out before I can even stop myself and run my hand over his chest, feeling the warm leather beneath my hand. “It’s amazing…”
“We still have some of the leather, saved for special projects. I could make you a pair of bracers as a wedding gift maybe?” He smiled, cocky as ever. He bows, allowing me to walk onto the rickety wharf first, a sudden gust of wind sending a wave crashing over the top, soaking the already rotted wood with yet another layer of salt.
I smile, nodding my head at his gracious nature, and move out slowly onto the pier, the wood creaking dangerously beneath my boots as I begin a leisurely stroll across the swaying dock, the wind and the waves causing the whole structure to gently rock back and forth, almost as if you were on a boat. Timothy is quick to follow while our friends, all as silent as the grave, crowd around the landing, watching as we slowly make our way across the long stretch of ancient wood towards the strange black rock formation.
We never make it. Half way out, the pier gives way as a particularly harsh wave slams into it with strength only the ocean can possess, knocking us both into the deeper end of the cove, the freezing waters knocking the air from my lungs as I strike the water as hard as it struck the pier.
The wolf pelt is heavy when wet, causing me to begin sinking into the darkness fast, my fingers and feet already numb from the icy sea around me. Kicking my feet, I slowly begin to ascend up to the surface where I can begin swimming up to shore, maybe riding the crest of a wave for support, when I feel my boot get tangled in some seaweed, trapping me below water.
And then the seaweed distinctly tugs me further down, my numbed flesh feeling the pressure on my ankle increasing as a hand, a large hand, is distinctly grabbing my left leg and dragging me into the undertow. I instinctively reach for my hip, and curse my ill luck at my lack of forethought; who needs a weapon for a child’s dare?
My vision and thoughts swirl and blur together, a sudden crack across the back of my head rendering my thoughts muddied and confused. I feel the dense, packed sand against my hands and face as I’m dragged along the bottom of the seabed, actual seaweed and coral tearing and snapping as my body crashes through them.
I leave the grainy ocean floor, still being pulled by the iron grip as I break the surface of the freezing water gasping and choking, being lifted upside down to stare blearily into the baleful eyes of a squat-faced, big nosed creature comprised mostly of green leathery hide and scars. A shock of black hair is tied up into a greasy bun, held in place by sharpened bits of bone, and looking down (to cough out the freezing water trapped in my lungs) I see the creature is wearing only a kilt of mossy black leather, it’s webbed feet ending in wicked looking webbed claws.
The arm not holding me is covered by an ugly purple bruise that is slowly fading back to the moldy green the rest of the creature is comprised of, and as my thoughts begin to clear I realize that whatever the hell this thing is, it broke the pier, not the wave. That’s why it was rocking back and forth so much!
“Hmph…” The creature snorts, running its hand along a wall I cannot see, long talons sending a shower of sparks out, lighting a torch he has clasped between his teeth. It’s a strange looking torch, made of rolled yellow parchment, and he takes a deep pull of smoke into his lungs before exhaling a cloud of smog from his gigantic nostrils, his massive head and black, pointy teeth seemingly more malevolent when ringed by a cloud of acrid smoke. “So you are girl I hear so much about?”
I scream, kicking at the foul beasts face as best I can from my bizarre position, but my attempts to free myself only seem to amuse it. He slings me about, thumping me into the wall of the tunnel a few times until I see stars. “If’n you act like ass, I just kill you. You behave like good girl, maybe I still kill you. Understand?”
I nod with bleary eyes, refusing to cry in the face of this monstrosity. It merely nods, twisting the strange smoldering roll of parchment from one side of its twisted maw to the other before continuing to plod down the tunnel at a leisurely pace. I can feel the intense strength behind the clawed fingers wrapped around my ankle, and how much strength the creature is holding back merely not to cause me any further harm.
From the light of the billowing smokestack jutting from the monster’s worm-like lips, I can see the tunnel is smooth, most likely polished and cleaned by a mason of some sort. No art or decorations mark the walls, which are glossy and polished to a splendid shine. Looking to my captor, I can see tucked into the front of his kilt a great length of bone, perhaps a femur, carved and polished around a piece of jagged metal shaped into a blade. This sword, merely a dagger to the behemoth carrying me, shines with cut gems placed within carved sockets along the hilt, black pearls with a great multi-faceted onyx sitting at the butt of the blade.
I can only admire the blade for so long, as the creature unceremoniously dumps me onto the cold stone floor as we enter a chamber, walking with the same gait without even a word. I hear murmuring from all around me, dim lighting letting me see the glint of steel and glimmering of eyes all encircling me.
More of the beasts fill the cavern, all seated at salvaged wooden tables, held together with bits of rope and iron, all wearing heavy suits of hide armor and cloaks made from the pelts of great bears. Some have horns growing from their temples, beady emerald eyes staring across the room at me above a dented tankard the size of my head, while others have jutting ridges of bone extending from their lower jaw, beards of sharpened calcium.
All are silent, the only sounds in the tavern are the echoes of my labored breathing, and the padded footfalls of something far smaller than these monsters.
Walking into the dim light just close enough to be seen is Timothy, his wide toothy grin almost putting me at ease, if not for the fact that slung over his back is a sword twice as long as he is tall, carved completely from one long piece of bone. Looking at him now, studying him, I can see cracks in his bared chest, like chips in hardened clay, cracking and peeling away to reveal the same purple-green flesh as the monster surrounding me.
With his free hand he tosses something at me, something that glints off of the low lighting of the cavern. My training allows me to catch it by reflex alone, cursing as I do so. Not because the item was a weapon of any kind, but because it could have been.
Looking at it, I can’t really make of what it is. It’s a long shard of black material, smooth and heavy, but sharp along the edges. A type of stone, but with the texture of glass…
“It’s a piece of the Black Stone,” Timothy said, his voice far deeper than I remembered. “I held onto it after the wharf was destroyed, far longer than you did, my bride-to-be.”
My stomach lurched at the thought, my mind reeling as I remembered the bet I’d made with that pathetic little boy, thinking myself so brave and clever. But now here I was, in the belly of a Scrag’s den, surrounded by the accursed things, with one saying I was to be his wife.
“You tricked me,” I say aloud, my voice weak.
He laughs, as do a few of the other sea-beasts around us. “Tricked you? Of course I tricked you! How else was I to get a Vandal for a wife?”