Saturday, February 03, 2007

Creative Writing Strikes Back: The Road to Gemstead

This is a short story I wrote in high school five years ago -- the only work of fiction I've ever actually finished. It's essentially a D&D fanfic, using original characters and my personal (and still-yet-unused) campaign setting. Looking back on it, I'm surprised that I was so proficient a writer. Not to say that it's a classic -- I find it rather mediocre -- but what can I say, I need to give myself a bit more credit.

Incidentially, I got an "A". ;P Woulda been an "A+" but for spelling. :P


The Road to Gemstead
A Short Story

By William B. Staples

On the edge of the cobblestone street by Davinport's old inn, two Gnomes waited for a carriage. The male was the taller, about three-foot-six, with a big nose and a brown beard and mustache flecked with strands of gray and white. He wore a typically Gnomish red felt cap that stuck up a foot and a half and a shining diamond set on a silver chain around his neck. The woman was about three inches shorter with a floppy gray hat and long, light brown hair tied into a braid down her back.

It was nearing the fifth hour after noontide when a carriage drew near. The streets weren't crowded: most of the locals were at home, at work, or at the inns and taverns, so the Gnomes saw it coming early on. Drawn by a pair of sturdy ponies, it rattled down along the brick road. The driver was hunched over in his dark brown cloak, but his size and the air of dour seriousness he exuded made it clear enough that he was a Dwarf.

"Hello? Hello, sir?" The male Gnome stepped out onto the street and waved at the driver. "Sir?"

The Dwarf looked up at the Gnome and grunted to himself. Pulling on the reigns, he guided the ponies to a stop.

"What do ye want?" asked the driver bluntly, looking up. A Dwarf in the prime of his life, he had a short sandy-blond hair and a rough, leathery-looking face that was all sharp angles and flat planes. He had on a faded green-and-yellow-striped tunic over an old chainmail vest and he wore huge boots.

"Uh, yes, sir," replied the Gnome. "Do you know the way to Gemstead?"

"Any merchant worth his salt does."

"Good... uh, can you take me there, and my wife?"

"Couldn't say. Sun'll be settin' in an hour or two, an' that's when the bandits an' Goblins come out. The road ain't as safe as it used to be."

The Gnome lady stepped forward. "Please, sir... it's urgent. My sister there is due to give birth any day now. We've been on the road for two days, and Gemstead is less than a day's journey from here."

"I'm sorry, lady, but it just ain't worth me while."

"Wait." The husband held up his hand to silence the Dwarf. He removed the necklace he wore and held it up for him to see. "If you agree to take us there today, you can have this."

As the old Dwarven longing for riches stirred in his heart, the carriage-driver looked spellbound upon the diamond on the necklace. "Well," he said thoughtfully after a moment, "that changes things. That stone's likely worth more than I make in a month's time." He paused, looking at it longer. "Well then, I suppose I can. But it's out of me way; remember that. I've got to be in Wend in two days, an' this'll put me off me schedule."

"Oh, thank you so, sir," said the Gnome. "We perfectly understand."

"Good. Climb in the back of me wagon then, and keep quiet."

The did so, and the Dwarf promptly started the ponies down the road again. They rolled past the town of Davinport's old stone and wood houses on their way, and the Gnomes looked up at the blue summer sky, watching the puffy clouds float overhead.

"I was goin' to stay at that an inn for the night before leavin' for Wend," said the Dwarf. "This really ain't good for me."

"I'm really very sorry, sir," said the Gnome.

"It's all right," growled the driver, not really meaning it. "Anyways," he went on, "Since we'll be together for some six, seven hours, we might as well get to know each other's names. I'm Palin Narisson, from Danbarg off west in the Granite Hills. I'm a Hill Dwarf, mind ye, not one of those pompous Mountain Dwarves that ye see so much of in these parts." He sounded a bit pompous himself as he said this. "What about the two of ye?" he asked, not bothering to look back.

"Uh, I'm Farnin Silversmith, and this is my wife Ruby. We're Rock Gnomes, from Nindlheim."

"Nindlheim. Dornin Glittergold's kingdom, weren't it?"

"Still is, sir. Have you ever been there?"

Palin grunted. "I'd be daft to. The lands about it're crawlin' with Kobolds and worse."

"It's really not so big a problem... we keep the Kobolds well in check."

The Dwarf grunted again, growing bored with the conversation.

They continued on, passing eventually through Davinport's gates and onto the rolling plains of the Kingdom of Wendia. A number of travelers passed them by, most of them Humans, a few Elves, Dwarves, and others. Most were heading for Davinport from the smaller farms and villages nearby. The silvery Dunlamere River flowed to the south, barges and rowboats coming into and going out of Davinport's docks.

"We left Nindlheim two days ago," Farnin was saying. 'We didn't see much after we left the mountains. Hitched rides most of the way like this... it's just too far to walk. We arrived in Davinport around noon today."

"Mmhm," nodded Palin, uninterested. "Aye, aye."

The sun was just staring to set, the sky turning red on the horizon. The moon, a disk of white, green, and blue, was just beginning to rise. Palin pointed to a tangle of woods and hills off to the northeast that the road disappeared into. "There's Whetmar Forest up ahead. The most dangerous leg of the trip, but also the quickest way to where we're doing. It'll take us some three hours to get out." He turned to look back at the Gnomes. "The Forest's infested with Goblins, ye see. They ain't very strong an' they ain't very smart, but they swarm like ants. They hate Dwarves, too, for some ancient grudge no one can remember. I'm good enough with an axe," he laid a hand on the weapon at his side, "but I can't say if it'll do us much good."

"Well," ventured Farnin, "I can do a few magic tricks, if it helps... most Gnomes are taught the use of illusions from a young age." Ruby nodded in affirmation.

Palin chuckled morbidly. "As superstitious an' tribal as Goblins are, I don't know if some smoke and mirrors'll scare 'em off."

Within an hour they reached the eaves of Whetmar as the sun set fully beneath the horizon and night took over. The trees were mostly oak and pine, grown so thick together that they made it impossible to see the sky overhead. Vines hung thickly, and moths fluttered silently from tree to tree. There was a smell of rotting wood on the humid summer air, and no wind. The heat, even at night, was oppressive. Occasionally, a shape moved in the shadows to either side of the road, perhaps a wild animal, perhaps something else. A sense of dread fell upon the Gnomes.

Palin was the first to break the silence. "Keep an eye out for wolves," said the Dwarf. "Especially the big Worgs: Goblins ride them like horses. Smart they are, too. Some can even talk."

Before long, about an hour and a half after they'd entered, the three in the carriage came upon an old wooden road-sign nailed to a tree that had probably been put there years earlier. It read, "Forest Edge - Five Miles," with an arrow pointing in both directions to show that this place was the center of Whetmar forest. Below, in what looked like dried blood, was crudely scrawled: "Beware Goblins."

"Goblins," breathed Ruby. Farnin looked into the gloom warily, and Palin grunted upsettedly.

"We'd better hurry," muttered Palin, spurring the ponies on again. "It'll be an hour or two before we're safe on the plains again."

Not fifteen minuted after the three read the sign on the tree, the sounds began. The snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves underfoot, the low growl of some large animal, the quiet rasping of voices in the black. Palin whispered to Farnin and Ruby without looking back at them that the Goblins had found them and that they did have Worgs with them, and that they should no means look at the Goblins or do anything to let them know they knew the Goblins were there. "When they attack, they'll think we're unprepared. I want to keep up that charade as long as possible."

It seemed like an eternity before the Goblins attacked. An arrow came suddenly speeding out of the forest, narrowly missing the Dwarf's head. Not caught unaware, Palin sped the ponies to a gallop, the carriage rumbling along the dirt road. Immediately two Goblins mounted on Worgs broke from the cover of the brush and rushed furiously after.

Ruby screamed. The Worgs, huge wolves as large as ponies with yellow fangs and gleaming red eyes, growled and barked at each other in their own unhuman language. The Goblins astride them, hunched-over Dwarf-sized humanoids with angular faces, grimy orange-yellow skin, and primitive features, wielded short swords and hand axes with surprising ferocity for such small creatures. They rushed toward their intended prey.

Meanwhile arrows, darts, and spears shot out of the woods on either side. Most were off the mark, but a few embedded themselves in the sides of the wagon. Palin continued to urge the ponies onward, seemingly oblivious to the danger.

Farnin made a few quick gestures at the mounted Goblins, and an explosion wracked the road behind them, flames illuminating the woods.

Palin looked back and gaped in surprise. "What in the world was that?" he yelled at the Gnomes.

"It's just an illusion!" shouted Ruby in response. "To scare them! Keep going!"

"I've never seen smoke and mirrors do that," Palin growled under his breath as he cracked the reigns again.

Illusionary flames continued to explode behind them, and the Worgs lept aside back into the woods. Goblins continued to shoot at them but their aim was confused by the excitement and all of their missiles flew wide.

It was then that the three saw the tree fallen across the road, felled by the Goblins as a roadblock. Goblins hunched atop it, spears and short swords in hand, crude wooden shields on their arms. Palin quickly tossed his hat down and reached into the back of the wagon, grabbing a battered metal helmet and putting it on his head. "Now's the time for any more of those illusions," muttered the Dwarf as he slowed the ponies to a stop.

"Goblin worms!" shouted Palin, jumping to the ground. The Goblins hopped from the tree to the ground, but did not advance. Farnin and Ruby, wary for Goblins in the woods trying to flank them, moved closer to the front of the carriage.

Palin's battle-axe waved in the air. "Goblin worms! If ye want to die, then come at it!"

The Goblins did not move. Instead, in response to the Dwarf's call, a huge shape bounded over the roadblock and stood growling at the three. It was shaped like a Worg, but much larger, as big as a bull. Rather than the Worgs' dull red gleam, the creature's eyes glowed a bright, sickly orange with excitement.

Palin stared. "By the Maker," he whispered, "I pray that ain't what I think it is."

Slowly the wolf-beast began to change shape, growing thinner and longer. Its paws became longer and more dextrous, and its face grew shorter.

"In Garl's name," muttered Farnin, staring in disbelief. "What is it?"

"A Barghest," responded Palin. "A creature of pure evil. They ain't if this world. They're from... Somewhere Else."

"I can't move," said Ruby, dread in her voice. Farnin found that he couldn't either. Palin told them is was a spell of the Barghest's, and to fight it.

Slowly the Barghest took a humanoid shape, grizzled hair turning to blue skin and leathered armor. A full nine feet tall, the Barghest resembled a huge Goblin, save for its size and color. With a gesture, it summoned a long spear, wickedly sharp from thin air. The Goblins took a few steps forward, and their eyes began to glow a faint orange; they were clearly being controlled by the Barghest. It grinned with evil delight at the Dwarf before it.

Palin wasted no time. He swung his axe at the creature, but it parried with its spear. Blue sparks flashed. The Barghest thrust its weapon forward, but Palin twisted aside and swung his axe again; it deflected off the Barghest's armor.

Meanwhile the Goblins were advancing on the carriage. There were about seven of them, crawling like spiders around the wagon, their eyes orange lanterns. Ruby, freed from the spell as the Barghest concentrated on the Dwarf, grabbed a few apples from a barrel on the cart and hurled them at the nearest Goblins. They flinched, but did not turn away. Farnin had pulled a whittling knife from his belt in defense and was gesturing for another illusion.

Palin swung furiously at the Barghest, but it leaped into the air, hovered backward a few yards, an touched down again out of the Dwarf's reach. It swung its long spear in an arc, but Palin jumped back. It tore his tunic, but did not pierce his armor.

With a sharp flick of Farnin's hand, a wall of stone jutted up out of the earth between the Goblins and the Gnomes. The Goblins jumped back, but a few passed through the illusion, unfooled. The others followed. Farnin let the wall fade back into shadow and continued to gesture. Ruby joined him in creating another illusion.

A wall of flames leaped up before the Goblins, accompanied by a jolt of lightning from seemingly nowhere. Many of the Goblins were genuinely shocked, and in three, the orange glow in their eyes flickered and went out. Scared by the illusionary fire, they ran off into the woods screaming, leaving four still under the Barghest's control.

The Barghest struck back again, and its spear struck Palin's left arm. Blood trickled from the wound as the fiend gloated. Oblivious, Palin charged forward with a roar and slashed at the Barghest. It was caught unprepared for the Dwarf's lightning-fast strike, and with a cry of pain the Barghest's left hand fell writhing to the ground. Black blood oozed from the stump, and the beast snarled in pain. It lept back, and its eyes faded to a dull yellow. It began to change again, becoming lupine, until it was once again the Worg-like monster that the three first encountered.

Shadows swirled about the Barghest, and a hole as black as midnight opened in the air. The Barghest's eyes flared orange again for a moment as it snarled and bared its rotting, razor-sharp teeth. Then it turned and disappeared into the shadows. The portal closed behind it.

The Barghest's spell broken, the four remaining Goblins' eyes retained to a dull brown, glazed and staring. Seeing the illusory wall of flames before them, they backed off and ran off the road into the woods. Farnin and Ruby let the flames disappear and turned to his wife. They held each other tight.

Palin stared after the Barghest. It was by pure luck that he had bested it. He looked down at the creature's still-moving hand on the ground. Already it was bubbling and disintegrating, turning to a pool of black ichor. Palin frowned and turned back to the Gnomes.

"We'd best be gone," he said bluntly. "The Goblins won't come at us again soon: we scared some sense into them. But the Worgs might be back."

Farnin looked up. "How will we get past the trees?"

Palin glanced at the roadblock and scowled. "We'll have to leave the cart behind - and the ponies, and the goods. One of them's already been struck by an arrow, see? Poisoned, most likely. The whole affair will set me back some thirty gold pieces and a pair of faithful companions, but we'll live and that's what's important. Come on."

The Gnomes did not argue. Farnin jumped off the wagon and helped Ruby down. Ruby, thinking ahead brought a good number of apples for the road. The two followed after Palin.

The three scrambled carefully over the tree and continued along the road on foot. They walked quickly, and were out on Wendia's verdant plains in a few hours. They saw no Goblins or Worgs on the way out of Whetmar Forest. It was about three hours after midnight, Palin guessed. They saw little on the road: a few farmhouses in the distance, animals out to pasture, the usual country scenery. They passed a few drifters, but did not speak with them. It was nearly dawn when they found the trail to Gemstead. They paused to rest under the road-sign for a few hours, exhausted.

When they woke, it was nearing noon. They followed the trail for a few more hours before they finally arrived in the sleepy Gnome community of Gemstead. The sun was shining brightly, a relief after the gloom of Whetmar. There were a few Gnomes sitting outside little wood and clay houses on the ground and homes built into the trunks of a few large trees, enjoying the day, but the three knew that most of the town's population lived underground, beneath the old hills before them. They approached the front gates, a pair of seven-foot tall iron-braced wooden doors left open to accommodate visitors.

A young man on guard saw the three approaching. Standing up straight, he picked up his bow and waved. He was a Forest Gnome, several inches shorter than the two Rock Gnomes, and fairer of skin with light brown hair. Like Farnin, the guard wore a tall, green cap as part of his uniform, with a loose-fitting beige tunic depicting the town's arms, a diamond set in a gold nugget on a red shield. He smiled at them.

"Hello, there. Welcome to Gemstead! What's your business?"

"Thank you," said Farnin. "I don't suppose you know a Garnet Gemcutter?"

"Aye, I do," responded the guard. "You're not her sister and brother-in-law, are you?" He looked carefully at the two Gnomes. "You fit her description pretty well."

Ruby nodded. "We are, yes. Ruby and Farnin. Is she all right?"

"Good, good!" said the young Gnome. "She's just fine yes. Oh, I'm Tib, a friend of the family."

"Tib," repeated Farnin. "It's a pleasure meeting you. Could you go tell her we're here?"

"Well, I'm on duty, but... wait." He called to a fellow guard, lounging by the gates enjoying a light lunch. "Tarin!" called Tib. "Go tell Mrs. Gemcutter her family's here, will you?" The youth promptly nodded, stood up, and hurried off into the hill. "There you go, sir, ma'am," smiled Tib.

"Thank you so much, Tib," said Ruby. "Could you you pardon us for a moment?" He obliged, stepping back to his post.

Ruby turned to Palin. "Thank you, sir, so very much. We'd not be here now if not for you."

"That reminds me... your payment..." Farnin slipped the silver necklace with its shining diamond from around his neck and held it out to the Dwarf. He smiled almost sadly.

Despite the old Dwarven greed whispering in his ear, Palin held up his hand. "That's all right. Ye can keep it." When Farnin shook his head, the Dwarf held his hand up again to silence him. "The two of ye saved me life as sure as I saved yer's. That's all the payment this old Dwarf could ask for."

Ruby smiled and blushed. "Why, thank you, sir... er, Palin."

"Think nothin' of it," said Palin gently.

Farnin scratched the ground with his foot anxiously. "Well, then... I guess they'll be waiting for us inside. Mister Narisson, Palin, if ever you're in the area, do come and visit us in Nindlheim. We'd love to have you over."

Palin grinned. "I don't head that way too often, but I'll take some time off to head out your way. But only if you'll look me up in Danbarg." He winked.

"A deal," said Farnin and shook Palin's hand. They stood a moment in silence, then Farnin turned to the young guard. "Tib? We're ready to go now." Tib nodded and started ahead.

"Well... so long, Palin," smiled Farnin with a sigh. Ruby said her farewell too, and the two Gnomes turned and walked in through the gates behind Tib, disappearing into the shadows beneath the hill. The Dwarf sighed as he watched them go, then smiled. He turned around and went on his way.

The End

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