When I was in high school, I used to imagine my classmates as characters in a role-playing game. This scribbling is based on the same people (many of whom I can't even remember the names of now!), but I've made everyone an elven mage, of the kind in the War in the North game, from which I lifted the abilities.
The setting is different though, being more like Greystone from my book The Ironwood Staff (extracts of which I've been serialising). It was a long, rambling thing, still not finished, but the first part is below.
It was hot. The sun blazed down from an all-but-vertical angle, igniting the leaves of the celtis
trees with green fire. Insects hissed and sang in the dense leaves. Birds babbled and piped.
I couldn’t sleep. Even though all civilised speaking-beings were resting in the hottest part of the day, and anything with any sense was seeking shade, I felt a threat on the heavy air. The feeling had been growing all morning, and now in the heat it brooded, waiting. The thatched gazebo where we'd stopped for lunch seemed like a trap.
If evil was growing, it would attack in the dark. There were about six hours until the daylight was gone, four or five until the sun went behind the mountains.
I must have dozed off. I was still looking out at the trees, but the sun was lower. The insects had quietened their mad hissing, but the birds were still quite loud. The threat had become palpable. I must have fallen asleep, after all. The forest was cooler, a relief after the blasting heat of midday, but the threat had only grown. ‘Come on, Magi,’ I said, ‘the footsoldiers need us.’
Peter favoured me with sarcastic look. We were only junior human magi, scarcely a formidable force. The senior elven magi were another matter – a pair of them could hold their own against a dire baboon troop, it was said.
‘Only seven hundred and nineteen and a half days to go,’ said Sharon, wryly. Human women magi took service for seven hundred and twenty days, or until they got married, whichever came sooner. We were in it for a thousand and two hundred, whether we married or not.
‘The forest feels wrong,’ said Cairn, as she put on her sun-veil.
‘It does,’ I agreed. ‘I’m keen to get moving. We need to be at the command post before sunset, which gives us... three hours?' I guessed. 'It’s a two-hour walk, and if we’re delayed…’ I left it hanging.
‘I suspect undead’, said Mike. He flipped his wide-brimmed wizard’s hat onto his head and flicked his staff up from the ground into his hand, using his sandaled foot. The man’s enthusiasm was infectious.
I grinned despite myself. The ladies shouldn’t have to face danger in a huge party of thirty, before we’d even reached the site of engagement; but blast me if it wouldn’t be good to try my quarterstaff and force bolts against a real enemy, for a change!
‘Right,’ called Nigel. ‘Everyone ready?’ He had somehow got himself appointed leader of the college for this first deployment.
‘Everyone been to the jacks?’ called Debbie.
‘Yes, mum!’ the other Robert smirked.
‘Let’s move!’ Robert shouted.
‘Not so loud,’ I cringed. ‘There’s something in the forest…’
I was ignored, again.
As usual when on long marches, I walked with Mike. We were in the back 10, behind the ladies (there were only 9 of them). As usual, the girls walked in groups to talk, their long, cool, loose-fitting dresses and short sunveils waving in the afternoon breeze, their ironwood staves moving up and down in no pattern at all. They kept no formation and they didn’t march, but strolled.
As often happened, Cairn moved back until she was just in front of me and Mike. ‘I don’t know why they don’t let us ride,’ she said, ‘Two marches in one day!’
‘Beaurocracy,’ I offered. ‘The wagons were held up in repairs. And some of us aren’t confident riders, yet.’
‘It’s nice to know the Elves aren’t perfect,’ Mike said with a cheesy grin. ‘Even they make stuff-ups, sometimes!’
Cairn laughed. ‘Yes, it makes me a bit worried – do they really know what they’re doing?’
‘They know, all right!’ Mike said, ‘They’ve trained us as warrior magi because they’ve run out! In the time it takes their next generation to grow up, our parents, us, and our children will have grown up and died.’
The forest still seemed to breathe threat. I said, ‘Cairn, did you feel that watching-ness after the siesta?’
She looked at me with frightened eyes. ‘I’d hoped it was just my imagination,’ she said.
‘What kind of word is “watching-ness”?’ Mike said, with mock indignation.
‘The most appropriate one,’ I said. ‘If this lot would only shut up, I might be able to work out where it came from.’
‘We’re deep in the Home Reaches,’ said Mike. ‘We’re either perfectly safe, or…’ he looked ahead into the trees, '… in serious doo-doo.’
‘What do we do?’ Cairn looked fearful.
‘We keep moving,’ I said, quietly. ‘Whatever it is, it might not be looking for us. The sooner we get to the camp, the better.’
Mike and I had always hung around with our friend Nigel, before he rose up in the world. He was now up at the front, while Robert was at the back. Robert had always been assumed to be the leader, since he came from a magus family who had been in Greystone for a generation, and was the second of eight children. But now, he was 2IC.
‘Robert,’ I said, turning back while still walking, ‘can we proceed under operation? The forest seems too quiet.’
‘What can happen?’ Robert just shrugged.
A short, deep, barking sound suddenly erupted to our right: 'BOH!' It was distinctive, and far too loud. A baboon, but a very, very loud one!
‘That’s what can happen!’ I said. ‘It’s coming from the east, by south!’ It was to everyone’s credit that no-one panicked.
‘Attention!’ shouted Nigel. ‘Charges to staves!’
We’d better, I thought. Thirty brand-new magi, green as grass, without a hard steel weapon between them, and there are dire baboons within striking distance. Shifting their rucksacks, everyone held their staves at the ready, prepared to fire bolts of charged plasmic force at any enemy.
Nigel stood still for a few breaths. Then he said, ‘Now, follow the road!’
‘No stragglers!’ called Robert. If we allowed dire baboons to break our group up, we’d all be torn to bits.
‘We should go back,’ moaned Lara. One of the pretty girls, she had a strong sense of self-preservation.
‘Too far’, I said, tersely. ‘We’re closer to the regiment.’
We moved along the road, carefully watching the trees. All of a sudden, there was a terrible shaking of bamboo by the path, and a giant baboon came out to the clear space alongside the road. Standing at least as tall as we were, it moved on huge, thick limbs, covered in light, dusty-grey fur. Its small, close-set eyes looked at us with dim intelligence – and horrible intent. This was not a natural animal, but a monster bred for murder.
‘Firset ten, FIRE!’ shouted Nigel. Before he'd even said anything, twenty-one blue bolts slammed into the baboon, and it dropped like a stone, smoking from multiple wounds. The cheers that sprung up from the group died, however, when three other dire baboons burst through the trees. One of the girls gave a little scream.
‘Second ten, FIRE!’ called Nigel. Only five bolts streaked out, but hit more than one target, only irritating the monsters.
‘Stand together!’ bellowed Robert. The baboons spread out along our line. The monster facing us came right at me. Pushing Cairn behind me, I loosed all four of the bolts I had energy for, into it. Mike, Robert, Gary and Jacob did the same, and it too dropped dead.
There was a horrible scream. Sandra had not dropped back fast enough, and one of the monsters had her! The baboon’s awful fangs, easily as long as my forearm, flashed as they closed on her slender neck. It was the last thing it ever did. So many bolts slammed into it that it smouldered as it fell away from her. Sandra fell too, blood staining the front of her dress in a horribly broad stain.
There was no time to tend her. The last baboon was grappling with the guys at the front of the line. Sean, Peter, Brian and Lloyd were all beating the beast with their staves. Nigel had enough energy for an area strike, bringing his staff down vertically. A shockwave erupted from where the staff hit the ground, hitting any non-human or non-elvish form in a circle around him. After that, the monster was too worn out and injured to fight, and turned about to flee. It was struck by another few bolts, and fell in the grass, too injured to continue, or dead.
The shock of seeing a living thing die at our hands was short-lived. Sandra was also down in the grass. A knot of magi were crowded around her. Debbie was laying a Healing Hand on her, and the other Robert had a potion ready to hand. It was beautifully quiet and peaceful as the Healing Hand took effect, and Sandra awoke and sat up. Her neck was now unmarked, though her blood still stained the front of her dress. Robert gave her the potion, and she took a sip, not taking the whole thing. Then she stood up, hugged her two healers, and took up her staff again.
‘Let’s away!’ called Robert H, and we were off again.
The group was strangely jubilant as the sun lowered behind us. Sandra was the centre of attention for a while, but then everyone slowed down, singing songs we’d learned from the Elves in training. After beating off a gang of dire baboons, we felt like we could face anything! The threat I’d felt in the heat of the day suddenly felt like a trifling thing.