The Soul Cages
Posted: Friday, July 20, 2007
Word Count: 3199
Summary: Mythological adventure tale set in Ireland in 1847, this is the first chapter and sets the character and atmosphere for the rest of the novel. I have the first three chapters completed, and while pleased with the work to date, understand that it is not perfect! Have had one rejection to date, and would appreciate feedback. Kieron
The Soul Cages
by Kieron Black
The beach looked empty from a distance. Long, jagged lines of rock ran down from the sand dunes to the waters edge, where their hard outlines were blurred by a raggedy growth of weed, constantly teased and bullied by the moving waters. The air was wet with mist, the vapour thick and chill, though the day had that promise of brightness, that sometime later the vapour would burn away and let the sun shine through. But for the moment it was cold, cold to the bone.
A small swell pulsed over the sand and stones, each tiny wave an echo from a storm that died an ocean away. Apart from the occasional, lonely cry of a gull the only sound was the steady rhythm of the waves, the receding tide washing over the rocks, leaving them shiny and black until the water evaporated and they were dull and grey once more.
The offshore breeze began to stiffen. Wisps of stubborn mist clung to the ocean surface while the blues of the water below gained in intensity, no longer blanketed by the fog. More rocks were exposed as the tide drew back, the ratio of sand to stone changed until the entire lower shore was black and gleaming with wet rocks and boulders. Thick ribbons of rusty red kelp were strewn through the stones like splashes of blood.
Slowly, rogs began to emerge from their burrows. Like the bizarre crossing of a crab and lobster, each animal was about the size of a small dog. Its body was encased in a tough, segmented shell and was the shape of an inverted teardrop. A small head with two bright red eyes sat swivelling in a deep hollow in the shoulders, two antennae waved from behind the eye sockets. Two large limbs tipped with vicious claws sprouted from the chest, followed by eight pairs of smaller limbs, each terminating with a small but effective set of pincers. Their shellbacks ranged in colour from a mottled green to dark red, here and there spotted with intense blues and yellows in combinations that would have been beautiful but for the obvious hostility of the creatures themselves.
The gentle noises of the shore had gone, drowned out by the horrible rattling and scraping of the rogs pulling themselves over the terrain. All along the four-mile stretch of beach they gathered like flies on a corpse until the sand was black with their numbers. They swarmed and massed over each other in a blur of movement. They then separated in hundreds of individual groups, each composed of several dozen animals piled into a heap several feet high.
Here they paused, and communicated with each other, swaying to and fro, their feelers twitching, their language a mess of hissing and bubbling noises. Eventually one rog in each group set himself apart from the others. He stood aside while the rest slowly and deliberately set about climbing on top of each other until a large humanoid shape had been formed from their bodies; two stumpy legs supporting a thick torso, from which sprouted two long, tapering arms, all composed of living rogs. The body was for the moment headless, but many pairs of bright red eyes could be seen peering from the gaps between the shells.
A hollow had been left by the animals at the neck of the body, and up into this the solo rog now climbed, lowering the thin end of his tail into the depression and attaching himself to his brothers and sisters with his smaller hind legs. This ‘head’ rog now emitted a low shriek, and the whole mass shuddered and trembled as the animals used their small limbs to close up the gaps and lock the body together into an impenetrable whole. Once bonded like this rogs moved as one with a smooth grace that belied their terrible strength and invulnerability.
All along the beach these terrible ‘rogmen’ were being formed, their shadows falling long as the sun burned holes in the early morning mist. Rogs yet to assimilated swarmed around the feet of the recently formed nine-foot monsters that thudded back and forth on the soft sand. The army, for that is what it now was, stood a dozen or more rogmen deep for the entire length of the beach. They moved slowly to the waters edge where they paused, the white foam washing around the feet of the front ranks.
Wavelets broke on the shore with soft sighs. The rogman swayed gently and watched the water. For a long time nothing happened. The last of the mist burnt away. The rogmen glistened, the ocean shone.
Suddenly a new pattern began to mould the surface of the sea, the steady horitzontal‘v’ shape of something moving smoothly just under the surface, something swimming, something approaching the shore. More and more appeared until it seemed they filled the entire bay. The sparkling of the reflected sunlight became more intense, until it became apparent that the suns rays were not just striking water anymore, but glinting off the metal tips of a multitude of weapons.
The merrows had come. An ancient race, the merrows had lived in the deep fissures along the Irish coast since before the island was an island. They stood about a foot taller than a man and had three times the bulk. Their spine was heavy and muscular and extended into a long and powerful tail that was used to propel them through the water with broad, powerful strokes. Their heads were closer to that of a fish than a man, while the large eyes were soulful and capable of deep expression. Their mouths were large, wider almost than the head, and the thick lips hid small but formidable teeth. The creatures were covered in a close layer of shimmering scales that seemed translucent in the sunshine, and over these scales the animals wore beautiful, ornate armour that seemed almost organic, flowing like a liquid over their powerful musculature.
Each merrow carried a merrhammer, a weapon that was half sword, half hammer, and a development of centuries of conflict with the powerful rogmen. The merrows were a highly cultured race, and each family would have it’s own style of merrhammer, some heavier in construction, some built lighter, all depending on the fighting style of the warrior. They were constructed of the finest metals with complicated inlayed designs derived from their natural environment. A shaft could have the images of fearsome deep-sea fishes engraved into it, or teeth designs from a large shark. Complicated glyphs and characters decorated the handle that told of the warrior’s history, and pearls and other treasures from the ocean floor were usually embedded into the hilt. The blade made up the final third of the eight-foot weapon, one side was sharpened for cutting and slicing, the other featured a brutal hook that was designed to pull a headrog from the shoulders of a rogman, the only way to bring him down permanently.
The rogmen were a tremendously effective fighting force. They used no weapons but their strength and brutality and fought with a hive mentality. They might, however, throw a boulder or two if a fight called for it. Knowing that every part of them was easily replaceable gave them an almost suicidal, berserker approach to combat, and this struck a terrible fear into the hearts of most of their enemies.
They closed ranks as the merrows grew closer and began to sway in unison, chanting in their low, rasping voices “rog rog rog rog rog rog”.
Cromac, the merrow king was the first to appear. The seawater glistened, rolling off his armour as he drew himself to his full height. His army formed a line behind him but remained submerged, hiding their numbers from their enemy.
He raised his scarred head and scanned the rog horde.
‘Rogmen’ he said, ‘hear me. Before we stain the sea with blood attend to what I say. The souls are not for the keeping of the rog nation. They are not yours to behold, nor to use, nor to waste. They are the charge of the merrows, and the merrows alone. Leave this island in peace and none need die here today. What say you to this?’
The rogmen had ceased their chanting but continued to sway gently. Slowly a gap appeared in the centre leaving a single rog squatting there in the sand. This was Skrysch, the High Rog. Staring at Cromac with his fierce, red eyes he began to answer the merrow. But the strange hisses and scraping noises that came from the little creature were simply inaudible to the merrow. Skrysch gestured with his limbs and swivelled and contorted his little body in curses and oaths that struck fear and pride into the hearts of his assembled rogmen but had no effect on the warrior king standing before him.
Cromac stared in patient incomprehension as Skrysch went through the motions. Cromac’s lieutenant, Dourek, swam up beside his leader and raised himself from the water. Cromac turned to him and raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
‘What is the shellback saying?’ asked Dourek.
‘I have no idea’ replied the king under his breath, ‘but he seems upset about something.’
‘Rogs’ said Dourek, with distaste ‘will they ever learn?’
On the beach Skrysch was growing furious. He gestured to his troops who bent down low around him while he screeched and frothed at them. Eventually a rogman stooped low and picked the leader up, holding him aloft like a trophy. Loose rogs swarmed out from beneath and piled on top of each other like giant black beetles until the seething mass formed itself into a body shape, onto the shoulders of which Skrysch was now ceremoniously placed.
Now when the he spoke, all the rogs in the body spoke in unison. The voice now had a deep, resonant quality and the effect was quite powerful.
‘You seek an answer, fish-man’ said Skrysch, ‘and I will get one for you now.’
He turned his back on the merrows and raised his arms aloft. ‘Rogs’ he cried ‘we have heard the same thing from these fish-men for years. Need we hear any more of it?’
The cry from the ranks was as one ‘No!”
Skrysch turned back to the merrows. ‘You have your answer, fish-lips.’
Cromac and Dourek looked at each other and shrugged. Absently, Dourek checked a buckle on his armour. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least I didn’t polish this up for nothing.’ Cromac nodded, and Dourek turned to face the ocean, opening his great mouth and letting out a huge, deep resonant bellow that carried for miles.
The ocean surface boiled as a thousand merrow warriors burst through the surface. A further thousand followed, and a thousand after that. They massed behind Cromac, who stared unflinchingly at the High Rog. Then, when his troops were massed behind him he raised his merrhammer aloft and let go a mighty roar. His soldiers answered him in a shout that could be heard across Ireland.
Cromac wasted no more time. He lowered his head and charged at the rogmen. Skrysch gestured to his troops who broke formation and tore down the beach, screaming in their high rog voices, their arms flailing. They skirted around their leader who did not charge with them, but stood his ground. The High Rog was a veteran of many battles with the merrows, and was saving any heroics of his own for when the numbers, and the odds, were better.
The two armies met in a thunderous crash. Rogmen burst apart like shattered bottles, merrows were crushed and broken under the awful strength of the crustaceans. All along the beach the battle was joined, and the shallows ran green and red with the blood of both armies.
Dourek swung his merrhammer with strength and accuracy, wounding many rogmen with each swipe. The shaft of the weapon became slippy with rog blood as he crunched through shell after shell. A large rogman faced him and he swung the weapon at him, but the rogman quickly moved aside, allowing the merrhammer to fly harmlessly past his ear. ‘Hah! I have you now!’ shouted the rogman as he raised his giant arms to crush the merrow, but it was a feint by Dourek and he now pulled the merrhammer back towards him with all his strength, allowing the large hook to do its work, catching the headrog by his shell and tearing him from the body. Dourek then swung the hammer high and brought it down squarely on the squealing rog as he writhed in the shallows, scrunching him deep into the sand in a splash of bright green rog blood.
Cromac too was in the thick of it, slashing back and forth into the rog masses. Such was his might that he cut many rogmen clean in two, their bodies parting in a mist of green blood and shell fragments. They barely had time to scream as they were reduced to their component animals, those that were not mushed into oblivion. The merrow king swung quickly, knowing from experience that it does not take long for a rogman to regenerate lost body parts from the rogs that swarm at his at his feet.
Down the beach a section of merrows found themselves surrounded Their merrhammers flashed in the sunlight like rippling water but the rogs were too many and it looked like for these merrows at least the battle was over. Many fell, their skulls staved in by boulders or blows from the heavy arms of the rogmen. Soon just three merrows remained, grim and ready for their end. They stood with their backs to each other as the rogmen closed in, ready for the kill.
Then came a bellow that scared everyone of them, merrow and rog alike and suddenly Cromac was among them, blood of both colours splashed over his scarred skin, his helmet gone, his hammer covered in the fragments of a hundred rogmen. His battle rage was infectious and the merrows rallied, the four of them now unstoppable in their slaughter of all things rog. They shattered the rogmen, and then killed the component rogs as they tried to scuttle for safety. The merrows had expected no mercy and they were going to give none of it out now.
Skrysch watched from his vantage point along the beach. He had witnessed the merrow group become surrounded and had seen it as an omen that the battle was going his way, but when the merrow king had thrown himself into the fray with such fervour he began to suspect the tide of the battle might have turned. And as he scanned the beach he saw he was right, over the yellow of the sand the predominant colour was not now the dark hues of rog shells but the bright glint of armour. The battle was lost, or as good as. He called to his high guard and retreated to a safer spot higher in the dunes.
Dourek stormed up the beach, singing a merrow battle hymn in his hoarse voice. Truth was he loved a good battle, especially when the merrows were winning. He was slightly at odds with merrow philosophy in this, but Cromac tolerated the aggressive traits of his second in command as he had won so many battles off the strength of it.
Suddenly a rogman came at him, and Dourek bent low to the sand before coming up hard with his hammer, catching the rogman in the chest. His momentum brought them both down hard, but it was only Dourek who got up again. Cromac and the three warriors caught up with him and as they crested the dune there was Skrysch with his handful of rogmen waiting for them.
The merrows descended upon the their foe with a speed that was frightening. The first two rogmen came apart like winter leaves leaving only Skrysch and two others. As the merrows approached, dripping with pieces of his high guard, Skrysch grabbed the last two rogmen by their necks and pulled them in close, melding their bodies together to make one giant rogman that quickly towered over the merrows. From his vantage point high in the shoulder, the high rog emitted a high-pitched gurgling sound that the merrows soon realised was rog laughter.
His attack came quickly as a giant arm came crashing down on the merrows. Cromac and Dourek dove apart but the giant limb caught another of the merrows and crushed him into the sand. Skrysch laughed again, tossing the fallen warriors merrhammer aside. Cromac ran around behind the rogman on one side, Dourek the other, but Skrysch swivelled at the waist and was on them again swinging and flailing his giant arms in an attempt to batter them.
For some time the battle continued this way, Skrysch raining down blows from above, the merrows using their smaller size and greater speed to dodge and feint. It was a good tactic but their luck could not hold, and soon two more merrows lay dead, leaving only Cromac and Dourek to face down the giant rogman.
But intimidating as this giant creature was it was not the first time either of these merrows had set foot upon a battlefield. They got some distance on Skrysch then stopped and turned. Cromac stood his ground as the rogman charged at him, but Dourek flinched and hid behind his king.
Skrysch was delighted when he saw this. Dourek, the famous merrow lieutenant shamed in battle! This story would be told a thousand times. Heartened, the rog accelerated his attack. But as he drew closer Dourek climbed quickly upon the back of his king and launched himself from Cromac’s shoulders, flying through the air at head height to the rog warrior, his merrhammer stretched out before him. It landed with a sickening crunch in the belly of Skrysch who screamed a terrible curse. His green blood blew out in a mist and he was ripped from the shoulders of the rogman. The entire body then collapsed and Dourek landed in a heap of rolling rogs that soon scattered when they realised their leader, as well as their advantage, was gone.
Cromac and Dourek stood panting, leaning on their hammers. Along the beach they saw the last of the rogmen fall and the rogs scatter. It was almost comical to watch the merrow warriors chase the tiny rogs. They hadn’t a hope of catching the small crustaceans as they fled into the shallows, and true the rogs would live to fight another day, but this day still belonged to the merrows.
A noise from behind caught their attention, and they turned to see Skrysch lying bleeding in the sand. He fixed the merrows with his red eyes, their intensity now muted, and said in a fading voice
‘One day… one day soon. We’ll come and we’ll take what’s ours. One day…’
He coughed, green blood splashing down his belly, and died.
Dourek turned to his king.
‘The souls are safe’ he said.
‘For now’ said Cromac, ‘for now.’