Does a 'Coo have an Ego?
By Gerry Torbert
...yeah, sword, I know, I know... once we get out of this situation, we'll go straight home... I've heard you promise that before, hero... hey, everything was working out just right... how was I to know Thomas was the culprit... didn't sense it either... watch your handhold... yeah, gotta watch what I'm doin'... you know, if you'd just listened to me, we wouldn't be in this mess... it's not a mess, Slayer, all we really have to do is walk out of here and leave the Tavishes to their own ends... now, you can't really do that, can you... I should, after all this grief... don't know who to trust now... wait till I get my hands on Osgur's neck... now, you don't know he had anything to do with this... a good clan leader should always know about the men under him... true, but he's a friend of your uncle Uilliam... may be, but things have changed in Creagland, even since I left... just don't let your temper get the best of you... who, me?...
Gloom'ozss had sent Grlash'toom with Darmon to hoist the rope back up the Great Hole to the top of the 'tube', the near-vertical shaft that emptied from the valley to the underground passageway. The younger yuan-ti outdistanced the Creag and was now at the top, tying off the rope to the lone tree along the gentler slopes. He tossed the rope over to Darmon, who caught it and climbed the rest of the way, hand-over-hand.
"Many thanks, friend," he said, as he grasped the claw and was pulled up the last few feet. He never thought he'd be calling a snake a friend, but there he was. "Just let the rope 'ang 'ere, I'll be needin' it again, I 'ope soon, lad."
"Yes, Darmonstuart. Do what you can. We hunger, need food. If hunger too great, must eat in two nights, maybe one. We wait." With that, the yuan-ti deftly crawled back over the edge, disappearing into the void.
Darmon removed his kilt and shook the dust from it, then carefully pleated it and donned it again. It had been a while since he had the opportunity to clean his clothes. He wasn't sure why he did it - it just felt right. He knew he would have to visit Osgur once again, and he wanted to look like someone who would lead his own clan one day. ...say, you COULD shake the dust off my scabbard, too, Darmon...
Sulis may have been looking down on them, but she wouldn't have been able to see much. The clouds that were obscuring her view began to open, and Darmon struggled to walk out of the valley over the slippery ground. He pulled the upper part of his kilt over his head as a hood and tightened the ends around his shoulders. It was some respite from the rain, as the fine wool shed much of the water. But the colder air made him shiver and dampened his already wet spirits.
As he walked to Gearasdan Airach his thoughts began to wander, and his anger began to build. ...I'm tired of being taken for a fool - both here and in Eahrcnoc. That is not the sign of someone who intends to take the reins of an entire clan... I have to treat people with a little more suspicion... you wanted to see these people as they really are, Darmon, and what you see is what you asked for... I never expected Thomas for what he is - he was friendly, listened to my stories - seemed impressed... that's it, Darmon... he appealed to your pride, your ego... he rubbed your belly, then kicked you in the teeth, just like someone else's dog...
Darmon stopped dead in his tracks. ...you think I'm egotistical, Slayer?... I never thought I'd be called that... and that is egotism in itself, Darmon... believe me, I speak with a hundred souls, each one now bereft of his ego... everyone has one... it's part of your makeup, part of your very soul... it's nothing to be ashamed of, but it can get in the way... hmmmm...maybe you're right... but if I leave it go, I'll have no self-esteem... that's right, hero, so you have to live with it... control it, don't let it control you... hmmm... for years, people have been calling me 'hero' - guess I began to believe it... but these people look to me, at least Osgur... now, you're controlling it, Darmon... that still doesn't mean I won't kick Thomas' ass... that's up to you, Hero...
It was still dark, rainy and very early when they arrived at the outskirts of town. He found a place to sit beneath some dense shrubs and curled up in his kilt, watching the main gate. There wasn't much else to do but to wait for the guards to appear, as the tears of Sulis pooled and washed gutters of mud across the road.
The dawn hadn't broken, just a dull blue from the east weighing its chances against some obstinate puffs in the air, remnants of the storm. A lone hero weighed his own. He followed the treeline to the southest, keeping just out of eyeshot and closing in on the road. He waited until an early farmer walked beside his donkey, straining against wet cart wheels in the sticky mud. He startled the farmer as he closed on the road just behind him, but assured him their intersection of paths was a mere happenstance, that he was on his way to town as well. Using the cart as a shield, he followed until the guards let the farmer take his wares inside. It was then, within fifteen feet of the sergeant who had left him for dead hours before, that he threw back his hood.
"Ya look a lil' surprised, Thomas. Ya lookin' in the eyes o' some ghostie, eh?" He closed the distance as five other guards trotted forward.
Even with the meager light reflecting off the pinkish clouds, and even though that light came from off to the right, Darmon could see the blood leaving the sergeant's face. He laughed inwardly, acquiescing to the sharpened prongs of his heroic ego. He hadn't seen a man this shaken since, well, since Owin tripped over the fire near the Deadlands, just having seen a head reattached. "I...how in the...what the...we thought you were....?!"
Darmon pulled the scabbard from his shoulder and tossed Dragonslayer to the side. "Dead, ya lousy bastaad? Go a'ead, say it, flesh-dealer! 'Ow much gold didja get for all this meat, butchah?" Darmon closed the last few feet leaning to the left, cocking his right arm.
He couldn't remember ever hitting anything so hard. ...this is how ya make use of your ego, Slayer... Thomas never had a chance. His jaw snapped open and down with the force, whirling his head around, straining his neck. But he never felt it, as he was out cold, even as his body was launched horizontally before it flopped unceremoniously in the mud. One of the guards turned and blew a whistle while four others charged the irate Stuart.
He remembered a fight he had with Eaomann Caembuhl. Up till now, it was the best in which he had been involved. It was over a girl, and not the last one enflamed by passion. Eaomann had the moves, and he learned a lot from that encounter. He won, and it was tough going. But some of the best lessons he endured were from 'Coo' Stuart, a distant cousin. He was built just about like his namesake, the highland cow, and looked the part, with flowing hair, thick body fuzz and bangs hanging over his forehead to match. He had no moves, only a direction, and only one at that - forward. There is much to be said about finesse, but there are times that brute force is needed. Darmon had learned to apply them both.
The first to reach him was a strong lad, six feet and a hundred ninety, he estimated. His forward momentum was reckless, and the Slaughbaethan took full advantage of it. He stepped to the left, toward the mass of the remaining men, and grabbed the soldier by the arm and neck. He leaned to the left and crossed his legs, transferring the linear motion of his adversary into radial force and using him like a club. With a full circle spin, he used his newfound human weapon like he had used Dragonslayer in the Deadlands, knocking two others off their feet as they tried to half-catch their companion, half protect themselves. Three 'oofs' were followed by yelps of pain as the mud splashed over them.
The fourth missed the collision, holding back and showing more of a tentative approach--or fear--it can be difficult to tell the difference in such a short time, with so many bodies flying about. He looked to the gates, from whence four more guards were running. The mere motion of turning his head was all Darmon needed, as his momentum launched him into another assault. One step gave him all the twisting motion he needed to bring his left arm back, and another step gave him the force. He planted his left into the stomach of the guard, whose rather surprised face wrenched in pain as any air he had hoped to breathe was on the outside, looking in. Darmon reached back with his right, but stopped, seeing that the lad was going to be lying on the ground for a while, trying to catch his breath. He gave his face a push with his opened hand, and the guard fell into the mud. Darmon couldn't help but chuckle.
The next four guards were fast approaching, but with swords drawn. They seemed trained to Darmon, as even though they could see their fallen comrades, they didn't slow down. Darmon could see that he would need a little help. He wheeled and ran to his sword, picking it up and peeling off the scabbard in one deft move. As he turned he could see the first guard running, carelessly holding his sword out in front of him. Darmon didn't have to think about how to handle this one - he simply whirled Slayer around, knocking the sword out of his hand. Bringing his shoe up, he planted it right across his chops, knocking him out cold.
The other three slid to a stop in the mud, the first one losing his footing and sprawling on his buttocks, sword flying to the side. Darmon kicked the loose weapon a dozen feet from its owner. Wide-eyed, the remaining two, brave and loyal but more than a little shaken, held their swords up from a safe distance. Darmon held Slayer out toward them and grinned. "Tha's six doon, outa eight, laddies. We can stop 'is now an' ya can save yerselves the 'eadache tomorrah. No one's dead. Not yet. Or ya can try yer luck, an' end up like yer friends."
The two remaining guards looked at each other, their swords unsteady. "Look, sir, we have orders..." said the first, "...ta guard the Castle at all costs. We'll 'ave ta..." he looked at the pale, shaken face of his companion... "t-ta take ya in ta see the Clan Father, ta prevent ya from doin' any more damage. Rules is rules!" His sword shook with every breath he took. Darmon smiled and lowered his head, nodding.
"Yeah, lads, that's wha' I was 'ere ta do, in the first place. Just put those girlie swords doon, step aside an' tend ta yer fallen. Now, before ya pee yerselves! I'll tell Osgur wha' brave sentries the las' three were!" Darmon picked up the scabbard and sheathed Slayer. As he walked forward, the two shaking guards gave him wide berth. But when he passed he stopped and turned to face the first one. "Oh, aboot Thomas - put 'im in cuffs, put 'im in a cell."
"Under whose authority? We can't just.."
"Darmon Stuart, First in Line, that's who! As a 'igh-rankin' representative o' Creagland, I'll take responsibility. Charge 'im wi' conspiracy an' direct complicity in the murder of those people you've been losin'. That's where Osgur will wan' 'im, when I'm done talkin' to 'im, an' it'll save ya huntin' 'im doon later. Hurry, now!" ...nice, Darmon... using your ego... to everything, there's a season, Slayer...
As he walked through the gates, he could hear a sword chuckle, if that's possible. ...feel better now, Darmon?... you bet I do... and no one got hurt, at least not permanently...
The sun was about halfway off the horizon when Darmon walked to the front door of the clan house. He pounded a couple of times on the door, waited and pounded again. A lamp was lit in the window, and the latch lifted. Inside the doorway stood a very perturbed clan leader, tying his robe. "What the HELL is goin' on! If I told you guards once, I told ya a thousand times...this better be good...Oh, Darmon! Do ya have good news, son?"
Darmon looked sternly through squinted eyes. Osgur could see something was amiss, and that the Stuart prince was not one to be trifled with now. "You and I have a lot more talkin' ta do, Father."
Osgur looked out the door over Darmon's shoulder at the guards lifting each other, one back at the shack near the gates carrying a stretcher to the scene. He looked down to Darmon's angry eyes. "Your handiwork? A couple of 'em are my nephews, you know."
"They shoulda thought aboot 'at, when they threw the rope doon the hole, after me. Don' worry aboot 'em, they're big boys now. Nothin' a day on a cot in the infirmary won't cure. You want ta talk out 'ere, or inside?"
Osgur sighed and turned toward the dining room, taking the lamp off the stand. He sat it down on the table between the two nearest chairs, and they sat down. Osgur looked across the table at a young man, lines of stress and confrontation just beginning to soften, eyes hiding deep fires of the cursed. Darmon looked across the table at an older man, lines well carved and grooved deeply into weathered skin; folds telling the story of many years of strife and concern for his people; eyes masking, yet pleading recourse from dangerous secrets.
Osgur reached to his other hand and twisted, then pulled off a ring. He placed it between the two men, beside the lamp. "This will let us talk freely."
Darmon frowned in incomprehension, but his eyes opened in understanding. The only thing he could think that it would protect them from would be the prying eyes and ears of a magician. Osgur nodded, as if he had heard him think. "What did you find, Darmon?"
The fighter sighed a little, then took a deep breath. He realized it was the first deep, relaxed breath he had taken since he stepped from behind the farmer's cart and began blasting away at the guards. "Yuan-ti. A dozen of 'em, easily. They usually have a taste for human flesh. The hole is an entrance to their passageways, and they're lookin' ta gain a route to the Falls of Dimrune, where they can reunite an' fight the Drow.
"Yuan-ti! I thought they were just a legend! How in the world...?"
"Let's say I have... connections... I can deal with them--but only so far. They're trapped now, at least, until they can find another passageway. But they need food, and 'at's the reason there've been people disappearin'."
"You trust 'em? From what I've heard, they're bloodthirsty demons!"
"Not the worst o' demons, believe me. If I 'ad ta deal with the two, I'd prefer 'em, over the Drow, no doubt. Drow have evil souls. Yuan-ti have little soul, but some sort o' honor, I guess ya'd call it... somethin' I appealed to in 'em."
"But what's this have ta do wi' me guards?"
"Seems they've been workin' wi' a guard, one wi' a beard. He's been feedin' 'em, for gold."
Osgur's eyes rolled back in his head as he looked to the ceiling. It was a well-built ceiling, as much as ten feet above their heads, vaulted with hammered and sculpted metal trim depicting great battles. Darmon wasn't able to see much of it, as the darkness in most of the room was only pierced by the flickering lamp periodically. If he could see it, he'd wish he could talk to it, to ask it the depths of intrigue it has seen. If the walls could talk--maybe if they had only talked to Osgur all this time...
"That explains why he spends a lot of time with Guaire, our wizard. An' why he's 'ad enough coin ta buy property like he 'as!" He hammered his fist on the table in disgust.
Darmon nodded. "Yeah, an' maybe that's why most o' the food 'as come from the Connors. Tell me, does he have a feud wi' 'em?"
"Not that I know of, but... wait... he has been mentionin' what a bigger clan we'd 'ave if we annexed 'em... from what I remember, he joined wi' Faugas ta turn the Creags of the north back, keep 'em from fightin' in the Civil Wars. But he was opposed by Faine, of the Connors. May o' been a feud between magickers."
...Great... did you hear that, friend?... don't even think about it, Darmon... I don't have power to deal with a wizard, let alone you... no, I'm not that foolish... this is bigger than you and I... but... wait a minute... it's not bigger than a dozen snakes, now, is it?... NOW what are you thinking? ... you might not want to know...
Darmon slowly drummed his fingers on the table. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke. "Let me handle the wizards. I think I 'ave an edge. Meantime, you'll have ta sort out who was schemin' with the Yuan-ti an' Guaire. That may be a big job. But for now, I'll need half a dozen men, not yer guards; more torches; an' a cart with a 'coo in it..."
Osgur looked at Darmon strangely. "A 'coo? How's 'at gonna..."
"Trust me, Osgur. A good-sized 'coo, fat an' ready for the slaughter. Tomorrow, about noon. We'll need that much time ta get there. I've got some fancy tradin' ta du, I believe."
Osgur looked puzzled, but seemed to grasp some of Darmon's plan. "Okay, sonny. Seems strange, but I've trusted ya so far. You'll have what ya need. Anything else?"
"Yea, 'ave 'em meet me at the gates, high noon. Don't be surprised if ya hear of a bunch o' strange creatures trekkin' across yer lands at night, led by a damn fool in a red kilt. They may even steal a 'coo along the way. But in the end, they'll be gone. I may be tradin' a gold coin for ten silvers doon th' road. Or I may end up snake sandwich. Wish me luck, Father."
Osgur smiled, then chuckled, shaking his head. "Somehow, First in Line, I think you'll figure it all out. If ya do, the Tavishes'll be forever in yer debt. If not, well...I claim first dibs on the sword!"
The party was a strange-looking crew. Six soldiers, hand picked by Osgur; a Stuart, huge sword strapped to his back; a large cart, pulled by two oxen; and an unsuspecting 'coo. They lit off to the west for a long trip. Darmon went over the plans with the men, at least the minimum that he needed. He didn't want to be too graphic or detailed, as neither he nor Osgur were too sure how they would react.
The sun was just setting as they approached the hole. It was going to be a clear, starlit evening, he could see. The moon was rising over the eastern hills, bright and half-full. Darmon thought, ...look over me, lady... He instructed the soldiers to take the burly bovine to the tree, where the rope still hung. They tied the cow off and returned. "Good job, men. Now take the cart, me 'orse and the oxen 'ome. Don't look back. Just wish me luck." They found it all strange, but obeyed the higher-ranking prince.
Darmon made his way down the bank to the tree. He patted the cow and gave it a few last, soothing words, then climbed down the rope with a few torches. He soon reached the ditch at the bottom and made his way to the cavern.
He received a warmer welcome this time. Gloom'ozss had apparently felt him walking through the tunnel and met him at the bottom of the steps. Darmon held up his right hand and the yuan-ti nodded. "Were successful, Darmonstuart?"
Darmon took off his scabbard and stood it up along the steps, against the cave wall. It was more of a symbol of trust than anything else. "Yes, Gloom'ozss. I have a solution, I believe. It'll require us ta cooperate with each other, ta trust each other. If all works well, you'll get somethin', and our people will get somethin' in return. If I may...?" He motioned to their cave, following them up the stairs.
He wasn't prepared for what lay before him. It seemed that the lizard people had consumed dozens of humans - almost all of their bodies were used. Little else lay on the floor but the bare bones. He half-gagged at the sight, but was thankful that the odor from the corpses was minimal. He sat down against a portion of the cave that jutted out and had been used as a chair.
"As I gather, t'is difficult for ya and your people ta travel above groond, even more so durin' the day. Am I right?"
"Yes, Darmonstuart. This true. Sun harsh, hot, dries up body. Even dry air difficult, sometimes. Must hunt at night. Know you worry about humans. But this is best food for us. You not run fast, sometimes stand still in fear. Easy to catch."
Darmon held back a gag; he could feel his lunch creeping up on him as he glanced at the bones. "Uh. Yea...yea, I can imagine. An' ta take care o' that, I 'ave a surprise for ya at the top o' the shaft. Not human, but a 'coo."
Gloom'ozss shook his head. "Have tried coo. Are heavy, hard to bring back. And yuan-ti body is used to human. Not sure if..."
Darmon held up his hand. "All I ask is ya try it, Gloom'ozss. I 'ave an ... arrangement ... of sorts, I can get ya some along the way. It's better food for ya, more of it, much more muscle, an'..." his voice dropped... "they 'ave no soul, if ya know what I mean. Send some o' yer fellas up an' haul 'im doon the shaft. I promise ya, ya won't be unhappy wi' the meat."
Gloom'ozss looked perplexed, but motioned to two others, who walked to the passageway. "We have heard of soul... not sure what is... humans claim to have, but never see one... but is this 'cooperate'?"
Darmon nodded. "Part of it, friend. Soul is what separates each one o' us from t'other. It makes you want not to eat me. Sharin' blood is what gave Nurmm'siss 'is soul, and me, his. It makes you decide things 'at another yuan-ti wouldn't. Anyway, getting' back ta travelin' - if ya can't get ta the others undergroond, I can 'andle 'at."
The lizard-man's eyes perked up, and the others gathered closer. "I know 'is land like the back o' me hand", he said, holding his hand up. Seeing they didn't understand the simile, he explained, "... That means I know the land well. I can find places ta hide, roads ta travel, an' places ta stay away from. People in Creagland know me, an' trust me. I can get ya to the Falls of Dimrune."Gloom'ozss stood silent for a moment, then turned to the others. They began to discuss the possibility in their arcaic language, punctuated by hisses and clacking sounds. A few nodded their heads, but two shook theirs in disbelief that it would work. Darmon could see this would take some selling.
Gloom'ozss returned to Darmon, but before he could reply the sounds of a disoriented highland cow filled the air of the cave. One of the yuan-ti led it by the rope from the shaft, the other pushing it and prodding it along. "There ya go, friends. Quite a lot o' meat. You'll find that once ya get used to it, it's better for ya. They grow quicker than humans an' I bet they taste better." As the half-snake, half-drow beings ran to dinner, he pulled his bagpipe from his kilt, blew it up and began playing a tune. He didn't relish the idea of listening to the ghastly sounds to come.
Three decidedly different versions of Rain in the Hills followed before Gloom'ozss returned with a leg in hand. He effortlessly broke off the thigh and handed the lower leg to Darmon. "Here, Darmonstuart. Is good for humans, too?" Darmon accepted the gift, although he liked his steaks a little more brown. He forced himself to gnaw at it, pushing himself along with the thought ...at least it's not a slug…
As best his sinewy structure would allow, the yuan-ti sat on the floor in front of Darmon. The others gathered around in various states of dining. "Darmonstuart, why will do this for us? What must we cooperate?"
Darmon nodded his head. "Yea, cooperate. Here's wha' I had in mind. I take ya ta the falls. We travel at night only. I'll scout ahead a little each day, findin' a cave ta stay or place for ya ta walk withoot bein' seen. Ya don't eat anything but coo, maybe sheep - no humans. When we get ta the falls, my job is over. But it seems I'm goin' ta need yer 'elp, later. Maybe days later, maybe months, I don't know. There seems ta be a problem in my homeland. Seems that wizards are too powerful. They're steppin' inta the affairs of the people themselves. It may require force."
Gloom'ozss looked to the others and began their strange language again. A few nodded, a few shrugged, but he turned to Darmon with what appeared to be an agreement. "We...cooperate... as you say. But one thing to do... need to wear this..." Gloom'ozss produced a necklace with a nugget of gold attached. "Will let you contact yuan-ti. Must concentrate with mind, will connect to us wherever you are. Is from many eggs in days gone away. Keep near self all times. Not for small fights, but only in large problems. Is cooperate?"
Darmon accepted the locket and placed it around his neck. "Is cooperate."
The sword simply shrugged his hilt and sighed. ...another hair-brained adventure begins...