Farmers everywhere grow or raise most of the things they need. The rest, they buy in shops, like this one in a town just like any other.
'Something important today, Marsh?' - asked the clerk
'A bit of a family meeting. A few of the boys have grown enough for their name-choosing' - said the woman, smiling, by the sound of it.
- 'That's nice, isn't it? The young ones growing into adults, I mean' -
- 'It is, right? More hands, less work, they say' -
They spent a few more minutes chatting while a rude looking man in a badly-battered armor walked slowly through the merchandise, paying attention to a few items. The clerk and the client seemed a bit nervous, but when the conversation started sounding awkwardly as if the clerk didn't want to be alone with the stranger, he plod to the counter.
- 'I want half a dozen coils of rope, the sturdiest you have. Also, rolls of fabrics, thread and sewing needles. Where could I buy milk, and dried meat and vegetables?' -
The clerk seemed nervous and scared, the stranger seemed taller and stronger this near, so it was the client who answer, smiling charmingly.
'We use to change our surplus milk and harvest here, but I think Bill - she signaled the clerk with her hand - sells them to John, down the street. John's sister smokes and dries provisions for selling adventurers, mercenaries and whatnot passes through, if that's what you want. - The stranger looked at her calmly, Marsh thought he looked to people as if they were a different species.
- 'Thanks' - he said, before turning his head to the clerk - 'Now, could you help me with the other supplies?' -
While the clerk gathered the thread and sewing items, the stranger shouldered the ropes, three and four coils at a time, and loaded in a cart outside, helped by a younger and even quieter man. After everything was loaded, the young took the reins, the man looked at the clerk first, and at Marsh after. Then he climbed up the cart and the two drived down the street, to John's store.
- 'What a weird couple' - said Marsh.
- 'Didn't like them. Muscled, armored brutes aren't of my liking' -
- 'Their money was, though' -
- 'Gold's always good. Besides, things are not so good I can pass on good money.' - answered the clerk, before going inside again.
The stranger was now with his captain. - 'Name-choosing?' - he was asking. The second in command, an old but still strong, one-eyed man, said - 'Some cults have that kind of ceremonies, but are not so much name as host choosing. Children are not strong enough to host most demons, so they wait till they grow and then they're possessed. We should storm that farm right away, before they can reinforce their ranks.' - 'Such cults are not the only ones using that kind of ceremonies. - countered the captain - In the south and north there are tribes we believe each person has the right to decide how he's to be called. We're not going to storm anywhere if we are not sure. Sergeant, tell the troops tonight is a stealth. Light armor, no horses. Get them ready.'
The wet soil's smell filled the nose of the sergeant, bringing him memories of youth. They felt as old as if they were another man's memories. Happy times, green grass, cattle... a simple, happy life. The sergeant and his troops were crawling as stealthy as they could, considering the bulk of their bodies and weapons. Light armor was riskier, but their work was to make sure before signaling the heavier armored soldiers, so they had to get there in silence, so, light armor.
It was a cold night, the fog made it eerie and colder, and the tension could be felt in every man. They were almost wishing for this to be a fight and to start as soon as possible. That always meant rushing into problems, so the sergeant had to control them, and himself, as best as he could while they got near enough the farm's buildings to crouch by them instead of crawling like beasts. The sergeant could hear words, but not understand them, so he slid along the wall, toward a window.
- 'What do you mean, killed them?' - asked an old man's voice
- 'What does 'kill' usually mean? That bloody child killed his parents with a bloody hammer.' - the voice sounded just like the woman at that shop
- 'Could have been the mercenaries you saw in town' -
- 'They seemed more like the ride-in, kill-em-all type. And then that child is the only one missing' -
- 'And today of all days!' -
- 'It's a Black Moon, for heavens' sake. They're brutes, but even they must be able to learn with time. That's why I propose to bring forward the ceremony.' -
- 'The ceremony can't be rushed! The proper respect must be paid, the proper rituals must be followed' -
- 'I fucking know! That's what you all said before, but if those were Crusader's soldiers, the sooner we can count our reinforcements, the better' -
- 'It'll be hours before the new hosts are completely taken' -
The woman's voice was strained with frustration, managing to convey the shouting even when she was whispering.
- 'I already know! So let's start the bloody ceremony now, get ready as soon as we can and kill that blasted child when we find him instead of wasting time looking for him' -
The sergeant was thinking that the lieutenant had been right about storming in, but now was too late to change plans and... what was that burning smell?
- 'Smell that?' - asked the old man
- 'Something's burning' - hurried steps drew near the door while the sergeant walked back as fast as he dared and as quietly as he could.
They opened the door worrying about the smoke, though
- 'You don't think...' -
- 'Better be sure. Let's go...' -
A loud crack interrupted the woman, Marsh, the clerk called her, and part of the barn's roof fell in, letting red flames through.
- 'The barn! the barn's burning!' - the woman shout, as the two of them ran towards it. At that point, the sergeant thought he had hear enough and things were going south too quickly to wait more, so he nod to one of his men and that one signaled the main force with his hooded lantern.
The night's air filled with shouts of surprise and war cries when the riders reached the farm and started hacking the farmers, and the sergeant was proved right when hellish fire sprout from them, and they grew horns and claws and fangs, and pounced on the riders. The sergeant and his men also joined in the fight, using surprise to get some easy kills. When no one else came forth to challenge the soldier's strength, they checked the buildings before setting them on fire and then gathered in the fire's ligths.
- They were talking about children sir, and a ceremony. -
- I told you, dammit! -
- Silence, lieutenant. Have you checked the buildings? -
- All but the barn, sir, that was in fire already. -
- Short as the fight was, if the children were there, they'll be dead already. Let the trackers get their dogs and look for tracks outside. If some of those demons have flee, I want them captured or death before sunrise. -
The dogs did find a track, children by the size of the footprints, and not too many. They got to them in the forest, illuminated by the lanterns, bows aiming at them. A small group of three girls and four boys, and a fifth standing before the armored soldiers and the barking dogs, a bloody hammer in his hands, covered in blood. More blood splattered his face and stained his clothes, and his expression was grimly regarding the soldiers, waiting for them to move and willing to fight with a farmer's hammer against steel swords and shields, and armored men.
Brave or crazy as he seemed, demon seemed not. The captain dismounted slowly, weapons sheathed, hands empty as he walked forward, towards the boy.
- 'Calm down, boy.' -
- 'Go away. I have already killed more of you than you can gain by taking our bodies, so learn from that and go away.' -
- 'We don't want your bodies, boy. We are the Crusader's soldiers. We were warned that children were going to be sacrificed tonight, so we came. You're safe, now.'-
- 'We trusted the demons we had as parents while they raised us. I know better than to trust you.'-
- 'I understand, boy. Lieutenant, we won't go further tonight, organize guards, tend the wounded, recover the dead. Boy, we have food, milk too, if there's a baby among those other children. Tomorrow we all will go to the town's temple for them to take care of you. We're no demons'-