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Jun 15

RUST

Rustcover

In the world of RUST, Raven is a bounty hunter. When he abducts a small-time thief, he is forced into a quest that exposes the dark secrets of RUST and himself.

CHAPTER ONE

Cobbleknock was a strange town, buried deep at the bottom of a valley. Some less generous folk might observe that it was not buried deep enough, but the people of the town loved their home. It kept them safe from the prying eyes of the rest of the world, and the only way in and out of the town was the narrow, long sloping road. Night came early for the people of the town because of its position at the bottom of the valley. As the sun lowered in the sky, it still cast its light on the rest of the world, but Cobbleknock descended into darkness. It was late morning, at the moment, and the sun still shone down on Cobbleknock. The children were mostly at school and the men and women at work. Some of the population, who had neither education nor a task to attend to, were enjoying a glass or two of grot in the Boggle Head pub. Now although grot was a particular favourite of the folks of Cobbleknock, it was less than favourable with the rest of the world that surrounded them. Made from grapes fermented with pig's blood and freshly squeezed frogs, it was little wonder that they never managed to export the brew to the other parts of the world.

The Boggle Head pub was a wreck. It was partly because of the raucous behaviour of the locals at nighttime and partly because the proprietor, Henry Wolvenbum, had no interest in either cleaning the place or repairing any breakages. Henry looked around at the usual faces. They consisted of those who were too old to withstand the evening antics in the pub and those who were just plain skiving. One of those that you could usually find in the pub at this time was young Walter. For once, Walter was nowhere to be seen in the pub. Walter was a common thief and had not an ounce of integrity or honesty in his body. Henry would often say that every word Walter said was a lie and every deed he did was a crime. Whilst not quite true, as even the harshest judge in the world would not consider eating and sleeping a crime, it pretty much summed up Walter. Walter would not get away with as much as he did if his father Benjamin Badrattle had not been the chief magistrate of the town. The only time that anyone had taken Walter to the town court was when a new arrival in town, Jeffrey Comber, accused Walter of stealing his chickens and pelting his house with their eggs. Despite incontrovertible proof against Walter, Benjamin dismissed the case, and six months later, Jeffrey was arrested for parking his bicycle on an invisible yellow line. Needless to say, he was hanged in the centre of town, and it is also needless to point out that absolutely nobody in Cobbleknock ever pressed charges against Walter Badrattle from then on. It was, therefore, no surprise that Cobbleknock was never listed in the local tourist guides and was never recommended as a place to visit. As a consequence of this, Cobbleknock never had to entertain strangers and to be honest; the townsfolk liked it that way. Therefore, it came as some surprise to the lookout guards on the hill when the man on the horse started to come down the road to Cobbleknock. One of the guards nudged the other one with his elbow, waking him from his slumber.

"What? What is it?" he spluttered.

"Stranger. Stranger come down hill," said the guard.

The other guard sneered at his comrade and climbed to his feet.

"We don't get strangers, Snodberry. You've been at the grot again, haven't you?" he said.

"Grot? No. Snodberry sober. Stranger comes. Look for yourself," said Snodberry, handing his fellow guard a particularly mucky pair of field glasses. "You see him. Cookawakka?"

Cookawakka sighed and brought the field glasses up to his eyes. Anything to humour his witless comrade. Cookawakka gasped and took the glasses away from his eyes momentarily before looking through them once more to check that he was not hallucinating.

"He must be either very lost or very mad," said Cookawakka.

"Stranger might taste good. Snodberry check on texture now," said Snodberry, picking up his sword.

Cookawakka grabbed him by the arm to stop him exiting the lookout.

"Not now. There might be others," said Cookawakka. "Go warn the chief magistrate and the town guard."

Snodberry grunted something about new and exciting foreign cuisine before taking the back exit from the lookout.

The stranger was still a few hundred yards away from the guardhouse, but Cookawakka could see him in greater detail now. He wore a dust covered long brown coat and sported what looked like a cowboy hat on his head. The man sported longish black hair and a covering of black stubble that covered his face. The horse trod gently and slowly towards the guardhouse. It was almost a deliberate taunt for Cookawakka to come out and confront him. Eventually, Cookawakka grabbed his cap from the hook on the wall and stuck it on his head, a head that was obviously far too big for his cap. He left the lookout and stood in the middle of the road with one hand on his sword. Cookawakka felt particularly nervous, as this was something he had never had to do before. He tried desperately to remember what the instructions were in the guard manual.

"Stoop," he shouted.

He shook his head and cursed himself.

"Stop. I meant stop, that's it," said Cookawakka.

The stranger stopped the horse, but Cookawakka realised that he was still too far away.

"Come nearer," shouted Cookawakka, but the man did not move.

"I said come nearer," said Cookawakka.

"You told me to stop," muttered the stranger.

"What? I can't hear you," said Cookawakka.

"Come nearer," shouted the stranger.

"Oh, okay," said Cookawakka, walking towards the stranger before realising what he was doing. He stopped, took his cap off and scratched his head. He rubbed his chin for a little while before looking up at the stranger and wagging his finger at him.

"No, you don't," he said. "Nice try. You come to me, stranger. You must think I'm stupid."

"I do think you're stupid," said the stranger as he kicked his legs, causing his horse to walk towards Cookawakka.

As the stranger stopped in front of Cookawakka, he tilted his hat at him as a greeting. Cookawakka walked nearer to him and studied the stranger carefully. He sniffed the horse and then sniffed the stranger. Cookawakka stepped back in surprise at the smell of the stranger.

"You're a human," he said.

"I believe that is the terminology applied to my species," said the stranger.

"You know where you are?" asked Cookawakka.

"Cobbleknock, and yes, I know all about your town," said the stranger.

"Why would you possibly want to come here?" asked Cookawakka.

"I have business in the town with one of your citizens," said the stranger. "As soon as that business is concluded, I will be on my way."

Cookawakka stroked the side of the horse, which neighed in alarm and moved away from the guard.

"That's a fine horse you have there," said Cookawakka. "Plenty of meat on it."

"Her name is Onyx. She is my friend and I guard her with my life," said the stranger.

"Strange name for a horse," said Cookawakka.

"It's because she is black," said the stranger.

"Doesn't make any sense. Why didn't you call her Black?" asked Cookawakka.

The stranger just stared at Cookawakka but did not reply.

Cookawakka shuffled his feet through the dust of the road nervously and looked down towards the town, hoping that Snodberry was on his way back. He squinted at the road but could see no sign of the other guard. Should he let the stranger pass or should he try to keep him here? His mind was made up for him when the wind blew the stranger's coat to reveal the butt of a shotgun.

"Well, I guess it's okay for you to visit. Make sure you conclude your business quickly, mind. I will be timing you," said Cookawakka.

"How long have I got?" asked the stranger.

"One hour, or I'll be coming for you," said Cookawakka, suddenly feeling slightly braver.

"That's not long," said the stranger.

He stared at Cookawakka for what seemed an age. Cookawakka suddenly felt the sense of bravado disappear from him. He worried that the rumbling in his stomach might give way to something a little more embarrassing, but the truth was he was so scared he could not speak.

"I guess it's long enough. I will be quick. You wouldn't want to come looking for me, would you?" he said.

Cookawakka smiled weakly at the stranger and waved him through. As the stranger continued down the road, Cookawakka ran into the lookout and sounded the bell to alert the village to the presence of an outsider.

The stranger reached the bottom of the road and made his way through the town. A more ramshackle place, he could not imagine. Most of the buildings were made of wood with crumbling brickwork supporting some of the heavier structures. Washing hung from windows, some of it strewn across lines that stretched over the streets. Children ran up to him and his horse and sniffed them both as they passed, running back to their mothers at the scent of the strange smell. When he reached the Boggle Head pub, he tethered Onyx to a post outside and made his way inside the establishment. He opened the door, which hung gingerly on its hinges and looked around. All the patrons of the pub had stopped talking and turned their heads to look at the stranger. He walked slowly up to the bar, looking from side to side as he made his way. Despite the outwardly scruffy appearance of the locals, they all had gleaming white and perfect teeth. To the stranger, this came as no surprise. After all, as he said, he knew all about Cobbleknock. He leant on the bar and placed his hat on the counter. Henry Wolvenbum bounded towards him and showed his own set of perfect teeth.

"Good morning, sir," said Henry. "What can I do for you? A pint of our best grot, maybe?"

"I understand it to be a taste for a particular palette," said the stranger. "So, I am afraid I must decline."

"What about a hot meat pie? I guarantee you have never tasted anything like it before. We all eat so well in Cobbleknock," said Henry.

"Yes, I have heard that," said the stranger. "Again, I must decline. What I want is neither food or drink, it's information."

"Information?" asked Henry.

The stranger pulled back his coat and reached inside his inner pocket. The townsfolk in the car muttered to each other as the shotgun strapped to his side was revealed. The stranger produced a photograph and placed it on the bar. He looked at Henry who was staring at the weapon.

"It's for protection," said the stranger. "It's dangerous out there."

"We don't use blasty sticks much around here," said Henry. "No real need for them."

"This is a photograph of a man I am looking for. I understand he lives here," said the stranger. "Walter Badrattle?"

"Never heard of him," said Henry, shaking his head.

"You sure?" asked the stranger.

"Oh, yes," said Henry. "I know every man, woman and child that live here. I am afraid you appear to have wasted your time.

"We shall see," said the stranger, calmly.

He picked the photograph up and turned around to show it to the rest of the townsfolk.

"What about you good people? Do any of you know this man?" he asked.

They all shook their heads. Some of them came up to take a closer look at the photograph, before saying they had no idea who he was. When they had all returned to their seats and quietened down, the stranger placed the photograph back into his pocket. He looked at Henry and smiled.

"You know, it's strange that none of you recognises this person," said the stranger.

"Oh really? What makes you say that?" asked Henry.

"Because he is the son of this town's Chief Magistrate, said the stranger.

"Well, bugger me," said Henry, nervously reaching under the bar for a knife.

"I would not do that," said the stranger, still smiling at Henry.

As Henry pulled his hand away from the knife, the doors of the pub burst open and Benjamin Badrattle walked in, together with Snodberry and six other men. The stranger turned to face them and placed a hand on his shotgun.

"When people tell you that they do not know the person you are looking for, you should believe them," said Benjamin.

Benjamin Badrattle was almost as wide as he was tall. A lifetime of abuse of power, abuse of drink and abuse of food had left its mark on his body. He moved uneasily towards the stranger, wheezing as he did so.

"You want to hand your son over to me peacefully or do we have to resolve this by other means?" asked the stranger.

"My son?" asked Benjamin. "Ah, I get it. You have my son Wally confused with someone called Walter who just happens to have the same surname. An easy mistake to make. You should go now."

The stranger reached into his pocket, as the patrons in the bar ducked under the tables. He produced the photograph once again and showed it to Benjamin.

"Would your son happen to look a little like this boy?" asked the stranger.

"Well, jigger me, there is a certain similarity, but that boy would be a criminal. My boy is the son of the chief magistrate of Cobbleknock," said Benjamin.

"Well then that is going to cause us a big problem," said the stranger.

"And why would that be?" asked Benjamin.

"Because the boy I am looking for is the son of the chief magistrate of Cobbleknock," said the stranger.

Benjamin was clearly annoyed at being backed into a corner. He beckoned his men to come closer and pulled his face nearer to the stranger's face.

"Now I have given you the chance to walk away. I suggest you take it. What other course of action do you have?" asked Benjamin.

"Would you like a demonstration?" asked the stranger.

"I am getting tired of this. Have you a warrant from the King? I'm guessing you're one of those damn trackers," said Benjamin.

"No I'm not," said the stranger. "But I do have official documentation."

He produced an envelope and gave it to Benjamin. Benjamin opened it and read the letter inside.

"This isn't official for anything. You're a damn bounty hunter," said Benjamin.

"It's official enough for me. The promise of payment on the delivery of one Walter Badrattle," said the stranger.

"Who the hell are you anyway?" asked Benjamin.

"They call me Raven," said the stranger.

With that, half of the patrons ran out of the bar and the other half hit the floor. Even Benjamin was shaken by the revelation. Snodberry just stood there shaking. Raven looked Snodberry up and down and then looked back at Benjamin.

"I think your man there needs the toilet," said the Raven.

"Snodberry, stop being such a jiggery pussy," shouted Benjamin.

"They say he is half demon, half human," stuttered Snodberry.

"That's the biggest pile of bull," said Benjamin. "Even our friend here doesn't believe that."

"I'm not half demon, Shaky," said Raven, smiling at Snodberry.

"See, and he can't take on half the town either, can you?" asked Benjamin.

"No, and I have no intention of trying to either," said Raven.

"You do know you'll have to leave soon. I mean we have an element of control over ourselves when it's light, but when the sun goes down and the moon rises. It's best you're not here," said Benjamin.

"I'll be long gone before then," said Raven.

Raven moved away from the bar and looked out of the window towards the top of the valley. The sun was still high in the sky and his eye was caught by the shimmer of a flickering light at the edge of the town.

"In fact, I think I'll be taking my leave right now," said Raven. "I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for your hospitality. Enjoy the rest of the day."

"You too," shouted Benjamin to Raven as he headed out of the door. "And don't you be rushing back now."

“One moment,” Benjamin shouted to Raven.

Raven turned and looked at Benjamin.

“What will you tell the person who commissioned the bounty?” asked Benjamin.

“I will them that Walter Badrattle was not here. That’s the truth, after all,” said Raven.

Benjamin smiled and breathed a sigh of relief as Raven turned around and left the pub.

Raven untied Onyx and jumped into the saddle. He kicked his heels and rode off back up the road. This time though he did not just trot up the hill, this time he and Onyx raced away from the town. The whole of the town breathed a huge sigh of relief as Raven left, and they all piled into the pub.

"Drinks are on me, Henry," shouted Benjamin. "Did you see how fast that so called big bad bounty hunter ran?"

Snodberry drank his grot with a still shaking hand. Henry placed a hand on Snodberry's shoulder.

"It's okay, Snodberry," said Henry. "He's gone now. Cookawakka will ring the bell for the all clear in a second, you'll see."

"I know, but people say Raven never leave without his man," said Snodberry. "Does not make sense to Snodberry."

Just as he finished the sentence, the bell started to ring.

"See," said Henry.

Snodberry finished his drink, and frightened as he was, decided to go back up to the lookout and check on his friend, Cookawakka. When he reached the top of the hill, Cookawakka was boiling the kettle to make a jar of warm grot. He looked around and smiled as Snodberry entered the lookout.

"Really gone?" asked Snodberry.

"Yeah, went racing past like a herd of gozobeasts were chasing him," said Cookawakka. "Benjamin must have scared the hairs off him."

Snodberry looked outside to make sure that Raven had not turned full circle and was hurtling back towards them, before making his own jar of grot.

Raven stopped at the top of the hill and looked back towards the town. He knew that the population were not quite human but that did not excuse them for being so utterly stupid. He patted Onyx on the head and continued his journey down the road. He wondered whether the folks in Cobbleknock were born stupid or was it a trait they acquired the longer they lived in the town. Either way, it presented Raven with a very easy job and one that paid very well. He stopped when he saw the wagon by the side of the road. The two horses that usually pulled the wagon were taking a rest and were grazing peacefully on the grass verge. Sat on the grass, smoking a large pipe was a slightly built man. He looked up and waved as Raven approached. Raven left Onyx to graze with the other horses and sat down by the man.

"Patto, I trust you acquired the goods without too much trouble?" asked Raven.

Patto stood up and smiled. He walked towards the back of the wagon and started to undo the ties at the rear. He pushed back his hair as he freed the ties. His dark tanned skin was topped with red hair that looked at odds with his general appearance. The almost completely black eyes that looked at Raven were unnerving.

"There were two of them guarding him. Most of them went to greet you at the pub. They are surprisingly slow, considering what they are. I expected a little more resistance," said Patto. "Knocked them both out cold and grabbed hold of mouthy."

"Mouthy? He doesn't sound very mouthy," said Raven.

"I may have calmed him down a little," said Patto.

"They are remarkably stupid, aren't they?" said Raven.

“I told you it would be easy. Didn't even have to kill anyone," said Patto.

"Not yet," said Raven, climbing into the back of the wagon.

The bag in the centre of the wagon was still and seemed to contain some kind of huge lump. Raven knelt down and prodded it with a finger. When there was no response he prodded it two more times, then he slapped it before resorting to kicking it repeatedly. Eventually, the bag moved and rolled around the wagon.

"Hey. Quit it," shouted the bag. "And let me out."

Patto climbed into the wagon beside Raven.

"What was it he did again?" asked Patto.

"Slept with the farmer's daughter, then his wife, but worst of all, he ate his chickens," said Raven.

"Some people are just plain greedy," said Patto.

"Yep. We take him to Farmer Rubbit's, collect the gold, and then put a fair distance between us and Cobbleknock," said Raven. "We need to deliver him before dark preferably."

"Does this farmer really have two hundred gold pieces for us?" asked Patto.

"He'd better have," said Raven.

Raven kicked the bag again but his time it did not move.

"I hope he can breathe in there," said Raven.

"He might be able to, but you didn't specify what type of bag to use," said Patto.

“One that he cannot suffocate in might have been the common sense choice,” said Raven.

Raven sighed and undid the bag before emptying the contents on the floor. Walter Badrattle rolled onto the floor and almost immediately got to his knees. Walter looked just like his photograph. He had a straggly ginger beard and facial hair, together with that pearly white grin that all the people of Cobbleknock had. Nevertheless, for an inhabitant of Cobbleknock, he was peculiarly handsome.

"Fooled you, didn't I?" said Walter. "You thought I was dead?"

Raven produced the contract from his coat and showed it to Walter.

"If you read this carefully, you will see that it doesn't mention the condition of goods upon delivery," said Raven. "Which, basically means that it doesn’t matter if you’re dead or alive? Do not make the mistake of thinking that either of us cares. Now you can sit outside of the bag with Patto or you can get back in it."

"You'll never get there in time. It's a full day's ride from here and it'll be dark by then," said Walter. "You won't hold me in this bag then. I'll kill you both."

Raven and Patto looked at each other and smiled.

"Nah. No, you won't," said Raven. "You can try if you must, but like I said it doesn't stipulate whether you should be dead or alive. So, you should really hope that we do reach there before nightfall."

"Maybe we travel along really slowly just so we can have some fun when the sun comes down," said Patto.

"That would eat into beer time," said Raven. "I'd prefer to have time for relaxation and refreshment."

"Shame," said Patto.

“You guys both need a personality transplant, do you know that?” said Walter.

Raven turned to Walter and ruffled his hair.

"Now, would you like to go back in the bag or would you prefer to stay out of the bag?" asked Raven.

"You put me back in that bag, I'm just going to tear myself back out of it," said Walter.

Raven looked at Patto.

"We should just kill him," said Patto.

"It's tempting but I think the farmer would really prefer him alive," said Raven.

“His wife and daughter would,” said Walter.

Raven slapped Walter hard across the back of the head. Walter yelped but did not say anything. He just rubbed the back of his head and muttered inaudibly.

“Don’t be disrespectful,” said Raven.

Raven smiled at Patto.

“We deliver him alive,” said Raven.

"You're the boss," said Patto.

"You driving or me?" asked Raven.

"I will. I can't listen to his loose mouth for a minute longer," said Patto. "So, I am driving."

"Okay, let's go then," said Raven. "I'll leave him out of the bag for now."

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