Commodore whathisname (Cottonwood? Candlestick? Cambéul? Some name that started with a C for sure) was nice enough to let me off on the south side of the river before the death fleet continued on their way to destroy the bridge. Does this mean that the entirety of the county south of the river is in enemy hands? Or that if it’s not now it soon will be in enemy hands? Going to Graltontown is always a horrible idea, but if it’s fallen to the enemy that seems doubly true. Maybe triply. Is that a word? Sounds weird. Triply. I probably should have asked the commodore for a situation summary before he dropped me off. He seemed very accommodating for an enemy military leader. I bet he would have told me all many of military secrets. But it’s too late now. Hindsight.
I really should start keeping closer track of how the war is going. One moment there’s a titanic celebration in Cathars because the Queen secured a new alliance of some kind and won a critical battle down south. The war is all but over and we won! Next thing I know Vielanders are infiltrating the Lodge Woods and our own troops have sacked Malgareth. Now an Ulpine fleet of monsters has control of the Compass River. What’s really going on in the big picture? I suppose this must be the fog of war they talk about. I’ve already saved the Kingdom like seven times and it still seems like we might be losing. Except of course the Kingdom doesn’t lose wars. Ask any historian who’s still alive and not in prison.
My suspicion that the Ulpine raiders were destroying any riverside villages they came along as a matter of course was confirmed as I came across a mass of displaced persons from such villages on the road. Most were heading for Ardint which normally would be a good idea. I told anyone who would listen that the bridge was either gone already or soon would be. Not many did. I joined in the much smaller stream of people seeking refuge in Graltontown.
When the sun was high in the sky a murmur and gasp ran through the group. I saw what all the gawking was about off to the east. Five worgs (everyone else thought they were wolves but I know a worg when I see one) were loping south a goodly ways off and they were dragging a body along with them. I saw that one of the worgs had a grim-faced Shireling riding on its back wearing the uniform of a Graltontown guardsman. Everyone else was terrified that they would attack the column, but I would have liked for them to come closer to find out what that was about. Right before I left Graltontown the last time I was working on putting together a deal with the worgs of the Lodge Forest. Looks like someone finished up my fine work I wager.
North of Graltontown there’s a spot where “vagabonds” gather to wait until they’re press-ganged into day labor by merchants. I had never been there before of course, why would I, but the flow of people bent off that way and I always go with the flow. I can’t imagine that prior to the local unrest this place was ever home to more than a couple dozen vagrants, but I now it has expanded into a massive camp of more than a thousand refugees, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, and deserters. Definitely the kind of place a woman traveling alone should normally avoid but I sliced the trousers off the first fellow that gave me the evil eye and beat him within an inch of his life with the Baron’s cane to make the point that I wasn’t on the menu. After that most everyone was civil.
As you might expect for a randomly thrown together collection of people fleeing war it was basically a giant mud (and other things) pile with children and dogs (possible both feral) running this way and that amidst the chaos. I headed for higher ground where I saw actual tents, stacks of dry firewood , crude wooden tables with benches, hitching post with horses, and people that looked mostly clean and not diseased and desperate. Along the way I came across a fellow in a strange blue robe screeching at the diseased and desperate.
“Do you think that money can buy you happiness?! Do you think coin will buy you into Adariel’s bosom like a harlot at some tawdry carnival peepshow?! Ownership is not the path to the afterlife, it is temptation! The measure of a human is not what is in their pockets but the strength of their faith! Strive not to be rich but to be rich in spirit!”
He wasn’t the usual wild-eyed fanatic with a crazy beard, he looked normal enough. I decided to give home some pointers since he seemed reasonable.
“You need to work on your speech a little. The afterlife is coming no matter what, I think what you mean is that greed with lead to the bad afterlife – the Thirteen Hells don’t you know? Also not everyone here is human, most are, but not all. So you might want to adjust that to be inclusive, say a measure of a person maybe. That last line confusing, maybe you should say rich in money and then rich in spirit. As it it’s just awkward. Or maybe just say ‘strive not to be wealthy, but rich in spirit’ or something like that.”
He denounced me as a harlot and encouraged everyone to cast stones at me. No one did, probably because I had just beaten a man bloody for kind of no reason. I think I had some solid points. Words matter, you should be very precise about what you say. I was very curious about that robe. It didn’t look like an Adariel robe, it looked more like a Vultur robe – and Vulturians aren’t known for their proselytizing.
“Where did you get that robe? Did you kill the guy wearing it and take it? I’ve done that a time or two. The hard part is the blood right? That one you have there looks a little torn at the hem but free of bloodstains. How did you manage that? Did you strangle the guy? Vultur people are usually pretty canny in my experience, I’d like to know what scheme you pulled to catch whoever you took that robe from off guard.”
Rather than answering me he walked away muttering. There’s probably a dead naked Vulturian somewhere but I suppose I don’t really care about that. I continued up to the more organized section of the ragged mob. The organizers of the “good” part of the camp were an alliance made up of the remains of a mercenary unit, Stridarian religious sorts, and a group that was playing it cool but were clearly bandits. War has to be pretty hard on the banditry trade. You’d think that Strider people would be organizing to protect the refugees since safe travel is their whole thing but it was just to protect themselves. Typical.
I had no problem insinuating myself into their ranks and taking what little pleasure there was to be had – a little food, a little wine, and a little gambling. The lowest sort of unskilled gambling but any port in a sport as they say. And who did I spy among these luminaries but my old friend Kellgale Nickoslander being attended to by my castoff men at arms Reda, Ancin, and Wine (among others). They showed their customary lack of skills as bodyguards as I walked up and sat across from Kellgale at one of the tables without them moving a muscle.
“You look terrible Kell, what’s befallen you old friend? After all that money we made at the tournament I thought you’d be doing well. And yet here you are looking like a blonde scarecrow without enough straw in it.”
She looked like she had seen a ghost, mumbling something about poor investments.
I nodded sagely “Yes, I can see you have three poor investments with you right now!”
I laughed much harder than deserved, watching the angry eyes of the three men, or two really, Wine seemed more confused than angry. As usual.
Kellgale could barely look me in the eye “Are you here to kill me? Have you come for my soul?”
“Your soul? Oh right, last time we met I was damning souls to the Hells. That was just a business deal I was doing at the time Kell, it’s not something I’m into generally speaking. I’d be happy if I never damned a soul to the Hells again. I would if I had to, obviously, it’s damn or be damned out there as you know but I didn’t get a taste for it the way some people do. I damned some people to the Hells to get myself out a jam and that was it, I’m not proud of it but I did what I had to. And kill you? Kell. Come on, it’s me! Ela. Or you know whatever fake name I gave you at the time. I did that a lot back then. You mind raping me that’s all water under the bridge okay? I’m not here to kill you, I need you to tell me what’s going on in Graltontown.”
She shook her head, tears in her eyes “I don’t know, I was in Malgareth, I just escaped . . . I was coming . . . it was awful.”
I reached across the table and took her hand “I’m sure it was, I’m sure it was, you hush now friend, things are looking up for you. We’re going to do great things together Kell, just like the old days. Remember the old days Kell?” I chuckled “We had us some lively times didn’t we?”
She looked like she was going to be ill.