As you may recall I’ve had some pretty bad luck with the Lodge Forest. Nearly being eaten by a wolf-monster is about the best thing that’s happened to me there. My experience with the Skin-Taker Kostelos tribe is still number one on my list of worst experiences (that used to be a much smaller list). I remember when I first came into these woods with Felix, and then later with Augrim – I was scared just to be in a forest like an ignorant peasant. Those were the early days when my fears were simple – the world has taught me better now. There’s so much more to be afraid of than you can ever imagine.
That was before the war had come to the Lodge Woods. The good news is that it seems like all the worgs are in Graltontown terrorizing the populace as part of the new police state they’ve got going there so we’re unlikely to encounter any out here. I also assume that the warlike Kostelos bands (if not all of them) have either been killed in the fighting already or have gone to ground, so hopefully we won’t run into any of them either.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the bodies. Some on the ground half-eaten by coyotes and crows and whatever is around, but mostly in the trees. Some with bound hands and nooses around their necks like they were being hung in the market square. Some sprawled and hanging recklessly by whatever limb could hold a rope – their bodies showing the wounds that killed them before they were set to dangling. I saw Vielanders. I saw Ulpinese. I saw Kingdomers. I saw Kostelos tribespeople. I saw civilians of all stripes. Most inexplicable of all I saw a group of Adarielite priestesses all strung up together. They had the red and white stripes on the sleeves of their blue robes indicating that they’re battlefield healers.
Adariel is worshipped in Vieland and Ulpine was well as the Kingdom. Adarielites offer aid and healing to anyone who needs it. They aren’t even dicks about it. The church of Adariel is one of the few extra-kingdom organizations that is welcomed and accepted everywhere. Even the Northmen don’t bother them much. Why would anyone do this to them? That’s like poisoning a well that you drink out of every day because you hate your neighbors. Did the Vielanders kill them because they were helping the Kingdom forces? Did “our” side kill them because they were offering aid to the enemy? Without realizing it I had stopped to stare at the bodies – those blue robes hanging in the air looked like ghosts – causing Bolbec to bump into me.
“Where do they get al l rope?”
“What my lady?” He looked up at the bodies as if he hadn’t noticed “Oh, I couldn’t say my lady.”
One of the other guards, I think I heard someone say his name was Cavnas but that can’t be right, chimed in “Quartermaster always has rope My Lady, whoever is in charge of sending supplies always sends rope, endless coils of the stuff. I don’t know what they think we’re going to do with it. By the end of the campaign you’re wearing rags and a dead man’s boots, eating horsemeat but there’s always lots of rope.”
I gestured “Why? Why do this?”
He shrugged “Its war My Lady.”
Finchley glared at his companion “Don’t call her that, she’s no more a lady than I am . . .”
“A soldier?” I finished for him.
He made a move towards me and Bolbec got in this way.
“You want to hit me Finchley? Go for it, I’d like to see how that turns out.”
Cavnas snickered as Finchley stalked away. It’s good to see that they know what he is as well as I do, better probably since they have to work with him. The fourth member of our troupe doesn’t say much, doesn’t seem to do much either. I’ve heard soldiers talking about these types – empty uniforms – they’re there but they’re not there. There seems to be a surprisingly little amount of rancor towards them – as long as they’re not your commanding office no one seems to care about them.
It’s hard to tell the time of day in the darkness of the tall trees, but it had to be afternoon when we came across a group in the process of decorating the trees with their grisly trophies. It’s hard to say who they even were – they had on a mish-mash of pieces from different uniforms and armor. One of them had the pussified sword of a Kingdom officer, another had the stupid swagger stick of a Vieland noble, still another looked like a Satander and they aren’t even involved in this conflict last I knew. When we spotted them the Duke’s Guards all took cover, quickly getting off the road and into the trees before they could spot us back.
I did not do that. I kept walking. The first of them to spy me was a bearded fellow who had a furrow down his head where no hair would grow – looked like someone had hacked off part of his scalp in the past. The looked vaguely like a Northman but his accent betrayed that he was a southerner putting on airs of being a Northman. Why anyone would want to do that I don’t know. He grinned as he saw me coming.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?”
They always say that same thing. It’s like they teach you that in some secret school. Introduction to Menacing. Make sure you terrorize your prey first before abusing them. When he came towards me I surprised him by producing a short blade out of “nowhere”. I surprised him even more by stabbing him through the knee – from the side you see, it’s very hard to stab through a kneecap. At least it is for me. If you’re stronger or have better technique with a blade maybe there’s a trick to it. I crushed his windpipe with the hilt of a dagger to stop his bellowing and I twisted his head around so he was facing his friends. They were pretty startled as well. I wanted them to see when I started cutting parts of his face off.
It was slippery work, if not for the gloves Bolbec had given me I would have sliced into my own fingers any number of times. I’ll have to thank him for being so thoughtful later. Most of his friends ran but you have to think about it from their point of view – one moment they’re laughing and drinking and rigging up ropes to people they raped and killed (not necessarily in that order) and then without warning their friend is getting his face hacked off. That sort of mood whiplash can really throw you for a loop. Don’t judge them too harshly for their cowardice, I’m sure they were just startled is all. Plus they probably thought I was a witch of the woods or a fey creaturel.
To their credit two of his pals didn’t run away, they ran to save him instead. One of them was a small fellow, people would have described him as “weaselly” or “rat-like” but that’s because people are lazy and apply that label to any short slender fellow. I would say he looked more like an acrobat, very supple and smooth as he ran. He grabbed up a two-handed battleax that looked about as big as him and came blustering forward like a berserker. His buddy was a little more cautious. He wasn’t a big fellow but he was broad and solid – I’d say he looked like a tree stump come to life. He looked sturdy, like he could take a wallop and stand up to it pretty good. He had a sap in one hand, which seems like a very curious weapon for an actual fight, and in his other paw he had what I thought at first was a dagger but I realized that it was a full blade made for a small person like a gnome.
I had no plan, I just wanted to hurt someone. Because of what I saw that day for sure, but also because of my anger over my own personal setbacks. I’ve come to accept these little lapses of my self-discipline. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to banish these occasional bouts reckless behavior that come on whenever I’ve been badly beaten (metaphorically, well, and literally too sometimes) but I’ve realized that this is just who I am. The idea that I would never lose control and always keep my cool was based on my old life. Nothing bad enough happened then to make me bubble over. Now things are different. I need to accept that and adjust. Being level-headed all the time out here, in the blood and mud and madness of the world, it’s simply not feasible. I just have to mitigate the worst of the risks I take in times like these.
As the two men came at me I reached for the crossbow I no longer had. That was a wake-up caw of the morning rooster, reaching for something and having it not be there reminded me where I was and what I was doing. I threw my dagger at the little guy and shoved the faceless bloody man at the wide guy and dashed away. I probably would have died then but the Duke’s guards had rallied and charged forward at that same moment. It would have been a pretty good tactic if we had done it on purpose. Military people call that envelopment or something like that. Once the fighting was over I was trying to wipe the blood off my gloves on a tree and not having much success. Bolbec was starting at me like I was a raging wildfire coming his way. Cavnas just looked confused.
“What were you doing?”
“Oh shit, they weren’t on our side were they?”
His confusion deepened “What? No, they . . . why didn’t you hide?”
“We’re at war aren’t we? Isn’t our mission to kill the enemy?”
Finchley laughed like that was a great joke. I finally gave up on the tree and started wiping my gloves on the pants of a man hanging from a nearby tree.
“I don’t know about you fellows but I don’t relish sleeping out here and being exposed at night. With all this fighting and turmoil there’s probably ghouls or fey bats or shadow hounds riled up stalking through the darkness looking for victims. I know a guy who has a cottage not far from here, let’s drop in and see how he’s doing. If he’s still alive in all this great, if not, hey, free cottage right?”