Out of character interlude – Expert professional writing tips from the world’s greatest writer and human (me)

Writing that title reminded me that I worked with a lady who said that she was the third smartest person in the world – her parents being the first and second.  She didn’t seem that smart to me but the third smartest person in the world would be smart enough to not seem smart right?

Since I started writing on wordpress I’ve been reading a lot blogs about D&D and some about writing.  A common topic people bring up is how playing D&D (and other roleplaying games of course) can help you become a better writer.  Which is true.  Character development, plot, worldbuilding, playing roleplaying games can really help you with those things.  Among others. 

But I’m starting to realize that it can be a double-edged sword.   

I’ve done a lot of writing in my life.  In college and the years afterwards I often wrote several hours a day.  I don’t write nearly as much anymore but I still do some writing most days.  It’s a toss-up if I’ve done more roleplaying or writing.  There was a year where we played D&D every damn day for hours and hours and hours.  Probably half my life I’ve had a regular weekly game.  There were years when I had 2-3 regular weekly games.  Then add in conventions and one shots and other stuff – that’s a lot of time roleplaying.   

Tangent, when I first started online dating sometimes I would tell women one of my hobbies was roleplaying – boy were they disappointed when they found out I meant D&D and not sexy sexy sex times.  I hate homonyms.   

Before my writing was whatever I wanted.  I have dozens of half finished “novels”, tons of partially written screenplays, hundreds of short stories, and thousands of blog posts where I talked about whatever was on my mind.  I wrote until it wasn’t fun and then I stopped.   

Starting the Ela blog, and later the Grace blog (hugely popular and read by millions) “forced” me to write about the same thing and it’s exposed some flaws.  Chief among them, tossing out story hooks without any idea where to take them. 

I think this comes from D&D.  When you put together a D&D adventure sometimes you have everything planned out.  But sometimes you just have a neat idea and you throw it out and see what the players do and react to that, “writing” on the fly. 

Such as, one time my players found a cane that had a secret compartment in it.  I had forgotten that they had found a similar item in the last adventure and they spun out a whole conspiracy theory around them.  I had no such intention of that being a thing but as they were talking I was thinking “wow that’s a pretty cool idea, that’s definitely what happened now”. 

Players give DMs way too much credit in terms of foreshadowing and callbacks and call-forwards and things like that – it’s that old chestnut about the human mind looking for patterns, and making them up even if they’re not there. Your players come up with all kinds of ideas as to what the DM may be up to, even when they’re not up to anything.

The collaborative nature of rpgs results in some pretty cool ideas.  D&D is kind of like writing with several writing partners.   

But since my “real” writing it just me, myself, and not Irene I really need to break myself of the habit of throwing out half-formed ideas that I think are neat because there’s no players to react to them and shape the narrative.   Telling a story all by myself requires discipline.

The idea for the Grace blog came from How To Survive Camping, from reddit/no sleep.  The idea of HTSC is that it is an interactive thing where the commenters act like it’s real and suggest ways to solve problems and the like.  It’s a style that allows for collaborating in a way D&D type where you’re writing it but lots of people are adding in ideas.  It’s a pretty cool concept.  I wanted to do something like that. But since I’m old and scared of reddit because I don’t understand it I just did a “normal” blog.   

The end.  Good writers always say “the end”.  Otherwise how would you know it was the end? 

Retro Ela throwback post/rip-off

I swear I won’t ever do this again, I know how SUPER invested you all are in 70s Ela story.  Ela Classic was written ad hoc based on random charts and whatnot, rules turned into a narrative, but I did wake up late one night and write this bit about her being forced into a battle in THE NORTH.  I think I had it for more than a year waiting to fit it into the “story”. 

I figured I’d post it because I’m lazy and clearly I have to stick to the pretend schedule I came up with of posting Monday, Wednesday, Friday. 

Why was Ela forced into this battle?

Who is Keorl Thunderhand? 

Is it still called polygamy if you have wives and husbands?

We’ll never know. 

I’ve never seen a battle down south and I hope I never do, but from what I understand it’s quite an affair.  Huge blocks of men lumbering around in ragged squares getting into lines.  Banners and pennants and tents and guys with big hats and all kind of shit like that.  I’ve heard that the reason army people get up at dawn is it takes them until lunch just to get everyone to the battlefield and ready to kill one another.  There’s barely enough hours to even get on with the slaughter before it gets dark.  And you can’t fight in the dark.  It’s too scary.

Clearly things are a little more loose up here.  People seemed to be milling about and wandering down to the front lines like it’s a county fair.  Some people were already killing each other when I got up.  Others were still asleep.  Seems like it would have been the perfect situation to avoid the battle and just say you were there after the fact but I don’t think I can fool magic like that.  Always the damn magic.  So Instead of doing the smart thing and staying under cover until all the killing and dying was over, I went in search of Keorl Thunderhand, finding him in a heap with his wives and husbands.

I tossed a bucket of . . . something on him “Come on, the battle’s starting and it’s a race between which is going to freeze off first, my nips or my nose.”

Grinning, he disentangled himself from the pile and came out of his tent shrugging on a chain shirt and slapping on a helmet “That’s the problem with you southern women, too skinny.  You need some blubber on your bones to stay warm.”

I rubbed my hands together and blew on them “I don’t see how you people get so big up here with the warmed up dogshit you call food.”

He laughed and led me over to the “cavalry wing” which was a bunch of dudes and horses just as disorganized and chaotic as the rest.  He motioned for me to mount up on a grey and black beast that was eyeing me as dubiously as I was it.  These northern horses are so small and shaggy they’re more like sheep than equines if you ask me.

“Shouldn’t I put on some armor or something first?”

He shrugged “Sure, grab that cmail and slip it on.”

I grabbed the pile of metal he gestured to and could barely lift it “Okay, never mind, point taken.”

“Yes, and a fine point it was too.  Put on that helmet.”

I picked it up gingerly “Seems too big for me.”

He shrugged “Better than too small.” He surveyed the half-battle going on below as we mounted “Do you have any battle training?”


“How good a rider are you?”


“Good, that’s more important anyway.  If you want to survive, and you’ve certainly made it seem like you do, there’s two things you need to do.  First, stay mounted.  That may seem obvious, but I need to emphasize this because footmen do most of the dying.  You do not want to be anywhere near the earth in that mess.  Mounted, you have two things someone on foot doesn’t – vision and mobility, and that’s what you use to stay alive.  Don’t get near the middle, stay on the edges of the action where you can see what’s happening and react.  React meaning ride away of course.

If you get knocked off your horse get back on immediately, don’t worry about anything else – get back in the saddle.  If your horse gets killed, find another.  I’ll deny ever saying this but if you have to take one from someone on your own side, do that.  People tend not to expect their battle-brothers, or sisters in this case,  to kill them and take their horse so you can catch them off guard.  Your horse is your best armor and your best weapon.  Keep it between you and the people trying to kill you.  If you can, use it to crush them, if you can’t, let it take the hits for you.  How do you feel about horses?”

“I love them.”

“Will that prevent you from using one to keep yourself alive?”

“No.  I’ve done it before unfortunately.”

“That’s good. Horses are fine animals but they’re not worth risking your life over.  I’ve seen men in the middle of battle trying to save a horse.  You can imagine how well that goes.  If someone wants to take time to murder your horse, that’s time they’re not using to murder you – let them use it while you find another mount.  What you have to avoid is getting down in the melee with the foot soldiers.  You may have heard some old veteran waxing nihilistic about the chaos and blood and horror of being in the press of combat and you may have dismissed it as bold talk – it isn’t.  It is the absolute worst thing you can ever be involved with.  Call it nightmarish, call it Hellish, call it whatever you want, just avoid it. 

When you’re up on your horse, unless a man has a spear or a pike they’re going to have a hard time striking at you effectively.  Once you’re on foot they won’t even need to bother, at your size you’ll get knocked down and trampled to death.  It’s a risk for even a strong man – you got a dozen men behind you pushing you into another man who’s got a dozen men shoving him into you.  You’re pinned together so that you can’t even fight unless you have a knife.  Men trapped like that bite at each other like dogs.  It’s no lie that in the crush of battle, you don’t even know who you’re attacking. 

That’s first.  The second thing is don’t take your helmet off.  Not ever.  It’s heavy and it makes it hard to hear and it cuts off your vision and it’s going to get so hot in there you’re going to feel like you can’t breathe.  But don’t take it off, not even for a second.  If your helmet gets knocked off, find it, or another, and get it back on as fast as possible.  Don’t worry about anything else.  If it gets knocked askew and you can’t see, don’t try to take it off and put it back on, just turn it around.  If you can’t get it back right way around you’re almost better off being blind than taking it off, it’s a hard call.

There’s filthy weakling healers around that can heal you as long as you don’t get stabbed directly in the heart or in one of the main bloodlines in your thigh.  You have a chance to survive most wounds long enough to get healed.  What you can’t survive is getting your brains bashed in or an arrow through the skull.  If you get hit in the helmet it’s going to make you dizzy, you’re going to want to pull it off – do not do this.  If you lose your helmet and you can’t find another, you may be tempted to pick up a shield to protect your head.  Don’t.  If you can even lift it, you’re not going to be able to hold it high for long and then you’re just going to be tired.  You’re better off shielding your head with your weapon or even your arm – even if you’re not wearing armor.  You can live just fine with one arm, you don’t have a spare head.  Not to mention you’re rich you can regrow a new arm magically.

Stay mounted, protect your head.  Horse, helmet, that’s how you stay alive.”

“Got it.  What about attacking the enemy?”

He laughed “I wouldn’t worry about that, you don’t look like you could break an egg.”   

Montumazin 1 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

I’m going to admit something to you folks, despite living in Paladore for more than fifteen I don’t know what it is, I mean formally.  The Kingdom is made up of counties and those counties are administered by Counts and Countesses.  That’s pretty straightforward.  Cathars is the capital of Cymrile County and the Count lives there sometimes.  I know that Dukes are the next level above Counts but below the King.  What I don’t know is what they are actually in charge of.  You’d think that there would be duchies made up of counties and Dukes would be in charge of those, logically that makes sense.  But there are not enough counties for that.  Paladore is not the capital of a Duchy.  So what is Paladore then other than the place where Duke Eaglevane lives?  What is it the capital of?  Nothing?  

I think there are three Dukes that are in charge of all the counties and the other Dukes do stuff with trade or the military or something?  My education really gave me the short shrift on civics and political sciences but I know seventeen different ways to courtesy and so much about fashion and makeup.  Alsio it didn’t teach me what short shrift means.  What I do know that is back in olden times (not the Old Empire though, I don’t think, I got shafted on history too) Paladore was two separate cities that were in separate kingdoms right on the border.  When the THE Kingdom was formed they were forced together like reluctant lovers – not unlike the actual King and Queen at the time.  

It’s easy to tell that Paladore used to be two cities because on one side you have grand towering buildings, sprawling manor houses, bustling markets, and all manner of comforts and opulence.  The other side?  Not so much.  You ever see a turnip that looks fine on the top but the bottom part, which is scraggy and ugly even on a good turnip, is rotting away?  Paladore is a like that, right on the “border” there’s a big band of normal urban sprawl but it gives way to blight the farther you travel across that invisible boundary.  There’s no name for that boundary but everyone knows it’s there.  

I heap a lot of scorn on Graltontown, and justifiably so, but the truth of the matter is that the far west parts of Paladore are even worse.  Because of the scale if nothing else.  The only thing in this world that can make me think for a single moment that maybe city life isn’t the way to go is a glimpse of the crushing poverty and misery if those crumbling parts of west Paladore.  

“Ela what does this have to do with anything?”

I’m getting to it, hold your horses.  Living in the Duke’s palace I didn’t have many glimpses of that part of the city – even on the rare occasion he wanted to go “slumming” we went nowhere near the actual slums.  But when I was a child and was first brought there we passed through west Paladore and I saw something that I will never forget.  A woman, a girl really, was handing a shiv to what could have either been her younger sister or her daughter and saying this “If they see you run, if you can’t get away go for the eyes or the groin first, then the throat.”  That sums up west Paladore in a nutshell.  It’s good advice as well.  For me I changed it a little bit – first keep them talking, if that fails then run, and if that fails then you go for the groin stab.  

I’m fantastic at the talking part.  The running away part depends on where it is – in the country I’m not so good, in the city I’m great at that too.  When it comes to the stabbing I’m better than I ever thought (or wanted) to be but in the final analysis I’m just a mediocre stabber.  I’m good at catching people off-guard and getting the first strike, but if that first attack doesn’t end things or at least seriously debilitate whoever’s on the other end of the stabbing it often puts me in a spot of trouble.  

Keep them talking, avoid conflict, and if that doesn’t work run like the Hells.  And if that doesn’t work fight like the Hells – all thirteen of them.  I suppose I should add in a fourth step, one that has served me well on several occasions – if you can’t beat them beg for mercy.  Beg like you’ve never begged before.  Discard all shreds of dignity and grovel like the most pathetic harmless defeated worm that ever lived.  Offer bribes, flatter them, cry like a damn baby, do whatever you have to do to get them to be lenient.   This is all in service of the number one rule that necessitates all others – stay alive no matter the cost.  

I’ve broken a lot of rules, tons of them in fact, but that was one rule I hoped I would never be on the wrong side of.  Things started off promisingly enough, the undead wolf beast (that was clearly NOT an undead werewolf because that would be ridiculous) was willing to talk.  The problem was that it didn’t seem to have any wants or needs.  Nor did a rotting half-man half wolf waking corpse find me attractive or interesting or useful in any way that I could work with.  After an auspicious opening in a few minutes it was clear that the undead thing was losing interest in talking and gaining interest in attacking.  

I’ll give myself credit for having enough awareness to know that.  Cold comfort, but that’s all the comfort I’m likely to get from here on out.  Since we were in a small office running wasn’t really an option.  I could have backed through the door into the other smaller room and hoped there was a window I could dive out, but I was worried about the thing’s quickness – plus the stalhounds were out there, which I assumed were under the control of this thing.  So that didn’t seem like a good option.

The best bet maybe would have been to try and make it out the front door and onto Stranger.  The beast was between me and that door unfortunately.  What I should have done knowing what I know now is started maneuvering for the door when we first started talking and it was still being amiable, relatively speaking.  But I didn’t know then what I know now.  

So fighting it was.  When it became clear that it was time for violence I did manage to strike the first blow, sweeping it off its feet with this stick I found in Wolcott’s emergency stash.  It doesn’t look like much, but it must be lousy with magic because there’s no way I could have done that all on my own.  I would have liked to wallop a few folks with that, it’s too bad I didn’t get to have it for long.  Speaking of, I really miss that magic walking stick that I had made.  That thing was great.  I don’t usually get attached to things, especially magic things, but I really liked that walking stick.  It had so many things that it could do and it looked great.  It saved my bacon dozens of times.  Plus it was just fun.

But what really would have helped us those boots I used to have that let me run up walls like a squirrel up a tree.  Those were really useful.  If I could have gotten out the window and up the side to the roof now that’s an entirely different situation.  But as they say it’s a dead craftsman who blames their lack of tools.  I suppose I should have overcome my revulsion and learned to do some magic myself instead of relying on items.  I’m sure I could have done it based on the wizards I’ve met. They weren’t the brightest bunch so I bet I could have learned to be great at magic.  I just hate it so much.  I guess for all my talk I was as hamstrung by pride as anyone.  I don’t like magic so I didn’t want to learn magic.  So I didn’t.  I should be better than that, I did all kinds of things I didn’t want to do.  

So I got in the first hit, and maybe one more after that, but then it was all undead wolf-monster from thereon out.  I fought as hard as I could, I assure you of that, but it didn’t amount to much – I’m just not much of a fighter really.  As several people warned me would happen I ran into someone (something really) that was immune to my charms and tricks and was stronger and tougher than I could fight in my wildest dreams.  And as you folks well know I’ve had some wild dreams.  

Getting ripped apart by an undead wolfman was very painful, don’t think it wasn’t, but honestly I’ve had worse.  All the beatings and stabbings and acidings I’ve endured over the last two years were training for this moment I guess.  It wasn’t a painless death but any means, far from it, but it wasn’t so bad all things considered.  I’m sure many people would have wished worse upon me.

Remember that time that guy strangled me and I almost died, or maybe did die for a little while?  Sure you do, it was when I was ransacking the house of the people that the Juosts displaced.  During that strangling and almost death (or death)I had an out of body experience – I was floating outside of my body and I could see what was happening.  This time was nothing like that.  Everything just went black and that was it.  I couldn’t see anything, there was nothing to see.  I don’t think I exist anymore so how could I see anything?  So maybe that’s how you know the difference between a near death experience and death.   

The same guy showed up as that time though.  Out of the darkness the tall, jet-black skeleton with a long, bony tail, and the massive black-feathered wings of a crow.  Over its odd bird-skull face was a bronze mask that appeared to be of the face of the creature inside.  It was very, very, very slowing coming my way.   

But he wasn’t alone.   Coming from another direction was the thoughtful looking bear-like “angel” that was the size of a small house.  And from yet another direction was my old friend Poor Annie, the massive black canine looking like a tiny lapdog in comparison to the huge bear-angel.  I get the feeling that time no longer means anything, yet it still seemed like it took forever for them to get to me – all arriving at the same time.

“So” I said without body or voice “What comes next?” 

Montumazin 1 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

Sending a Vieland army to attack Three Rivers isn’t the most satisfying of revenge on the Lumber Consortium but I’m not confident that I’m going to secure any better.  I’m reluctantly crossing them off the List while reserving the right to further avenge myself on them at a later date.  I don’t feel great about it but they’re proving to be a tough nut to crack.  Królewna & Bonifacja Trading Company was reckoned to be on be one of the movers and shakers in the Kingdom but I was able to completely ruin them without too much trouble.  It helped that they were complicit in treasonous activity but even so they had a lot of clout in the halls of power and they still went down hard.  The Lumber Consortium on the other hand I don’t think has any influence outside of the County, or very little, and they’re proving to be a far more stubborn opponent. Maybe the fact that their providence is smaller helps them?  K&B most likely had people trying to drag them down I gave them the chance.  Perhaps no one with enough power to do anything cares about the Lumber Consortium.

Point is I’m done with them for now.  I tried to the road back to Narhold and that displeased the collar around my neck forcing me northward.  And since the road north is crawling with Vieland soldiers (for some reason) I took off into the woods.  That always works well for me.  As you might imagine a gigantic warhorse is not well suited for picking your way through the trees and underbrush so I did significantly more leading than riding.  I had to use my Beastspeech several times to keep the big lummox moving.  In case you were wondering animals can be jerks.  And this guy is.  It’s probably not really his fault, I’m sure he was bred and trained to be like this, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.  I’ve heard tell that  the savages that live out on the plains indulge in horse-fighting instead of  civilized bloodsports like dog-fighting or bear-baiting.  In my less charitable moments that’s where I feel this fellow belongs.

Since I can’t ride him and since he probably needs a ton of food and since I don’t really care about all that armor he’s carrying I was thinking about just turning him loose.  But just about the time I was convincing myself to do that was also the time when I noticed a form in the underbrush stalking after us.  Some folks call them stalhounds, others call them festrogs, they have many names – but a rose by any other name would smell as rotting.  Whatever you call them what they are is undead wolves with slack limbs and empty eyes driven by the needed to slaughter the living – and not just kill, terrorize and dismember first.  I would imagine it was keeping its distance on account of big hairy brute beside me, if I had been alone I’m sure it would have attacked.

Certain types, your intellectuals and academics and whatnot like to speculate on why the living dead spend all their time trying to kill us.  Is it because they envy the living?  Is it because of the dark magic that propels them forward?  Is it to avenge their own deaths against the entire world?  This is a great example of pointless conjecture – the undead want to kill us, does it really matter why?  I can assure you when you have a zombie wolf eyeballing you (metaphorically, as they have no remaining eyes) you don’t worry about its motivations in the least. 

The crossbow I stole from the commander was as huge and awkward as his stupid jerk horse.  It makes no sense for an officer to have something like this, it’s not like he’s going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with a unit of crossbowmen firing at the enemy, he should have a smaller weapon that he can keep around all the time in case things go sideways.  I managed to get it loaded once and fire at the skulking beast but I don’t think I hit it and I gave up on the idea of a second shot quickly.  I can barely raise the thing to my shoulder.  I suppose if it comes at me I can throw the crossbow at it, this thing weights thirty pounds it feels like.

The good news is with this murder-collar on me for once I can always make sure I’m heading essentially in the right direction – if I get turned around it lets me know by starting to kill me.  The bad news is that as the day wore on several more undead wolves turned up the join the very slow silent “hunt”.  Anticipating that they would eventually reach a critical mass where a single warhorse wasn’t going to keep them at bay anymore my first thought was to mount up and ride, despite the dangers of doing so in dense woods, but I quickly realized that was futile – the chances of enduring beyond the capacity of a living wolfpack is a tough prospect, and if there’s one thing the undead have going for them it’s that they don’t get tired and they don’t give up. 

Unfortunately I wasn’t coming up with a second thought very quickly.  It was hard to tell how many of the beasts there were as the day worse on since it was dark and they kept to the shadows, but I’m pretty sure there were at least six, and based on the stench there could have been more.  However many they were they were emboldened enough to get closer.  I think attack was imminent when I spotted a lumber camp in the distance.  I leapt onto Stanger’s back and set him to as fast as a gallop as I thought prudent given the terrain.  Still I was almost thrown away just by the force of him moving beneath me – it was a jolt to the spine when he started running in earnest.  I don’t think he liked those creatures sneaking about any more than I did.  They didn’t chase us, which is always unsettling.  Whenever you run away from a deadly menace and it just watches you go you have to wonder what’s you’re running towards.

The camp was abandoned, what with the war and all, but there were six men in a line in the middle of the place – hands tied behind them.  Five had been beheaded, one on the end had had his throat slashed, maybe the ax had gotten dull before they got to him but if anyone should have a good supply of sharp axes it would be loggers.  They weren’t wearing uniforms but I think they were Vielanders.  With that cheery sight revealed I headed for what is generally the most secure building in a place like this – the paymaster’s hut.  I tied the reins over the saddlehorn to make sure they wouldn’t get in Stranger’s way, refraining from touching him as I used the Beastspeech.

“If those things come up here stomp them in the head, keep your back to the wall here, make sure they don’t get behind you.”

He horse-snorted “I don’t need you tell me how to fight wolves female.”

See what I mean?  Jerk.  I went inside and checked the hidden compartment that I know now is usually in these places – I’ve been in a depressing amount of lumber camps at this point.  It was empty, the entire place had been cleaned out other than a massive desk that was probably too heavy to shift easily.  Even the chair for the desk was gone.  I took a seat to consider my options.

“I don’t remember inviting you in.”

The voice belonged to a shaggy wolfman that was couching in the corner.  It was covered with dark fur that was matted and tangled in ways that looked painful.  There’s no way I could have overlooked it but yet there it was catching me unawares.  When I think of a werewolf I think of a full wolf-head with a long snout but this being wasn’t like that – it was more like a wolf-skin face stretched over a flat noseless human skull.  It wasn’t a good look.  Not helping the overall appearance was the fact that this was clearly dead – not only were its guts splitting out of its belly like an apron but it had deep gouges across both arms and the back of the neck.  Whatever it was it was deader than a doornail, yet there it crouched.

“I let myself in.”

It made an odd coughing noise “Hasn’t anyone told you that’s very inconsiderate?  What would your mother say?  Not to mention it can be very dangerous as well, you never know who could be home.”

“Clearly.  I thought that werewolves turned back into humans when they died, how do you end up a zombie werewolf?”

“How should I know?”

“Because you are one?”

It made a raspy wheezing noise that I think was supposed to be laughter, sounded like it really had to work to push out that rattle “Zombie werewolf, that’s a good one.”

Montresor 30 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

The good thing about soldiers is that they’re used to following orders.  Before his partner could get back Vanger and I tossed the body of his commander into the bedroom (you know, the onewhere I killed Wolcott that one time) and shut the door.  When the other guard came running back with a confused lieutenant (is there any other kind?) he backed up my story that the shapeshifter had slashed at us with shapeshifter claws and then ran away after Vanger valiantly and bravely stabbed it, hence all the blood.  Aside from being used to following orders he was probably also motivated by the desire not to be executed for murdering his commanding officer.  I have no idea how well the shapeshifter defense works in a military tribunal but if he stopped to think about it I wonder what he would have done.  Thankfully he didn’t.  The lieutenant was all excited about rallying the men to find the escaped spy but I threw a blanket over that enthusiasm.

“Belay that order Lieutenant, think about what you’re saying for a moment, how do you suggest that we find a person or creature capable of changing form on a whim?  What you’re talking about would be worse than a wild goose chase.  We know one thing, right now, for certain, I am the real commander of this outfit.  So I am going to issue an order and that order will be carried out no matter who seems to appear and countermand it.  Gather up all the other officers and bring them here Lieutenant, I need to address you all at that same time.  If you get back here and Vanger is not with me DO NOT LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAY.  From now on Vanger and I are joined at the hip, that way you know it’s the real me.  We’d be holding hands right now if regulations didn’t say that we can’t.  If you see me or Vanger alone that person is an imposter.  Now hurry up damn it, we don’t have a lot of time!”

Vanger looked desperately like he wanted to say something but the other guard was there trying to look like he knew what was going on.  A few minutes later the Lieutenant came jogging back with a handful of captains and a major or two along with some various other hangers-on.

“At ease men.  A Kingdom agent with the ability to disguise themselves as anyone in the area.  But that’s not going to be a problem because these two men can right here right now vouch that I am the true commander of this outfit.  Here’s what we’re going to do.  Our Ulpine allies have captured the Compass River and cut off Three Rivers from the rest of the county.  But as usual they need us to do the real work.  Get everyone ready to move and head up the road to Three Rivers to join the assault.  In three days I want you across the river and in four days I want you to be inside the walls.”

A tall peacock looking fellow frowned “But sir our orders are . . .”

I gave him a look “I know what our orders are Captain.  They no longer matter.  As of right now our only priority is capturing Three Rivers.  Forget everything else.”

A commander master sergeant with a rugged sergeanty jawline piped up “What about the prisoners sir?”

“Turn them loose, they no longer matter.”

Peacock’s eyebrows shot up “But sir, our orders . . .”

“Captain don’t make me tell you again, forget those orders.  There is a Kingdom relief force heading here right now and we’re not going to waste any more time and manpower on this anthill of a village.  Capturing Three Rivers is the key to securing this entire region.  So that’s what you’re going to do, is that clear?”

He nodded, somewhat nervously but more in the way of a pouty child.

“Now the important part.  I can’t have Vanger sitting my lap the entire way to Three Rivers to verify my identity.  Which is why we won’t be going.  I am issuing this order now, proceed to Three Rivers with all haste and attack. Major you are taking command of this operation.  But all you of you men here in this room take heed – of the Major or myself or anyone else, up to and including the King shows up and tells you do anything other than proceed to Three Rivers with all haste and attack DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM.  This is the order I am giving and nothing in the Heavens or Hells will change that no matter how reasonable it seems.  If you see ‘me’ turn up in your camp place that person under lock and key.  Is that clear?  You are to proceed to Three Rivers and attack, this order cannot be countermanded by anyone.  Is that understood?  If the Major or anyone else gives a different order remove them from command and place them in chains.  Any change in directions or tactics needs to be confirmed in the presence of the next man up the chain.  I want each man here to say individually that they understand.”

Once all that rigmarole was done and they scurried off to start yelling and whatever else it is that officers do Vanger grabbed at me desperately.

“What are we going to do?”

I shrugged him off “Relax private, we’re in the clear, they’ll go off to attack Three Rivers and you can return home or back to your base or whatever it is soldiers do who get separated from their unit.  You have to admit that’s a pretty good shapeshifter protocol I came up with there wasn’t it?  Seems like something the army should train for.  I think that’s pretty simple magic.  It probably happens all the time, spies and whatnot.”

He hissed dreadfully in a whisper “But you’re the shapeshifter.”

I elbow him away “Back off me man, you don’t have to spit in my ear, I know.  Look, you’re freaking out, just sit in the corner and don’t say or do anything and this will all over shortly.”

He slumped down in the corner like a man who’d been kicked in the head by an oxen.  I finished off the commander’s whiskey while I ransacked his home. The man only had forty damn gold.  What a rip off.  I guess the Vieland armor doesn’t pay any better than ours.  He had a suit of armor that weighed nine thousand pounds.  Even mounted I don’t understand how they wear that stuff.  I had Vanger help me load it onto the commander’s mount – a big ugly brute of a horse who looked at me suspiciously until I used my Beastspeech to chat with him and explain that I was his new best friend.

While Vanger was out messing with big hunks of metal armor it have me a chance to take a look at Wolcott’s secret stash, which I didn’t get a chance to check out last time.  He didn’t have any gold in there for some reason – what kind of emergency stash is that – but he did have some useful items, including some scrolls and wands.  Was Wolcott a magic user?  I never got that sense.  I guess some people learn how to use scrolls that other magic people make for them.  Since there was nothing else to do I searched the rest of the place thoroughly while the Vielanders got themselves into marching order and Vanger sat in the corner looking traumatized.  Some of these military types are shockingly fragile.  No one they come back from war all crazy in the head. 

It was only a couple hours until the Vieland force was ready to move, which I have to admit it pretty impressive.  There were more them them than I expected, probably five hundred men –headed north on the road to Three Rivers leaving behind several dozen confused and bruised Gevudians.  Vanger and I watched as they marched into the trees and out of sight. He looked at me urgently.

“What do we do now?”

I patted him on the shoulder “Don’t worry Vanger, I have a plan.”

I stepped out of Wolcott’s house/the commander’s post looking like myself, my disguise having well worn off by now, with a very nervous man in a Vielander uniform on my side.  I beckoned all the Gevudaners over to listen to my pronouncement.

“Greetings fellow Kingdomers, I have negotiated your freedom.  You’re welcome.  I would suggest that you loot whatever is left here and get out of this area as soon as possible.  Head north to Gib’s Tor maybe?  There are not a lot of good options.  You could head for Graltondown but I think that place is going to be sacked soon, and Three Rivers is fucked as well.  Basically what I’m saying is that it’s everyone for themselves.  I wouldn’t hang around in this forest for sure, there’s a lot of bad shit going down in here.” I leapt onto the commander’s horse “Anyway, goodbye and good luck!” I heard Vanger yelling behind me as I spurred my hoses away from the ruins of Gevudan.     

Montresor 30 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

When I first heard that Vieland had captured Gevudan I wondered why they would bother.  Later on when I uncovered their operation with the traitors in the Lodge Woods it made a little more sense.  When I first heard that my jailers/guards/minders were taking to Three Rivers by way of Gevudan I said “Isn’t that village in enemy hands?”  I was assured that it had been retaken by the brave men of the King’s Army.  Our first indication that the statement about Gevudan being back in the poxy bosom of the Kingdom might be incorrect is when a few miles away the guy who’s name I didn’t learn and who never said or did anything both said and did something.  What he did was catch an arrow in the thigh and what he said was “I’m shot.”  Very calmly as if saying “hey look at that bird over there.”

I had mentioned several times to my jailers/guards/minders that wearing the uniforms of the Duke’s Guard this close to enemy territory was perhaps not the best idea but as usual I was ignored.  I’m no expert on fieldcraft but I feel that when you’re moving through a warzone it’s best to do so in plain clothes.  Bolbec, Findley, and Cavnas ran for cover as another arrow snapped the unknown soldier’s head back by hitting him in the face.  I’ve seen a depressingly high number of people get shot through the face in the past two years.  Granted I shot most of them but still.  I went the other way with it, I let loose a very convincing scream of terror and ran towards the Vieland patrol that was shooting at us.  As if I was a captive escaping from my captors, which is what I was.

As I ran towards them one of the bowmen took aim at me, but I shrieked and threw myself to the ground and he held his shot.  A couple of Vielanders ran out of cover to drag me back off the road.  From what I saw the Duke’s guards didn’t have crossbows or any other missile weapons so there was no return fire, but the Vielanders were still cautious.  A fellow with a cloak that looked like a pair of damn bat wings wearing a stupid pointy hat asked me what the Hells I was doing.  I babbled in a frightened tone about how the Kingdomers had arrested my mistress Lady Krebuleus for treason on account of she was conspiring with Vieland and they grabbed me as well.  I cried tears of relief at being “rescued”, the whole bit.  Batwings Stupidhat dispatches one of his soldiers to run me back to town while they continued their standoff with the Ducal Guard.

Gevudan wasn’t much to look at to begin with, now the place looks like it has been flattened by the stamping feet of giants.  The village has essentially ceased to exist aside from a couple buildings that looked like they had been half burned.  It was just a place for a Vieland military camp now.  For a such a small unimportant place it looked like the fighting have been vicious – there were still bodies lying about and discarded pieces of equipment being picked over by some dead-eyed cattlemen under the guard of Vieland soldiers.  One of the buildings still standing was Wolcott’s home, which is where the soldier took me.  It was weird to be back at the sight of what was probably my most cold blooded killing.  It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but in retrospect I probably could have some up with a better plan.  It was all bit a much.

The Vielander who had turned the place into a command center of sorts was sour looking fellow with blonde hair that came too far down his forehead.  He tersely asked me who I was and what was going on and then proceeded to interrupt with more questions a third of way into any answer I gave.  The only time he let me talk was when I told him about the Ulpine fleet on the Compass River.  After he questioned me about that at length he gave me a stern gaze, not a real one, more like a teacher who thinks a pupil is being “cheeky”.

“So what you want from me madam?  Your mistress was captured, her plan failed.  Many men died because of her carelessness, letting the plan be discovered.  And you expect what?  Asylum?  To be sent home as a hero?  You’ll find cold welcome for any Kingdomer there.”

“I don’t want anything from you, I was brought here against my will.  I wasn’t coming here to speak with you, I just wanted to get away from my captors.  Truth be told I don’t care a nonce for your war and I resent that my mistress has made me a traitor to my homeland.  But a traitor is what I am now.  If you leave me my to my business I’ll leave you to yours.”

He snorted “I can’t have you wandering around my battlefield like a ghost.”

“What do you propose to do with me then sir?”

“You’ll be my assistant.  You can start right now by fetching me some wine.  If you are disobedient you will be disciplined.  If you serve well you will be treated well.”

I raised an eyebrow “Ooh, disciplined huh?  Kinky.” I put my feet up on his desk “You know I’ve been here before.  This house used to belong to a man named Wolcott.  We had sex and then I cut his throat.  It was part of a scheme I was working, framing another guy for devil worship.  It was pretty convoluted.  I was a little too clever for my own good back then.” I produced a dagger from my secret pocket “You want to see how I did it?  The throat part I mean, not the sex part, that was pretty standard.  I’m sure you can imagine what that looked like fairly easily.”

For a military man he reacted in a gutless way, even for an officer, instead of drawing a weapon to defend himself he ran into the back room and slammed the door, shouting for his guards.  I guess it’s not totally unjustified, he probably thought that I was a doppelganger or a fey tricksteress.  By the time two guards came running in I had taken his form and voice.

I gestured “Get this door down now!  Be careful, she’s a shapeshifter, so whatever you see on the other side don’t get thrown off.  Whoever is in there grab them.”

The two men picked up the desk and hurled it through the door, smashing it to pieces, then awkwardly dragging out their commanding officer who was protesting that I was imposter all the while.  They kept a hold of him but they eyed me warily.

“She’s trying to fool you, but she’s right you know, you don’t know which one of us to trust.  Until further notice you should disregard what either of us says.  You, stay here and make sure that neither one of us leaves, you grab the first officer you can find and bring them here – they’re in charge until we figure this out.”

The commander was apoplectic at being restrained by his own man while the other ran off to obey my orders “I’ll have you court martialed if you don’t release me right now Vanger!”

I rummaged around in the wreckage of the desk and found an intact bottle of Cherrywood Select Whiskey, setting up the chair and taking a seat to have a pull “I tell you what, this day is not going the way I expected.” I shook my head “You can’t put anything past these Kingdomers can you?  Shapeshifting assassins?  What’s next I ask.”

He looked at me suspiciously “Why didn’t you call me Vanger?”

I smiled shortly “Sorry son, but I have no idea what your name is.  I hate to break it to you but I don’t know the names of every man under my command.” I raised the bottle to him “I’m sure as Hells going to remember your name after this though.  Is Vanger your first or last name private?”

The man in his arms shouted desperately “Casan!  Casan Vanger!”

The soldier looked at the man in his arms and then let him go – only to slam a knife into his back.  Blondie’s eyes widened comically as he was stabbed and slipped to the floor.  Vanger retrieved his spear and finished the job of murdering his commanding officer.  He looked over at me with a happy grin.

“I knew the real you wouldn’t know my name sir, but now you do.”

I took another drink and then spoke in my own voice “I like your initiative soldier, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do when your friend came back.  The bad news is you just killed your commander, which I believe even the Vieland military frowns upon.  The good news is that I have a plan for us.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever see someone more crestfallen.  And I know from crestfallen. 

Montresor 29 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

You cut one guy’s face off and all of a sudden people look at you strangely.  You’d think that the Duke’s personal guard would be made of sterner stuff.  I’m sure they’ve done all manner of depraved things in service of their lord and master the Duke.  Who are they to look askance at me for one defacing?  It wasn’t like the guy didn’t deserve it.  Everyone deserves it.  Justified or not (it isn’t) Bolbec and Cavnas are eyeballing me like a dangerous forest cat.  Finchley would occasionally grin at me like we shared some private joke.  The other guy whose name I don’t know and never says anything was the same.  I guess I can take comfort in that. 

Eedraxis’s . . . compound I’ll call it, was much the same, the tree looked a little more sickly and burned perhaps and there was some manner of glowing weather-vane thing sticking out the top of the main building but otherwise it looked like the same madman’s workshop was I visited almost two years ago looking for poisons.  I think that if I had found a normal black market alchemist instead of this lunatic things would be much different now.  I made a lot of mistakes in those early days.  With a reliable source of drugs and poison I think I could have handled my business much neater and more quickly.  The Duke would probably be dead by now.  Maybe I should learn alchemy myself.  You know, in my spare time.

While the compound itself was the same the surrounding area was much different.  There was a large bonfire nearby and a roped off area with several wagons.  Big wagons.  Big wagons heavily laden with junk.  It was as random as collection of junk as you’d ever want to lay eyes on.  There were a couple of ruffians listlessly guarding the piles and up “front” was a battered table where a dozen or so people were queued up to hand over their junk.  Manning the table was a brawny scruffy looking fellow who looked like a lumberjack but was dressed like a prosperous merchant.  He had on a tight cap that was pushing out a mass of hair at the edges like a reverse muffin.  With him was a female gnome with eyes that bulged out like those of a tree lizard and who had an extra joint between the elbow and the wrist.  I haven’t seen a lot of gnomes but I don’t think they’re supposed to look that pale and glistening.  Kind of like a slug’s flesh.  Brawny was examining whatever the people brought up to him and the gnomette was freaking everyone out with her weirdness and then handing them a couple bricks of wandermeal. 

If you don’t know what wandermeal is consider yourself lucky.  It’s an edible rock made of flour and water with some other surprises.  It keeps for months without spoiling.  People say that it was invented in the Shire but that is utter bullshit.  Shirefolk would never create a foodstuff so terrible.  The best wandermeal is bland and tasteless.  The worse has all kinds of flavors.  Fun fact about wandermeal, it fills you up but it has little to no nutrition in it – if that’s all you eat you have zero energy and eventually you die for malnutrition.  The scheme playing out was as simple as it was obvious – the war is starting to make things scare so come trade all your worldly possessions for a couple handfuls of what is technically food.  An alchemist can turn out wandermeal by the basketload easily.

The ruffians by the wagons looked over incuriously as I headed for Eedraxis’s cottage but bustling out from the front door (inasmuch as the random collection of wood and iron can be said to have a front) was the gatekeeper – a Kostelos man dressed in the motley of a renegade.  He was a tall fellow with a tall hat that made him seem even bigger, although he was skinny as an elf-maiden.  He had a hatchet on his belt that his hand strayed to touch for comfort every few moments.  When he pointed at the table and its two odd inhabitants his arm wasn’t quite straight – like it had a little crook in it from being broken and not healing correctly.

“No one is allowed inside, if you want to sell something you go over there.”

“Oh I’m not here to sell anything, I just want to chat with my old pal.  He used to get very upset if people came around here, looks like he got over that huh?  Commerce can do wonderful things for people’s attitude.  Some say that war profiteering is bad but look what it’s done for Eedraxis and his social anxiety.  Marvelous isn’t it?”

“Eedraxis isn’t seeing anyone.”

I moved to walk past him “I’m sure he’ll be happy to see me.”

Put his non-crooked arm out to block me “No one is allowed in.”

I gave him a cool look “Take your hand off me sir.”

The Duke’s guards weren’t right there with me but they were nearby, and they look like some bad men if you don’t know better like I do.  The Kostelos man looked at them nervously but he didn’t back down.  He did draw his hand off me though.

“I can’t let you in.”

I snapped my fingers “Hey, I know you don’t I?  You’re Grey Horse right?  You’d skulk around on the edge of town selling phony charms and potions?  I remember Augrim talking about what a disgrace you were.” I chuckled “Man did he want to kill you.  The whores used to talk about you too, you’re the one with the dick that . . .”

“No one calls me Grey Horse anymore, my name is Sartorious now.”

“Wow, that’s about as un-Kostelos a name as you can conjure up now it’s it?  Decided to join the winning side huh?  Good luck with that.  Look Sartorious, I don’t want to get into a while thing with you here, can you just go inside and ask Eedraxis if he wants to see me?  I’ll just stay here and wait.  Maybe I’ll check out those junk wagons, perhaps there’s something I’d be interested in buying.”

He seemed dubious but I convinced him with my winsome smile.  I can winsome as fuck you know.  A moment after he went inside I turned to the Ducal Guards and gave them wink before disguising myself as the merchant woodsman and going inside myself.  The inside of the complex had been altered radically – I get the feeling that Eedraxis is constantly changing the place up to facilitate whatever crazy stuff he’s working on.  I’m sure he’s got body parts he’s trying to reanimate in there somewhere.  I didn’t see Eedraxis but I did see a couple more weird looking gnomes – I didn’t get a good look but I could swear that I saw one that had a carapace like a beetle.  I give wizards a hard time (and rightfully so) but alchemists are into some pretty freaky shit as well.  Let us not forget that Eedraxis was chased out of Graltontown for kidnapping and experimenting on dwarves.

Grey Horse was surprised by the appearance of whoever it was I appeared like and was about to say something when I grabbed one of the many flasks of bubbling shit the gnomes were working on and hurled it into a small fire that was in the middle of the room.  It exploded into a cloud of choking vapor because what else was it going to do – explosions and poison are what alchemy is all about.   That and addictive drugs and graverobbing and turning people into weird bugs.  I held my breath and covered my eyes and knocked over more stuff until the place was well on fire.  When I finally ran out noxious smoke was pouring out of Eedraxis’s hut.  But it wasn’t going up into the air, it was creeping along the ground like animal.  It was pretty strange.  Bolbec and Cavnas had their swords out as I ran over to them and started coughing like an old man.

“What happened?  What’s going on?”

Eye burning eventually I was able to speak “Wrong house.  I think my friend lives north of here.”

Montresor 29 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

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?”

Montresor 28 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 2

The farther down you are on the socio-economic ladder the worse your shoes are – which is an issue because also the father down you are on the socio-economic ladder more important your shoes are.  When I was first drugged and left for dead in Graltontown I was pissed that my dress had gotten dirty.  Those were my priorities at the time.  I quickly discovered that when you’re down here in the mud and the guts with everyone else what you really need is a good pair of boots or shoes.  When I was given this potato sack to wear it came with “shoes” in the form of cloth to wrap about my feet, which is more common than you’d think.  It really tears you up.  Whenever I face a serious setback like the one currently occurring my first order of business is to get some proper footwear.  It was easy this time because I didn’t have to do anything.  The first step of Bolbec Forthwind’s plan was to give me some different clothes to wear.  A pair of sturdy boots, cloth skirt with an overtunic, a belt, a shirt with a terrible jacket, gloves, a scarf, and an ugly a wide-brimmed hat.  It looked terrible.  Sadly I’ve worn worse.

It’s a commentary on my life now that I didn’t even think about it – I just started changing right in front of him.  I wonder what kind of commentary it is that he didn’t even remark upon that fact.  Instead he started explaining the subsequent parts of the plan – sneaking out of town and going some number of paces this way or that and blah blah blah, I wasn’t really listening.  Once I was dressed in my slightly less crappy clothing I lay down on the bed in the shitty hostel with my hands behind me head.

“I appreciate it Bolbec but what I could really use is a whiskey sour and a nice juicy rabbit.”

He was understandably confused “But we need to go right now, we only have . . .”

I waved his concerns away “It’s no use Bolbec, they got me good.” I tapped the collar they saddled me with “This baby is all magiced up the wing-wang, there’s no getting away for me, not until I can figure out how to get rid of it.”

“That shouldn’t be hard, we just need . . .”

I sat up quickly as I felt the collar start to constrict “Stop!  Don’t say anything more about it!  Talk like that sets it off.”

He looked at me for a moment “They really got you don’t they?”

I laid back down “The hook is in deep this time my old friend.  And by old friend I mean someone I barely know.  Why is that you were going to help me?  Seems like you had this whole plan worked out in advance, what’s the skinny?  Were you secretly in love with me the entire time we were at court?  Were you pining away in silence, enraptured by my beauty?  I don’t blame you there Bolbec, I was quite something back then.  This is the part where you’re supposed to say how lovely I am still.”


“Forget about it, just tell me what’s going on.”

“I volunteered for this assignment, from the beginning my plan was to help you escape, I did have things arranged beforehand.  Before I got here I spent some time working it all out.  I should have guessed that it wouldn’t be that easy.”

“Nothing ever is.  That doesn’t tell me anything about why you did it though.  Are you working for someone?  Do I still have allies at court?”

He shook his head “No, I did this on my own.”

“You’re being very cagey Bolbec, why is the question – what’s your angle?”

“I just didn’t think it was right what had happened to you.”

“I don’t believe that for a second but I won’t press the matter anymore, you can have your secrets if you want.  I supposed embarking on this shenanigan this is better than being on the front lines.  How is the war going Bolbec?  Seems like the Kingdom is losing a lot of territory given the fact that we’re supposed to be winning this thing.”

He smiled sadly “I’m sure it’s a tactical decision, all part of the plan.”

“I’m sure.  Tell me something Bolbec, if I snuck my way into Finchley’s room in the night and slit his throat and tossed him out a window how would that make you feel?”

His facial expression was hard to read, it looked like someone had stepped on his balls and he was trying now to show it “Are you capable of something like that My Lady?”

I snorted “Oh, I’m no lady anymore Bolbec, not that I ever was truly, I was the Duke’s dress up doll.  I’m still in the process of figuring out what I am.  It’s harder than you think.  Let me ask you this Bolbec, when the war is over and the Kingdom has won as it always does in war, there’s going to be a flood of people in society that have become killers.  Some of them will be pretty broken up about it but for a lot of them it will just be a thing they did.  Do you think having that many killers in society changes things?  Every time there’s a war is it followed by a weird period in the kingdom where society is made up of killers?  Seems like that would change things.  Forget the poverty and the hunger and all the other fucked up stuff about the war itself – afterwards there’s a whole generation of murderers running around.  It’s something to think about.”

“I . . . I don’t know what to say to that.”

“Don’t worry, I’m just thinking out loud.  I’m a killer now Bolbec. I’ve tried to feel guilty about it but I can’t seem to pull it off.  What do you think that means?  Am I doomed to the fiery pits of the Thirteen Hells to be tormented forever by Krolkoth the Awakener?  Seems a little harsh to be tormented forever no matter what someone did.”

“Uh . . . I’m not sure.”

“Sorry Bolbec you were expecting an exciting rescue, running through the night and hiding and horses in the night and shit and instead here I am dropping some heavy philosophy on you.  My apologies, I tend to get metaphysical whenever I lose everything.  It happens every seven or eight months.  Sometimes I can get the stuff back but I’m in a real bind this time Bolbec, I think my goose might be pickled on this one.  You’re a fighting man Bolbec, you were in the last war right?  How many men to you reckon you’ve sent on the next life?”

He seemed mightily uncomfortable “I couldn’t say My Lady, chaos of battle and all.”

I nodded “I know what you mean, after a while it’s hard to keep track right?  If you told me I had killed a hundred people I could believe it.  A thousand I don’t think so, but I can’t even really hazard a guess what the number is.  Some of them I probably wouldn’t even remember.  Most of the ones I straight up murdered in cold blood I could probably list if I tried hard enough but when you’re in the thick of battle and your blood is up you’re just reacting.  Afterwards you think, did you kill five people or seven?  It’s impossible to say.”

He abruptly headed for the door “I should get some sleep.”

“Sure, sure, you get some rest Bolbec.  How are we doing on that whiskey sour?”

Montresor 28 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

This collar tries to murder me if I attempt to take it off.  That makes sense.  Simple enough.  If I undo the thing the magic happens.  But it also tries to murder me if I ask someone else how to get it off.  This is where things get weird.  How does it know?  And what is “it” in this context?  I’ve never heard anyone make the claim that magic is an entity of some kind capable of thought and decision making.  I’ve never even really heard anyone claim that there’s a God that’s in charge of it.  So how does it work?  How?  You summon fire and you burn someone alive, I get that, that’s pretty straightforward.  But once magic has conditions what are we talking about anymore?  If you curse someone to have donkey lips and a monkey tail until they make a princess fall in love with them who’s keeping track of that?  Who or what decides when someone is in love?  Or who’s a princess?  Is the magic fully versed in geology?  No one has any clue how these things work.  Why does this not bother anyone else?

“Ela you’ve talked about this many times, give it a rest.”

I will not.  There has to be an explanation for this.  If I sit down for lunch I’m not technically “making progress” towards the North, but the collar doesn’t murder me.  Does it know that I need food to keep going so eating counts as progress?  If I have a long lunch will it strangle me a little to get me going?  Is there a time limit for lunch?  If I head due east or west will it kill me?  If I take one single solitary step to the south does it kill me?  How does “it” even know what south is?  That’s just something we made up.  Magic is supposed to be an elemental force of nature – animals don’t know directions, mountains don’t know directions, gravity doesn’t know directions, but somehow magic does?  How can it “know” anything?!  What is it?!  What?!I can’t let this go because as rare and “wonderful” as magic is it’s more a part of the Kingdom than I ever realized.  A mule farmer up in the Beregon Valley might not think that magic effects his life but it does.  Look at Chenmost, those people probably never thought about magic, didn’t make them any less dead when the place fucking blew up as a result of magic shenanigans.  Magic is an integral part of our lives, even if we don’t know it, and yet somehow no one seems to know anything about it or how it works.  

What are wizards doing out there and why are we as a people allowing them to do it?  I’m the last one to call for government intervention in just about anything, but shouldn’t we be keeping an eye on these people who are meddling with the fundamental building blocks of the universe?  Some of the really remote county oafs would gladly kill all the magic people in the world on account of their backwards and violent ways.  I could almost get on board with that if not for the fact that magic can make life so much more comfortable.  And bring me booze.  

Anyway, enough about magic.  We set out on the road to Three Rivers by way of Gevudan seeing as the area to the north is under enemy control.  Last I heard Gevudan had been captured by the enemy as well but no one seemed to be concerned about that.  The northern road was full of people.  People heading in both directions, which is a good indication that no one knows what’s going on.  The people whose villages had been wrecked along the Compass River were fleeing to Graltontown – the people in Graltowntown were fleeing north to get away from the front lines.  I’ve often wondered if someone was fleeing and they see someone else fleeing the other way if they would continue fleeing in the same direction or reverse course.  Looks like most people are content to trust their own judgement.   There was no one else on the south road.  At all. 

The “we” in this case was myself and four Ducal guards sent along as my shepherds.  Just in case the magic murder collar didn’t make enough of an impression.  The Duke’s personal guard is in theory a highly elite military force fanatical in their loyalty to the Eaglevane family.  The reality is that these days the guard is a largely ceremonial force that varies widely in quality.  The captain of the Ducal Guard for instance I don’t think has ever trained for battle, let alone been in one, he was give his position because one time he loaned one of the King’s friends his horse.  There are couple real hardcases in the Ducal Guard but they’re generally there because they made poor life decisions.

The Ducal Guard was formed in secret by Duke Anton Eaglevane in 812 from forces loyal to him in the neighboring county.  This is what is known as “treason” but given all the other treason that was about to happen people tend to forget about that.  Four regiments of the Ducal Guard were raised and based on this show of force Duke Anton gained the loyalty of several Eaglevane fighting forces as well as negotiating a contract with the infamous mercenary lord Eustace Lobar the Wolf Monk.   Anton declared himself Archduke, launching a civil war against his brother (the current Duke’s grandfather) Morton.  The fighting prowess of the Ducal Guard was so renowned that it became common to drunken louts in the taverns to debate if they would a match for the King’s Own – which is of course a highly elite military force fanatical in their loyalty to the Crown.  Seventy-six years later the Ducal Guards mostly stand around and sometimes fetch things like stools.  I have my doubts about their current efficacy as a military force in the field but they look damn good in a parade.  

I don’t know how many guards the Duke has now, but it must be a lot less than four regiments because I know two of the ones sent to escort me.  Cottom Finchley is what people generally think of when they conjure up the image of a dashing cavalryman – long, athletic, rangy, handsome in that foppish way some women like.  I prefer men who spend less time on their hair than I do personally but to each their own.  Finchely has one of them faces that are so striking that people often overlook the eyes – those cold snake eyes tell the real story.  The man is a monster.  At court he loved to play a little game with people where he’d have them arrested on false charges and then come in to “save” them only to have them be captured again when he betrayed them.  The Duke’s court has its fair share of utter shitheads and he’s one of the top ones.  For some reason he always smells like honey.  

The other fellow I know, Bolbec Forthwind, is much less striking but on the other hand he’s not a piece of human waste either so it balances out somewhat.  If he wasn’t short and closing on fifty he’d be a decent looking fellow.  Although you can’t do much about that round peasant face of his.  I told him once he would look better if he stopped painting his hair with that awful dye he uses but it doesn’t look like he listened to me – his head still glistens like an oil slick.   Finchley is younger, bigger, quicker, and meaner but if they ever came to blows I would wager that Bolbec would beat his balls off.  Some people are just fighters you know?  You can tell.

Around the time we reached Narhold we noticed vast plumes of smoke to the north.  I speculated that it was Three Rivers, you may remember that as the city we’re heading for, being burned to the ground but Finchley laughed at this idea.  Although he offered no alternative opinion on what else could be causing enough smoke that there was an early sunset.  I’ve never been to Narhold before, the only thing I know about is it that Martialla killed one of the men who killed her niece here.  His name was Bass or Flounder or some stupid fish name.  What I’ve heard about Narhold is that this is good fertile land but on account of being right next to an enemy nation no one wants to live here.  Rumor has it that it was founded by Vieland criminals who fled across the border to avoid justice in their homeland.  Consequently it’s populated mostly by outcast and criminals of various sorts, willing to make a hard life among the dangers of the region.  It’s also whispered that Nahold regularly bribes officials in Vieland with food, gold, and slaves – which is treason you know.

Once we were firmly installed in one of the rat-infested hostels in this crap border town that Bolbec Forthwind told me that he was going to set me free.