Lilykai Kodel, Ratik Ranger

Bob

Dinner with the DeLong sisters is lovely….and uncomfortable. It’s full of innuendo, implication and suggestion. I don’t really want to know how many times they had visitors and some of those stories about their husbands. (who they seem to really have loved and miss). It’s like listening to a couple of your great, great aunts talk dirty. Please, no!

Of course they want to know about me. “There is really nothing to know.”

“Oh, but surely a pretty girl like you,” Betty begins

“would have plenty of boys sniffing around.” Ida finishes

I find the idea of being sniffed….distasteful. “I’m kind of on my own here. Most Rangers aren’t like my-“ I catch myself just in time, “aren’t like the one you described earlier.” Now I can’t get the image of both these women with my uncle out of my head. It’s disconcerting.

“But you have been to Artus Compound.” One of them starts. I don’t know which, I was looking away.

“There are several nice looking men there who don’t have wives. There’s Lucas, and Phaelen…although he’s a little old for you…” Betty says.

“Not us though!” Ida and Betty cackle as one. Laughing until tears pool in their eyes. I laugh too, it’s infections. He’s probably 20 years younger than them.

“I don’t know…” I grin, “I wouldn’t call him old…as much as ‘experienced’.”

They chime in together. “That’s not a bad thing!” And we all break into peals of laughter once more.

“I did meet Algen. I saved his kid.” My voice is soft.

Betty and Ida share a look. “Oooh, Algen is a cute one. But he’s probably still pining over losing Beth, his wife.” Ida speaks while Betty nods along, then she adds, “He lost her not that long ago…..what do you mean ‘you saved his kid’? What happened to Whipper?”

I take a deep breath, refill my wineglass, (maybe this is why I’m so talkative) and begin telling the story of the raid and Whipper and the bear….everything. My storytelling is getting a bit better. They’re actually on the edge of their seats.

“Well, that is quite a tale.” Announces Ida as she rises from the table. “I should get things cleaned up and feed the scraps to….the animals.” Her pause catches my attention. I watch her scrape the leftovers, what few there were, into a bucket in the kitchen that already contains some food scraps. Betty is cleaning the dishes, as her sister steps out the front door with the bucket my curiosity is even more peaked and I pick up a dishtowel as I move towards her to dry our dishes.

“You don’t need to do that, “ she starts as I pick the first plate out of the dish drain.

“Happy to help, it’s the least I can do as thanks for a wonderful meal. You cook, I clean….that’s the deal.” I reply politely, a faraway look in my eye. She seems a little uncomfortable for some reason, so I press her with another question. “Do you have a hog? I didn’t notice one when I walked up. Didn’t hear one in the barn.”

“Nope, never had a hog. Just a cow, geese, chickens….Rodney of course…and the occasional duck.” Her movements become hurried, as mine remain calm.
At that point Betty returns, empty bucket in hand, smiling. “Well, that’s taken care of.”

“What exactly was taken care of?” I pin her with a look as I ask the question.

“Nothing! Just got rid of those scraps, you know. We can’t give them to the chickens, it’s too rich for them, and…well….it’s just better if I get rid of them into the woods so varmints don’t come around.”

[I roll Insight and can tell that she’s lying to me. Immediately my hackles are up. Apparently I trust no one]

“I should go outside and check around…make sure there aren’t any ‘varmints’ getting too close to the house.” My eyebrows arch as I watch her squirm a bit.

“No, no no, no!” They both say in unison and then glance at each other guiltily. “It’s starting to sleet. It just started when I was coming inside” Betty explains further. “You might catch cold.”

I open the door anyway and look outside. She’s telling the truth, it’s sleeting. Inspecting the yard, woodpile, outhouse, smokehouse, shed. [perception roll fail] I see nothing out of the ordinary. I close the door and take a step back inside. There is a long moment of staring them down and giving them an opportunity to come clean. It’s pretty clear I don’t trust them….well, I don’t trust that they’re telling me the truth right now.

“Well, I think it’s time we all got some rest.”
“Yes, yes, sister…I agree. It is awfully late”

Looks like they don’t want to come clean.

Slowly I nod, “Ok, ok. I could use some sleep. I’ll take the couch.”

They both visibly relax and bustle around the one room cabin pulling out quilts and pillows from nooks and crannies. They are really nice quilts. I notice they have a single large bed just stacked high with blankets that they must share.

“You sleep as much as you want, we’ll be finishing your clothes in the morning” one of them says as I feel slumber pull me into it’s embrace. This couch is sooooo comfortable.

———————————-

I hear noises in the kitchen area. They are speaking lowly, not realizing I’m awake. I keep my breathing regular and my eyes closed.

“Is he doing OK?”
“Yes, but he’s still awake. I wish he would hibernate already”

Did she say hibernate!

“He ate all the food from last night, plus if we give him more tonight he might tuck in for a month or so. He doesn’t sleep through the winter normally anymore.”

Sitting up without making a noise, “So, you’ve got a bear.” My voice breaks the whispered silence. Both ladies jump and one drops a dish. Luckily it doesn’t break.

“You’re awake!” Says Betty, her eyes moving between me and her sister nervously. “Did you sleep well? We’re making some breakfast. Your clothes are almost ready.” She’s a bit anxious, it makes her chatty…..more chatty.

Ida is just staring. Gauging my reaction, my actions. She doesn’t say anything to fill the silence, her sister is doing that. I slowly put on my boots, stand, stretch my back. Ignore Betty’s constant questions, she just keeps going.

“Ok, show me the bear.” All conversation stops. The only noise in the cabin is the geese and chickens squawking at one another and the cow occasionally mooing them to all shut up.

Betty defers to Ida who hasn’t taken her eyes off me and presses her lips together, judging….deciding.

“Ok, this way.” She nods towards the door and slips her coat off a peg. I remove mine and strap my sword across my back. Betty sucks in a breath when I do that. Ida glances at my face, the large sewn slashes across the chest of my coat and back to my eyes. I raise my eyebrows and gesture ‘after you’ to her. We exit the front door, me following her.

We go directly towards the shed. As we get close I hear quiet grunting, and smell the odor of animal….kind of like wet dog, but thicker somehow.

“Bob…” Ida opens the door a bit. “come on out Bob, it’s mama. Where’s my boy?” She talks into the shed like she’s speaking to a child.

From the dimness of the shed I hear louder grunting and shuffling. A full grown, really large, black bear comes lumbering out of the small space. Once it sees me it moves more towards Ida and frowns (can bears frown..that really looks like a frown) at me. A low gravelly growl emits from his throat. It takes all my effort not to reach for my hilt.

“Now Bob, this is the Ranger. She isn’t going to hurt you.” She turns her back to the bear, facing me fully and sternly says, “You aren’t going to hurt him are you.” It is less of a question and more of a defiant dare, the way she says it. Betty comes out of the cabin to stand on the porch and watch.

“He is a dangerous creature. It is unsafe for him to be around people.” I say evenly.

“Dangerous! Dangerous!” Betty heard me; she steps off the porch and comes to stand between me and the bear. Side by side with her sister. “He is not dangerous at all. He is our bab-…he is our bear. We raised him from a cub and he has only known us. He couldn’t survive without us.”

The bear is getting anxious because of her tone and makes noises like he’s trying to talk, to back her up. He shuffles closer to them, for protection. The though makes me smile unconsciously. This giant bear is hunched behind these two old ladies, his protectors, to be safe from me. After a few more beats I clear my throat to speak.

“Perhaps introductions are in order. You say his name is…..Bob?”

Betty visibly relaxes, Ida a little less so. “Yes, yes….introductions. Bob, this is the Ranger….Lily. Ranger Lily…this is Bob.” Both women turn aside slightly to allow me to reach Bob.

He has moved from being on all fours to sitting on his haunches. “Mrrowwwoww.” Bob says and waves a paw in the air. I note the claws. He turns his head to the side “Rrroomwomwom”

This fucking bear is adorable.

I take a step closer and this huge, massive, bear looks scared out of the eyes. It lays a paw on Ida’s shoulder. Without taking her eyes away from me, she reaches her hand up and pats it, “It’s OK, mama’s here. You’re OK.” Her expression dares me to contradict her with my actions.

I make a point to relax my stance and smile without showing my teeth. I start speaking quietly and hopefully with a non-aggressive tone. “It’s OK Bob. I’m Lily. Pleased to meet you.” I stick out my hand as if to shake. I have no idea why I’m doing that, can this bear shake hands?

Suddenly, much more quickly than I thought he could move, he pushes his head under my hand for petting. I turn my hand so that I can pet him and rub behind his ear which causes him to flop on the ground, roll around so his stomach is up and kick his feet in the air.

“He wants a belly rub.” Ida tells me as Betty beams like a proud mama. It occurs to me at that moment that Ida had gone all ‘mama bear’ on me. I can’t help but snicker at the thought as I bend down to rub this giant fluff ball (he has his winter coat) bear’s belly. Along with Betty who coo’s at him continually as we do it. I’m glad for it, as it makes me less nervous about this whole thing.

I move away…much to Bob’s displeasure, and look inside the shed. There is straw, some old blankets and a bucket of water inside.

“Is that enough room for him?” I ask, concern written all over my face.

“He just stays out here for a couple of months in the winter, when he’s supposed to hibernate.” Betty turns her attention back to Bob and specifically, Bob’s belly. “Isn’t that right my little boy…you are supposed to be hibernating….it is your sleepy time isn’t it.”

“Rowowowwwrrrr.” Says Bob in a supremely pleased tone as he sidles a few inches closer to Betty. His stomach fur is extremely soft. I will never be able to look at a bearskin rug the same way again.

“OK you two, that’s enough for now, it’s time we have breakfast.” Ida says. Bob instantly spins so that he is back on his haunches and waves both paws a few times before he rests them, palms together as if in prayer.

“That’s impressive.” I blurt out.

“Yeah, he knows all kinds of words….mainly food related. And H-e-l-p. If we yell that, he comes running. He knows W-O-L-F too. You have to be careful not to say that, he goes on a tear looking for them.” Ida has a proud look on her face when she tells me these things.

“Yes, he is our good boy,” Betty says as she passes by him and pats his arm. “Not now.” She says to him, making a shooing motion with her hands, “Go play.” Bob looks briefly dejected before shaking it off and sauntering towards the trees.

Remembering what Betty just said, “Where does he stay when he’s not hibernating?” I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to distinguish Bob in the forest from ‘random black bear who wants to kill me’ in the forest.

“He stays in the cabin.” Ida answers, like it’s perfectly ordinary for a 500 pound bear to stay in the house.

There is a loud screech from the barn. Betty makes a mad dash for the dutch door and jerks it open as she yells, “Rodney, you leave that duck alone!” Shaking her head she turns to Ida, “We gotta stud that bird out again…he’s getting too frisky.”

My expression betrays my information overload when it comes to this place and Ida chuckles and tells me “We send Rodney out to the farms around here to assist the chicken population of the north. We need a hardy breed that can stand the cold and Rodney seems to have the right stuff.”

I’m shaking my head in disbelief. Pet bears, stud roosters….I wonder what other secrets these old birds have tucked away somewhere. No, wait, I really don’t want to know.

————————-

I find I’m in no hurry to get back underway after breakfast. I have handled the immediate threat of the Orcs and Goblins. Now I need to figure out about the map and coins. The ladies want to re-fit my new clothes they’ve made/altered before I depart again. They tell me this over a big breakfast: eggs, bacon, ham, potatoes and pancakes.

“You need to eat more.” They say in unison. “We’ve taken your measurements” Ida adds.

I smile and nod as I pile up my plate. This is starting to remind me of my time at Hausen Hold. “I will gladly oblige you,” is my response, “if you answer some questions for me. Help me get a handle on the district a bit better.”

They’re all ears and smiles with the idea of having a reason to talk about who they know.

“What can you tell me about Three Rivers Garrison?”

Their expression changes as though they’ve suddenly sucked on a lemon.

“It used to be good there, before the old Commander retired.” Betty begins
Ida nods along, “Commander Palmer.”

Palmer…..I know that name. I don’t say anything, just let them continue.

“The new guy…his name is Eric Swallow. Commander Swallow.” Betty speaks with more derision than I would have thought possible. “He said our work was ‘substandard’.”

My eyebrows raise. I actually find that someone would speak to these women like that not only unkind, but not very wise.

Ida gestures towards the barrels where she was digging through to find clothes for me. “We keep making for them though. We know they’re going to need it. It’s just a matter of when. Of course he still get’s extra uniforms for him and the officers, just not new ones for the regular soldiers.”

Betty, nodding along, “But they’ll be needing them soon enough, and we’ll be ready when they are.”

“Have you been suffering? Having to do without because you’re not getting the work?” I find I’m concerned for their well being, even after only knowing them for such a short amount of time.

“No, no, no. It’s not that bad at all. The winter could be a little tight, but we’ll be OK.” Betty pats my hand affectionately. “We still do the work for Griff Mountain, they will be getting an order to us soon I imagine.” Ida nods along with her sister.

I decide to set my assessment of the commander aside for the moment and move along with my questions. “What about the Brisbane Mine people? What are they like?”

“Oh, well! They’re a bunch of pigs is what they are!” Ida exclaims.
“Now sister, they aren’t that bad,” Betty counters. “It’s just that it’s a bunch of men.… Seven.”
“More like a bunch of filthy pigs if you ask me.” Ida is unmoved.
“They haven’t had anyone to look after them is all.”

To break up their back and forth I dig through my bag and find a couple of the coins I got off the orcs. “Have you seen anything like these before? Does anyone around here use them?”

Their bickering comes to a halt as they pick up and inspect the silver pieces. “No, we’ve never seen anything like this before…”
“There is no, mark…it’s not stamped of Ratik.”
“Where did you find this?”

I remove the coins from their grasp and put them back in my pack. “They are part of an investigation I’m currently working on. I had hoped the mine would have some answers, maybe they can tell me about the silver, where it’s from.”

“Well, they are silver miners, at least they were…” Betty starts to say and trails off.

“What do you mean, ‘They were….” I prompt her.

“Last we heard their mine ran out. There’s no more ore, silver or otherwise.” Ida joins in. “Their daddy started that mine, with his father. It’s possible there’s nothing left.”

“That’s the rumor we heard.” Betty whispers conspiratorially.

“Perhaps they can help me out then. Maybe they can point me in a direction.”

Betty brightens up with a thought, “When you talk to them, could you ask them if they’d like to trade with us? We could mend their clothes or trade socks for vegetables and fruits if they have any to spare. Could you ask them for us?”

“Of course, that’s a great idea. I’ll see what I can do. Speaking of socks, can you spare a couple of extra sets for me too? I go through them rather quickly.”

They brighten even more at the idea of getting my new clothes and socks in order. Knowing that they are the only source for clothes for leagues and leagues and they have a government contract I stock up on everything. I leave with not just one change of clothes but 2, and even more extra socks. They even give me a nice pair of wool fingerless gloves to replace my worn and torn ones.

“Don’t worry about a thing dear, we’ll just bill the Rangers, they know us.” They tell me as I pack up to leave. “We’ve had to replace many a pair of pants!” They glance at each other and smile. I just shake my head.

We step out on the porch in the early afternoon. It’s cold and cloudy, but the sun peeks out here and there. I turn to say my goodbyes and thank you’s only to find I’m in a firm hug between the two of them. “You be careful.” One of them says.

At that moment Bob comes bounding out of the trees towards us, tongue lolling out. He stops a few feet away and rolls onto his back.

“Ohhhh, okay.” I say as I bend down and take advantage of a warm fluffy belly rub opportunity. He’s like a big puppy or something. “Rowwrrrrowrrow.” He answers and kicks his back feet in the air happily.

“You take care of the ladies, OK, Bob?” I say softly to him as I ease up on the pets.

“Wrrrorwor.” He replies.

I wave at his beaming mothers as I move to the forest, my next stop Brisbane Mine.

View
Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves

The weather is cold, still well below freezing, but no new snow is currently falling. [weather roll] The clouds look as if they could unload at any moment, though. I decided against a new pair of snow walkers. In the forest the trees take a lot of the snow in their branches, the drifts on the ground aren’t as deep as in the open plain of the Red Hawk Meadow. I can run faster without them and that keeps me warmer.

I am moving too quickly to notice the change in the terrain. The freezing temperatures and the heavy snowfall worked together to disguise the wide stream in my path. [I blew a perception roll…with advantage! Shocking, I know] I’m several steps into it before I hear the distinctive ‘crack’ of the thin layer of ice beneath my feet give way. The snow had obscured it. I only have a moment to tense up before I am plunged into icy cold water.

It is winter, so the stream is low…but even still two feet of freezing water is enough to make you say “Fuck!”. My frosty breath hangs in the air as proof of the first word I’ve spoken in almost two days. A Ranger life is often solitary and quiet. Currently it’s also wet and cold. I stand slowly, flexing my hand where it slammed hard into a rock, that’ll bruise. Fortunately my pack was closed up tight so I doubt I’ve lost anything out of it to the current or water. However, I am soaked through, and need to do something before I start freezing. I’m still a day away from my destination. It looks like I’ll be stopping here for the night. Maybe I’ll have fish, I think hopefully.

It is a slow slog out of the stream. I have to step high and break through the ice on purpose or risk losing purchase and find myself floundering in water once more. At least I make it to the other side of the water, in the direction I was heading. Looking back at the stream I see a perfect trail of broken ice where I crossed. I can certainly be tracked today. The sight of my trail gives me pause, especially after the wargs…..but there hasn’t been any other signs of more of them all day. I drag my wet, cold ass towards a cluster of trees. Using the shovel (I love this shovel so damn much) I scrape away the snow to reveal the earth beneath, making an area for me and a fire. The cold is starting to settle into my bones. Without waiting to build a fire I peel off my rapidly freezing clothes and put on dirty but dry ones. My fingers are practically blue and I’m shivering so violently it’s hard to put on pants. It would be darkly humorous that I survive the Crickets, Orcs and Wargs only to be taken out from falling in a creek. The dry clothes help but I need to make a fire, fast.

Using my hatchet, I cut up some lower hanging branches. The pine needles, dryer ones under the snow, serve as the starter. It’s smokey, but eventually the fire takes and I start warming up a little. I hang my wet clothes nearby and take off my wet boots, putting them all as near to the fire as possible without sending my own belongings up in flames. At the bottom of my pack, among my only pair of spare socks, I find the hat my mother made for me before I departed. I never thought I’d be so happy to wear that thing, but it is wool and I gladly don it while I feed the fire more wood and try to keep the cold at bay.

I hadn’t intended to stop midday, but I decide to go ahead and make camp. The near freezing sapped my energy. Once my boots and coat are mostly dry I sharpen a straight branch and go to the stream to fish. I hadn’t noticed any when I was laying in the stream earlier, but maybe I had scared them away with my butt hitting the water…..or the cursing. Lots and lots of cursing. I break apart more of the ice near the bank where I’m standing so I have a broader area to watch for them to swim downstream. About 10 minutes after that ruckus a small fingerling size trout flits by. OK, at least I know there is something here. I hold as still as a statue, the sharp point of my makeshift spear mere inches from the water. Tiny fish swims past, another, another…then a larger shadow in the rushing water. Having noted the speed they were passing, I know to stab at the spot before the fish has arrived there so that by the time my spearpoint hits the water he’s right there…..which is exactly what happens. [Dex roll 18, making my total 21….+3 dex bonus] The fish flops, trying to disengage from it’s fate. I learned from Suncow though, the notch in the spear essentially keeping my dinner in place.

I build up the fire with more green branches, it’s super smokey which works well in preparing the fish. I weave the large filets onto the spear and rig it over the smokey fire to cook. Once my wet shirt is dry I put it on over the one I’m already wearing. I’ll still sleep in a tree for safety and the additional layer will help me stay comfortably warm. There is still a couple of hours of daylight left and my dinner is yet to be ready so I pull out my papers and work on my current Ranger Report, I have to let them know about the horde monsters and Palmer. I note the silver coins in my report and my suspicions that the Orcs might actually have been hired to kill him. It’s the newly minted silver coins and the map that have my curiosity peaked. I need to find out who would do this and why. There are still many more questions than clues.

The fish makes a good dinner. I keep chopping wood, I found a fallen tree near the stream further up from where I fell through and have been able to keep a steady supply of somewhat seasoned wood to burn. It’s a little damp from the weather but overall better than the green branches. I took the opportunity to try my hand at getting another fish but they had stopped running…swimming by. Whatever you want to call it. I may try again in the morning. I finish my warm tea and set up my rope-blanket hammock in a nearby tree for the night. Palmer’s blanket is slightly larger than mine. I wonder fleetingly if they fit them for the person as I fall into a deep sleep. [Alarm set]

As dawn starts to rise I awaken from the early light. My alarm did not trigger in the night, but even still I study the ground below me before dismounting from my perch with my gear. My path across the stream has already started icing over. I use the blunt end of my makeshift spear to crack open the newly formed thin ice. After several minutes of waiting I manage to spear another fish. [Dex roll 15] Not as big as yesterday’s, but enough for breakfast. I get the fire going again with the old wood, the coals were still a little warm so flames lick up quickly. I cook the fish outright in a pan instead of smoking, I want to get moving as fast as I can.

The lack of wolf or warg tracks has me hopeful that I have taken care of that problem completely, and they hadn’t made their way this far east. There is another garrison in this area, perhaps they have patrols to keep trouble down as well. I have run all day, no more falls in creeks and streams today, although I have crossed plenty. There is a lot of water up here. It is late afternoon when I pick up the scent of smoke in the air. I correct my course towards the smoke. Breaking though the trees into a clearing I spy a small cabin with a stables/barn attached to the main house. The large chimney is belching out smoke and I see a woman with her back to me chopping wood.

“Hello!” I yell from my position when she pauses from her work to stack another log on the pile.

She startles a bit….understandable. I seem to startle homesteaders whenever I pop out of nowhere. She pauses, I see her test the weight of the ax as she studies me briefly. Realizing I’m the ranger her face breaks into a large smile and she deposits the ax into the log with a swift strike, leaving it embedded as she comes towards me.

She’s tall, taller than me, and stout. Although I believe there isn’t an ounce of fat on her frame. As I take in her appearance she seems both ancient and young at the same time. She’s old, this I know, but her sun kissed and wrinkled hands and face make her age deceptive. The alertness of her eyes embody that of someone younger than she appears.

“Hello Ranger! You’re late!” She calls to me as she approaches. I notice that while her dress is worn, it is well made and perfectly tailored to her. She yells towards the house, “Ida, the Ranger’s here…put on some tea!” before turning back to me and extending her hand, “Betty DeLong, good to meet ya Ranger…..?”

“Lilykai Kodel. You can call me Lilykai, or Lily…whatever you want.” I shake her hand as I answer.

“You’re new. We haven’t met you before.” She’s openly sizing me up. “And a Sergeant already.” Her eyebrow tics up as she notes my rank. “You must have some interesting stories.” At that, she turns away and heads towards the cabin, scooping up an errant goose in the process that had been meandering near the woodpile.

Pausing before the door, “Well, come on in…you can’t drink your tea out there.” I realize I had been frozen in place taking in my surroundings. I jog towards her and the warmth of their home.

Betty is kicking off her boots when I arrive at the threshold of the door. I kick mine against the steps on the outside, knocking off excess snow before removing them. I catch Betty’s nod of approval as I place my boots next to hers, and presumably another pair belonging to her sister, Ida. [Perception roll 11] I take off my coat…I really feel naked without it…and hang it on an empty peg by the door, near the other coats.

The DeLong sisters could be identical twins if they didn’t look so different. Both are tall, at least 5’9 and 5’11 respectively. The taller one, Betty, has bright blue eyes, her sister’s are slightly paler. Their hair is long and braided down their backs like mine, Ida’s seems to be more black than silver and Betty’s is the opposite.

Every mannerism, expression, and movement one of them makes, however, is identical to the other. They even talk alike, finishing each others sentences in most cases. I remove my pack, setting it unobtrusively in the corner as I watch their daily dance, perfectly practiced over the years. They move in syncopation; setting the table, checking the food, pouring the tea, getting the wine. All the while chattering non-stop:

“Where have you been so far? Who have you seen?”
“Have you been to Griff? Three Rivers?”
“Did you see Chris and Darlene at the Dancing Bear? Is their oldest still there?”
“Did you stop at Chuck’s Roadhouse Inn? Was he there? He’s a cute one.”
They say that last bit in unison.

I barely have time to answer before the next question comes:
“Well, so far I’ve been…”
“I met the Artu…”
“Yes, they are very…..I think s..”
“Yes, I was….”

I finally give up and listen to the chatter. They clearly know everyone and everything going on in the district. I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble by just coming here first and asking what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving this. I realize I’ve not heard another voice nor spoken to anyone in….6….8 days? Has it been that long? I frown to myself trying to piece together the passing of time.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone since…The Dancing Bear. Since Chris and Darlene….and Lex.”

“Do you have a beau?” They ask as one. I jump suddenly. Did I just say that out loud? I think I’m blushing.

“Ummm, no?” I answer. They study me suspiciously. “Really…. No time. No one…really…. interested.”

There is quiet as they stare at me, trying to puzzle me out. And then the squawk of a chicken that hops in the room.

“Rodney! Get back over there!” Not a chicken, a rooster. There is a rooster looking at me. Well, he’s kinda looking at me with one eye, the other is pointed at the wall.

“Is that a wall-eyed rooster?” I ask as I tilt my head sideways. It’s either that or they’ve snuck something strong in my tea.

“That’s Rodney,” one of the sisters says. I’m not sure which one as they sound the same and I’m looking at the bird and not them. “he should be in the barn…..” I watch Ida shoo him out a dutch door in the side wall that had been pushed open a little. I realize it connects the cabin to the barn. They don’t need to go outside to tend to the animals in the cold. Clever. She closes it again, making sure it latches.

The meat and veg in their roasting pan is starting to fill the room with a delicious aroma. I realize I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast and am looking at the pan rather longingly. Betty pats my hand as she refills my tea and slips a couple of small butter cookies in my palm.

“Sshhhh, don’t tell.” She whispers and darts her eyes to Ida. It’s all I can do not to laugh as Ida did and said the same thing when she poured my first mug.

Ida turns to Betty just as I’m stuffing the last cookie greedily in my mouth. “This will be a little longer, let’s fit her into some clothes.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll go see what we have that will fit her.” I suddenly feel invisible, clearly I’m not included in this decision about me.

“Ummm, hey…what do you mean……by that.” My words are interrupted by me trying to bodily stop them from undressing me by pushing their hands away.

Exasperated, Ida declares “We’re seamstresses. We make clothes for the military. And you, young lady…..”

“…..need to burn these clothes!” Betty finishes.

“I do not need to….” I get a good look at my blood stained and torn clothes. “…..ok, well, I guess they’re not that great, but really. Burn them? Isn’t that…extreme?” I give up the battle and they continue to disrobe me and toss my shirt and pants into their fireplace. In a whoosh they are gone. Now I’m standing in my skivvies while one takes measurements and the other writes them in chalk on a piece of slate.

“Why don’t we see if there’s anything in the Three Rivers pile that will work,” Betty starts
“Then we can just adjust them to fit her,” Ida finishes.

I take this moment to really study my surroundings, to take my mind off my embarrassment. I note the dutch door to the barn/stable I’ve already seen in action thanks to Rodney. To the left of it are shelves and shelves containing different bolts of cloth. There are barrels in the alcove and Betty is digging through them. I realize they are full of military uniforms of differing sizes. One contains pants and the other shirts. She moves a pile of folded cloth to reveal a huge stack of knitted socks.

“Can I have some extra socks too? I can pay for them.” I feel like a little kid begging for sweets.

“Don’t move.” Ida barks at me as she pokes me with a pin from her sleeve.

I jerk at the sudden puncture wound. “Then don’t poke me with a pin!” I glare at her. She ignores me.

Continuing my study of the cabin I also note two military swords hanging over the door and a crossbow leaning against the wall nearby. Immediately I check the mantle and as expected there are framed drawings of two men, roughly the same age prominently displayed there.

To distract myself from my fitting, “Who’re they?” I can already guess the answer.

“Our husbands.” The ladies say in unison. Looking around the cabin, I see no signs of them in evidence.

“The war?” I ask. They simply nod and continue working, helping me into some too large pants and shirt and pinning and marking them for alteration.

“She said her last name was Kodel.” Betty reminds Ida.

Ida stops what she’s doing, “Oh, really….” She draws out the words and looks at Betty, who nods.

They are silent for a moment. For some reason it makes me nervous.

“I met a Ranger once who knew some Kodel’s.” Ida says.
“Riiight, that one who said his sister just got married to one…” Betty responds sneakily.
“Yes, he was a handsome one, wasn’t he sister?” Oh god, please no…..
“Not as handsome as the tall one he was with.…” Please make them stop
“Wasn’t he a military man too? He was cute.” Betty proceeds to describe the baron.
“Not as cute as mine.” Ida describes my uncle.

“That was a wonderful night.” They both say in unison with a sigh.

“Isn’t dinner finished yet? I smell something burning!” It’s all I can think to say.

Ida jumps up and checks the food while Betty finishes marking the clothes. “She’s right, it’s ready. Give her a gown for now and let’s eat.” Oh, thank god they got off that topic.

Ida doles out hefty portions on our plates while Betty gives me a woolen gown to wear and fresh socks (yay for fresh socks!) Ida hands me the bottle of wine to open while they work in unison to set out the food. I deftly open the bottle and pour our glasses. Everything looks and smells delicious.

Just as I start to dig in Betty pipes up, “Now where were we? Oh, yes….that sexy Ranger and his friend.”

I’m gonna need more wine.

View
Warg hunt
Balance beam work

I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in a dead man’s bed. It’s not like it will ever be used again…well, unless the new owners; whoever they are, choose to. I ended up bedding down in front of the fire. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m inside, full belly, and warm fire. All luxuries.

Overnight the temperatures plummeted. [weather roll indicates 30 degrees] Based on the crystalline nature of the snow I think it’s well below freezing. I heat up the stove and make tea. I find his flour and make some biscuits for breakfast in his oven. I may not sleep in his bed but I guess eating his food is not a problem. I snort a laugh in the empty space at that thought. I’m contemplating my next move as I let my breakfast settle, drink warm tea, and watch out the window.

I need to find the Wargs, they are loose without masters. Given a choice I will always say that Wargs are more dangerous than Orcs…or goblins. They’re smarter, you see. Their primal instincts and ferocity a dangerous combination. Orcs may be able to wield a sword but they’re dumber than shit. So…..I need to find those Wargs. I need to find out if there are more goblins. I had seen Orc and warg tracks across the road but not goblin. Where did they come from? The North? Or the Northwest, where the Royal Observer had taken us?

Once again my mind wanders to the Crickets and how that battle went…is going? How many soldiers did they lose? Inevitably after that I start to think about Lex. Did he make it back? Is he OK. Did he miss me when I was gone. I shake my head to clear it at that point. Too many questions, too many assumptions.

My eyes fall upon the soldier’s long sword leaning against the sofa. I cleaned and oiled it last night when I did my own. It is a good sword. Impeccably cared for, not a spot of tarnish or rust anywhere on it’s surface. Makes me want to take better care of mine, which I vow to do in the future. I looked around and discovered the last name of the soldier was Palmer. I went through his stuff. Hey! I had to, it is my job to report these things. It was in his footlocker on an old uniform. So he’s Palmer. And I decide what I’m going to do first.

Since I spent the night indoors I took the time to button the fur lining in my Ranger Coat. As I step out on the little front porch I am eternally grateful for my own foresight. It is freaking cold. I have all my pack and gear, but hope to make it back here today. Thanks to my natural ability to navigate through the forest I can find my way back to the Orc camp pretty easily.

[Mechanics: As a Ranger, Lily has Natural Explorer and has chosen Forest as her initial terrain. This means she is not hampered by rough terrain, can’t get lost, and according to my GM can find her way back to a place she’s been with ease. It’s really handy]

I start digging up Palmers remains. Thankfully, a Dwarven made shovel cuts through frozen earth like it’s nothing. Also thankfully, it is so cold there is no smell. Once I’ve dug back down to the shrouded figure I retrieve his remains, and tie him up so the blanket won’t come unwrapped. I realize I don’t want to heft him on my shoulders the few miles back to his cabin so I quickly fabricate a sled to drag. [I don’t even have to roll to construct these anymore, I’ve done it so often] I make it to the cabin before the morning is done and find a nice opening in the trees nearby that is perfect. There is a nice view over the valley. It’s peaceful. I am surprised to discover I’ve been talking to him all this time. Talking about the view, what I like about his house, the Orc mystery and my concern over the stray wargs. I am struck with the irony that mere weeks ago it was Lex chatting non-stop to my silent form. It makes me wonder if from beyond the grave Palmer is thinking “will you just shut up!”. I start to giggle. It sounds odd to my ears in the silence.

Having finished filling the grave, unlike last time, I feel I know him more and have something to say. “You were a good man, you built a good house. I am sorry you were taken from it too quickly. The ones who killed you paid the ultimate price.” I give him a military salute. Inside the cabin I retrieve his newly cleaned sword and take it to his grave where I sink it deeply into the earth. A proper headstone for a soldier. Only a few inches of the blade and the hilt visible above the earth. Battle on, my friend.

Afternoon has just arrived. The brightest part of this cloudy, cold day. I hurry to get my things and gather some food from his stores. Some more flour, sugar, oats, more green beans, ok….a couple of jars of peaches. Man loved his peaches. Can’t say I blame him, they are a bit of summer in the middle of the cold. I cover the trap door with the rug and replace the table and chairs. I had already moved the rack down below back into it’s place. As an afterthought I run upstairs and grab his military issue blanket from his footlocker, to replace my own. I don’t think he would mind. For some reason I sense he would chastise me for not utilizing it and going cold. Maybe I’m just making things up in my head. I grab the two books and the bag of Opals to turn in when I report back to headquarters.

Scanning my surroundings one last time I make sure the fires are out in the hearth and stove, everything is put away as it should be. There is no lock on the door, only the bar within, so I pull it fully closed and hope that no one comes along and trashes the place, it would be a shame. Taking in the view one last time I start moving towards the Hunting Lodge that is south of here on my map. It’s about halfway between the Dancing Bear and the cabin. I notice there is a footpath trail leading from the cabin in that direction and take it towards my next destination; it should be about a half a day at my Ranger pace, it will just be getting dark when I arrive.

During my run, at three different locations I cross what looks like wolf – large wolf – tracks. That small voice in my head keeps whispering ‘you know those aren’t really wolves, don’t you’. Yeah, I’m pretty sure those aren’t wolves. I can tell by how frozen they are and the dusting of snow that these tracks are days old. [Nature Roll: 16] Two days at least. The third set I cross I have to wonder if I should just abandon my plan and follow the tracks wherever they take me. Standing there, listening to the forest I’m completely undecided. Finally, in the waning light, I make a choice. It’s less than an hour to dark. I will push through to the hunting lodge and then come back early in the morning and follow these tracks all day to see where they lead.

No sooner have I made my choice when I hear a howling in the distance. It’s less than a quarter mile away to my right. I stay on my course, picking up my pace only slightly. Less than fifteen minutes from the first howl is an answering one to my left. I don’t take any chances at this point, the quiet voice in my head now screaming ‘NOT A WOLF’ I leap into a nearby tree and cross from it into another, and then another, hoping to hide my location so they can’t sniff out my tracks below.

I halt in the boughs of the evergreen waiting for the Warg’s approach. I spot movement at long range, at least 200 yards away [rolled perception with advantage: success! ] At first it looks like a wolf, but as it turns sideways I can make out the distinctive profile of a Warg. Riderless. No saddle. I hear two more calls behind me, they are trying to triangulate on my position. [Nature roll: 19!] The first one has moved closer, he is looking right at me. I hear the two coming up from behind [Perception roll: 15] I spin and turn towards the pair, my first arrow flies wide. They launch themselves towards my tree. Before they reach it I’ve shot two arrows into one and it crashes to the ground. The remaining ones take off into the forest. Probably to regroup and return. I don’t have much time to move. I leap from the tree, take a moment to inspect the fallen warg. It once wore a saddle but it is gone. There are signs; scars from whips and weapons, indicative of Orc care. No more time to waste. I cast a beguiling to hide my tracks [Pass Without Trace] as I move full speed towards the hunting lodge.

The wind is rushing past my face as I haul ass though the forest. Even still I hear low growls from the Wargs on my trail. The spell slinging bought me a little time, just enough to make it I hope. Ahead of me I can make out the silhouette of the small building in the darkness. Thankfully it is an unwritten law in Ratik that unattended hunting lodges and structures built in the wilderness not be locked. Maybe it is a holdover rule from the times of the horde for situations just like this. When you’re running for your life to safety. Thanks to my speed I don’t hear the wargs gaining at all, but I hit the door at full stride, burst through and slam it shut, securing it in place with a bar from the inside.

Panting, I slide down the door and rest my back against it. The lodge is dark as pitch. With my dark vision I can make out details though. Single open space, roughly hewn table and 2 chairs, two bunks built into the back wall. There is a large fire pit in the center of the room and I can see an opening in the front of the roof peak for the smoke to rise out. There is a good size stack of wood against a wall. Whomever uses the place regularly, they think ahead. I have my suspicions that it is Chris and the boys seeing as their Inn is the closest. I wonder briefly if they knew Palmer. The structure is made of fieldstone and is an A-frame construction with a timber beam roof. Just as my breathing stabilizes I hear noises outside the front door, very quiet grunting and a low growl. Then nothing.

I rest for a few minutes more and then start to make a fire. I have some salted meat left over from the Inn that I’ve been saving for when hunting wasn’t an option. It looks like tonight is one of those times. Putting some water from my skin into my cookpot along with the meat and some potatoes and carrots I settle in and wait for the stew. I remember the beans from Palmer’s and get those out, adding some to the stew and eating the rest from the jar. A sudden flurry of movement from the rafters scares the hell out of me [failed perception roll…I am surprised].

It is a small snowy owl perched by the hole in the roof. I guess the smoke drew it in to investigate. He watches me as I gather myself back together, having launched from beside the fire towards my bow. Setting back down, I stir my thickening dinner and keep my bow at my side, scowling at the little fella for scaring me. After a half an hour the stew is ready and I dig in straight from the pot. With the exception of my breakfast at the cabin I haven’t eaten today so before I know it I am licking the pot clean. With a full belly I curl up on my bedroll by the fire, adding a few logs to last through the night. [Alarm spell set]

It is cold. Really, really cold. I’m in a small ball under Palmer’s old blanket in my bedroll. The fire has gone out. Glancing up I see the owl is gone and bright white through the smoke hole. I get up, restart the fire with new wood. I can see my breath as I move around the room. Moving to the door I grab my cookpot and sword. Very quietly I lift the bar from the door and crack it just an inch to peer out. Nothing there. Everything is covered in a thick white layer of new snow that continues to come down. [weather roll: blizzard conditions] It is falling hard, practically blocking the forest from view a mere 10 yards away. Based on the depth, it must have started in the night and is continually building. Glad I have something to eat since I’m not going anywhere today. I take a step out, sword and pot in hand and start to scoop snow to melt for water, never taking my eyes off of the forest line, what I can see of it.

My caution pays off when I see a quick movement to my right. There he is, just slipping between two trees. I would almost bet the other is to my left. My task finished I slip back inside without turning my back and bar the door again. After awhile I am perched upon the ceiling rafters peering out the exhaust hole at the roof’s peak. [Athletics roll with Advantage thanks to grappling hook and rope]. I watch for more movement through the continuing snow and see nothing. After a few hours I tire of it and go back down to eat some oatmeal and read the books I picked up from Palmer’s house. I see no inscriptions or names (I can’t find his first name anywhere) but I do note a small ‘JB’ written in perfect block letters in the back of the mining book. Hmmmm, must be who he got the book from or something. Without anything else to do I set about learning a new language with a Common to Dwarvish translation dictionary. There are worst ways to pass the time during a blizzard…..

Before dark falls, I go through the same routine to get more water. No sign of the wargs this time but I’m not stupid enough to think they’ve moved on. They know I’m here. I start another pot of stew and use some flour to make biscuits to go along with it. Keeping some meat aside, I hatch a plan to lure them to me tonight. As I eat my early dinner I boil a bit of the salted meat in water to soften it up. Once finished I take the pot and fling its contents out the front door; it lands a few feet away. Quickly, I scurry up my rope to the rafters and lay in wait with my bow, prepared to spring the trap.

Hours pass. Nothing happens. My bait doesn’t work. I watch as night falls and the last of my meat gets covered in snow. Still I wait to see if they show up in the evening. Around eight bells I decide to surrender to sleep and lower myself from my perch. My alarm is set, the fire stoked to carry through until dawn. Tomorrow I will have to think of something new or just take them on in the woods.

It seems as though I have only just closed my eyes when I see the morning light coming through the opening above me. There are no windows in this cabin. A basic hunters lodge wouldn’t normally have any, glass is far too expensive for a waypoint like this. I climb to the roof to see if they came for my bait in the night, at the very least I could pinpoint their tracks if the snow has stopped. Looking out through the opening I see that the snow has stopped falling. It’s still extremely cold, not a chance of thawing today. [Weather roll reveals clear skies, 15 degrees]. Two distinct sets of warg tracks come out of the forest and to the place I threw the meat. Damn, I missed them. [Perception roll: success] Something about the tracks grabs my attention, though….it takes me only a moment to realize what is wrong with this picture. [Insight roll: success]

The tracks don’t go back into the forest.

I climb down my rope and crawl quietly to the front door, pressing my ear to it, down low. Breathing. Right outside the door. Hell, they’re practically up against the door itself. I pull slowly away from my position, glancing up to reassure myself the bar is still securely set. It is. An image of me cracking open the door to get water, wargs spilling inside unexpectedly, flashes through my mind and I cannot stifle a shudder at the thought. I sit for a moment pondering my predicament. Gathering up my bow and quiver I return to my perch in the roof. Except this time I pull the rope up with me. Checking the grappling hook to confirm it is seated deeply and securely into the beam, I tie off the rope around my waist. Slowly, carefully, quietly….I creep along the rafter and out the smoke hole. The beam runs out of the hole only a foot….a mere 12 inches. [Stealth roll: success]

Bow slung across my shoulder, quiver on my hip, I slowly squeeze out the hole in the front of the lodge. The beam I’m on is only 7” across, but it is beefy, holding my weight is not an issue. I retie the rope so it is taut, I will have to let go and use my hands to shoot, trusting the rope to hold me up completely. I turn and sit on the beam facing the building. I scoot out to the very very end of it, prepare my bow with an arrow and start to lean backwards slowly. I feel the rope go taut and then tighten slightly around my waist. It’s holding. I lean more and start to pull the arrow back and find my target.

The world is upside down. This is why I put my quiver on my hip, I can turn it so everything doesn’t spill out. Currently I am dangling from a rope, legs wrapped around the inches of beam sticking out of the cabin. The wind whipped momentarily causing my own braid to swing around and hit me in the side of the face. I remain still and wait. I can see the wargs, they are tucked right up to the door, silently waiting. I draw back a bit further and let an arrow fly. It strikes true, into the base of one’s skull. He immediately drops dead. The other, surprised at the sudden condition of it’s companion leaps back, perfectly lining itself up for an arrow in it’s back. It howls at me in defiance and leaps towards my dangling figure. He doesn’t stand a chance, I put two arrows into him as he circles and bares his teeth impotently at me. I drive two more arrows into each body just to make sure it’s not a trick.

Slowly, I work my way up and back into the lodge. It would be my luck to survive these Wargs only to fall off the beam. I get inside, climb back down and open the door to inspect the bodies, sword drawn just in case. They are, however, very dead. I use my dagger to retrieve the arrows, they can still be used. I drag the bodies away from the building and light them on fire. Fire cleanses all. I noted that even though they currently don’t wear a saddle, they have marks on their bodies indicating they once did. They are also branded, a small goblin sized handprint on their flanks. Interesting.

As their bodies burn I make some tea and chop up some fallen branches to replace the wood I have used the last two days. I can’t replenish it completely, but some of it. A quick bowl of oatmeal along with my tea, tidy up my mess, and I’m off. I decided my next destination should be a homestead in this area, about one and a half days from here. It’s marked DeLong on my map. Hopefully they are too far away to have garnered the goblins attention. Time to get moving.

View
Orc Conspiracy

I rise long before dawn. My clothes are clean and outside my door. As suggested, I pack Darlene’s dress in the bottom of my bag, trying to protect it a little and leave a silver piece on the nightstand for her. The other guests are still asleep as I descend the back staircase to the kitchen. I hear the family having breakfast before the guests start to rise. Again I startle the middle boy with my sudden appearance. This time we all laugh along with his brothers.

“Up early.” Chris says as he grabs another plate and hands it to me.

Nodding as I fill my plate, “I’ve got a lot of distance to make up, I’m running behind.”

“Thought that was the case, but with all the troops moving up to Griff I figured you were busy with whatever is going on up there.”

“Yeah, I was….but it looks like they’ve got it covered now.” I say diplomatically.

“I guess things didn’t go as expected last night.” Darlene finally joins in and looks at me sympathetically. She actually seems more down about it than I am. I smile and shake my head.

“Not surprising, he has things on his mind. And I’m not really the kind of person he’s looking for anyway. It’s alright, I’ve trained for this job my whole life. It’s what is important right now.” I give her hand a soft squeeze, “I do appreciate the dress tremendously though. I will enjoy wearing it at my other stops when I can.”

“There were some men who appreciated it too,” interjects Chris. “You were just sitting with the wrong one.” Both Darlene and I get a laugh out of that.

My breakfast finished I start to leave when Darlene insists on packing me some more for the road. “What should we tell Lieutenant Smith when he asks about you?”

“Just tell him I started early, I have work to do.” I take the proffered biscuits, ham and sausage. She even thrusts a hunk of cheese at me. “You need to put some weight on.” She mutters with the last bit.

I say my goodbyes; an unexpected bear hug by both Darlene and Chris, bashful handshakes from the boys. It is still dark out and extremely cold, my breath frosty. Low hanging clouds are in the horizon to the Northeast where I am heading. I check my map and there is a large farm about 5 days away. They might be a target for a raiding party, further away from the garrisons to provide help. I plan to go there first and then circle back towards the west to check on a couple of homesteads, a small silver mine and a hunting lodge. My next few weeks will be busy.

As morning breaks the clouds linger and it actually gets colder. I eat the breakfast leftovers in my food pocket for lunch and keep moving, the running is keeping me warm. In the early afternoon however I hit a major snag in my plans, specifically a 20’ raging icy cold river. The water is actually low due to it being winter, but it is still deep and fast enough to freeze and drown in. I start following it straight east for awhile looking for a place to cross. Before discovering a crossing I find a nice clearing that would make a good camp area and decide to stop, fish for some dinner, and stay the night. Remembering how the lumberjacks made baskets to catch their fish; I whip together something similar and walk away with a good catch….without getting myself doused in the water [successful Athletics rolls]

I’ve not seen anymore tracks so I risk a fire and smoke the fish, eating two for dinner, saving one for breakfast, and one for later. It doesn’t occur to me to season it at all until after I’m done. So much for Lex’s cooking lessons. I’m not much of a savory cook anyway, baking is more my thing. After eating I clean my gear, write a bit on my next report (the tracks leading into the forest) and set up my hammock in the tree. [Alarm spell set]

Now that I can sling a warning alarm I sleep better and awaken well rested. It is extremely cold though; it feels like my bones are creaking when I stretch in my tree perch. I consider starting to sleep on the ground for more warmth and insulation, but the idea makes me feel so vulnerable I reject it for now. I start a small fire for tea and to warm my last fish for breakfast. I have oats…..I decide to make a small bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar too. A bigger breakfast means I won’t stop for lunch, the last fish secure in my pocket.

[Game note: I do have to declare meals for Lilykai. If I forget and she starts missing meals….the dreaded Constitution rolls start again. So both cleaning gear to prevent rusting of chainmail and weapons, and eating meals is something to remember to do. I may not disclose it in the journals every time, but believe me she cleans that sword and chain daily.]

After breaking down camp I continue along the river looking for that crossing. It is snowing, light but constant. The forest is quiet, but it’s that really cold day/snowfall quiet. Not everything has been eaten by huge Crickets quiet. I’ve learned the difference. I wonder how the engagement with the hive is going. After a few hours I find a giant tree that has fallen that’s made a natural crossing over the river. Halfway across, I stop and use my fish basket to catch a couple of medium size river trout. That will be a good dinner. I leave my basket by a tree, I won’t be following the river anymore. Maybe some other hunters will come along and use it, you never know. I start moving Northeast again, a direct diagonal from the Dancing Bear to the Norman farm. The rest of the day is uneventful and I’m able to start a fire and have my. This time I use some of those spices and techniques that Lex showed me and cook a handful of rice to go along with it. This is probably the best camp meal I’ve ever made since I’ve been on my run. Even still I feel I’m missing something but quickly push that thought away. I climb a nearby tree and have another restful night of sleep.

It’s a cold and snowy morning. I might as well get used to it. This is winter in the Northern District after all. More oatmeal for breakfast. I have bacon and ham packed but choose to wait until I’ve gone without meat to break it out. Dousing my fire and covering it, I resume course to the farm. At this pace I’ll get there ahead of schedule.

I spoke too soon. After only 2 hours running this morning I pick up the smell of smoke. There is a lot of smoke, must be green wood or something large burning. I slow my pace and begin to creep along making sure my steps are silent. [Stealth rolls] Finally I come upon the camp. It’s Orcs.

There are 5, lounging around on the forest floor grunting in their language to each other. My stomach clenches when I see that one of them is holding a human leg in his hand and cooking it over the smoldering fire. This is the first time I’ve faced Orcs. They’re much bigger in person than when I studied them. I mean they’re exactly what I studied, but reading 6’5” and seeing a 6’5” Orc is a completely other thing….seeing 5 of them is different still. I take a deep breath, still myself and reach for an arrow. My bow had naturally found itself in hand when I spied my prey.

I drop one instantly with two arrows and move to another set of trees before they realize from where the attack came. They are dumb and I intend to use that to my advantage. I’m able to sink another arrow into the side of a second one but miss with the next and they spot me among the trees. The remaining 4 charge in my direction as I dart between the trees. One is close enough to take a swing and I dodge it; lodging two arrows into him in return, he doesn’t yet fall. Another Orc manages to close in on me and the strike from his sword hit’s me fully on the shoulder. I stagger back and draw my own longsword, dropping my bow at my feet. I parry his next strike and then come at him, both blows landing. The one with two arrows sticking out of him tries to take a shot at me and misses. I see a flash of movement and notice the one I shot in the side is trying to circle around behind me and the fourth is coming to stand alongside the one who cut me already. I need to start moving quickly or I’m done for. I feel a surge of magical energy and mark the one who cut me.

[Hunters Mark, which can be cast as a bonus action and can be moved from one target that is killed to the next as a bonus action. Adds a d6 to a weapon attack/hit. Basically its a first level spell that lets you get an extra d6 per hit; ranged or melee],

“You’re next” I sneer at Cutter Orc as I lunge towards his midsection, stabbing through and into his spinal column in the process, he drops like a bag of rocks. I move to position his body as a barrier between the one that just arrived and me. I move the mark to him and slice through his thigh. Stepping back to stay out of his weapon range I feel a thunk in my back and hot, searing pain. The archer. In a swift motion I drop to one knee, scoop my bow that I had dropped and release two arrows in a blur. The archer falls. I only have moments to react before I feel the breeze from a longsword near my face. That was close. At this range the arrow I send up into the Orc goes into the bottom of his chin, through his mouth and sticks out the top of his head. He rears back to strike at me again before he realizes he’s dead and drops backwards. That leaves me and the last one that tried to flank me. I spot him about 8 feet away right as he releases a spear in my direction, I hold my position and sidestep at the last second; watching it stick impotently into the ground beside me. “My turn.” By the time I’ve uttered the last syllable there are two arrows poking out of his heart. One to do the job and the other to make sure.

Holy shit these wounds hurt. I am forced to break off the arrow sticking out of my back and force it through to pull out the front of my shoulder. Once that’s done I can take one of the healing potions I got from the garrison. I only took 3 when I was there, I didn’t feel like they could spare many since they were going into battle. I can sling some low level healing, but considering I can only sling three times a day I’m going to hold off on that. The first thing I do is inspect the leg. I know, that’s disgusting, but maybe there are clues to it. It’s a man’s leg, they stripped off the boot and clothes so I can’t tell if he was a hunter, soldier or what. I bury it away from the fire.

Now to check out the orcs. They’re pretty well armed, swords, bows and spears…and it looks like they’ve recently seen some action, there are chips on the blades of two of them and blood on three. On each of their bodies I find a couple of silver coins. They close in size to Ratik minted coins but they have no markings on them whatsoever. They are completely clean. Interesting. I put them all together in a bag and put them in my pack. I think they’re important but I don’t know why.

I find the tracks that lead from their previous location to here and renew my trek. There are no signs of wargs at all. Peculiar. Perhaps they left them somewhere else. I begin following the tracks in hopes of finding more clues and their mounts. It is late afternoon when I reach their other camp. It is here I find the rest of their victim. It is heart wrenching to see one of my fellow countryman torn apart by orcs. Unfortunately, I am not able to recognize him for identification. The only clue I find at this location is the scrap of parchment, a corner, that appears to be from a crude map.

I step away from the foul camp of the Orcs to a opening in the trees nearby. It is true winter now and the ground is frozen solid. I pull my folded shovel from it’s holster and snap my wrist, which immediately unfolds and locks it into place. Frozen ground is no match for Dwarven steel. I still need to find the wargs, but making time to properly bury the victim comes first. As I dig the afternoon sun starts to breach the low clouds here and there with sunbeams; I take it as a sign I am doing the right thing. Gathering the pieces of the body into my blanket I use it for a burial shroud. As the grave is filled with dirt my heart grows heavy, yet another person in my district lost. The best I can do to give his death meaning is discover how a party of Orcs arrived in the heart of the North and what they’re trying to do. Once finished with the burial, I find I have no words to give the dead, nothing to ease him onto his journey. “I’m sorry,” I croak out to the fresh grave before turning to follow the Orc tracks again.

Day is done and the temperatures are dropping dramatically [weather roll]. I light a fire at my camp, the Orcs are dead so I really don’t have anything to fear, but find I’m too tired to cook anything for dinner. I eat rations. I can’t believe I temporarily forgot how awful these things are. Must hunt tomorrow. Realizing that I buried my only blanket earlier today I pull out my waterproof cloak as a cover tonight and rig up my rope sling to hold me aloft in the trees. I watch the fire from above and fall into sleep as it burns low. [Alarm spell set: silent/mental]

There is a nudge in my consciousness, like I just missed someone yelling in my ear to ‘Wake UP!’. My eyes fly open but I don’t move a muscle. I hear shuffling and grunting below me. Very slowly I turn my head so I can see through the branches to the ground beneath me. Goblin. What the fuck! Goblin? First Orcs, Wargs, and now Goblins. In the heart of the North. I watch him snuffle around, inspecting my burned out fire, where I sat and ate. Luckily I left nothing down below, my pack is with me up here. I watch him intently, ready to leap (fall) into action if necessary and practically holding my breath hoping I won’t have to face him just yet, not until I’m ready.

This is the first time I’ve studied a Goblin closely. He moves constantly….bouncing on the balls of his feet. He wears leather that looks as though it’s just torn up scraps, strapped onto his body with cord and pieces of rope. I fought the goblin raiders at night at Artus farm. They were running and screaming for full effect, there wasn’t an opportunity to study them like I can this one. He is less feral, more dangerous in his investigation of my camp. I watch as he kicks at the fire, seemingly in frustration, and then runs off into the darkness.

My instincts are to leap out of the tree and follow. Common sense prevails. Is he bait? Are there others waiting in the woods to jump me once I’m on the ground? Goblins aren’t known for their patience so I stay awake the rest of the night. I’m not too worried about finding the goblin again. His lack of covering his trail makes me confident I will be meeting up with him in a few hours at least. I forgo breakfast and hit the trail right before dawn. The sky is cloudless for a change and I can tell it’s going to be a warm day. After an hour or so I find where my prey’s tracks meet up with another group. Spending several minutes in the area, my senses heightened…listening for footsteps….I search the tracks and determine that there are 6 more. That makes a total of seven goblins loose in my woods. The thought makes my blood boil. First Orcs and Wargs and now goblins. The boldness of their invasion, if only a small party of raiders fuels my fury. I follow the much larger and easier trail they are leaving now. It doesn’t take long for me to see that the Goblins, in fact, are following the Orc’s trail I was on yesterday. Maybe they are trying to meet up? What is their game here?

The forest is quiet as I move through it; always on guard, ready for a goblin ambush. My bow loosely held in one hand as the other idly brushes across the arrows in the quiver at my hip, keeping time with my steady stride. Only the slightest sound of crunching fresh snow under my toes gives any indication I am there at all. There is a brief flicker of movement to my left, I immediately halt my stride behind the nearest tree. Peeking around I see a glen with 6 sleeping forms. The Goblins. Of course! They are nocturnal and are sleeping through the day. I chastise myself for not remembering that from school. There is the movement again, their lone sentry while the rest sleep. He is sloppy, and bored.

I pick up a fallen pinecone and toss it at some low branches on a tree near their camp. Sure enough the disturbed branch loses some of it’s snow, getting the attention of their guard. He takes one….two…three… steps towards the edge of the clearing and then “Twang” the distinctive song of my bow barely breaks the silence. Before its note ends the “whump” of the goblin body falling gracelessly into the snow is heard. I turn towards the rest of the party. Not one of them has stirred. Slowly I stow my bow and draw my longsword, beginning to creep in their direction. I kill 2 of them in their sleep before one wakes enough to call the alarm. Surprisingly, in spite of outnumbering me four to one, they simply start running. Dropping my sword I take up my bow again and slaughter the lot of them without making a sound, not a word was spoken. I realize just seeing them in my forest has renewed my ire. I am simply offended at their arrogance; thinking that they could come into my forest, my district, and harm those I have sworn to protect. Quite frankly, I’m seething.

Checking their bodies I find a map and my stomach drops. There are only a few landmarks noted on it, the road, the river, and two X’s. One is in the middle of nowhere, I can’t make out what is important about it…the other though….I know where that mark is on my Ranger map.

“Fire Cleanses All” is a common expression in Ratik. It developed during the horde war when settlers and soldiers would pile up and burn the bodies of the monsters after battle. The common thought was they bred disease and this helped prevent any spread….or at least I think that was the rational explanation. I think, if the way I’m feeling right now is any indication, we just burn them because we’re pissed off, and we want to make them dead dead. I look at the scattered corpses and find I don’t have the time to pile them up, gather wood, start a fire and make sure it burns safely. That doesn’t mean I’m any less pissed off, so I do the next best thing. I cut off their heads. I find a few fallen limbs, not enough for each goblin head, but three that will do and I hammer them into the ground. I retrieve three heads and slam them into place. I don’t know if there are more of these creeps around but if they follow the tracks they will see what end awaits them. Then I take off full speed towards the cabin.

On my Ranger Map is a newly established Palmer cabin. According to the notes of my district it belongs to a retired soldier. More than that, I do not know. As expected the Orc tracks lead all the way to the door…..which has been ripped off it’s hinges. There is blood on the threshold, the door; hanging from a hinge, thrown open. A smashed crossbow lays just off the porch in the snow. The snow is bloody with drag marks leading the way I came. I now know the identity of the victim, where he came from. Carefully, quietly, I move onto the porch. The construction is sound and it doesn’t creak at all under my weight. I peer around the doorframe into the cabin. Snow has lightly blown into the room, there are no footprints in it. I hear no sounds from within at all, the fire has long burned out and it’s very cold in here. Nevertheless, I am cautious as I slink inside.

The cabin is a large single room with a loft. The bedroom I suppose. There are narrow stairs to the side and back of the room leading up. There is a large couch in front of the fireplace and a nice sized carved wood chair. The back of the cabin kind of kicks out and there’s a small washing up room and storage place. To my right is the kitchen. It is airy and cute. There is a rather large iron stove that I can imagine cost a pretty gold piece at least to get all the way out here. There’s a rug and table with four chairs in the center of the kitchen. I still haven’t heard a sound, if there was anyone hiding in here they haven’t moved a muscle. Slowly, I creep to the stairs, my sword drawn. Like the porch, the steps are so well made they don’t make a sound as I stalk up to the loft space. There is a large bed centered against the back wall. There is a wardrobe and a chest at the foot of the bed. A soldier’s footlocker. I check under the bed, inside the wardrobe and in every nook and canny in the cabin. It’s a good hour of sneaking and searching the grounds until I finally relax and convince myself there is no one else here.

I drop my pack in the living space and turn towards the door. I want to start a fire but not before I’ve secured the cabin. I found a bucket, rags and a toolkit in the small cleaning area during my search. There is a large metal washtub here, and laundry area; I spy a clothesline across the space. Getting the toolkit I assess the damage to the door. They must have surprised him before he could bar the door, it is still leaning against the frame on the inside. One hinge has been completely torn free of the wood doorframe and hangs limply from the door itself. I try to realign the door as best as I can and put a couple of new nails in while it is shimmed into place. There, that did it. OK, it’s not great, but considering I was trying to hold the door in place AND hammer the hinge back in, it will do. At least it closes and stays closed now.

Time to make a fire and warm up. I gather additional logs from the woodpile and bring them inside so I will not have to restock in the night. While I’m out I check the smokehouse, it’s been ransacked. Not surprising. On my way back inside I am struck with how cute this little cabin is. The soldier who built it really loved the place, you can tell by his craftsmanship. There is a lot of pride in it. I catch myself standing on the small front porch looking out on the vista before me. It’s sad to imagine he put so much into this place and was taken from it so quickly. By the looks of things he hasn’t been here more than a couple of years at least.

I bar the door as I come inside with the wood. Then set about making a fire in the fireplace. It’s river rock, maybe even from the large creek that flows a little ways away. I get the fire started and as I turn back towards the room I see a shimmer of light reflected from the fire on something under the couch. I kneel down and look under it, there is his longsword. It was knocked under there during the fight. That explains why I didn’t find it on the Orcs, and the goblins hadn’t made it here yet which is why the place isn’t ransacked. Somehow the thought of those creatures here in his space makes me angry all over again. To calm my nerves I light the stove and set a pot of water on to warm. I also get a teapot going while I’m at it.

As my tea steeps I proceed to wash away the blood on the floor. It just doesn’t seem right to let it stain. Palmer took pride in his house and I won’t let him down. I couldn’t save him, but I can do this. Maybe it’s as much to assuage my guilt than anything else. At any rate, in another half hour or so the place is cleaned up, porch too. I take my break at the kitchen table and ponder the space as I drink my tea. It strikes me a little odd that the only rug in the place is under the kitchen table. If I were to have a rug in my cabin, it would be in front of the couch near the fire. Traditionally that is where rugs go.

I realize that I’ve seen a smokehouse, but no pantry or root cellar. I walk near the fireplace and look back towards the kitchen, studying the floor. [Perception: success] Moving the chairs away from the table I lift the edge of the rug and notice a seam in the floor. I move the table aside and roll back the rug completely. There is a trap door! Glancing at the front door I double check it is barred and the shutters on the windows are closed. I get my sword ready and quickly throw back the trapdoor, nothing happens. It is pitch dark but I can see with my Darkvision that it is an empty cellar. I climb down and find a lantern to light. There are shelves of canned vegetables and fruits. My stomach starts to growl as I look at them. I really need to eat dinner. But first, explore the area. I find buckets down here and a pickax. That’s weird. I cast light around with the lantern and see where one of the racks has been moved away from the wall before. [Perception success] Moving all the jars from it to another shelf (there is plenty of room) I’m able to safely slide the rack away from the wall. As it moves I can see a rough hewn hole dug into the stone and earthen wall behind it. This is the wall that backs onto the ridge behind the house. There is a shimmer to some of the stone in the hole, but I have no idea what it is. I turn and sit down, my back against the earthen wall, looking across the small room. From this perspective I easily see the large cloth bag with two books beside it sitting on the bottom shelf of the rack across from me. It would be easily missed unless you knew where to look, or were sitting on the ground across from it. I crawl across the floor and pluck the bag and books off the shelf. Climbing the ladder, I place them outside the hole before returning and grabbing a couple of jars. Green beans and peaches. No, not mixed together. I return upstairs and go to the fireplace where the light is better and the air is warmer. Sitting on the floor in front of the couch I study the books as I eat peaches, then green beans..straight from the jar… One is a Dwarvish to Common translation book. The other, based on my poor translation is a Dwarven book of Mining. Aaaah, I think I have an idea of what I just discovered. Next, I open the bag. It is full of raw, uncut opals. A small fortune to be exact.

View
Following Orders
The story of Steve

It’s the middle of the night by the time I wake, the garrison is mostly quiet. The men I knocked out must not have squealed on me, nor did their lookout man. Maybe they didn’t want to explain why they were carrying clubs and blankets. I notice Commander Temakos didn’t take my suggestion to bring the men in from the tents outside the gate. I grab my bow and sword and climb to a watchtower overlooking their camp.

There are three archers inside the lookout tower. I startle them with my sudden appearance. “Whoa…..hey Ranger. Is there something you need?” They all look nervous, eyes darting back and forth between each other. I wonder if they know something I don’t or just nervous around rangers in general. It could go either way.

“Nope, just woke up. Nothing to do. Thought I’d take a watch.” I answer offhandedly. If nothing else, it’s the truth. I scan the tree-line looking for movement. The men behind me are quiet but I hear their uniforms rustling as they are talking to one another with gestures instead of words. Maybe they’re trying to pick who gets to talk first.

“Sure….thanks, that would be…great.” So they’ve chosen their leader. I turn to him smiling. Hopefully not a creepy ‘you might be next’ kinda smile…..sometimes I accidentally do that, especially when I’m anxious like now. He visibly relaxes so I must’ve gotten it right.

“Have you seen anything unusual today? Any signs of movement in the forest?” I ask quietly.

All three shake their head, “Nothing at all. Do you think they’re coming? The ones who attacked you?” They almost stand fully at attention in their nervousness around me.

Shrugging and turning back to look out, “Not sure. Every time I thought we lost them one would pop up. I tried to cover my tracks getting here….but…..I’m just not sure.” My shoulders droop a little in defeat.

That gesture, as small as it was, resonates with them I guess. I feel a light patting on my shoulder; a show of support. “We heard you fought off a lot of them and saved the royal. Was that Lieutenant you arrived with the Prince? What is he like?”

I see all three of them avidly listening and awaiting my assessment of Lex. Shrugging, “He’s nice, a pretty good guy. Seemed OK….really good cook.” I leave out the part about the incessant talking, goofy jokes, easy smiles. That seems too personal. They ask about the creatures and I start giving all the details I reported in the office. I know this will get around the grapevine and the men will at least get accurate details on how to fight the Crickets through official channels or camp gossip. We’ve been chatting amicably for a long time and sharing stories when one of them says something completely unexpected.

“Did you hear about those four guys that were killed in the barracks?” I start to choke on the sip of water I was drinking.

“What! Four guys were killed? Four?” I ask once regaining my composure.

“Yeah, three of them had the backs of their heads bashed in and one sliced across his front.” The man next to him nodding emphatically.

I blink slowly, a shocked look on my face. I murdered four men. I defended myself against four men. Whomever set them to it; I can only imagine it was Jotai, didn’t report me. “Temakos is investigating it, but nothing has been said yet.”

“They were 4 of those Three River men.” One of the other privates interjects and the third rolls his eyes at that.

“Three River men?” I ask, confused.

“Yeah, them.” The guard nearest me points out the opening facing the camp outside. “They arrived from Three Rivers Garrison to help in the search. There are also some calvary coming from a southern garrison too, but they haven’t arrived yet. Hope they’re better than those guys are.” I notice exasperation in his tone.

“What’s the problem with them?” I ask curiously. Most military units I’ve seen pretty much have their shit in order. Hearing the disgust in this soldier’s tone is highly unusual.

“They’re a mess. Sloppy….not just their uniforms but their training too. Their officers seem disinterested with regulations and when our Lieutenants and Sergeants said something to them they were downright hostile over our “interference”. That got the Commander’s attention and she came down on them all as the superior officer in charge. They’ve kept their heads down and to themselves since then.” He looks out the opening overlooking their tents. “Whatever they were doing in our barracks it was probably no good.”

I almost admit to the feat that moment. Almost. In the end I think it’s better to keep my mouth shut. Momentarily, I wonder if they actually suspect the truth but they don’t show any signs of it. [successful Insight roll!] The description of the Three Rivers troops and their superior officers does explain how Jotai ended up being a Sergeant. Between extensive Ranger training and a bully attitude he would succeed in a slipshod organization like that.

As morning comes and the men are relieved by the next watch I go along and join them for breakfast. We enter the mess together and I can’t help but look around for Lex, to see if he is still around, but he’s not here. We all assume I will be joining them for the attack on the Cricket hive so I’m not surprised when I get a message that Commander Temakos wants to see me in her office. I quickly finish the last of my huge breakfast and report. Lex is in the office, clean shaven, in a new uniform….looking very princely. Even after a bath and new clothes I still feel like a homely street urchin and can’t help but unconsciously check my hands and nails for grime.

“I have orders for you.” Temakos starts without preamble. I’m prepared to hear what my part of the engagement will be, I’m excited to hand those Crickets their asses. “You are to continue on your run and check on the civilians on your route.”…..wait….what?

“What?” I manage to sputter out, confusion written all over my face.

“You are to continue on your run Ranger. This is a military matter now and we’re going to handle it.” She speaks slowly as if to a small child.

My temper ignites. “Wait a damn minute! You’re telling me you’re actually going to send the one person in this whole place who has engaged, survived multiple attacks, and killed these dangerous and COMPLETELY UNKNOWN creatures away from the fight. While you and a bunch of green soldiers go in and get killed!!” Yes, I’m yelling at the Commander. Sometimes my emotions override my better sense.

Temakos speaks lowly and slowly through clenched teeth. “My men are not green. They are a well trained, seasoned army. Assuming you told me everything of importance, we are not going in uniformed. Did you provide all pertinent information Sergeant? Or did you leave out something of importance?”

“Oh, I suppose the only thing I left out is that you’re all gonna fucking die. I suppose that’s kind of important.” I’m seething and my mouth is running on it’s own. My internal editor has left the building.

“Lily…..” Lex breaks in and speaks to me for the first time since we arrived here.

“What?!” I interject hotly, “you’re gonna tell me they’re taking you out there to lead them back. You! The one I found and saved from death. This is bullshit and you know it.” He flinches at my tone and remarks but I don’t give a damn. I’ve got nothing to lose here.

“Actually,” Temakos starts and turns her attention to Lex, “the Lieutenant is going to be returning to the Capital. By order of the Queen. And he’ll be carrying my message and your report regarding the Crickets.”

It’s Lex’s turn to be furious. “What! She can’t do that! I’m a member of the military. She has no authority to give me orders.”

Temakos is now looking at us like the cat that ate the canary. She’s been waiting to hit us both at once. “She is the Queen and she is your mother. She has the authority to order me to send you back to the Capitol. I serve the King and Queen of Ratik. As do both of you. You are to return immediately.” She then turns her attention to me. “And I believe the next stop on your run is the Dancing Bear Inn. You can accompany the Prince there, it’s 2 days away.”

My eyes narrow at her, “Won’t you send a contingent of guards with him? For his protection?”

“I think sending guards with him would draw more attention to the fact that he’s the Prince. It’s better if he remains the Lieutenant, don’t you agree?”

I want to knock that smug look right off her face. She got me. There’s no way I’m letting Lex travel alone along the River road when I believe the Crickets could be around any corner. It’s my turn to answer between gritted teeth.

“I suppose that’s correct. But considering the circumstances it seems rather reckless.”

“I’m not completely helpless you know.” Lex declares emphatically. He’s still mad about his orders. We both ignore him.

“Then the Ranger who has been ordered to continue her run should probably accompany him for his protection. Do you think you can do that?” Temakos’s grins widens. I hate her, I hate being outsmarted by her. In a tone that brokers no argument she continues, “I’ve arranged to give you two horses to speed your travel out of the area. Gather your gear and leave immediately. You’re both dismissed.”

Lex, still muttering, salutes crisply and spins on his heel, long strides taking him into the nearest room off the main office area. I just glare at her another second longer and turn to leave.

“Oh Sergeant, wait a minute. There’s one last thing I needed to ask you.” Her tone is simultaneously conversational and dangerous. I freeze with my back to her, afraid that my expression might betray me. I’m sure she’s going to drop the news regarding the 4 dead men. “You haven’t spoken to anyone about Lex’s true identity have you? You didn’t mention to anyone he’s the Prince?”

I think about my conversation with the guards, what they asked….how I answered. “Not at all.” I lie and leave before she can question me further.

I grab my gear from the civilian tent, tip the woman an extra copper for watching my stuff and go towards the stables. Lex is there fussing over two broken down looking mares. Well, not completely broken down, but pretty close. I watch as he checks and re-checks the saddles and tack on them. By his face and movements he is still angry, but his voice is soft and warm when he speaks softly to the horses. They love him.

I hate horses. I used to ride as a kid, but after a bad experience I have kept my distance for all these years….and have every intention of avoiding horses whenever I can. Except, apparently, today.

[Game mechanic notes: An element of 5e is to encourage RP. One way they do it is having a section on the character sheet that is: Personality traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws. I decided to make something really specific for a flaw. I wrote ‘Horse Averse’ and came up with a whole backstory as to why Lily doesn’t trust horses or like them.]

Lex finally notices I’m there and asks if I’m ready. I nod and we load up our stuff. I notice he now has a couple of saddle bags full of gear and supplies. I imagine we’re both packing extra food. I stare at the horse and take a deep breath. Approaching it, she skitters away from me a bit. I feel Lex’s eyes watching us as he sits easily in his saddle. Fucker. I don’t know if I’m mad about having to leave, riding a horse, or the fact that it’s so easy for him. All three, I decide and reach for her again. I try to grab the pommel and put my foot in the stirrup to swing up but she balks as I get close and I barely get my footing before falling in a heap.

[Botched Animal Handling roll. Saved from falling on my ass by great Athletics roll. Skill rolls are so much fun. Really, I mean it. They are fun.]

“You’re scaring her.” Mr. Perfect says from atop his horse. “Let me help.”

“I’m fine, it’s fine.” I bark back at him. He ignores me and slides off the saddle; goes to my crazy asshole horse and says softly, “It’s OK. You can do it. She’s just a little nervous. Just stay calm and everything will be ok.” I stop and watch, puzzling over whether he’s talking to her or me actually. The horse drops her head, almost resting it on his shoulder and makes a quiet noise. He takes that opportunity to look over at me with a ‘Well, are you gonna get on her or not’ expression of impatience. The horse, he was definitely talking to the horse. Once again I take the pommel and this time slip my foot in the stirrup and swing my leg over the saddle. The horse doesn’t move. Lex lets out a dazzling smile for her and pats her affectionately. “There you go, what a good girl you are. I knew you could do it.”

I really hate horses.

We leave the garrison in silence. As we pass in front of the Three Rivers tents I look for Jotai or anybody else giving me a sideways glance and see nothing out of the ordinary. One of Temakos’s Lieutenants is dressing down some soldiers on their shoddy uniforms and tent formations. The privates are trying to fix everything and do their best. Their officers and Sergeants nowhere to be seen. I shake my head and turn back towards the road.
Lex is literally muttering angrily to himself, the sky, the ground (not the horse), anything and everything but me I guess. He hasn’t really said much to me at all so far. As a result, I’m startled when he finally does say something.

“It’s not fair you know.” He’s looking at me when he says it this time. It’s probably the tenth time I’ve heard this remark from him all morning. But now he’s actually speaking to me.

“Nope, not fair.” I leave out the part where I contemplated handing him my horse and heading straight north to take on the Crickets by myself until the troops showed up. That I abandoned the idea because I couldn’t trust him not to follow, and I couldn’t fathom leaving him to travel unguarded. Essentially I leave out the part where he’s the reason I’m not fighting Crickets right this very minute.

“She thinks she can just boss me around and control my life.” He practically snarls out.

I’m confused, “Temakos?”

“No! The Queen. She’s calling me back, then she’ll see that I’m removed from the military so she can keep me in the palace and under her thumb. She’ll be throwing parties and setting me up to meet someone ‘worthy’ to marry. She has a whole plan for me. She won’t stop until she has me engaged to some diplomat’s daughter or a rich merchants daughter.”

He sounds like a spoiled brat. I’m about to tell him as much when I hear thundering hooves coming towards us. I turn my attention forward again and casually sling my bow off my shoulder, fingering an arrow in my quiver. My horse stops since I’ve dropped the reigns. Around a corner 8 heavily armored soldiers on large stallions approach. They must be the men from Oakdale Garrison that I heard about from the guys on the watch.

Our horses have instinctively moved to the side of the road to make room for the riders. I watch them study our poor old nags as they approach. The leaders salute Lex and one actually notes the almost nocked arrow and bow in my lap. He grins at me as he passes, perhaps realizing that had they not been “friendly” they most certainly would have been “feathered.”

The sight of calvary riders, has Lex fired up once more and his growling and muttering begin again. I can’t take it anymore. “I’m gonna hunt a bit. The campground waypoint is a few hours away. Can you take my horse for me and meet me there? If I catch something will you cook it?” I appeal to his love of cooking to brighten his mood and it does, at least momentarily. He takes my reins as I pull my pack and gear off the beastie.

“Be careful.” He says as I start away. I just give him a wave over my shoulder without looking back. It’s so good to be back in the forest again. I’ve been hearing it as we’re traveling the road. The birds and squirrels are music to me now. I run about 20 yards to the north of the road and parallel it. Truth be told I just wanted to get off that damn horse and away from the sulky prince. I’m keeping a watch on them from a distance [stealth rolls] and looking for game trails. I’ll be sure to catch us something for dinner before he gets to the camp.

I cruise around checking tracks, watching the road, and generally running around for half the day. I notice that since he’s alone with the horses Lex has picked up the pace but is still taking it easy on the old mares. He walks them more than they gallop. Finally I break away from the road far enough to flush out a bevy of quail and kill two for our dinner. I am sitting on a stump plucking them by a small fire when Lex approaches the camp area off the road halfway to the Inn.

“You beat me here.” Says captain obvious. The look I give him pretty much calls him that.

“Horses do OK?” I ask as I finish the first bird and start on the second one. He’s removing the saddles and blankets from both. I don’t say it, but I’m thankful to him for dealing with mine. I’m perfectly happy sitting far away plucking at our dinner. I think Lex has picked up on it and just handles them both without comment.

“Yes, they did fine.” He answers as he pats the one he’s brushing affectionately. “They’re tired and have worked hard today.” The one he finished brushing down first nudges him from behind for more attention. He laughs as he rubs her behind an ear and says quietly, “You like that don’t you. You’re like Steve.”

Now this has my attention and I stop what I’m doing to focus on him fully. He has that sad look he would get before we made it back to the garrison. “Who’s Steve?” I break the silence, my curiosity getting the best of me.

Lex finishes brushing his horse and hobbles them both so they can graze nearby without going too far. He sits down near me and starts going through his stuff; getting his cooking gear ready, before he answers. “Steve was my horse.” His tone grave and serious.

“Your horse’s name was Steve?” I know this is serious for him. I try to keep my tone respectful. But seriously…his horse’s name was Steve. “Isn’t that…kind of…not what you name a horse.”

“I suppose you would name your horse what? Blackie? Wildfire?” He replies sarcastically.

“Well, yeah…something along those lines. A horse name. Not a people name…you know…like Steve. Why would you name a horse Steve?”

“All my horses are named Steve.” He says matter-of-factly. Like I’m the idiot here that doesn’t know this normal, ordinary thing.

“Of course…all your horses are named Steve. All the palace horses are all named Steve. Makes it easy to remember their names I suppose. It’s perfectly sensible.” I’m looking at him like he’s crazy.

“No, not all the palace horses, just mine. My father gave me my first horse when I was 5.”

“Wait a minute” I interrupt. “You got your first horse when you were Five! Five. That’s dangerous.”

“It is not.” He becomes defensive. “I didn’t have anyone to play with and on my 5th birthday my dad gave me a horse and I said, ‘You are my horse, and you will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ After that I’ve named all my horses Steve.” He looks away and starts breaking down the first quail into pieces. I focus back on my work and contemplate what he says as I finish plucking the bird. His story is both sweet and sad. And the fact that when he called in his sleep for Steve he was calling to his horse is sadder still.

The quail finally done, I cut it apart like he did the first one and hand him the pieces. “Steve is a good name for a horse.” Its all I can think to say to let him know how sorry I am that he lost his friend in battle.

He smiles as he takes the pieces from me and nods. “I think so too.” I get a flash of what he must’ve looked like, a small boy dressed smartly on his birthday. Looking into the eyes of a horse twice his size and declaring seriously, ‘You will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ I cannot hide my smile at the thought.

Of course dinner is marvelous. I fill the conversation with questions about how he prepared the birds and what spices he used. I may never cook as well as the Prince of Ratik, but I can sure as hell do a lot better than I have been in the past. When discussing food and cooking Lex has a different attitude. Over the past week or so I’ve realized that there is the Prince and there is Lex. When you’re talking about food or cooking or…apparently horses…you’re talking to Lex. When you’re talking about military duty, service, or family you are talking to the prince. He’s much more guarded, even with me. I don’t blame him…it’s understandable.

“I’ll take first watch”, I declare as I take the dirty dishes. We still have the whoever doesn’t cook, cleans rule.

When I’ve returned and sit the dishes out to dry I see that he’s setting up his tent. “Where’s yours?” He asks.

“Don’t use one.” I shrug, “mainly just sleep in a tree.” I point to the nearest one that I had chosen for the night. He’s looking at it and frowning harshly. “Why don’t you sleep in my tent when I’m on watch. No need to stay in a tree tonight.” He looks rather pleased with himself when I nod in agreement.

The night is uneventful. I wake Lex and take his place in the tent. It’s warm and comfortable. I awaken to the smell of coffee, bacon and eggs. “Wow, you prepared for this trip a lot better than I did.” I declare as I watch him pull the bacon off the griddle. I start getting my teapot out of my gear, filling it and setting it beside the fire to warm.

“There’s coffee ready.” He says.

“I’m more of a tea girl. Coffee’s fine, I just prefer this when I have it.” I see him study me for a moment and nod as though he’s committing it to memory. I have no idea why he would bother, after the next couple of days we’ll never see each other again. Breakfast is delicious and I rave over it much to his embarrassment. “Hey, if you don’t want accolades, don’t cook so good.” I mumble with a mouth full of bacon.

It’s getting time to go and I’m faced with that horse again. I’m standing, staring, and contemplating my first move when Lex offers a deal. “Why don’t I get the horses ready and you can pack up the tent and camp.”

I look at him and know what he’s doing. He’s cutting me some slack. Anybody who reads horses and people as well as he does can sense my discomfort. But I hate taking the easy road, I hate him thinking I can’t handle something. In the end though, it’s just not worth the fight. I nod and start breaking down the camp. Once it’s done I turn to where he’s talking and calming the horses. Specifically my horse who is looking at me skeptically. Can horses look at you skeptically? Mine sure can. Again, he’s talking in low tones to her. “You can do this. It’s going to be fine, just relax and trust her.” I take the pommel and put one foot in the stirrup as he holds her and strokes her nose.

“Are you talking to her or me when you say that.” I ask quietly, because I’m terrified of startling this beast and having her drag me down the road by my heel in the stirrup. He just smiles as an answer. I heave myself up.

The ride to the Inn is rather quiet. Lex is not as furious as he was yesterday so the grimacing and angry muttering to no one in particular has practically disappeared. Because he isn’t in such a bad mood I ride with him most of the day. We stop mid-day for some hot broth lunch and give the horses a break. It is shortly after we’ve resumed our travels that I spot the tracks crossing the road from South to North.

“Not good.” I’m crouching on the ground studying the tracks up close. I’ve studied these in the Academy, this is my first chance to see any in real life. “Wargs and Orcs,” I point to the forest to the north of the road, “heading in that direction.” I pause, thinking. The tracks are over a week old. It could just be a raiding party or something. We are west of the Dancing Bear, they might be circling back around to hit the Inn from the forest. Lex has been quietly watching me, he’s been around me enough to recognize my ‘thinking face’.

“Should we track them through the forest? See where they went?” I hear the hopeful tone in his voice. Anything to avoid going straight back to the palace. I’m glad my back is to him so he can’t see my eyeroll and smirk. But he does settle it for me, there’s no way in hell I’m dragging him into danger. Not when I should be protecting him.

“No, the tracks are a week old. If they are going to attack the Inn they might have done that by now. We should probably hurry there. Do you mind taking my horse again? I’m faster on foot through the forest.” He looks disappointed but nods. The tracks continue north while I run east towards The Dancing Bear. I zig-zag through the forest but don’t see any more orc or warg tracks, although I do see a large stag. My parents taught me not to show up somewhere empty-handed so I take it down with a couple of shots and field dress it.

Technically I’m not sneaking around, but I still end up scaring the guys on guard around the Inn when I melt out of the forest with a dead stag draped across my shoulders. “Sorry about that.” I say to the one nearest to me who is grabbing his chest and breathing hard. He’s only about 14 so I’m pretty sure he isn’t having a heart attack. His brothers come running from the yelp he gave out only to start laughing and teasing him at the sight of me. They introduce themselves as Lem, John and Derek, sons of the owners, Darlene and Chris. I ask them about a Lieutenant arriving with a couple of horses and they tell me he arrived several minutes before me. He’s tending his horses in the stables. The oldest takes the stag and sends one of the others into the kitchen as I go to check in with Lex and let him know I arrived fine.

“I thought you’d be here first, like last time.” He narrows his eyes at me, “Did you run into trouble?”

Smiling, I shake my head no. “Not unless you call a large stag trouble. Thought I’d bag something for them to serve, to eat. They never accept my money, so I try to pay other ways that they can’t refuse.”

I see my explanation seep in, “That’s not a bad idea. I never thought of that.”

We agree to meet up again for dinner and I go through the back door into the kitchen. I’m sweaty and covered in animal blood, something that might unnerve the crowd in the main room. The woman there introduces herself as Darlene. She is tall, slightly plump, and and has deep dimples in her cheeks when she looks up and smiles at me. “Welcome Ranger. Lem told me you brought us a stag. That’s very nice of you.” She hands me a mug of tea as I perch on a stool near the warm stove away from the table where she’s working.

“Not a problem, my folks taught me not to come to a place empty handed if you can help it.” I sip the tea slowly, it warms me from the inside out. We chat briefly before she calls in Chris to get a bath going in my room. I ask them if they’ve seen any wargs or orcs around. First they look at me like I’m crazy, then I explain the tracks. Neither of them have seen anything like that for many seasons. They’re surprised, even for an early winter this is much farther east than raiding parties travel. Both agree to keep a sharp eye out, and warn the boys. After Chris goes upstairs to ready my bath I ask Darlene if she has a dress I could borrow for tonight, that I haven’t dressed nice in a long time.

Her eyes narrow at me, “You want to wear a dress tonight? One of my old dresses?” I shrug and nod like it’s no big deal. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with a particular Lieutenant who came in earlier and asked if the ranger he was traveling with had arrived yet, would it?”

“Ummmm, no.” Does it? I hadn’t thought it did. Oh no, what am I thinking. “Yeah, never mind. I don’t know what I was thinking….I don’t want you..”

“Oh pooh, you can’t back out now.” She’s smiling broadly as she wipes her floured hands on her apron. “Follow me, we’ll find you something.” She leads the way towards their quarters in the back, off the main floor. She opens up an old trunk in the corner and starts sifting through what appears to be various fabrics. “These were mine when I was much younger,” she looks at herself and laughs heartily, “and smaller. Here, this one will bring out your eyes.” She holds up a dark green homespun dress that is very nice, plain… but nice.

“It’s perfect” I say as she holds it up to my shoulders. “Thank you so much.” I’m honestly touched by her kindness. She doesn’t know me from Adam yet here we are in her room going through her old clothes together like girlfriends. I reach out to take the dress and she grabs it back towards her chest.

“Not with those filthy hands you’re not. In fact, when you change into this leave your clothes outside the door so I can wash them before you leave tomorrow. I’ll have them ready before daybreak. Let’s go upstairs and check on your bath.” I follow her up the stairs to room 5. It is a good sized room, not the largest, but not too small. Chris comes in after us with the last buckets of warm water and stokes up the fire. After he leaves Darlene turns back to me, “Keep this dress. There will be other Inns and stops that you’ll want to look nice and you can have something with you. It won’t take up too much room.”

“You really have to let me give you something for it, this is…..” I am constantly amazed by the generosity of the people in my district, on my run.

“Nonsense. It is my pleasure. It’s been four years since we had a Ranger that was a girl through here and I’m more than happy to help you out.” She moves to the bed and lays the dress out. I don’t understand what she means to ‘help’ me with. I just wanted to wear something different for a change.

I soak in the hot bath much longer than I intended and take time to wash my hair not just once, but twice! I try to dry it out as much as possible but as long as it is I decide to pile it up in a loose bun so I can go eat. The dress fits pretty well, the sleeves are a little snug and there’s some extra room in the bust, but not too bad. Darlene is right, the color is nice on me.

I come down the stairs and some of the men who were sitting at a nearby table stop talking and stare. I am thinking this was a mistake. I am used to slipping in and out of areas undetected and here I’ve done something to be more noticeable. Darlene is behind the bar and grinning at me so hard it must hurt those dimpled cheeks of hers. I stop at the landing and look to see if Lex is in the main room yet and spy him at a small table for two in the corner. I turn back towards Darlene and her smile is even wider and I do believe she just waggled her eyebrows at me.

I look back to where Lex is sitting and he is now standing as I start to approach the table. That’s……gallant. He holds my chair and slides it in for me. OK, this is really weird…..I didn’t think this through at all. It’s like an accidental date or something. I don’t think either one of us was expecting this and we just don’t know how to act. Darlene comes over and tells us we have a choice between chicken or venison steak thanks to the Ranger. We both choose the steak. She brings over a nice bottle of wine. I check the label but don’t recognize the vineyard. After he’s relaxed a bit, Lex starts whining about having to return to the palace again. I’ve finally had enough.

“Oh, boo hoo. You have to go and report to your parents and stay home and sleep in a bed in a nice warm room while I’ll be out in the forest all alone, in the cold, probably fighting something that wants to kill me and wondering where my next meal is coming from. I feel so sorry for you, you life is so tough.” And then I slug back the rest of my wine in one gulp. That shut him up. He’s just staring at the table now, not saying anything.

“Look, what I meant…”

“I got what you meant.” He says sadly.

“You’ve just been whining about it for two days now. There’s nothing you can do about your orders like there’s nothing I can do about my orders. You just have to re-group and…..” I let the words die out. He’s shut down, I can tell. I don’t know what I was trying to say anyway. I watch the other travelers for a few moments before standing up. My movements startle him and he jumps up as well.

Shaking my head I motion for him to sit back down, “I’m tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. It will be a long day tomorrow.”

“Ok,” he looks suddenly shocked. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Sure, tomorrow.” I repeat as I turn away. I have no intention of ever seeing him again, and am shocked at how sad it makes me.

View
Back to civilization
Nemisis

He’s the Prince. I feel sad, betrayed. I actually really liked him; the constant chirping, the attempts at humor that came out wrong. It was endearing. But now I realize that there will never be anything between us. I would be wasting my time trying to develop any sort of relationship with this man, he is far, far above my station.

My mother always claimed that the Queen and her children were spoiled and entitled. Don’t get me wrong, both my parents; my father in particular, have high praise for the king and his governance. As people who live off the land we are directly affected by his taxation and policies. My family is very loyal to the crown. I am in the ranks Ranger Corp now. My uncle is such a famous Ranger Captain, he’s practically a legend….actually, I think he might truly be a legend to many people.

Speaking of Uncles…….

“So, the uncle you’ve been going on about is actually Baron Mordecai, my boss, and my uncle’s best friend.” This is the first time I’ve said anything to him in several minutes, I’ve just been staring and contemplating his revelation as I eat.

“Who’s your uncle?” He asks tentatively.

“Eldiss Tulas. I’ve been hearing stories about their ‘adventures’ for years now. Apparently they used to take me down to the Far and Away and perch me on a barstool playing my squeezebox while they trolled the place picking up women. Once my mother found out about that it came to an end I guess. I was too young to remember.”

“You play an instrument?” He asks excitedly. He’s completely missed the point of my remarks, or is pointedly ignoring them. I just look at him blandly and he continues. “They did the same thing with me, except it was a Mandolin. I always loved going off with those two.”

Great, so he’s a super rich, spoiled, noble…..womanizer. Wow, I guess I’m lucky to have found out so quickly, before I got too enamored. Although, he hasn’t seemed too spoiled or self important all this time. Could it be my mother was wrong? I want to know what he was doing out here…..in a patrol.
“I’m surprised they let the prince go out with the border patrol. Aren’t you supposed to have guards or something? Why were you even out this way? We aren’t anywhere near the border.”

My tone must’ve been a little accusatory as he seems really defensive right now, “I didn’t need guards, I was surrounded by plenty of soldiers, I’ve been in the service as Lex Smith for three years and have been on the patrol all that time without any trouble other than the usual skirmishes. I don’t know why we were sent here. Our Captain got new orders sending us in the area to check something out, I was just one of the Lieutenants, I didn’t see the orders.” His face is flushed and eyes flash as he vents, I’ve made him good and angry I think.

Our roles have changed. I’m not sure if he can sense it or not, but we are no longer ‘comrades in arms’, a soldier and a ranger looking to get out alive. Now I am a Ranger responsible for the health and welfare of the Prince. He is my charge and it is my duty to see him safely home. Perhaps that’s how he’s viewed me all along, and I just didn’t see it. Has my judgement been clouded? If he’s like the uncle he so dearly loves maybe he thought he could have a protector and a little something on the side. Is he a womanizer like them and just looking for another notch on his belt?

“So, you’ve just been parading around as Lex Smith and nobody ever figured out who you are and you’ve just…what? Worked your way up from private to Lieutenant in a few years?” I can’t help the cynical tone in my voice, I feel deceived. I feel played. “And Smith…really? You chose Smith as your alias name. You didn’t even change your first name?”

“There are a lot of guys my age named Lex…”

“I know, they are named after you.” I interject. He takes the opportunity to roll his eyes at me.

“There are a lot of guys named Lex and I don’t really look much like a Johansen…so Smith. It seemed to work just fine. Nobody thought of me any different.”

“So you’re telling me nobody in your patrol knew who you were”

He shakes his head no.

“Who does know the true identity of Lex Smith, if your commanding officer didn’t know.”

“Baron Mordecai knows, since he’s in charge of all the military. He could keep an eye on my whereabouts and know my orders. The King knew where I was stationed.”

“The King,” I repeat..”your father.”

With a heavy sigh mixed in, “yes, my father.”

“So, what does your mother think of all this?”

Wow, I have heard people described as having thunderclouds in their expressions but have rarely seen it until now, well now and a handful of times with my mother. Lex practically growls out his next response. “She is not happy about it, but she has not had any say in the matter. It’s my life, I can do what I want with it.”

I have a feeling that last statement is directed less at me but is actually an old argument between the two of them. Interesting. I hold up my hands in surrender, “Ok, you can live your life lying your way through the military all you want. I won’t judge.” He resorts to staring daggers at me at this point. “Sorry, I just…it just seems….I don’t know…” my voice trails off. How do I explain that it somehow hurts to learn the truth.

Once I’ve finished my plate and tossed the bones into the fire, I find I’m running my finger across my dish, getting every last bit of it. I blush, embarrassed, when I realize Lex is watching.
“Thank you for dinner……” I say as I get up and reach for his plate.
“I can wash them.” He starts to rise, I wave him back down nonchalantly.
“Nope. You cooked, I clean. That’s the deal.” I take his plate and refill our tea mugs, luckily I always travel with 2 tin mugs. In case I lost one, or met someone to share with. For some reason, with Lex, that saddens me now.

Before washing the dishes with the warmed water I take a moment, finally, to wash my hands and face a little. My cheek aches only a tiny bit now, but he’s right, I can feel a line across my cheekbone where the scar will be. A memento of our adventure.

Lex has been staring at the fire, not speaking for the last several minutes. Mulling things over. “What were you doing out this way? Is this part of your run? How did you find me?”

It’s his turn to be full of questions. Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken him this long to find out. Then again, we’ve been rather busy up to now. “Yes, this is part of my district. My whole territory is ‘The North’.” I pause, taking a moment to put my thoughts into words…..why was I out this way….it is a valid question.

“A few weeks ago I was tasked with acting as a scout for the Royal Observer and his guard. After returning them to Griff Garrison……..” I look at him with a knowing expression, “…after returning them I needed to go off on my own for awhile. I didn’t want to be around anybody. Just explore the territory. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense. I can hardly explain it.” I intentionally avoid the question of how I found him. I don’t think following winter moth’s around will add to my credibility.

For the first time since I uncovered his secret, he smiles. “No, that actually makes perfect sense to me. Spending time with the Royal Observer can be….daunting. You would want a rest afterwards. Now see what kind of trouble you got into trying to shirk your duties” He laughs as he finishes his tea, and picks up my sword. “I’ll take first watch……wake you in a few hours.”

He doesn’t wake me in a few hours. I do that on my own after 6 hours of warm, dry, sleep. I roll over and see him leaning against one of the boulders at the entrance, sword in hand, looking outside.

“Anything?” My voice makes him startle and jump a little.
“Nope. Nothing.”
“You didn’t wake me.”
“How long did you keep watch day and night without sleep?” He answers while keeping his focus outside the cave.

I get up from my bed of blankets and fur. “Still, we will move faster tomorrow if you have some sleep. Take my bed, its all warmed up.” As I approach I hold my hand out for my sword. Reluctantly, he hands it over. I’ll be honest, I’ve missed holding it these last couple of days.

“Sorry about the stench.” I say to him as he crawls into my sleeping nest and I fix my gaze outside. I swear I hear him say ‘I don’t mind’, but when I turn back to check he is already asleep. Must’ve been my imagination.

The next morning is actually bright and sunny. It definitely lifts our spirits.

Also, over the course of the evening, while sleeping, I felt what my uncle and other Ranger Captains call ‘the gift’. Where the spirit of the forest, or the old gods, or whatever you believe in grants you the ability to sling. We learn about it during our training, and some of the Rangers who can do it actually put on demonstrations to the cadets at the academy and explain how you sling once you are granted the ability. My father has told me that as a half elf it might come to me quickly, but it still was a surprise. I am preoccupied with this feeling; wanting to tell my cadet friends, tell my Dad…..he’ll be thrilled. These thoughts and the overall contentment of having a fuller belly and a long rest distract me from my duties. So I don’t register the Cricket until he lands between us.

I spin around towards the sound of its landing. I hear Lex parry the creature’s strike. Lex’s block manages to open up the Cricket’s torso to me and I send 2 arrows driving hard into it’s chest. It staggers back and Lex thrusts my blade into it before he’s out of reach. The shocked expressions on both our faces reveal that neither of us were expecting that attack.
[Failed contested stealth roll]
“Crap. They’re still around.” I mutter as he nods solemnly. I look back in the direction we came, our trail clearly marked with our footprints. “Maybe it was the smoke that clued them in last night.”

He nods, “It’s possible, I really thought we were in the clear, though.”

“Me too.” I point in the direction we’re heading. “You lead for awhile. I’m going to make sure we’re not followed. As he moves ahead I cast my first slinging, asking the forest to cover our tracks and make it so no creature magical or otherwise can follow where we go. [Pass without trace]. I see a shimmer across the snow in our wake and hope that it does the trick. I use the spell once more as we continue through the day and travel in silence.

“No fire.” Lex declares dismally. I shake my head ‘No.’ “Tree well?” He asks and I nod. This time he chooses and we settle in for a cold hungry night.

I sleep off and on. It’s like I’m back to the beginning where I can only grab an hour here and there and have to be ‘on’ all the time. I don’t want to admit it but I know it’s because Lex is a prince. He’s become my duty; another wedge that seems to shut down communication between us. He’s picked up on it and become sullen. Trying to lighten the mood I tell him not to worry, at this pace we’ll be at the garrison in the early afternoon tomorrow and he’ll finally be rid of me. It was meant as a joke but he just stares at me and looks hurt, turns away and tries to sleep. Looks like he’s not the only one who says the wrong thing in the wrong way.

Before dawn I turn to nudge Lex awake only to find him already watching me. I cannot read his expression in the shadows. I nod towards the opening in the branches and start out with an arrow at the ready. Last night I realized I only had 9 left. I cannot waste any shots today. After a few moments Lex follows me out carrying my sword, prepared for attack. We depart south in silence. I’ve been terrified that at the very end of our trek we’ll be ambushed like his patrol and won’t stand a chance, to come so far and still get killed, or watch him die. It puts me on edge.

“We’re less than an hour away” I announce, breaking our long quiet. We’ve gone all morning without a word, both of us on guard and focusing on the environment. Lex doesn’t look nearly as happy as I thought he would at my declaration.

“What do you think will happen when we arrive?” He quietly asks.
“Well, probably…..” I start out gravely, “…they will throw a big party for the Chosen One’s return, and we’ll all bow down to you and kiss your fingers or feet or whatever it is you ‘royal folk’ do when gracing us commoners with your presence.” I look at him with an evil grin that turns into laughter at the look on his face. I think he might be picturing what I just said.

He schools his features and declares seriously, “It’s the back of my hand. You are supposed to kiss the back of my hand.” The twinkle in his eyes gives away his jest. I burst out laughing. Once it begins to subside and he is grinning triumphantly I add “At least it’s not your ass,” which causes him to throw back his head and truly laugh; joining my renewed chuckles.

We’re just pulling ourselves together when we break through the trees. I slow as I take in the scene. “This is unusual.” I mutter to Lex. We have come through to the east of the garrison, overshot it a bit, and as we make our way around to the front gate there are many tents and troops camped outside of the Griff Mt. Garrison walls. “So this isn’t normal?” He asks as we study the troops milling about outside their tents watching our approach. “Not when I was here last.” I respond quietly. “Something is definitely up. I wonder if there’s already been an attack or something.”

“Ohhhhhh, look boys. It’s a Ranger. My, my, aren’t they something…..so Important.” By the tone of voice and the mockery it holds I can tell that whoever just yelled this thinks they insulted a ranger. But in truth they only succeeded in confusing me, and Lex; by the way he looks at me and gives me a ‘What the Fuck?’ expression. I just shrug and we continue walking towards the gate.

Quite a few soldiers notice us as we walk out of the forest and before we arrive at the gate we are approached by a rather large contingent of guards. The leader, Captain Moonshadow, looks amazed to see us. “Commander Temakos wishes to speak with you right away.” He looks at Lex, his uniform and back to me, back and forth between us like he can’t believe we’re standing before him. “Ok….” I answer, clearly there is something happening which I am not privy to. We are escorted into the garrison. As we pass the area where the heckler was I cannot see anybody who looks particularly disgruntled. But I note that the whole army in that camp looks a bit disheveled and untrained. Even after our ordeal, Lex looks more put together than most of those soldiers.

“What is going on Captain?” I ask Moonshadow. “She’ll tell you.” He answers me under his breath. I turn to Lex, confusion written on my face. He doesn’t look back at me but I see an expression of resolve and defeat in his eyes. I think he knows more about what is happening than I do right now. I decide to keep my mouth shut and watch.

We are led into Commander Temakos’s office. As she looks up from the map she was studying annoyance at being disturbed is written all over her face. It quickly melds into shock, recognition and then…..happiness, or something that probably passes for that on her features. “Lex!” She declares suddenly. “Lady Temakos.” He answers as he approaches her. They shake hands and move into that half hug thing you do with someone you might know well but it’s been awhile or something like that. I look at Moonshadow. “Lady?” I mouth to him without using my voice, “Later.” He responds in kind as the other two greet each other.

“Sgt. Kodel. What do you have to report?” I am snapped out of my focus on the Captain and return my attention to Commander/Lady Temakos.

“We have a problem.” I start. I watch her eyebrow raise at my statement. “There are creatures here (I indicate the location of the hive on the map) the likes I’ve never seen before. I need to get another Ranger here and an army to go kill them all.” I realize I’ve blurted out the need for additional Rangers without even thinking of it. Not to mention an army.

Temakos essentially ignores everything I just said and starts talking about taking her forces into the forest towards the hive. I’m furious. “No! You don’t understand, these things are extremely dangerous, they are silent, they are fast, and they are deadly. You need Rangers, plural, to take these on.”

“There has never been a need for more than one Ranger in a skirmish before. I don’t see why there should be a need now.” She states imperiously.

“Well, that would be because you’ve never seen them, never fought them, and you don’t know what you’re dealing with.” I snarl back at her. My temper is on full steam, everything I’ve felt of late comes boiling over. “You think you know what you’re facing but you don’t have a bloody clue and you’re just willing to throw away all these lives because you think you know what you’re doing.”

The Lieutenant standing behind Temakos looks shocked, Lex looks grim, and I see from the corner of my eye, Moonshadow slowly shake his head. I’ve pretty much stepped right in it and I actually don’t give a damn. Temakos leans down across the desk towards me until we are eye to eye (she is quite a bit taller than me) and says through clenched teeth. “Then why don’t you enlighten me about exactly what these ‘dangerous creatures’ are?”

I take a deep breath and start describing everything in detail. What they look like, how they move, the green goo, the death in the hive….the hatching rooms. I show them the throwing star I had taken from one of the fights. Lex backs me up completely and adds what happened to his patrol, how quickly they were ambushed and killed. I feel vindicated when I hear him chime in and validate everything I’ve said. But in spite of that the Commander seems unmoved.

I can tell that my suggestions will go unheeded. “Ranger, why don’t you get a bunk in the barracks and some food. It sounds like you could use some.” I gather my pack and bow, before I turn away from everyone I realize Lex has come around to say something to me. He looks like I feel, like he doesn’t want to be separated. Then he hands me my sword. “I guess you’ll need this back.” I nod my thanks and slowly retrieve it from him, slipping it back into it’s sheath. “Well, I guess this is…”

“Lex, you’ll be staying here tonight, in one of these rooms.” Temakos interrupts and indicates a bedroom off of the main office. “I’ll have someone bring you something to eat and have a bath drawn up.” And there it is like a chasm between us. What I’ve known all along about the two of us….different worlds, different lives. The likes of me aren’t meant for those like him. I give him a slight smile before turning away. Sometimes it’s best not to try to say goodbye.

I dump my belongings in an empty bunk in one of the barracks and go towards the supply/storeroom. The soldier there does a double take as I enter. “Can I get some clothes?” I ask as I approach the counter. “Sure, Ranger….looks like you need a set of…..everything.” Not having looked in a mirror I can only imagine how bad I am. Dirt, blood, green goo, a month of sweat….I’m not even sure if these clothes can be cleaned. As if reading my mind she says, “Why don’t you drop those clothes into the nearest fireplace once you change out of them.” I look at her quickly, thinking she’s teasing me, only to realize the private is completely serious. “Yeah, I guess they’re pretty bad.” I pick up the stack that she’s placed in front of me and thank her as she notes it all in her ledger. Next it’s to the women’s bathhouse and then…finally to the mess hall for dinner. But not before dropping my encrusted clothes into the nearest fireplace.

The word is out about the Crickets as I hear whispers and snippets of conversation when I get my meal. Just like at Hausen Hold I end up with two large plates full of food. My stomach is doing cartwheels thanks to the abundance and smells. My mouth literally waters as I sit down alone, my back to the full table of raucous soldiers near the corner.

“See, what did I tell you. Rangers think they’re better than us all, get the most food, new clothes, the best gear. Like they’re superior or something.” I recognize the same voice from before, and somehow it actually sounds familiar. But when I hazard a quick glance behind me, I don’t recognize anyone in particular. [That my friends is a blown perception roll both outside as I was coming into the garrison and again during dinner. I hate blown perception rolls, they suck so much]

Sgt. Peka suddenly appears before me. It looks like he’s the only one brave enough to approach me, or stupid enough, depends on how you look at it. “So…..you rescued the Prince.” He starts in a hushed tone.

“Didn’t know that was him, just thought he was any other soldier.” I respond and keep eating. “What is going on around here?” I indicate with my fork all the additional people.

“Well, we got word that a member of the royal family had gone missing and their last orders placed them in the area. The extra soldiers and orders from the King arrived almost right after you left. So you didn’t know anything about the search or anything? We’ve been sending patrols out day and night all through the forest looking for him.”

I shake my head, “Nope, I just took off in a direction and ran into trouble. That seems to be a habit of mine.”

“Well, that habit will probably get you promoted if you don’t look out.” Peka jokes and pats my shoulder as he leaves. I’m glad we’re friends, and I’m glad to be filled in about what’s going on. He’s a good guy.

I finish my dinner alone. It feels weird to be alone again. As I rise from the table, “There she goes, wonder what other Sgt. She’s gonna order around. Ranger thinks she’s in charge of the military now.” What the fuck asshole is this! I spin around just in time to see the heckler. And this time I get a good look at him. [Thank the dice gods above I finally rolled a 15!] I can’t believe my eyes but it is Richard Jotai. My Ranger Academy nemesis. I guess that’s what you call a guy who taunted you, picked fights with you, and finally jumped you in a dark alley in Marner with a couple of his goon friends. He didn’t expect there would be civilian witnesses and their testimony would get him kicked out of the corps. All along he blamed me for everything that happened to him. And that mutherfucker is right here in front of me. I’m too tired for this. I just give him a hard look, bus my table and leave.

One hour after falling asleep in my bunk I’m awakened by my silent alarm [Alarm spell]. I’ll be honest, I was just trying out one of my new spells; getting used to slinging. But here it is, going off to warn me. I listen to the footsteps trying to approach me stealthily…there are 4 of them. When they are just within reach I roll out of the bed and flip my folding shovel open. They are each carrying a large blanket and a piece of lumber the size of a large club. This is a really bad idea. I tell them as much.

“This is a really bad idea, you should walk away.” They continue towards me, leering and glancing at one another. “I’m not joking, this is going to end very badly for you.” One of them, a weasel-y faced looking one responds, “What are you going to do about it…Ranger…you are outnumbered here. We’re gonna do whatever we want.”

“No you’re not.” I answer matter-of-factly and leap across the bunk towards the one opposite from where I was standing. He lurches back, I spin the shovel around by the handle, and smack him quickly on the back of the head. He drops like a rock. I turn to his companions, “See…this is not going to turn out the way you want. You still have a chance to walk away.” My voice is low and steady, the words are delivered less like threats and more like simple truths. I wish they understood that, but they keep coming. The one nearest me takes an awkward swing across the bunk that I easily duck, I respond with another thunk to the back of his head with the flat of my shovel. I change tactics with them and declare, “I really like this shovel as a weapon. It’s quite effective and beautifully balanced.” I give it a twirl and freeze in the ready position.

“I’ll remember that when I pick it up off your bod….” Mouthpiece doesn’t get to finish, I drop him with a quick flick of my wrist. Twirling the shovel before me like a baton I address the last man standing, weasel face. “I gave your friends a chance and just knocked them out. But you’ve had plenty of warning and I won’t go so easy on you. Drop the blanket and club and surrender.” For a moment I think I’ve convinced him, then he smiles maniacally at me and lunges. I take the opportunity to run the shovel’s edge diagonally across his body and slice him open from shoulder to hip. I stand over his bleeding corpse. “You had your chance.” Movement at the end of the barracks tent catches my eye and I see their lookout take off. Quickly I grab up my gear, clean my shovel off on one of their blankets and holster it. I’m tired and don’t feel like reporting this and having to explain myself to Temakos one more time.

“I need a bed.” I tell the woman at the check in area of the civilian Inn style ‘women’s tent’. “How much?”
“Uhhh, Ranger…you can sleep in the barracks for free you know…” she starts to reply.
“Too crowded. How much.” My tone indicates my impatience.
“A copper is all.”
I hand her a coin and follow her to a bed. This time I don’t even bother to take off my coat, I just fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I expect I’ll be awakened soon by an officer wanting to know why I just killed a guy once his companions wake up and report me.

But that never happens. I sleep another 5 hours and wake in the middle of the night.

[OOG: when I made Lilykai’s backstory I developed friends and then for fun, decided to give her a ranger academy nemesis. That was all I wrote: Nemesis, Jotai. Almost a year later he rears his ugly head. It was a cool use of backstory.]

View
Mechanics Intermission
the big switch

A brief pause to discuss Mechanics.

At the beginning of this adventure we started in an AD&D home-brew arrangement that picked out elements from editions up to 3rd. I took some really awesome proficiencies (I thought) like rope use and lip reading and mountain climbing. I was up to 5th level and was obviously proficient with the bow and longsword. With the bow I had the sniper/sharpshooter ability which meant if I was traveling with an arrow nocked I was able to get a shot off before Initiative. And people, let me tell you, I was ALWAYS traveling with an arrow nocked. I had the 3/2 attack or whatever it is called so that every other round I could attack twice. Life was good. But….it still could be better. There weren’t any specific skill rolls to make so I was always rolling for observation (wisdom) and strength and dex. That’s pretty much it. Everything boiled down to the three or four (occasionally Intelligence was thrown in just for variety) attributes.

Healing was 3 points per day. Rangers didn’t have any magic and I traveled alone, so 3 points. I will fight to the last, where one more round will take me out and that means my character is literally laying around for over a week trying to heal up 32 hp. What can I say, she reads a lot.

Along comes 5e.

There are 18 different skills you can roll to see if you succeed or fail in something. That’s on top of the straight 6 Attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc) you can roll to save. Rangers get spells. Please, let me repeat as this is very important……Rangers. Get. Spells. All those bits of metal snares I have to take time to set out before sleeping up in a tree….that is now called Alarm. (I’ve only written about the alarm snares a few times here, but I assure you I said it every night she slept outdoors). Yes, some people who really like spells will say “Ranger spells in the lower level suck.” Maybe, but if that’s how you feel you’re probably looking for a wizard instead of a Ranger. Lower level you get : cure wounds or goodberry, alarm, pass without trace, and hunters mark. Anything else is gravy.
Do you realize that if I had been playing 5e I could have cast goodberry every day and would have never been starving. 1 berry is 1 day of food. Kinda kills the rp, though, doesn’t it?
Oh, and one more thing….you heal completely after a long rest.

We switched Lily from AD&D to 5e.
As she slept in the goblin cave.

She was level 5 when we switched. And on the cusp of 6 when we started the next session.

All of her equipment stayed the same. We recalculated her AC and she was at 16. Her Attributes remained the same. Saving throws got easier. Attack and Damage bonuses got awesome. Lost my rope, lip reading, and mountain climbing proficiencies. Lost my sniper ability to shoot before initiative. Got to attack twice per round, every round.

Then there was all the other (on top of magic) bonuses Rangers get: archetypes, favored terrain, favored enemies, and the cool attributes and traits that roleplaying helps to give me advantages. And from my GM’s point of view….18 skills to test.

Narratively, however, we both wanted to reconcile it, and this is how we did. Rangers, when they are green newbies (level 1) have no real magic (slinging is the slang in Ratik) the more they run their district and face danger the more they are “gifted with slinging” once a Ranger has exhibited slinging, they are made a Sergeant and eventually Captain. Lily just became a Sergeant, but that’s probably because she saved the Baron. And now she can sling. The other accommodation we made for the new rules is that if you heal your wounds magically before resting overnight you are good as new. If you heal overnight you have scars from your injuries and you are sore and achy which can affect RP. This is the only reason why you would heal instead of just sleep, unless you’re in battle. And yes, I’ve healed her up magically so she wouldn’t be covered in scars. I like the face one, but she doesn’t need to be polka dotted thanks to waves of arrows.

So, to recap, we’re running under 5e rules now and you might catch some narrative explanations as to her decisions or changed abilities, but the biggest difference on the surface is the sudden appearance of slinging and no longer sitting around to heal.

View
Secrets Revealed
"What's up Doc?"

Lt. Lex Smith will not shut up. Once we’ve moved away from the last attack site and our final camp he has started chattering non-stop it seems:

“Where are we?”
“A Forest.”
“Oh, a forest, yes…kinda hard to miss that”
“Did you notice there are no birds?”
I just give him a hard look.
“Huh, no squirrels either.”
I roll my eyes at him.
“What’s your favorite color?”
Maybe if I ignore him he will shut up.
“My favorite color is blue…just saying”
Maybe if I point my sword at him he will shut up. Damn, I forgot…he’s carrying my sword.
“What’s your favorite food?”
Maybe if I point an arrow at him..… I turn and point an arrow at him.
“You don’t talk much…..ok, yes, yes. We gotta be quiet”
That lasts about 10 minutes.
“Why does everything taste and smell like flowers?”
I look at him like he’s a madman. Maybe that head injury was worse than I thought. I turn back around and keep moving. I hear him muttering to himself as I move around to follow for awhile, making sure we aren’t being flanked.
“It’s like I’m talking to myself. I had better conversations with Steve.”
“What was that?” It’s the first time I’ve said anything in a couple of hours.
“I said I wished I had some tea.”

This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned a guy named Steve. He would mutter his name while unconscious too. He hasn’t mentioned his patrol at all and I notice that he does get quiet and stare off into space occasionally. He must be thinking about them, and Steve, whoever he was. It’s not my business so I don’t push.

We move without stopping for hours; most of the day, in fact. Lex is really hurting I can tell, and based on a brief glance to his leg I think his wound has opened up again. But we haven’t been followed yet….I hope. The area of the forest we are moving in is younger, must’ve had a fire or something years ago. The trees are a bit sparser and smaller. Which is good news in that it is harder, if not impossible, for the Crickets to move easily from tree to tree. The bad news is there is nothing large enough for us to find a deep tree well, we’re going to be camping more in the open tonight. I slow Lex down, “There’s no sense in tearing out all your stitches.” I mutter. “They might be able to smell blood.”

“Then we should do something about your face” he retorts. I am about to be offended when he reaches up and brushes his hand against my cheek…it stings and he shows me the tips of his fingers covered in blood. I forgot about that in all the excitement. I must look like a gory mess. “Way to block that weapon with your face.” He says with a smirk. I can’t help but chuckle, or at least start to…it hurts like fuck to smile and I wince a little instead.

“We better stop and dress our wounds then, I guess.” Before it is fully dark I find an evergreen with low heavy branches we can sleep under. Until we crawl under them, though, we’re in the open. Lex plops onto the snow as I’m trying to extract my waterproof cloak for us to sit on. I give him an exasperated look which he mirrors right back to me. I sit down next to him with the remnants of my spare shirt I’ve been using for bandage material, theres not a lot of it left. “Here, I need to check your leg,” I say brusquely as I tear off another strip of fabric. He pulls away slightly from me, “No. I can do it.” He snaps back. Which is shocking, because all this time he hasn’t really been anything but congenial. Instinctively my hackles raise; the stress, exhaustion, and danger making my temper want to flare in light of his defiance. Then I see him….as if for the first time. He’s tired and scruffy, dark circles under his eyes. He’s tried to be friendly and I’ve spent all day being gruff and dismissive. I wouldn’t want my help either if I was him. Instead of arguing I take a deep breath as I slide a little closer.

“Sorry, I’m just really worried about us still. It will be hard for you to dress your own leg, please let me help. And I’m going to need your help with this.” I gesture at my throbbing cheek. Now that I’ve stopped moving the pain is becoming apparent. Oddly, he brightens at that idea. “Sure, I can help out with that.” He actually smiles and reaches for the shirt remnants.

“Nope,” I grab it back. “You first. I think you’re bleeding again. If you tore out any stitches Lex Smith, you’re in trouble. I could barely sew you up the first time.” I gift him with a brief smile. He actually looks shocked.

His leg is bleeding a little, but not too badly and the stitches, as awful as they are, have held. It doesn’t look like there’s any infection, although it is puffy and swollen. I realize, when I glance up at his face and the blush there, that I have been prodding and touching his upper thigh rather intently. This was different when he was not awake, it’s far more intimate now. I think from now on I will let him handle this himself.

“OK, your turn.” He breaks the silence. I hand over what is left of the shirt and look up at him in the dying light of the day. He frowns and is intent on the work of cleaning the blood from my face. He holds me still, after several flinches, by gripping my chin with one hand and wiping my cheek and face with the cold damp cloth.

I realize I’ve never really looked him in the face much. It was mainly dark in the tree well and I’ve been a little busy keeping us alive. He is youngish, it’s kinda hard to tell with the scruffy beard he’s got going. Probably not yet 25 (actually my age in fact). Dark hair, grey eyes with light green flecks around the edges. Good teeth. My mother thinks good teeth is important in a man. She says it’s one of the first things she noticed about my dad. Really mom? Not the pointed ears? My thoughts make me start to laugh so my face twitches which causes pain which causes me to flinch again.

“Sorry, I was being careful” his voice breaks the long quiet we’ve shared.
I shake my head a tiny bit while still trapped in his grasp. “Not that,” I say quietly. “I was thinking about my parents.”

“They probably miss you.” He says as he’s gently wiping the area underneath the cut. I can tell he’s hesitant to clean the wound. Afraid to hurt me. “But they must be proud.” He adds before I can answer. I just nod slightly. His grip on my chin tightens slightly as he finally goes after the cut. Pain flares, but not too bad. “It’s a clean cut, there won’t be much of a scar.”

He’s looking intently at what he’s doing so he doesn’t catch the tic of my eyebrow and the quirk in the corner of my mouth indicating the last thing I’m worried about right now…or ever….is whether or not I’m going to scar. Dude, have you seen the scar on my chest….well, no, right, I guess you haven’t. “I’m no stranger to scars.” I tell him as he finally relinquishes his hold on me.

Glancing back at the cedar branches I am overcome with exhaustion. The stress of the day has caught up to me fully, I cannot bear the thought of going out to try to hunt or fish or scavenge right now, what I need is sleep. I reach in my ration bag and pull out the last of the nuts and seeds that were left. I make it look as if I’m doling it out between us when in fact I’m giving it all to the Lieutenant. “Here’s your share, I need to get some sleep.” As I drag myself under the branches and spread out the cloak for us to sleep on and try to stay a bit dry I hear him sigh heavily. “Something wrong?”

“No,” he answers as he pulls himself under and lays on his back. “My handful of nuts was extraordinarily filling. I’m stuffed.” Turning on my side, back towards him, “You have no idea.” I whisper in return.

I am suddenly awakened by an ear splitting shriek that causes me to sit up so quickly I crash my head into the underside of the branches. Nocking an arrow I roll out only to see the backside of an elk tearing into the trees. Dammit, I missed the opportunity to get a shot off before it was gone. Lex is not far after me, his leg slowing his reaction time, “What the hell….”
“It was an elk stag.” I answer before he finishes. Looking around I see that it has snowed overnight. The great part of that is that it has covered our tracks. The bad part is that traveling is going to be difficult today. I had lost my snow walkers earlier when Lex and I left our first hiding place. In my haste I left them behind. I want to start moving as quickly as possible today, however, if I take the time to make walkers for us it will speed us up in the long run.

“I need to go cut some limbs and make something to help us move around faster today. Are you OK with that? It might take me a bit of time but I think it will be worth it in the end.” Lex just stares at me for a bit before responding. I think I might have shocked him with speaking 3 consecutive sentences. “Sure, be careful.” He stammers as I collect my hatchet from the gear and leave him the pack and my sword. I return after a half an hour with 2 pairs of snow walkers.

Lex is sitting outside of the tree on my cloak, sword in hand, pack beside him. Somehow he looks different but I can’t place it right away. Finally he can’t ignore me standing there staring, “What?” He says. It’s then that I realize I can see his face, specifically, his clean shaven face. He shaved. “What’s with the…..” My voice trails off as I gesture towards my face and look pointedly at his. “Oh, well…” he starts a little sheepishly, searching for the right words. “I didn’t want to die with a beard.”

“Huh, well…thanks for the vote of confidence there.” I say with one hand on my hip. His face falls a bit, he didn’t realize how that would sound to me. Shaking my head and waving dismissively, “Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t mean it that way.”

Getting back to business, I hand him his snow walkers. He looks at them quizzically. “They’ll help you get through the snow. Here, watch” and I show him how to strap them to his boots. Lex is amazed and impressed, “Wow, these are great.” He states as he waddles around. He wants to leave the crutch behind. “Just carry it with you in case you need it later, when we’re getting tired.” I try a compromise, try to avoid another argument regarding what he can and can’t do. This guy does not like to be told he can’t do something, definitely an officer. He relents and ends up carrying my sword in one hand and the crutch in the other. We head south, ever closer to the garrison and civilization.

There have been no more signs of the crickets, and I’m hopeful we might find something to eat. My hopes soar even more when, for the first time in almost 3 weeks, I see tracks in the snow [successful observation roll]. With a smile as brilliant as the sun I point at the ground by my feet, “Rabbit tracks” I’ve never been so excited for something so simple. Then again I’ve never been so hungry before either. It’s been a day and a half since I last ate anything. I’ve been drinking water instead. It’s not fooling my stomach into thinking I’m full anymore. [I’ve started having to roll Constitution rolls again and are so far successful, but the longer I go without food, the higher the DC is getting]

Halfway through the day we come across an old, abandoned, goblin cave in a large clearing. I inspect the ground for tracks, old and new, and any signs of use. Nothing. It doesn’t look like any Crickets have been this way either. Maybe we have found a safe place to stop for the night. The cave is dug out of a berm. There are large boulders near the entrance that you have to slide between to enter. It means if we are attacked by Crickets in the night they can only come at us one at a time and in a cramped space, I have all the advantage here. It is a single large round room with a high ceiling. There is a fire pit in the very center and I can see where they had created a small chimney to let the smoke out through the ground above, so we won’t get smoked out. I notice Lex inspecting the space as well and looking to me as to whether or not we’ll stay.

“It would be nice to stay in a secure place for once.” I start out saying, “it’s early though….to stop for the day. I could set some snares and see if we get lucky.” At the last remark I see Lex’s stance straighten and his eyes take on a hopeful expression. “What about a fire?” He asks while kicking at the old ashes of the fire pit.

“It has been a long time since I’ve been warm and dry,” I remark offhandidly. “I’ll go set some snares and gather wood….”
“I’m going too…” he interjects before I can finish.
“Actually, I was going to say….if you could gather some snow in the cook-pot, and maybe spread out the blankets and stuff in the dry cave it would help. I’ll bring back a little bit of wood first so you can start a fire, then set the snares.”

He looks at me dubiously, like he’s worried about something happening to me. Right before I squeeze through the rocks I turn back and point in a straight south direction, “If I don’t come back you need to go that way. Just straight that way and you’ll run into the garrison or a patrol in about 2 days.” Not waiting for a reply, I move into the forest, returning quickly with some wood dug from beneath the snow near a fallen tree. It is damp, but probably will catch. In that amount of time Lex has gathered clean snow in the pot and my teapot. He has laid out all of my blankets and wraps and cloak so they will dry and warm up once he has the fire going. He’s got my flint and steel all ready.

“It will take me longer to set the snares and gather more,” I indicate the branches and sticks he’s currently arranging. “I don’t want to chop any because of the noise.” He nods and looks up from his work. “Could you look for some herbs or greens under the snow too? Maybe fill out the meal.” First of all, I’m impressed that he is so sure I’m going to catch something. Secondly, I kinda feel like I’m being sent out to go shopping for the impossible. I just nod. “Do my best.” I say as I depart once more.

[Mechanics for hunting: My GM has me roll percentage dice to determine how successful I am at foraging and hunting/trapping. For the record, percentage dice aren’t must better for me than any other, so there’s no advantage that there are two dice for me to roll. In this instance, however…they are great. I roll 87%. Over 50% means I get something and the higher I get over that is the more volume and more variety I get. So, I suppose if I were to roll like 98 or 100% I would have a suckling pig throw itself upon my knocked arrow while holding potatoes and carrots in it’s mouth or something like that. And no, that’s never happened.]

I set the snares in likely places the hares will be moving around. I’ve picked up a few more sets of tracks. Timing is everything and hopefully they haven’t returned to their den for the day. In the meantime, I look around for some shrubs that might indicate the presence of herbs or greens tucked down beneath the snow. I actually get lucky and find some rosemary, along with some old, but not quite rotted wild onion bulbs as well as one garlic bulb. This is the best I can find. Greens and wild rice won’t be showing their faces around here for many months. I’m a bit defeated realizing that, but happy to have found what I did manage to scrounge. I slip the herbs and such in my pocket and return to the downed tree to gather more wood. It is here that I see the telltale footprints of my companion. Apparently he followed my steps to this spot to gather more wood himself. I pick out the driest of what’s left and go to check my snares before returning to the cave.

What do you know….luck is with me today. I have not only one, but two nice sized rabbits trapped. My stomach growls at the sight of them. I make quick work of finishing them off and find that in my excitement I’m literally running back to the cave with my collection of goodies. The only thing slowing me down is the occasional dropped stick that I must retrieve.

Bursting through the opening I find my sword pointed straight at my face. “We should have a warning sign or something when it’s one of us.” Lex declares as he lowers the sword. “I’ve never heard you make so much noise.”

“Rabbits, wood…and look…these….” I respond breathlessly as I drop the wood where I stand and dig the herbs out of my pocket.

“Hey, that’s great.” Lex reaches to take them from me and I notice how clean he is. In the time I’ve been gone He has washed his hands and face, even his clothes look cleaner, although that might just be my imagination. I suddenly feel very self-conscious and filthy. I haven’t bathed or changed clothes in…well, since I was last at Griff garrison….was that a month ago? I can’t change into clean clothes now as my spares have been turned into bandages. My breath is even horrible as I took the opportunity to munch on a couple of those onion bulbs when I was digging for more. Lex looks at me like there is nothing abnormal or stinky about me and says, “I’ll make us dinner tonight. You get to rest for a change. I made some tea for us, I found a tin in your bag. I hope that’s OK.”

“Sure, yeah…..sounds fine.” I mutter as I step quickly away from him so that my stench isn’t overwhelming. I think when we were both filthy it wasn’t so noticeable…now though….
Handing over the hares to him I take the proffered mug of tea and sit down in the dirt near the fire. I let the warmth of it leech into my bones…….

“Hey, Lily…..wake up.” I hear my Dad’s voice whispering to me.
“Can’t I have 5 more minutes?” I ask as I try to cover my eyes a little more.
“Sure, but your dinner is getting cold.” The voice that I realize is not my father responds. At the word dinner my stomach is fully awake and telling me it’s time to get the hell up.

I’m groggy, and shake my head like a puppy to clear it. “How long was I out?” I scan my surroundings to remember where I am.

“Less than an hour. You were tired so I just left you alone.” Lex responds while picking up a mug and a plate. I notice my lynx wrap is beside me, he must’ve covered me up at some point.

“Thanks.” I murmur as he hands me my plate and mug……he retrieved it at some point. Again, the difference in the cleanliness of our hands is striking. “I should get cleaned up first.” I start to say as he goes to get his plate.

“After you eat,” he responds quickly and a little harshly, making me take a second look.…trying to puzzle him out. It is then I see the differences in our plates. Mine definitely holds more than his. “Hey, you gave me more. Here, you need to take some back,” I stab a forkful of meat to give to him when he takes my wrist and pushes it back. “No, that is the right portion.” He says quietly. “I think it probably evens us out.” And I realize he’s known all along that I was doing without to make sure he had something to eat.

I start digging in, too hungry to argue. Just like with the fish I have to make sure not to consume it so fast it makes me sick. Going slow does aid me in other ways. Like recognizing this dish. OK, that seems impossible…but I swear I’ve had rabbit prepared like this before and not that long ago.

[Mechanics: I was told to roll wisdom/insight and nailed it at 18, I was then told ‘you’ve recently had rabbit prepared just like this.’ I had to puzzle the rest out on my own]

I stop eating and focus on the meals I’ve had recently, when I’ve eaten similar food……and it hits me.

“Where did you learn to cook?” I ask slowly, cautiously picking at my food.

“I used to hang out in the kitchen when I was a kid. This dish was taught to me by a friend of my Uncle’s.” He happily replies. Cooking does seem to make him happy.

“Really? Do tell…a friend of your Uncle?” He hasn’t noticed that I have stopped eating and am intently watching him.

“Yes,” he says between bites. “They would take me hunting sometimes and he taught me how to make stewed rabbit when you had very little seasoning.”

“Hmmm, it is very good. I’ve actually only had rabbit like this once before. Recently, in fact.” I place a small bite in my mouth without taking my eyes off of him, watching his reaction.

It is his turn to slow down and push his food around his plate frowning, “Really, recently you say.”

“Yes, recently.” I match his tone and tempo. “The ‘friend’ of your Uncle doesn’t happen to be named Levi, does he?”

Lex stops eating and sits his fork down. He just stares at his plate, “yes….his name is Levi.”

I’ve got him. Son of a bitch. “So, that means…your uncle is Baron Mordecai Ratik. Brother to the King, King Joseph Ratik. And that makes you…….?” I tilt my head to the side in a fake questioning manner, pop another bite in my mouth.

“That makes me……the Prince.” He says glumly.

View
Crickets
Predator/Prey

Raw fish has never been so good. It doesn’t hurt that trout is a clean tasting fish, it also doesn’t hurt that we are literally starving to death. I got Lex back into our hiding place and returned to the creek right before dark. Quietly honing a green branch into a point I stand in the deeper area of the water, ignore the cold, and wait patiently before quickly jabbing my prey. With my first success I send a silent prayer of thanks to Suncow the Satyr for teaching me this. In the end I catch two good sized (let’s be honest, at this point ANY size is good sized) fish. [ 2 successful Dex rolls, 2 failed rolls] Cleaning them quickly in the running water while keeping a sharp eye out for my enemy I hurry back to our tree well. Lex and I tear into the fish like savages, I actually go too fast initially and almost throw it all back up. Taking deep breaths and calming my stomach I start back again more slowly. We both finish in record time and in spite of the bounty discover our bellies still aren’t quite full.

“Thanks.” Lex says sheepishly after his stomach growls loudly in protest over not getting its fill. I nod to him as I’m picking an errant fishbone from my teeth. “When do you think we can move further away?”

I contemplate his question, and think he’s not going to like my answer. “I want to stay here a bit longer. Tomorrow I want to see if I can find out more about these creatures.” I see a stormcloud of emotions cross Lex’s features. “There is no record of anything like this in Ratik,” I continue. “I need to find out a little more before we leave.” I lock eyes to assuage his concern. “I know better how they move now, and what their tracks look like. Give me tomorrow to scout around and then we’ll leave.” I see him want to protest but he also sees the validity of my plan. He presses his lips to a thin line and repeats, “Tomorrow.” Then lays back to rest, still weak even though both of our spirits are bolstered by the hope that comes with a decent meal and an almost full belly.

I decide leave our ‘camp’ before sunrise. I have my coat buttoned up and my weapons ready. Lex is awakened by my moving around in preparation and watches while I re-check my gear. I don’t look up but feel his eyes on me. Taking out my dagger and hatchet, “Keep these just in case.” I hold up my hand for silence before he can protest. “I’m leaving them and my pack with you because if something happens and I don’t return you need to get the word out about these creatures. You need to tell the rest of Ratik they’re here.” He doesn’t protest, but only because he knows I’m right, the expression on his face tells me his displeasure with the situation. I finish getting ready, “If I’m not back tomorrow you should leave…..” Before finishing he interrupts for the first time, “No. I’ll wait 2 days.” To emphasize his point he holds up two fingers; defiance in his eyes. He isn’t being unreasonable so I give him a curt nod of assent, then disappear through the branches.

As expected, the forest is completely silent, no chirping of birds or chittering of squirrels. I’m growing accustomed to it even as it seems unnatural. I start looking for the tell-tale signs of the three pronged single footprint which would be an indicator that they are in the area. I’ve not moved 10 yards away before I catch a flash of movement. Lucky for me, even in a weakened state, my reflexes are as sharp as my dagger. Just as I’ve finished my turn to face my adversary my arrow is released, flying true, straight into his chest. But not before he was able to throw one of his weapons at me. I flinch to one side reflexively and it saves my life as his thrown weapon sinks into my shoulder instead of into my heart. We’re not finished yet it seems; as this huge bug creature leaps straight at me….frighteningly fast. Time slows down; the briefest of moments and a lifetime all roll together; as I am frozen in the face of an oncoming foe. Then a voice in my head, my Uncle Elidiss’s voice, speaks clearly from the past. “You are fast Lily, use your speed, it will save your life.” At the last second I spin away from his lunging attack and slam another arrow into his back, penetrating the creature’s shell just to the side of it’s spine. There is a hard crunching noise when the arrow point breaches his exoskeleton. Like a giant egg being stepped on and crushed. I see the thing hesitate for a moment like it can’t believe I’m no longer in it’s path. As he spins to face me again he finds the hilt of my sword protruding from his chest where I have just taken the opportunity to stab deeply into his torso. Before his eyes cloud over in death he looks deeply into the defiance of my gaze.

They can be killed and I can do it. This thought repeats through my head as I take the time to hastily bury the thing at the base of a nearby tree. I try to disrupt the ground where we fought so his companions are not alerted to my presence in the area before I’m ready to show myself. As I’m dragging the body, I take time to study it. Definitely more like an insect than anything else. Armored body exoskeleton, gooey inside. Dark green/black colored ‘blood’ oozes from his wounds. I say him…I can only assume. His legs are long and thick like a cricket’s legs. He is a dark olive and brown color and wears leather scraps over his body. His weapons are the most interesting. He has large three pronged throwing stars, and carries a lance /staff with one of them roped into place as a melee weapon. Around his waist is a pouch with more of the throwing stars…..they are milky green, a little lighter than the shade of his body. Crazy sharp too, I sliced my finger just by lightly touching the edge. I wrap the weapon in a cloth and slip it in my pocket to study later.

The body is hidden and I proceed in the direction I was going earlier, altering my course a little to the west. I move painstakingly slow through the forest. Darting quickly from tree to tree I pause for long lengths of time to study and see if there is another Cricket perched above, waiting to pounce. Wait, run, watch….the routine gnaws at my nerves. Finally, about 20 yards away I see something new. There is a large hillock in the trees. If it was covered in snow I would never have noticed it. But this hill is raw earth and in the cold I can see tendrils of steam emerging from it at various points. Ever cautious, I slowly work my way in that direction.

I can feel warmth emitting from the hill. I freeze behind the nearest tree and look for any indication of movement. Nothing. I have to make a 10 yard dash in the open before making it to the opening in the hill. And for all I know when I rush through the entrance it might be straight into the arms of one of these things. Well, it doesn’t do me any good to get this far and not push further. After all I might find the rest of Lex’s patrol being held prisoner. Maybe I can rescue them. One last look around, I take a deep breath and charge.

There are no prisoners. There is only death, decay and rot. Initially, I am overwhelmed with the smell and the heat. It is all I can do not to retch,[successful Constitution save] the fear of making noise is the only thing keeping me together. The interior of this “nest” is like a cross between a beehive and an anthill. There are corridors and chambers dug out of the ground. It is mostly underground and larger than I had imagined. Within the first 6 feet of the entrance I found the first carcass. It was a horse, a patrol horse. It had been encased in the same green goo that I had found on Lex and it had been embedded into the cavern wall with it. Nearby was an assortment of animals: part of an elk, hares, a raccoon family. It was further inside I saw the soldier. After that I stopped studying the walls so closely. There are exposed tree roots here and there and I was lucky enough to be near some to hide behind when a pair of the creatures were walking down the corridor I was in. I held my breath and silently prayed they couldn’t read my heat signature before realizing the entire place was warm enough to hide my body heat. I found a few rooms containing what could be sleeping mats on the floor, or some sort of meeting place. After the near run in with the two in the hallway I am close to bolting, I feel I’ve probably pushed my luck far enough, but my curiosity gets the better of me and I continue to one more passageway. It is here I find the hatching chambers.

These are the largest rooms by far. Probably close to the size of the barracks at Griff garrison. Each one contains about 20-30 large eggs, and there are 4 of these rooms that I see. One hundred and twenty of these things loose in Ratik. In spite of the heat I’m shivering at the thought. Or maybe this is what they mean by trembling in fear. Initially, my desire to wreck havoc on this place takes over and slowly I draw my sword back to begin the destruction. Midway through the gesture I realize the futility, the time it would take to accomplish the act and the attention it would bring would surely result in my death and then no-one would know this was here. Lex would wait his 2 days, but I have the distinct feeling he would come looking for me instead of fleeing as we agreed. Then our nation would be helpless to this….infestation. I return my sword to my side ready for defense, and turn to leave.

“There’s a whole hive of them.” I whisper excitedly as I dive through the branches into our secret camp. As my eyes adjust to the dim light I see Lex in the ready position with the dagger raised and hatchet in his other hand. He relaxes his stance quickly. Over the next few minutes I describe everything I saw to him, almost everything. When he asks about his men, if they were taken prisoner I have to look away and shake my head. Thankfully, he doesn’t press for more details.

“I caught more fish.” He tells me once I’m done with my report. It’s only then I notice the thin fillets laying on the cloak I left him. My eyes narrow and I’m starting to think of a proper way to chastise him when he declares, “We’re starving, we need to eat to be able to leave here and travel. I’m not helpless you know.” There is an edge to his voice, and a defiance that I have come to know in my own reflection. I nod; bite back my original words. “Good thinking,” is choked out instead. He relaxes visibly, the expected argument having evaporated. We eat raw fish again and discuss leaving in the morning, how he’s getting around, and what we might expect. “These are the most dangerous things I’ve ever seen,” I admit while showing him the throwing star and recounting my earlier battle. He’s testing the edge, drawing a thin bead of blood from his thumb. “Told you it was sharp.” I mutter as I watch him. My shoulder starts to throb from my wound. I’m going to need help dressing it.

“It’s like obsidian, but green” he says as he holds it up towards the dying light in our tree well. “Why do you think they are so dangerous?” He effortlessly changes the subject.

I hadn’t really thought to analyze it before, what makes me so anxious about facing them. Why they scare me so……until now. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not bragging or anything, what I’m about to say is just the facts….that’s all.” I begin my explanation with a prelude. “My uncle started training me to be a Ranger since I first told him it’s what I want to be when I grow up. I was six at the time. I’ve been training for this job long before becoming a cadet.” I chuckle as I take another small bite of the fish, making it last as long as possible. “He taught me how to gain the advantage in every battle, every fight. No matter my foe, man or beast. As he says; ‘You are the biggest predator in the forest. Everything else is prey.’ Until today I’ve always known this to be true.” I think back to my encounters earlier, pick them apart to make sense of it. “The truth is, I think they are the most dangerous thing I’ve ever faced because they are as good as me. As fast as I am, as accurate, as quiet and stealthy….they are that good.”

I fall silent and let that sink in……to both of us. Lex looks up, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Well, I see what you’re saying but I’m not sure if that’s altogether true.” He pauses for effect, “Because you see, if they were as good as you are, then you wouldn’t be sitting here with me now, would you?”

“Maybe I’m just lucky. Have you ever thought of that?” I retort playfully.

“Maybe we’re both just lucky then,” he replies. “Let’s hope our luck doesn’t run out tomorrow.” I hear him move back to his sleeping area in the darkness as I stare at the edge of the tree-well. I’d hate for us to get jumped our last night here. Just as I’m thinking he’s fallen asleep he solemnly adds, “Get some sleep tonight, we both need you to be sharp tomorrow.” He’s right and I close my eyes while cradling my sword in my lap.

Lex wakes and takes watch without me realizing it. I’m shocked to have slumbered so soundly and relieved too. I do need to stay sharp today. It doesn’t take long to pack up, he had kept everything in my backpack when I left to scout our surroundings. I consult my map one last time and we move out from the tree just after the breaking of dawn. I unsheathe my sword and start to hand it to Lex. “I want you to carry……” My words are cut off by the sudden appearance of one of the Cricket creatures seemingly appearing from thin air, the ground thumps at his landing. “Shit!” I spit out hastily. The creature has released one of his obsidian stars right at Lex. Without thinking I throw myself between them slightly knocking the star with my sword. It is traveling so fast it is barely deflected and grazes my cheek as it passes. I feel the sting and trickle of blood sliding down my face. It’s my turn. I lunge at him as he pulls another star from his pouch to throw. As he raises his arm I slice down with my sword, slashing deep into his throwing arm. My return swing slices through his midsection, catching the edge of his hard shell body and ripping it away from his chest as I cut through. He drops silently.

My chest is heaving as I recover from the sudden influx of fear and adrenaline. All of this happened in the span of 20 seconds. Mere minutes after we departed our camp. I’m torn between wanting to return and hide for safety and just saying ‘Fuck it’ and running for our lives. I look at Lex and see the same thoughts flickering across his face. Then his features harden, he tests his leg with his crutch and says, “I can make it, we can make it.” I’m debating which direction to start when we both jump at crashing sounds coming through the forest to the west of us. I catch a fleeting glimmer of hooves and tails and arms……”Centaurs!” I exclaim a little louder than I intended in my excitement as I point through the trees at the noise. It is then I also see the blur of the Crickets chasing them. I grab Lex’s sleeve and whisper harshly, “Now! This is our chance….we go east.” And we tear through the forest as quickly as he can, not caring to cover our tracks. I keep pace with him, arrow knocked, heart beating so hard I’m sure the sound of it will give us away.

View
Sole Survivor
Thanks for the fish

It’s been days and no change. The Lieutenant and I are in the deep tree well of an ancient tree. The snow has built up so that we are completely hidden when we are down near the base. I have dug to the ground and laid out my waterproof half tent to lay him on. He’s covered with everything I have that might give warmth: blanket, the snow leopard skin, my spare clothes…everything. I can’t afford to make a fire until I know what happened and I can’t know that until he wakes up….if he wakes up. I checked his person for information on his patrol or even just his name, but he has nothing. He doesn’t have anything but the clothes on his back: no weapons, no identification, nothing but uniform and boots.

I have to admit, when I first found out he was alive my reaction was “Shit!”. Because I knew that meant things were about to get much worse, not better. It meant I would be spending days…precious time I don’t have, doing exactly what I’m doing…tending a wounded soldier while running out of food. I’ve dropped to quarter rations per day and even at that I’m not sure I’ll get back to the garrison without passing out from hunger and falling unconscious in the snow which means freezing to death. In other words tending to him may just kill us both. I had already been waffling between going back or pushing forward and finding him settled that internal argument. So now, I wait and watch to see if he wakes up, hour after hour, day after day.

His wounds have been cleaned and tended. I was forced to cut the outside seam of his pants to clean and apply a poultice to the leg wound, and sew it up. That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. Sewing up a living human is not pretty. Not to mention I’m a horrible seamstress (as the repairs on my coat will attest). Poor thing will carry a nice size scar up his leg to remind him of me, that is if he ever wakes again and we live through this. The head wound is deep but it seems like it was kinda cleaned and preserved by the moths which is pretty fascinating and gross at the same time. So I really only had to bandage that one. Those are the only two wounds I could find to tend. He may have breaks or something internal, but I’m no healer so I can’t do anything about that. After a lot of deliberation I gave him my last healing potion to take care of anything I couldn’t see and maybe shore up what I could.

————

I awaken because he’s thrashing again. The last day or so he’s had a fever. (I’m having trouble with the passage of time down here and I don’t dare leave him) I’m melting snow for water with my body heat and trying to dribble it in his mouth to some success. I keep the blankets, wrap, clothes, everything on him to try to keep him warm and protected. Sometimes he throws them all off and I start over, talking to him quietly and telling him our predicament. I tell him he has to be quiet, that we don’t know what’s out there and we have to stay hidden. I don’t know if he understands, but when I talk he seems to calm down, so I talk a lot to him quietly. Tell him stories about what I’ve seen so far, where I’ve been. I ask questions that go unanswered: who are you, where are you from, what is your name?

————

I have calculated our odds of survival. I’ve pulled out everything I have to eat and organized it by days and I realize that if I don’t leave soldier boy right away I am surely to starve and die. Mathematically, there’s just no way for me to maintain enough strength to make it to the garrison without passing out with what rations I have left. As it is, right now, I couldn’t maintain my running speed for more than a half an hour or so without rest I’m so weak. And it’s just getting worse. My body heat is dropping too, it’s taking longer to melt the snow to drink. I told him I had to go, that if I didn’t leave right away neither one of us would make it and I was sorry I had to leave him.

————
That was three days ago. I’m still here. I tried to leave. I packed everything up. He still has a fever, his condition hasn’t improved at all. But I couldn’t do it. So I made him a promise instead, “I will never leave you. You fought to live and I won’t abandon you. One way or another I will get you back to your family. You have my word.”

Now I’m trying to figure out what the fuck I’m gonna do. I’m keeping up my strength the best I can, I peek out and move around our tree a little (making extra sure to cover my tracks) to keep my muscles moving, trying to keep my strength up. I make my quarter rations last as long as I can in a day. Soon I’m going to adjust it to every other day. The other morning I thought I caught sight of a centaur, but I could be mistaken. I still don’t dare light a fire without knowing what is out here; our little tree-cave is pretty warm compared to the outside though so other than not being able to make pine needle stew it’s OK.

He’s still unconscious but the fever broke last night. That’s a good sign, right?

————

I hear movement nearby [successful observation roll] and freeze. I stare at my patient…’please don’t wake, please don’t wake’ I think hard…..I move so slowly towards him and gently place my hand over his mouth. My face is turned towards the outside…listening, looking to see any signs of disturbance in the branches that shield us from the outside world. My sword is in hand but my maneuverability is limited here…..I’ll have to burst out from cover and draw them away from soldier boy or we’re both toast. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard movement outside our hideaway. I’ll need to work on moving us soon I think. Whatever it was, it’s moved off. I haven’t picked up any more noise outside. Turning back towards my companion I’m taken aback to see him staring back at me. We both freeze for a moment, before I move in closer to him, my mouth right beside his ear “Quiet, they’re close. We need to move tonight or as soon as you can.” There’s no response from him for a long moment, his eyes have closed again.

I’m beginning to wonder if I imagined it…him opening his eyes. Then he nods.

————

“Lex Smith”, soldier boy…the Lieutenant croaks out quietly when I ask his name again a few hours later when he’s coherent once more. I can’t help but snicker a little when he tells me. Of course his name is Lex, it’s a very common name for guys close to my age. A lot of baby boys were named Lex after the youngest prince, it was a little before my time but I’ve met plenty of Lex’s while visiting Marner. I think he picks up my amusement but he just smirks and rests his head back down. “Where are the rest of my men?” I knew this question was coming, I had a feeling his thrashing had to do with the battle. “You are the only one I found, I saw nothing more.” I tell him quietly. The pain in his eyes tells me I needn’t add anything else. “We’ll need to move from here soon, we’ve been stuck in this place awhile and I’m afraid they’ll find us.” I see him try to wiggle the foot of his bad leg and wince. “We’ll go at night, I’ll support your weight….we’ll just do the best we can.” He watches me after I’ve finished, like he’s mulling over whether to argue or not and then finally just gives me a curt nod.

————

We’re in a new place. We made it about a quarter a mile. Farther than I expected before he couldn’t walk; even with me half carrying him. Mind you he never said a word, but I could tell by his huffing like a pony that the pain was close to unbearable. Once we got into place in another tree well and I got him bedded down Lex passed out almost immediately. Part of that might be from hunger. Now there’s two of us eating the measly rations. I haven’t the heart to tell him the truth of how dire our circumstances are. At this point we only have about 2 days of food left, and that’s with quarter rations…maybe a bit more, but I doubt it. I took what rations we had for today: grains, dried berries, some seeds and hard tack and mashed it up in a bowl with some water until it was the consistency of mashed potatoes or paste. When I handed Lex his serving he looked at me like I was trying to poison him. I just looked back blankly, shrugged, and choked down my portion. It was horrible. I think I might have caught him scowling at his plate, daring it to be eaten. At any rate hunger won and he finished.

————

“I need to know what I’m facing.” This is the first time I’ve approached the subject with him. He looks past me, his features twisted in pain, but not from his wounds. He raises his hand and brings it down his face, wiping away the grief, and his expression has been replaced with that of a hardened soldier. “We were directed to this area from our regular route. Everything was normal, we’re just riding along, then suddenly it’s just mayhem. Horses were screaming….men were screaming. At some point I had drawn my sword but the enemy just came out of nowhere, they were a blur. Then one was beside me, it looked like a giant bug or something, really tall and it cut down my horse. I jumped clear just in time, but before I could react he had cut my leg and I got hit in the head with one of the throwing stars they used. All my men were dying around me.” He falls silent and I don’t push. I’m actually startled when he breaks the silence again.

“I woke up when I was being dragged by one of them. I pulled a dagger I kept in my boot and stabbed him. I don’t think he expected that. He jumped at me and I killed him. Then I just started dragging myself away. I don’t know how far I got before I passed out again. I just felt the cold, got sleepy and closed my eyes.” He pauses and for the first time since he started talking meets my eyes again. “Then I woke again and saw you.”

————

I left Lex in our makeshift camp to scout around. This morning I told him we’re out of food for good now. We try to eat some pine needles and bark. Yeah, that was not…..successful. I am out and away from camp to get eyes on the enemy myself. I’m bolstered to be moving again, in spite of my weakened state. I haven’t found anything of the creatures Lex spoke of. Like before I decide to climb a tree and watch. Just as I get settled I see movement in a tree, at my same level, about 40 feet away. It’s one of them. He was completely silent, if it wasn’t for the smallest of movements that caught the corner of my eye [19 observation roll] I would have never noticed him. His silence unsettles me, I freeze and wonder if he saw me climb up here and is biding his time, waiting for backup….what? Barely breathing so my exhale doesn’t alert him to my presence I watch and wait. After 10 minutes or so he suddenly launches himself from his perch, jumping easily 15’ to the ground below and bounds into the next tree, then the next, and then away. Now I know why there were no tracks for me to follow. These things move through the trees. I search where I know he landed and only spot a shallow 3 pronged footprint. I would have never recognized it as such had I not witnessed it myself. I wait another 15 minutes before moving out of my position, in case his retreat was a ruse and he is circling back on me. I hear nor see anything so I slink back down to the ground. I move away from the direction he was going and make a large arc towards our camp at the tree. I find, on my way back a small stream near us. That is good news….fresh water. I take the opportunity to refill my empty waterskin.

I’m creeping back towards our camp from the stream, moving quickly from tree to tree and holding my position awaiting an enemy to drop from the air. It is that preparation that keeps me from being surprised [successful surprise..errr….NOT surprised roll!] when one of them leaps right in front of me. My reactions are pure instinct when I slam two arrows in him at point blank range. He staggers back a pace, but not before leaving me with a glancing blow to my arm with his weird green weapon on a stick. I sink another arrow right into his face and he falls without making a sound. In fact, it is unnervingly quiet. You would have never guessed that we just fought it was so quick and noiseless. Quickly I look around to see if there are any others. Seeing no movement I hastily dig a pit in the snow and cover him completely. I hope to buy us time before any more of his kind find out we’re here. I hide my tracks hastily on the way back to camp. As I scurry into the tree well my movements alarm Lex who it sitting with my dagger I left him at the ready. I silently signal for quiet and rest on my stomach peeking out from beneath the limbs waiting for others. After a long wait there is no movement and I allow myself to relax and turn around.

Lex hasn’t made a move nor a noise the whole time, but when I relax my stance he finally whispers, “What happened?” I start to answer and realize my mouth is completely dry from the fear and adrenalin. I take a drink from my skin and offer some to him. “I found a stream not far from here. That’s good news.” He frowns and takes the skin from me, he knows I know that’s not what he was asking. “I saw one of them moving in the trees.” I continue as he drinks. “Then one sprang on me not far from here and I killed it. I hid his body, but there’s no way of knowing if I was followed.” I turn back and stare out through the branches a bit longer. “They’re just so fast.” I place extra emphasis on the last word and turn to see Lex nodding solemnly in agreement.

“You’re hurt.” He points to my arm that is seeping a small trickle of blood. “Not too bad,” I respond, but start to shuck my coat off anyway. I don’t know if those things can smell blood or not. Better not take the risk. I tear off a bit of fabric from the bottom of my shirt and attempt to tie it off. “Let me.” Lex says as he slides closer towards me. He binds the wound good and tight. “There….now we’re even.” He says with a slight uptick of a grin. I can’t help but smile in return. In the midst of all this he’s cracking a joke….honestly I think that is funnier than the joke itself. “You wish.” My lame attempt at a comeback.

We spend the rest of the night on watch and sleeping. We fill our bellies with water instead of food. At least I can sleep now though. Before Lex woke up I was sleeping for an hour here or there; three at the most in the dead of night. But now that he’s conscious I can sleep a full 6 hours or so. It has helped me to regain some strength even with the lack of food. We had been close to deciding to build a fire in this new place, it had been so long since we saw anything, but after today we know that’s not safe.

“I’m going out.” Lex announces the following morning.
“Are you fucking kidding me!” I snap at him in return. He looks at me like no one has ever spoken to him like that before. Maybe he thought I would defer to him due to his rank of Lieutenant. Regardless, I make no apologies.
“I need to move around and I want to get out of here for awhile and get some air.” He states matter of factly, like it’s no big deal. I honestly get the impression he wants to run into one, deal a little payback of his own.
“You don’t understand. These creatures are the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen and I’m not sure if I could hold off more than one at a time and I’m not willing to take that risk because you want fresh air.” I growl menacingly at him.
“I’m aware of how dangerous they are.” He growls right back at me, “more than probably you know.” His eyes cast down and away sadly.
I soften my stance, “Look, how about near dusk tonight, we’ll have shadows to move between, maybe they will have given up for the day. I didn’t work this hard to save you just to throw it away.” I take a deep breath and release it. He’s right, we need to start moving around….him especially, if we’re ever going to make a break from the area. “We’ll go out tonight before dark.” I see him mull it over and nod his assent.

It’s an hour or so before dark, the shadows are long when we sneak out of our camp. I have cut off a branch for Lex and stripped it down for him to use as a crutch. I’ll need free movement to fight if we run into more creatures. I help pull him out of the hole and he stands up, trying out the crutch. He nods and gives me a half smile as we move towards the stream. Ever cautious we make it there without being spotted. I bend down to fill the skin and he starts to shuffle away. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” I whisper yell at his back. “Wait for me!”

He turns and looks at me in exasperation. “I have to do this by myself.” He starts.
“No way! We stick together, don’t be ridiculous.” I fuss at him as quietly as possible.
He casts his eyes to the heavens, takes a deep breath and repeats, “I need to do this by myself.”
At this point I don’t know what this guy thinks he has to prove but I’m having none of it. As I wind up to really let him know what I think of his plan he interrupts before I have a chance to start. “Look, I have to take a piss…OK!”
I’m instantly deflated. “Oh…ok, well. That’s good…right? I mean…that means you weren’t injured that badly and everything is working…right?”

He looks at me like I’ve lost my ever loving mind. I feel like I want to melt into the snow. He turns and slips behind some bushes, I busy myself with refilling both skins, my wine one has been empty since Martume. As I’m standing up I hear Lex hobbling hurriedly through the brambles. “Ranger! Ranger!” He exclaims excitedly in a whisper. Outside of the tree well I can see how gaunt he is in the dying sunlight. Without saying anything I give him the ‘what’ expression. He is pointing back the way he came with his free hand.

“Fish! I saw fish in the water!”

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