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!”