Lilykai Kodel, Ratik Ranger

Plans and Precautions
Into the Rift

I sleep a little late. After writing my letter to Martume I wrote an identical one to Lex telling him my theory and to be extra safe. I encouraged him to get a dog. Somehow I can already sense him crinkling his nose at that prospect, he doesn’t need a pet, that’s why he has Steve. I have not heard anything from him, I was hoping for a letter by now. I know it wouldn’t take that long to get a letter to me here from Three Rivers, I thought there might be one waiting…..

Making my way downstairs to the table, breakfast arrives almost immediately upon my arrival. I picture one of Diedre’s maids watching the hallway, waiting to signal the kitchen that I’m up. Its kinda creepy.

Diedre and Durante are waiting for me. It looks as though their plates were removed long ago and they’ve been sipping coffee and tea while they killed the time. Both stand to greet me when I enter causing me to give them a ‘what’s gotten into you?’ smirk as I take my seat.

“What’s the plan?” Juan asks. I smile at him, that he’s gone from doubting me to trusting me so quickly. He’s got many more years experience on me, but I guess I’ve proved my worth here these last days.

Pulling my letters and report from my coat pocket I slide them over to Diedre. “Could you send these through a messenger for me? I had trouble sleeping last night and wrote them up.” She glances at the addresses. I hold my breath when she reads, ‘Three Rivers Garrison, Commander Lex Smith’ but she seems not to notice anything out of the ordinary and nods in agreement.

I turn towards Juan, but am obviously speaking to both of them. “One of those letters is to the Royal Observer. I acted as a scout for him recently and was able to work closely with him.” I eat a bite and let this sink in, choosing my next words carefully. “Since the beginning of my run I have intervened and stopped two other attacks upon members of the royal family…”

Durante looks completely caught off guard and Diedre audibly intakes a breath.”Who?” She asks fearfully.

“Your Uncle and someone else close to the King.” I’m obviously being vague for a reason and neither of them push the issue.

“So you think this latest attack on Diedre was part of that?” If Captain Durante had any lingering doubts about my abilities or dedication they have just fizzled away. The fact that I just told him I’ve saved two other royals prior to Diedre and am enlisting the help of the Royal Observer convinces him of my competence. The appraising look he gives tells me so.

I shrug and sigh. “I don’t really know. Juan, all these incidents were months apart; completely different kinds of attacks…..on the surface there is nothing in common amongst them. Except the targets were all from the same family, the Royal Family. And that is enough to catch my attention and send a message to Martume. Because…if I’m wrong, and he tells me so…OK, I’m a paranoid idiot. So what. But if I’m not being a paranoid idiot……” I let the rest of that sentence hang in mid air.

“What do you want us to do? How can we protect our people?” Diedre implores. I see the loss of her steward, her guards and her people weighing heavy on her mind.

Again, I don’t have any cut and dry answers for her, but I have some suggestions. And at the last moment, I have an idea…. “Ok, well. There’s something you need to know about the woman in your woods-“

“The witch?” Durante asks, I roll my eyes at him. “Hermit…” he corrects.

“Actually, I don’t think she’s either of those things. I think she’s something altogether new and unknown.” Diedre opens her mouth to ask for clarification, I hold up my hand for them to give me chance to explain after I shovel a few bites of breakfast in my mouth, I’m starved.

“Her name is Cassandra. She lives in a gypsy wagon that looks as though it was once a boat. It is sunken to its axles in mud in the middle of your forest. Where it came to rest at least 60 or 70 years ago. Before you were even here she lived in that forest. She’s watched your estate grow around her, and watched over you.”

They are stunned. I can see anger flit across Durante’s face as he wants to feel betrayed that I didn’t share this before, but its mixed with understanding why I didn’t. There is no way he would have accepted my opinion. I had to prove myself first.

Diedre, on the other hand, looks entirely curious about her. “Does she look old? What does she seem like?”

“If you ever meet her don’t ask her age.” I exclaim. “At least don’t ask that first….” I add more quietly.

“You asked her how old she was? First?” Durante chuckles as he drinks some of his coffee. “I thought you were smarter than that.”

“Lesson learned.” I nod towards him. “Anyway, she warned me about something skulking around and that she thought it came from the Rift. She sent her bird, Pip,….you remember him,” Durante nods. “she sent him to watch over me and help me find the thing. As odd as it sounds, I trust her.”

“What do you think she is, if you don’t think she’s a witch?” Diedre asks.

Shaking my head, “I don’t know. Nothing I’ve heard of, not that Rangers are very schooled in the otherworldly. No more than anyone else. I did inform the Royal Observer she is there. So he knows too.” They both nod, obviously glad that Martume is aware of her.

“And you don’t think she’s a threat?” Durante presses.

“No, I really don’t. In fact, after I leave here I was going to go see her and ask her to warn you if she senses something again. Maybe protect you if she does.” They both have skeptical looks on their faces. “She can hide herself in her forest. If she hadn’t wanted me to find her, I wouldn’t have. I’m going to ask her to hide you there if something else dangerous….like that shapeshifter…comes along after I’m gone. Just go to her, both of you. You will be safe.”

I’m not certain why I feel so strongly about this, but I do. Just the idea of Diedre going there to be hidden makes me feel better about leaving. I’m learning to trust my gut more and more. Durante looks much less convinced.

“Surely, there is something more we can do other than ‘hide in the woods’. Any other ideas” he asks.

“Yes, I thought maybe you can institute a password system to ensure that the people who come to the keep belong here. In case there is another shapeshifter.” His demeanor brightens at the thought of having a plan in place. “I noticed when I asked you the question-“

‘..my brothers name-“ Diedre interjects.

“Yes, when I asked that; the shapeshifter didn’t have the answer. That means she couldn’t read your mind, because you definitely had an answer.”

“So, if we make a password an infiltrator wouldn’t know what it is.” Durante is pleased. I make a point not to bring up that there are a litany of ways someone could get a password if they really wanted to. This will make them all; the soldiers and the Captain, feel like they are doing something to protect Diedre. Right now that’s what they need. “I like that idea…” he looks into space, tapping his chin. I think he’s coming up with passwords already.

“There is something else…..” I reach into my pack. “The Royal Observer gave me this at Three Rivers, when he had to subdue the commander there. We had a difference of opinion about capture/kill issues….I’ll tell you about it some other time. After Martume captured the commander he came out with this weird metal ball." Actually it looks like a ball made from metal strips. “Martume told me if I ever needed to subdue someone all I need to do is throw it at them and the ball will expand and trap them inside.” As I lay it on the table in front of Diedre I explain his instructions, how to throw it, that it will expand to encase the person and since it is iron, it can counter magical spells; dampen magical abilities.

“He must think a lot of you to have given you this.” She says quietly, studying it.

“Well, I think he would approve of me handing it over to you now. If you had this with you before, you could have trapped the witch-thing as she changed. You’re going to have to keep it with you at all times.” I point out. “It’s not going to do you much good stuck in a drawer.”

“How am I supposed to do that? I don’t have pockets in all my dresses.” She retorts.

I do not disguise the slow roll of my eyes, my whole head, at her remarks and let my gaze fall on Durante with a ‘can you believe this’ expression.

“We’ll get you a purse to carry. You’ll put it in a bag with a dagger.” Durante says in a voice that brokers no argument.

“She can use a dagger? Can she use one or does she hold it like it’s a weird foreign object that’s going to spring to life on it’s own at any moment.” I illustrate my remark by holding my butter knife in the least effective and most girly girly way possible, and swing it around like I’m trying to swat a fly with it.” My intent works and I’m able to break the mood and make Juan laugh. Diedre is incensed.

“That is NOT funny. I KNOW how to use a dagger.” She huffs. We both crack up, Durante and I.

Replacing my knife and finishing breakfast. “OK, ok….you know how to use one. I won’t test you on that. I’m going to go talk to Cassandra and set up a system for her to warn you if she needs to. Make sure nobody shoots at her bird, I imagine she’ll send a message with Pip.” I get an idea that will help me to smooth the way with Cassandra. “Can I go to your pantry and get some supplies?”

“Sure, anything you need. Are you coming back?” Diedre asks, her annoyance regarding my dagger performance forgotten.

“Yes, briefly…just to report what Cassandra says. You got me a password, Durante?”

“Apple.” He declares definitively.

Excusing myself, I take my plate to the kitchen and let them know I have permission to stock up. I grab some sausages, preserved meats, root vegetables, apples and cheese. In the pantry I grab some small jars of green beans and corn…and one special item.

As I go out the side door I see Durante at the guard gate giving instructions. I make sure to pause and look at him, “Apple.” I say with all the seriousness I can muster and pass through the gate after he nods his acceptance.

Bill greets me at the dock. Based on his expression, word has spread about my fight with the shapeshifter last night. Even though we only make our usual small talk about the weather, the logs coming downstream, and how he’s doing fishing; he has a prideful manner about him today. Not in a cocky way; more like a ‘our Ranger can kick butt’ kind of manner. I let him know I’ll be coming back within the hour and he agrees to wait.

Wondering whether or not Cassandra will let me find her again, I wander off into the forest in the general direction as before, the first time we met. I experience the same disorientation as I move deeper into the woods but before it takes hold completely, the feeling vanishes and the forest suddenly just feels normal. Grinning, I realize that I have been given permission.

“Cawww, cawww” I hear Pip through the trees and another voice, Cassandra’s speaking to him. I can’t make out her words [Perception fail] but I bet it’s her saying she knows it’s me.

“Good morning.” I greet them both as I move into her clearing. She’s mending some clothes, sitting on her stump. I notice her small campfire going and realize I never smelled smoke on my way here [Insight success]. Interesting.

Cassandra looks into the sky and back to me, “Barely. I thought you Rangers got up early.” The woman never fails to put me in my place.

“I earned some extra sleep I think.” I gesture towards the stump I last occupied and she nods the OK to sit with her. I’ve learned from my last time here….never presume.

“Pip told me about last night. That poor couple, they were very sweet.”

It occurs to me that she knows everyone here, has known them all of their lives. “Yes, it’s pretty bad. Diedre also lost her trusted Steward and a couple of guards too.”

Cassandra stops in her work to look at me. “That is a lot of loss for us. Violence doesn’t visit the estates very often, actually hardly at all. You killed the thing?”

“No, it flew away….towards the Rift.” I reply sadly. “You were right about it’s origins, it was from there. Very powerful.” I start fishing through my pack and retrieve the extra jar I picked up in the pantry. It catches her attention and I grin as I get up and hand them to her, “Apricots.”

“Why did you bring me Apricots?” She asks slyly. Like she knows it’s more than a gift.

“Two reasons,” I tick them off on my fingers as I speak, “One, like the strawberry jam, I didn’t think you’ve had any in quite awhile.” She nods along, like I’m not far wrong. “And two, I have a favor to ask you.” Now she puts down the jar beside her and looks at me like she may or may not agree to accept it.

“Diedre is the third ‘Ratik’ I have defended these last few months,” I pause and see this information has genuinely peaked her interest. “I fear there might be another attempt on her life…on any of them, really. I have sent word so that the rest have been warned too. But you are like a secret ace up my sleeve. The way you can make yourself…..” I look for the right words, “the way you can make it difficult to navigate these woods…” She smiles at that sentiment, “this could be useful since really I’m the only one that knows about it and has spoken with you…..in a long time…”

“That is true.” She admits. “No one outside of this valley knows I’m here.” Her face saddens a bit.

“Why is that?” I gesture towards her caravan, “you obviously traveled with others. What happened to them?” I am genuinely curious, but more than that I don’t want her to think I’m just using her and her abilities for my own means. I’m honestly interested in her and concerned.

Her face grows sad and Pip, sensing her emotions, hops off his perch to stand near her. She smiles softly at the gesture and strokes his head. “I did travel with “The Family” for awhile. You see, I lost my memory and they found me wandering alone. I didn’t know my name, where I was from, anything….They took me in and I traveled with them for quite awhile. Then I had to leave.”

She says the last part as if that is all for now. Of course that little story has created an avalanche of questions in my mind, but I can tell I need to save them for another time. I’ve already pressed my luck with this woman the first time we met, I don’t want to ruin things now. She has been quiet as I’m contemplating this and then suddenly breaks her silence.

“I will hide the Baroness in my grove if she needs me to. If I sense another from the Rift I will send Pip with a message to warn them. She is welcome here. But not her Captain. He is too… stuffy.”

I laugh in spite of myself. “You’re right, he is. But he warms up…..eventually.” She looks at me like she doesn’t quite believe me. “Thank you Cassandra, for agreeing to help. It will really help me to rest easy knowing she is protected when I am gone.”

“You are leaving? So soon?” She enquires, her face and tone lightening now that we have moved beyond her past.

“I need to check out the Rift, where the creature went. And try to find the old couple’s….well, you know.” She nods, knowing I mean their remains. “I will come back through before moving further north and east. You’re not quite done with me yet.” I smile and go to shake her hand goodbye.

She grasps me and pulls me in close, “Safe travels Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel.”

“Thank you, Cassandra Babayoige. Thank you for your…..” I spread my arms out, “…for everything.” I start to leave, and then remember something more, “I expect my book back, the one I loaned you….the next time we see each other again.”

“I do not know what you’re talking about? I know of no such thing.” She grins slyly. Opening my mouth to argue, I realize that she has agreed to open her home, her secret hiding place, to the Baroness because I asked it of her.

“You’re right” I return her grin. “…my mistake.” I turn to leave, waving at her over my shoulder.

It is a quick jog back to the boat and across to the Keep. Walking towards the guard gate, I see the men readying themselves. Before they can utter a word…”Apple.” I say to them and watch as they visibly relax. “Where can I find the Baroness?”

“In the schoolhouse.” One replies, nodding his head in the direction of the little white clapboard house.

I pick up my pace and creep into the small single room building as quietly as possible [Stealth roll fail] which isn’t nearly quiet enough to go unnoticed by a couple of dozen little ears. The floor creaks under my foot as the door swings quietly open and they all turn as one to see who it is. Evanda Alvin waves frantically, as usual. I nod in her direction before turning my attention to Diedre.

She hands the book she was reading to one of the older boys, “Could you please continue for me while I speak with the Ranger.” He takes it and starts reading, his adolescent voice cracking high to low and back again.

“Everything OK?” Her face shows concern.

Nodding, “Yes. I just wanted you to know it’s all arranged. If there is an attack, or anything that makes you feel in danger just go to the edge of the forest and Cassandra will guide you inside to safety. She will protect you. And she said she will let you all know if she senses another creature like the one before.”

“And this only cost me a jar of Apricots?” She asks slyly.

“That was a kindness, me being mannerly.” I snicker. Diedre cocks her eyebrow at the ‘mannerly’ part. “Somebody in the kitchen ratted me out, huh? I’ll pay for it.” I start reaching into my coat pocket.

Diedre lays her hand softly on my arm, “No. I was just teasing you, but maybe we should occasionally deliver some jars to the edge of the forest as my thanks.”

“I’m sure if a patrol happened to ‘drop’ a jar as they pass by, whatever it contained wouldn’t go to waste. Oh, and be sure nobody messes with Pip. He’s her bird you know.”

“Juan already told the guards about her bird. Don’t worry, nobody will be taking shots at him.” She assures me.

“Ok,” I look to the south, my next destination. “I’m going to see if I can find any tracks or indication of where that thing came from.” I feel her hand squeeze my arm and turn to see her watching my face, a half smile on hers.

“I owe you my life.” She says softly, serenely. “Thank you for your service.” The smile grows to a grin….she knows….she knows how uncomfortable that phrase makes me feel.

I laugh awkwardly, “Just doing my duty,” and give her a flourished mocking bow, “Baroness.”

“Get out of here, I have work to do.”

I look over her shoulder to quiet pandemonium. As we’ve been talking the kids have been making faces and pantomiming each other silently so as not to alert her to their goofing off.
“Yes, I need to get back to work too.” I say extra loud as a warning to them. They instantly straighten up as if they’ve been listening to the reader all along. Diedre gives me a knowing scowl. I give her a Ranger salute….not the dirty one.

Captain Juan Durante is nowhere to be seen as I’m leaving. I’m sure he’s checking on something important. “Password.” The guards at the gate say in unison as I’m leaving.

“I just gave you the password when I walked in…you directed me to the school-house…” I say to them incredulously.

“Captain’s orders are to get the password coming and going.” One replies

“But that doesn’t make sense. If I’m already in here then I could already have gotten the Baroness. It does you no good to stop me now.” This makes one guard look nervous, the other is still clueless.

“Doesn’t matter. Password. Captain’s Orders.”

I honestly want to argue the point a little longer, but see the futility. I gotta get moving. “OK, fine….apples.” I say with a ‘Ta-Daaaa’ gesture.

In a very serious tone, “You may pass.”

I roll my eyes and move through the gate, down to the banks of the river and towards the south. Bill waves goodbye as he fishes off the pier.

“Caww, caww” a shadow swoops low over me.

“Pip!” I call up to him.

He makes a lazy banking maneuver down to my level. “Cawww” as if to say ‘It is me!’

“Did Cassandra send you?”

“Caww” (I take that to mean ‘maybe, maybe not’)

“Are you coming into the scar with me?”

“CawCaw” (What does it look like?)

[Game note: This is practically actual dialog. I pretty much said these exact things, and my GM did just say ‘Caw’ back every time. With different inflections. And I somehow interpreted them. Maybe right, maybe not. We never really clarified. And then I realized what I was doing and DID say this exact thing-]

“Oh my god, I’m talking to a bird.”

“Caw Cawwwww” (you sure are, crazy lady)

I start focusing on my tracking.

I’ve been circling around to the south and west, trying to intercept any tracks that may have lead from the Rift area to the Mittler’s farm. In the back of my mind I realize it may be fruitless if the thing flew there, but it’s roughly the direction I would be traveling anyway, so I might as well try to find some clues.

Within the hour I see weird biped tracks crossing my path. They are definitely going to or from the Mittler farm. I say ‘to or from’ because what makes these tracks weird is that they are almost a solid oval shape. These aren’t foot or boot prints at all. It’s like some ‘thing’ without any feet, just slabs, walked this way. I follow the tracks, trying to figure out what it is.

[Insight roll success. I think it is some kind of construct, but based on the footprint shapes I can’t tell if it was coming from or going to the rift]

The grounds around the estate farms are lightly forested with tall grasses and sparse undergrowth. Very green. As I move closer and closer towards the Rift I notice the trees give way to only the tall grass and then sporadically there is the rust red of Rift dirt interwoven with the grass, until it is just the Rift dirt. Except it doesn’t seem like dirt at all.

I stand on the edge of the Rift where nothing grows. The ground is raw red colored. It looks like it is sand from a distance, but when I pick it up it doesn’t feel like sand at all. Sand has a coarseness, a bite to it. This feels like nothing. Like heavy powder. But it doesn’t blow like powder, it stays in place on the ground. If it was lighter it would be blowing everywhere because there is a constant wind coming from the east, blowing across the land. It makes me uncomfortable to walk across this, although I couldn’t explain why. I tie a bandana around my nose and mouth. My instincts tell me not to breathe in too much of this stuff.

The footprints have disappeared where they entered the Rift, there aren’t even any indentions where they should have been. This ground doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right under my feet, in my hands. The only word I can think to describe it is- decay. It doesn’t even sound right when you walk across it. Like it absorbs everything that touches it. I stay on the trail, following where the strange footprints would have been, if the mysterious creature had maintained this course.

I realize, based on my Ranger Map, that I am coming to the closest point of the Scar to the estates. Before my run I was able to ask about ‘the Rift’. There really isn’t anything in writing about it, its an informal secret within the ranks of the Rangers. I had to ask around, ask my Uncle Eldiss to get any information. I was able to gain a little knowledge, so this isn’t entirely unexpected. I knew there was a deep canyon within the Rift they nicknamed the Scar, but knowing something and seeing it can often be two different experiences.

The overall area with the dead land and the prison mines is called The Rift. Within the Rift, however, is an even more disturbing area….The Scar. The Scar looks as if someone or something from the heavens slashed down across the land and tore it open to hell. If the dead earth of the Rift is rust red, the walls leading into The Scar are blood red. There are strange howling noises and hissing sounds that emit from it in unpredictable intervals. And the wind…the wind that has been tearing at my clothes and the bandana on my face like a living thing…that wind originates from here. The Scar extends south from where I am standing for at least two weeks of travel, hundreds of miles. One other thing my Uncle warned me about….sometimes things come out from here…..things live in The Scar.

I lay down on the ground to crawl forward to peek over the edge of the Scar. My skin crawls when I get down into the rust colored dirt. Slowly I belly crawl to the edge of the Scar and look down. There is a ledge about 35 feet below me. On it lies the bodies of Sara and Scobe Mittler. From this distance I can’t tell how long they’ve been down there, but I can see that they’ve been partially eaten. And I see why. There is a small creature, what could easily be called a demon, sitting on Sara’s body, feasting. It is roundish, about the size of a large melon, and is red like everything else in this nightmare place. I must’ve made a sound or done something to alert it because it suddenly stops and looks straight at me. Red leathery wings spring into action and it launches itself in my direction. I roll away from the edge of the cliff, draw my sword and ready for battle.

With a screech it flies at me. I swing my sword and make good contact…..nothing happens. My blade seems to bounce off its skin.. It repeats its strange shriek and comes at me, damn that thing is fast for a flying melon, and those are some sharp teeth. I dodge and spin, swinging again. This strike is even more solid than the last, doing nothing.

“Shit!” It tries to strafe me again except this time he gets knocked out of the sky from above. “Cawww Cawww!” Pip’s battle cry rips through the air. He’s been gliding high up, fighting the wind, but swooped in fast. Like my sword, though, his claws only rake across the skin of the little monster. It hisses at him ominously.

I take the opportunity of distraction to stash my sword and unholster my shovel, unfurling it and snapping it into position. Knowing I can’t damage the beastie I do the next best thing; I wind up and bat that thing as far as I can into the Scar.

“Run!” I yell to Pip and we both take off full speed away from the edge. At least we’re traveling with the wind and it’s not slowing us down. After several paces I turn to see the small, flying, figure end the chase and turn back to its meal. I consider returning to try to retrieve the bodies of the fallen couple but decide against it. If that demon called on more I could find myself in a bad way, not being able to strike a blow to them. Not to mention I think that shapeshifter is in there somewhere, and possibly much worse things. I need to do a little more research before proceeding down that hell-hole.

Before returning to Diedre’s estate I decide to check the Cedric Mine, south of here to the west. A prison for the worst criminals in Ratik. The second worse prison is east of here, also in the Rift. It is an iron mine. I know from asking around that the coal mine was once a prosperous little town, but it was slowly abandoned and is now just the prison. Nobody could tell me much more than that. Maybe I can uncover some answers as to why the citizens gave up and left while I’m there. Maybe there are answers regarding the Scar.

The mine is a little over 2 days from the Scar. Pip takes up high in the winds again as I run at a fast clip towards my destination. I keep a vigilant watch over my shoulder in the direction of the Scar throughout the day. The wind never lets up. As darkness starts to fall Pip comes down low near me, he can’t see like I can. “Let’s try to get a little further.” I tell him. We travel together, he gliding low over me, another hour into the darkness.

There is nothing but this powdered earth all around, nothing growing at all. I finally give up and try to find a berm to make camp, something to protect us a little from the wind. I dig further into the ground for protection. This shovel is fantastic.

Something about the ground beneath me still bothers me. I’m loathe to sleep on it. I think Pip feels the same way as I’ve noticed he avoids standing on it at all. He is either on my shoulder or standing on my pack where it lays on the ground. Deciding to trust my instincts, I lay out my sealskin cloak and blanket on the ground beneath where my bedroll will be. For once I actually use my half shelter as it was intended and am thankful for some additional protection from the wind. Pip is watching closely as I get ready to rest. “C’mon buddy, you get in first.” I don’t want to have him between me and anything I might have to fight in the night.

“Caww caw caw.” I may be mistaken, but I think his response sounded relieved and thankful.

“Yeah, I got your back, just like you got mine.” I tell him as we smash together under the shelter. We both try to find rest in this nightmare landscape.

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Correspondence

Even though I am incredibly tired, sleep doesn’t come easy. I keep replaying the last few hours in my mind over and over, amazed that I was able to figure everything out in time.

[Game note: My GM did have a timeline/dice rounds going on the side that I wasn’t aware of. It was entirely possible to return and find Diedre replaced and her body stashed somewhere]

Just as my eyes are finally closing; pieces of the puzzle slot in together one by one. Hurriedly, I get out of bed, light a candle and write a letter to the only person I know won’t discount my idea or think me crazy:

Dear Martume,

I hadn’t expected to report to you directly, but upon trying to sleep last night I was disturbed with a chain of thoughts that while others would dismiss me outright you would at the very least think about it before disagreeing with me.

Only yesterday I managed to barely thwart an attempt by a hag/witch (I’m not sure what as she flew away out the window) to kill and replace The Baroness Ratik in her manor here. The thing killed a farming couple in order to replicate the woman and gain access to the keep. Once here it killed and took the form of a trusted servant. When I arrived it had taken the form of the Baroness and I fought her as the real Diedra hung on for dear life out a window. All of the details of this can be read in my official report which I am sure you have access to.

But this is my concern that I will only voice to you: A few months ago (although it seems so much longer) there was an assassin sent to kill Baron Mordecai in his hunting lodge, then, a mere month or so later, a NEW ENEMY attacked and killed all members of a patrol that none other than Lt. Lex Smith was a member of. Fortunately, the Lt. was not killed in this attack if only by the grace of the Gods. And lastly, a mere month or so from that Baroness Ratik is attacked, nearly killed, AND REPLACED by a magical replicant who can take the form of any person. Can you imagine what might have happened if it had succeeded and made a visit to her father?

It can and will be noted that these events have happened months and months apart from each other. But if you were a being trying to bring on the fall of the Ratik reign would you act hastily….or noticeably? Perhaps I am grasping at straws, but I feel like there is something more here that meets the eye.

I honestly hope that you can put my fears to rest with one of your simple and eye opening observations. But either way I sleep better knowing that you have been made aware of this possible connection.

Your friend and servant,

Lilykai Kodel

[Game note: This is actually a letter I wrote and emailed to my GM….resulting in bonus points! Thus began the Lilykai correspondence. Something I started to do to a) organize my thoughts and notes, b) put out ideas I thought of later regarding mysteries and investigations and c) bonus XP…because duh…bonus xp)

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Don't Hesitate
Horse thief

“….And then I start running at the thing and leap into the air; the fire of the torch grazing across it’s body, burning a section of it white before it scoots away. The dwarves have decided that piling up in the shape of a pyramid is how they will strike at the pudding, a horribly bad idea….”

My story is interrupted by the guard coming into the dining room holding up a crying old woman; I halt my storytelling to watch them enter. Diedre, and even Captain Durante are laughing along with the rest of the table at the idea of the dwarf pyramid.

“Scobe is missing!” The guard shouts to get everyone’s attention. Instantly the room is quiet, the only noise coming from the weeping woman he arrived with.

At first I’m at a loss, but just a brief moment. Looking at the shocked faces of the Baroness, Durante, the guards, and the residents I realize that I’m the only one trained to track and find those I seek. Whether they are stray predators, bandits, or lost kids….I’m the one who has the skills to locate them.

Moving quickly to the old woman I kneel before her seated form so I can look her in the eye, “Who is Scobe?”

“He’s my husband.” She sniffles and responds while wiping her eyes with a cloth.

“When did you last see him?” I take her hand and keep her focused on my face, my eyes.

“Right before we were supposed to leave for the dinner. He went to check something in the field and never came back. I called and called and he never responded. I waited…. and then it got dark……” she looks at me helplessly.

“Do you know what he was wearing? What colors?” She doesn’t look as lost and is trying to remember.

“He was wearing his nice clothes, a winter coat. His good shoes.” She seems exhasperated that she can’t quite remember. “Dark colors.”

“And the last time you saw him, he was going out to the field? What direction?” I want to verify her last memory.

“I’m not sure…to the west? Towards the edge of the woods. Said he heard something.”

I think back to the wolf tracks I saw today. If they returned and caught him out in the open, alone….I remember Arminus Kalera, how he fell to wolves at the beginning of my run.

Ignoring everyone else, I approach Lt. Matteo where he lingers by the door, watching intently. He is still in his armor and I imagine his horse is ready to go out again. “Can you give me a ride to their farm? We don’t have much time to waste.”

He nods, “Of course. I’m ready.”

“Just give me a minute to change. I won’t be long.” I call to him over my shoulder as I start towards the doorway. Diedre asks Bronsten to take Mrs. Mittler up to a room, she can stay in the Keep tonight while we search for Scobe. I glance back to give her a thankful look, I don’t want the woman to witness us bringing her dead husband back from the fields….if it comes to that.

Rushing up the stairs to my room, I quickly divest myself of my dress and toss it haphazardly on the bed. I gather my sword, bow and quiver. At the last minute I decide to leave my pack, wanting to be able to move light and fast if needed.

“It’s dark now but I know the way.” Matteo says as he helps me up on the back of his horse. “Hang on!”

He barely gives me a moment to wrap my arms around him before he takes off in a flash. I close my eyes and grip tight, trying not to bounce off the back of the saddle. Luckily, we don’t have to cross the river, the farm is on this side. I’ve buried my face into the back of his plate mail, the cool metal keeping me from getting nauseous during the ride.

“We’re here,” he announces as we come to a sudden stop. I pull my head back and see that we are in a darkened farmyard. The modest house is to one side and two large, long buildings across from us, next to that is a regular barn. The sounds of furious clucking coming from within the long buildings. Rodrick is waiting in the yard with a lantern.

“The Mittler’s own the chicken farm.” Matteo says as he dismounts, noting me surveying the surroundings. In the distance I see lanterns moving about. Turning to Rodrick, Matteo asks for a report.

“We’ve searched the farm and found no signs of a struggle. Nothing unusual. There’s a search party on the edge of the trees in the direction she said he walked towards, but we’re expanding it all around.” He turns towards me, “Are you going to help track him?”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I respond. “I want to check out the farm first.” I start walking to the chicken coops but stop short, “You haven’t heard any wolves around have you?” Rodrick shakes his head ‘no’. Nodding, I turn back towards the chicken coop door and light the lantern that Matteo gave me when we arrived. He’s gone with Rodrick to meet the search party and left his horse tied up here. It’s just me and the chickens now.

Opening the coop door I have to stoop to enter the low slung building. Stopping in the entrance to study the structure, it I see that they have an ingenious little set up. The chickens have individual caged nests. There are some levers by the door that I mess around with. [Perception success]

One of the levers opens the ‘doors’ on the back of the cages so that the chickens can leave their nests and go into the yard for exercise. It also frees up the farmer to gather the eggs from this side with ease while the chickens run around in the yard. After pulling the lever that releases them, I watch as they run directly to a trough for feed in unison. These are well trained chickens. [Perception and Investigation checks] Their noises increase as they discover the trough is empty. I spot the feedbag near the door and hurry to pour some for them; angry chickens fussing at me the whole time.

Returning into the building, I study the length of it, checking out the nests. Every one of them has a lot of eggs. There are no unusual footprints or tracks inside, I don’t find any indication of something being amiss, although something about this bothers me. I just can’t quite figure out what. [Perception success, Investigation failure]

I go into the next coop and there are only a handful of chickens in their nests, the barn is mostly quiet. I glance at the location where the levers in the other barn were and sure enough they have been tripped here. Peeking through the little door to the outside pen I see most of the chickens already roaming about, looking for food. Like before I toss some in their feeding trough and they come running. No strange tracks, or anything out of place here either. [Perception success]

These details are important and I don’t know why. Something feels wrong. I go through a mental checklist, trying to figure out what is out of place, what is wrong with this picture and I come up empty every time. Shrugging it off, I move towards the last barn.

This is a regular animal barn. Inside I find a couple of sheep, a pig, and a cow. All act hungry so I feed them. We have animals on our farm, I know what to do. Everyone has chores at Kodel Estates. I feed the cow last and she still seems distressed. Something has upset her fiercely. I jump into her pen to look around. As before, I’ve been searching for footprints and clues. Nothing in here either. At a loss I turn towards the cow to see what is wrong. [Perception check success] She’s in pain. It looks like she hasn’t been milked in awhile and her udders are extended.

Automatically, I grab a nearby overturned bucket and stool and start milking the cow. Yes, I know….it’s crazy. In the middle of a serious investigation…a missing person, no less….I’m milking a cow. But I can’t stand to see an animal hurting like this and it gives me a chance to think. There’s something bugging me…. something not adding up and I still can’t figure out what it is. As I think I talk to the cow….

“You poor thing. No wonder you were so cranky. Everybody knows the first thing you do is milk the cow in the morning.” Gracie taught me that when I was just a toddler following her and mama around the farm-

I freeze. Everybody knows the first chore is ‘milk the cow’.

I rush to the house, stopping short in the doorway. It’s pitch dark except for my lantern. Rodrick was right, there is no sign of any struggling at all. It’s very cold and still. Very cold. I move through the house to the kitchen, specifically to the stove; laying my hand on its surface. It’s stone cold. [Investigation/Perception success] I know when you light a stove and get it going for breakfast it is warm all day long, even in winter. My eyes shift to the kitchen table. There are two plates, cups, and a serving dish in the middle, everything in it’s place. Including the food….dinner. Why would they make dinner when they know they were going to Diedre’s tonight?

Except it’s not dinner for tonight, this is last night’s meal…or maybe the night before by the look of it. Time seems to freeze as I realize the implications. I raise my head slowly towards the door and see their coats hanging on the pegs by the door. The story unfolding in front of me:

The Mittler’s sitting down to dinner, a knock at the door to rouse one of them from the table. Instantly they are killed and the other follows quickly after. Whatever happened, I am certain if we find anything it will only be their bodies. Whatever killed them, it took their place. I picture myself kneeling in front of the weeping old woman, frantically worried about her husband…causing most of the guards….and the Ranger no less…to leave the Keep. Oh gods, what have we done.

The reality of the situation crashes back upon me as I dash back out to the yard. I search around the perimeter for the lanterns and see them far, far away on the edge of the fields and into the forest. Just as I spot them a shout comes from that area. They found something! Instinctively I want to run out there, but that is time wasted. I know in my heart that there is only death that way. I glance towards the Keep, all lit up in the distance; I’m stuck in place trying to decide what to do….

“Go to the Living.” The voice in my head tells me. Then a haunting memory, “Don’t Hesitate.”

Before I can talk myself out of it I untie and leap onto Matteo’s horse that is waiting patiently for him in the yard. Digging my heels in it’s flanks, grabbing it’s mane; (the reigns never occur to me) I yell “Go!” as loud as I can and hope that works. The beast kicks off at full speed. I hope it is in the direction I want to take. My eyes snap shut in fear from it’s quick movements and my terror. We’re either going to Matteo; who will then take us to the Keep, or we’re going straight to the Keep. Either way works for me, I’ll open my eyes when we stop.

Which happens so suddenly I barely keep from flying over it’s head. Sliding off the saddle, I start barking orders at the alarmed guards before me.

“Where is the Captain?” I shout at the nearest uniformed man.

“He’s taken a watch on the wall since so many guards are searching.” He immediately answers.

“Get him NOW!” I holler as I take the steps two at a time into the castle, my sword already in hand. This sight, above all things, has the guards jumping.

I charge up the stairs as fast as I can, startling maids in my path. I haven’t been to the Baronesses rooms, but I can assume they are on the top floor. Turning the corner at the top of the steps I am sickened by the sight before me. There are two soldiers slumped in the hallway before a large door; her door. Blood seeps out onto the floor from their bodies.

A scream from inside the room gets me moving again and I rush past the dead guards to a shocking scene. Diedre’s large dog, Shana, that has followed her loyally around the Keep, is laying on it’s side bleeding, a discarded dagger nearby. The picture window in the sitting room has been opened, letting in a chilly breeze. Before it are two Diedre’s fighting with one another. As I enter the space one of them takes the opportunity to break the other’s grip on her. She turns and gives me an order:

“Grab her, don’t let her go. She’s an imposter. She killed my guards and stabbed my dog. Get her!”

“No! I’m Diedre. She’s lying Lily. It’s me!” The duplicate Baroness says

Both voices definitely sound like Diedre, I cannot tell them apart. [Insight roll fail] They argue about who is the real one, both trying to convince me. Neither succeeding. One has grabbed the other by the arm and they are inching towards the window, I can’t tell which one is in control, they are both thrashing in each other’s arms.

“Hold it, don’t move!” I bellow at them both, brandishing my sword in their direction. They stop, still gripping one another and look at me. I don’t know if this will work, but it is the best chance I’ve got. Searching my mind for information that only Diedre would know, that I would also know, I replay all of our conversations; trying to find something worthwhile. I come up empty, nothing that will work. I’m about to give up and randomly strike at one of them when I get an epiphany…..

“Tell me the name of your youngest brother!” I demand. You could hear a pin drop it’s so quiet in here. One of the Diedre’s starts to smile while the other’s face begins to contort in a snarl. “NO!” the snarling one cries as the other yells triumphantly “Lex!”

Without hesitation I lunge at the fake. With unexpected strength [Insight success, she had been holding back] she hurls the real Diedre out the window. I watch her catch the sill before its too late, but she’s struggling. The fake Baroness turns towards me and before I have a chance to act a ball of fire flies from her hands towards me.

I roll away from it, feeling the flames singe the edge of my coat. The Diedre hanging from the window screams, I lunge at her double and strike twice before stepping between them to try to pull her in. As I reach out to the real Diedre the fake pounces towards me, she had retrieved the dagger.

She slices across my sword arm with her first strike, I am able to deflect the second one aimed at my heart. The Baroness hanging outside the window starts to slip from my grasp. I have to focus on one of them, I can’t deal with both at once.

“I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to hang on Diedre. I’ve got to kill the other one.” I tell her pleadingly as I remove her hand from my wrist to the window ledge. “No! No! Help me!” She protests. Watching Diedre’s legs and feet scramble for purchase on the slick stones; I shake my head in defeat, turn and face the fake in the room. At least I’m by the window so she can’t get to the real Diedre.

The imposter’s face contorts into a cruel smirk that vanishes with the sudden appearance of three guards in the doorway, “Help me,” she says in Diedre’s voice, “the Ranger is a traitor, she killed those guards, stabbed my dog and has come for me.” The guards hesitate, swords drawn; looking between us.

“Ranger, step away from the Baroness….” One of them starts to say.

“I cannot. The real Baroness is hanging from this window and she’ll kill her if we give her the chance.” I gesture towards the imposter with my sword, keeping my body between her and the window. As if on queue the real Baroness lets out a scream from the outside.

The soldiers face the duplicate, demanding she drop the dagger. “Fine then, have it your way.” She sneers and begins moving her hands furiously while muttering words in an unknown language. Just in the nick of time I lunge between the soldiers and the ice shards that explode from her form. I feel them impact my coat and body; ribs breaking and some punching through my chain. To anyone else the cold would be unbearable and at first I think it’s going to affect me, but I’ve been hit by the Ice Breath of a Winter Wolf. I can take it. [CON save]

With the cold attack, the imposter has revealed herself. “Get to the window, save the Baroness!” I close the distance between me and the fake Diedre, trying to keep her from attacking the soldiers again. My sword slices deep into her body. She falls back and screams. Behind me I hear the men grunting and heaving Diedre into the room. The creature before me seethes in fury. “I will kill you all!” She dives towards the group protecting the real Diedre. I move to block her way, giving her clear access to the window.

She transforms into a hideous witch and screeches as she strikes at me with nasty talon like fingernails. I feel some slashes into my cheek. Before she can back away I try to repay her in kind only to find empty air where she once was. She has taken flight and flees through the air, out the window and over the walls of the Keep before anyone can stop her.

“Is everyone Okayyyyyyy……” I manage to say before my vision swims and I start to fall; realizing too late the poison transferred from her fingernails to my flesh. “Lily!” I hear Diedre call out before the darkness takes me.

————————

“She’s coming around..” Captain Durante’s voice seems to float out of a fog. My cheek no longer hurts and when I touch it I feel that the scratches are healed. In fact, all my aches have vanished.

I sit up and realize I’m on her bed. There are empty potion vials beside me. Diedre is sitting on a couch, her huge furry dog, Shana, beside her with its head on her lap. I notice a bandage around it’s middle.

Durante paces between us, flexing his hands in fists and back to normal. “What happened?” I ask them both as I sit upright gingerly. Initially, I’m nauseous and breathe deeply to get it under control. They watch me closely before answering, Durante brings me a cup of chilled water. “Thanks.” I nod to him, to encourage them to speak.

“Right after you left, when Sara…. or whatever that was came in” Diedre begins shakily, “the dinner broke up. People were upset and wanted to join the search. Sara went up with Bronston….oh, poor Bronston-“ she begins crying. I look to Durante quizzically.

“We found Bronston stuffed in a wardrobe, it killed him.” Durante says quietly and moves to Diedre’s side to comfort her, she leans against him as she cries. “Then it changed to look like him and came to her room, killed the guards….they never expected it.”

Diedre interrupts now, picking up the story. “Shana knew..” She pats the dogs head, rubs it behind it’s ear. Her tail flops lazily. “She was growling at it. It couldn’t get near me. Then it lunged at Shana with a knife and I knew something was wrong. I tried to go out the door but it changed into me right before my eyes and grabbed me.” She looks up at me. “She was going to kill me and take my place. And then you burst into the room. I was so shocked….so happy to see you. How did you know?”

“Yes,” the Captain asks curiously. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t start searching in the fields with the others. I began at the farm first, just to get an idea of what direction Scobe went….look for clues…for a starting point. People are often confused when they give you information about things…directions, clothes, stuff you need to find somebody. It’s better to trust the evidence.” The last words are those repeated endlessly to Ranger Cadets by our instructors, ‘trust the evidence’.

Sighing, I drink the rest of the water and without asking the Captain refills my cup before returning to his post beside Diedre. I nod my thanks and continue, “First I investigated the barns. She had said something about him checking on the animals when I questioned her. The animals were all out of sorts, the cow was in distress…it hadn’t been milked.” I leave out the part where I took the time to milk the cow, right now it seems a bit odd to admit. “Then I went into the house. Rodrick was right that there hadn’t been a struggle, and if you were only looking for foul play, it wasn’t there.”

“But you weren’t looking for that.” Diedre interrupts. “You were looking for something else.”

I nod, “Yes, I was looking for answers. Why wasn’t the cow milked, the chickens fed, the eggs picked up….” I see understanding dawn on their faces. “The stove was completely cold and dinner from the night before was on the table, untouched. Their coats were still on the hooks.”

Captain Durante is angry. “How did my men miss that,” he growls. He shakes his head in frustration, clenching his hands into fists again.

“Why would they look for it? It was Sara Mittler….. Scobe was missing. There was no reason to doubt her. They were reacting normally. They had every reason to believe what she said and acted appropriately.” I try to explain, to protect the guards.

“But you didn’t.” Diedre remarks pointedly. “You checked out her story.”

“Only to clarify details, not because I thought she was lying. Luckily, she hadn’t taken the time to cover her tracks better.” It occurs to me how I arrived at the Keep, “Oh crap…I stole Matteo’s horse. Is he pissed?”

For the first time since I awoke both Diedre and Juan break into smiles. Durante answers while Diedre tries to hide a laugh, “I’m not sure if what you did constitutes ‘stealing’. What we heard from the guards at the gate, the horse came in on it’s own while you bounced around on the saddle and hung onto it’s mane with your eyes closed.”

Whatever the expression on my face is, it makes them both start laughing heartily. At least I’m brightening their mood somehow. “Well, at least he’s not mad about it.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that he wasn’t mad,” Durante emphasizes. “I just said you can’t call what you did ‘stealing’.”

Their mood infectious, I start to laugh softly too. “I suppose you are right about that.” Looking pointedly at Diedre, “the fact that I tried that at all is a testament to my dedication.” She nods in understanding.

“Why did you ask that questions?” She asks out of the blue.

“What question?” I’m confused.

“You asked me the name of my brother….” She raises her eyebrow.

Shrugging, “I tried to think of something quickly that only you would know, that I would also know the answer.”

“So you know my brother?”

“Everybody knows the names of the Royal Family. At least those of us serving do.” I avoid answering her question directly.

“What if the imposter knew his name? What then?” Durante inquires.

“Not sure…I was just really trying to buy time at that point. I would’ve asked the name of the dog, but I couldn’t remember it myself.” Tentatively I stand and get my balance. “I was just playing it by ear, keep everybody alive until I could sort it out.” I gesture towards my cheek and healed wounds, “Thanks for fixing me up. If it’s OK with you, I’d like to get some rest. A long sleep.”

“What happens next?” Diedre asks, standing from the couch.

“Don’t know yet, we’ll figure that out tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind if I actually sleep in a bit.”

Before I can react she has embraced me in a soft hug. “As long as you wish. Stay as long as you need to rest. You are always welcome here.”

View
Watcher
Silly ol Bear

Diedre and Captain Durante are startled as I come into the dining room with my pack and gear; obviously not from upstairs. Taking a seat, my breakfast arrives almost immediately from the kitchen. Fresh scrambled eggs, bacon and warm cinnamon bread. I could get used to this.

“Where have you been? Bronston said you were not in your room this morning, although it was locked,” Diedre interrupts Durante as he opens his mouth to speak.

“Went out last night after dark. Thought there would be a better chance of finding something.” I answer nonchalantly. I am not in the habit of reporting my activities to anyone, nor am I inclined to start. My manner says as much.

“I thought the plan was that you would leave this morning. There were no reports from the guards saying you left last night.” Durante frowns, not liking that he was not informed.

Shrugging, “Plans change. You didn’t hear anything about it because your guards didn’t see me leave.” Leveling my gaze at him, “I don’t report to you Captain. I can perform my investigations however I see fit.”

He does not like this remark at all. After what happened with Temakos, however, I refuse to be pushed around by the military. “While you are here, I need to be notified of what you are doing.” He states challengingly. It’s like we are two alpha dogs circling one another.

Calmly, I sit down my silverware and give him my undivided attention. “I do not have to report any of my movements to you, nor how my investigation is proceeding until I deem it necessary. I can promise you that I will do nothing to endanger your charge, (I nod towards the Baroness) but what I do and how I do it is none of your business. If you don’t like this I am perfectly happy leaving the Keep.” Leveling my gaze at the two of them, my tone and attitude reveals that this is non-negotiable.

Durante starts puffing up; ready to tell me what for. Before he has the opportunity, however….

“She’s right Juan, you have no jurisdiction over her. But I’m certain Captain Kodel will be more than happy to share anything important she uncovers during her investigation of the estate.” Diedre’s tone is that of a parent scolding her children. It’s plain to see who is truly in charge at the table between the three of us. I nod in agreement and return to my breakfast, as does he.

“What did you find out last night?” Diedre asks lightly, a small smile playing across her lips. She has been noting my behavior and has correctly surmised that I am much less intent on ‘finding the witch’. I sense she realizes that it is because I know something I didn’t before. [Insight roll success]

“There is no witch.” I state with conviction. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have a crazy old lady in the middle of your forest, but she’s not a witch. More like an old gypsy.”

“Why haven’t we seen her before?” Captain Durante, once again, is incensed that people move around his territory without his knowledge.

“You’re asking me?” I answer with a raised eyebrow. He mumbles some reply I can’t quite make out. “Anyway, she is harmless…at least to your people.” I proceed to repeat Cassandra’s answers to the charges of her being a witch: the bear, the water, the cow. Like me, Diedre looks more and more embarrassed to hear the truth of those incidents.

Captain Durante seems unmoved, I’m surprised he’s not sending out the calvary to round her up anyway; just for being able to slip around unnoticed by him and his men. “Did you discover anything else about her? Is she a danger?”

Something in the way he asks these questions catches my attention. Looking up I note that it’s not merely the Captain being territorial, it is his sworn duty to protect Diedre that drives him. I direct my answers exclusively to him, “I watched her very carefully, and no; I do not think she is a threat. She said she has been here awhile, at least 12 years.”

I intentionally give the wrong timeline, I don’t need them freaking out about her age (or lack of age) when it’s not important to what is happening currently. “She hasn’t caused you any trouble in all that time, I don’t think she’s the cause now. But she did tell me she senses something bad at the farms.”

Diedre leans towards me, concern on her face. Durante has a more skeptical look on his face. “What do you mean ‘something bad’?” she asks, her voice unconsciously falling to a whisper.

“I don’t know, and she couldn’t tell me. I actually believe her more because she didn’t have a definitive answer, just a feeling. If she had been secure in her knowledge I would have assumed she was trying to sell me something, sell me a ‘cure’.” I mutter. “But… she was honest. Said she couldn’t put her finger on it, just that she felt something bad was moving around the estate. She hasn’t been able to locate it.” I quietly continue to eat breakfast again as I think of my next moves. They have gone back to theirs as well, all of us contemplating the conclusion that there is something actually out there, and what to do to find it. Both Durante and Diedre are frowning, lost in their thoughts.

“We’re making progress.” My words break the silence. “Yesterday we weren’t sure if something was really happening; if the livestock issues were caused by something specific, or just a fluke. We also thought you had a resident witch. Today we know there is actually a ‘thing’ that is working it’s way around the estate and we know you have a hermit, not a witch.”

“This is progress?” Durante asks sarcastically. I can’t say I blame his tone.

“Yes, I won’t be wasting my time today with hunting witches and I won’t leave until I find what I’m looking for.”

Diedre smiles. “So, dinner is still on then?”

Rolling my eyes towards her and shaking my head in surrender, “Yes, I will be here for your big dinner. Am I really going to have to tell stories?”

“Yes, and there will be children so try to make them appropriate.” She says seriously, narrowing her eyes at me.

“Noted, don’t say ‘Fuck’ in front of the kids, just ‘Damn’ and ‘Shit’.” I mutter, causing Durante to choke on his food which in turn makes me smile. Diedre is just staring in disbelief, “I won’t say anything too bad, I know how to behave.” This too, causes Durante to snort.

I try to give him my stink eye, but I just end up smirking at him. “I’m off to run the countryside, see what I can turn up.” Retrieving my weapons, Diedre assures me they will handle my pack and take it to my room for me. “Thank you, I will return as soon as I can.”

This time when I leave through the front gate I make sure to wave at the guards. Noting that the boat is parked on this side and no logs are running, I decide to cross the river when I can and search the forest and farms on the other side first.

“Good morning Captain, permission to come aboard!” I announce cheerfully as I approach the ferryboat once again.

“You know you’re welcome Ranger, you can stop asking now.” The ferry captain shakes his head but his eyes sparkle with poorly disguised mirth. “Name’s Bill, by the way. You can just call me that.”

He extends his hand as I step onto the deck. Taking it, “Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel. You can just call me Lily.” He smiles as we shake hands.

“OK, Lily,” We start to cast off, “you caught me just in time. I’m heading across to pick up the kids for their schoolin’.” We push off and he raises his sails to cut up across the river, against the current. It’s slow going, but serene. “You were pretty quiet this morning so I didn’t bother you on the way back to the Keep. Did you find what you were looking for last night?”

“You mean, did I find the witch?” I give him a sneaky grin. This is why Bill knows all the gossip. He asks for it.

“Maybe that’s what I’m asking.” He feigns innocence. “Maybe I’m just wondering if I was able to assist the Ranger in her duties.”

I can’t help but chuckle at that. “Yes, actually. You were a great help and yes I did find her. There’s just one problem.” I have his attention now. “She’s not a witch.”

“Really? Because everyone thinks she is.” Bill seems a little disappointed.

“Nope, just a lady who prefers to be alone. Can’t say I see anything wrong with that. She’s certainly not breaking the law.” Seeing as I’m the law, that’s actually a pretty big deal for me to declare. I am choosing my words carefully, knowing that they will get around….thanks to Bill.

“You sure about that?” He is still skeptical.

“Yes, I asked her about specific incidents and thoroughly investigated her and her camp. She is innocent.” I think that may be too broad an assessment so I add, “At least she’s innocent of being a witch.”

I definitely leave off the fact that she is probably something equally as powerful as a witch, even if she might not be one. The subject of Cassandra has brought back the memory of her odd trance and the words ‘Don’t Hesitate’ reverberating through the clearing. Immediately after uttering those words her eyes had cleared and she had no memory of the event…odd.

As we near the shore I notice a collection of children waiting on the bank. Copar, Evanda, and Waymer Alvin are among them. “Ranger Lily!” Evanda yells and waves at me vigorously. She smiles broadly and says something I can’t hear to the children looking between her and me as I return her greeting. I imagine she’s a minor celebrity now, having met the Ranger before the others. Her brothers just roll their eyes.

Bill pulls into the berth beside the dock and I jump out to tie off the boat. The kids pour onto the dock. They’re heading to their little school in the Keep. “Are you going to catch the witch?” Waymar asks. The older kids nod as the young ones eyes grow wide.

“I have already questioned the old woman.” My tone is serious and holds all the authority this Ranger can muster, “And I can assure you she is not, in fact, a witch. She told me that when she came out of the woods yelling at you all it was to warn you about a bear coming your way. Did you happen to see that bear?” My eyebrow raises inquisitively as the older kids start to look sheepish.

“There might have been a bear…” one of the older girls I don’t know says and looks at the ground. Others nod in agreement.

“So she ain’t no witch?” Peeps a small voice from an even smaller boy.

I crouch down to be on his level. “No, she isn’t a witch. I talked with her last night. She’s just an old lady who likes to be alone. But she protected you when there was danger.” I look at each of them to make sure the last words hit home. They are all quiet, some in shame from their accusations, some in awe of seeing the ranger up close.

“OK, that’s enough. Get on the boat or you’ll be late for school and the Baroness will get us all!” Bill bellows as he nears the bow to help the little ones board. I give Bill a quick salute and move towards the road heading west, I want to run the entire length of the forest and farms today.

Jogging just within the treeline of the forest; away from any prying eyes, I pick up a couple of sets of moose tracks, an adult with a young one. They meander along for a little ways before moving further into the forest than I want to go right now. About a quarter mile from that I find more interesting wolf tracks. They are almost six hours old at this point. [Perception roll 18] I follow them for quite a distance, they are running deeper into the forest and away from the estates. Clearly the night patrols had scared them off. By the time I give up tracking them I am deep into the north portion of the forest surrounding the estate farms. I decide to go back towards the road.

Suddenly, there is a crashing noise behind me. There is something very large moving through the thicket in my direction.
[Several Perception failures until it is too late]

I turn and draw an arrow, readying for whatever is charging at me. In spite of my ready stance, my heart stutters and my stomach falls as a huge grizzly bear comes out of the undergrowth. Briefly, it occurs to me that this is probably the bear Cassandra was warning the kids about and I make a note to thank her for it if I live through these next moments.

It has to be my imagination, but I swear the claw scar on my chest twinges as the giant beast runs at me. I notice, right before releasing my arrow into its chest and having a fight for my life, that the bear is actually fixated on a point behind me. He actually doesn’t seem to have even noticed my presence. That’s odd…..
[Perception success]

Instead of firing my arrow, I spin away from the grizzly at the last minute to dodge the beast. He never breaks stride and keeps running full speed through the clearing. For a second I ponder how unusual this encounter has been, but only for a second……because it takes just that long before I register a low humming, no….buzzing noise coming from where the grizzly emerged.

As I turn around I see a cloud of very angry, buzzing, bees flying through the forest. Without hesitation I run full speed after the bear. The bees are close, I feel the leaders of the swarm at the back of my neck. Yep, they sting my neck….I pick up speed. I can honestly say this is the fastest I’ve ever moved through a forest, I want to be impressed with myself, but there’s not enough time. Out of the corner of my eye I see the bear veer off to the north. Now that the bees have a new target he’s in the clear. Bastard!

I can’t hear a thing except the loud buzzing of the bees directly behind me. Ahead of me, to the left my eye picks out the reflection of sunlight on a pond. Immediately I change course toward the water without breaking stride, I can’t afford to, I feel more stings and I’m amazed to discover I can run even faster. At the edge of the water I leap towards the center….I hope this pond is deep or this is going to be painfully embarrassing, mostly painful. Crashing into the center of the pond, the cool water engulfs me. I spin around underneath the surface just in time to see a dark shadow of bees come crashing behind me, instantly sacrificing themselves in their fury. I see the little broken bodies covering the surface as the rest of their brethren buzz around over the pond. I swim under the surface away from the swarm, remaining under the water for as long as I can stand it; until my lungs are burning from holding my breath.

I emerge at the opposite end of the pond from where I entered and see the dissipating swarm returning to their part of the forest. Well, that was eventful. Shaking the water off of me, out of my pockets, my quiver, I look like a stray dog who’s been caught in a rainstorm. I’m thankful that I had left my pack and most of my belongings at the Keep, especially my journal and drawings.

“Caw, caw, caw!” I hear from a nearby tree branch. It’s Pip. I swear that bird is laughing.

“You think this is funny?” I ask, not expecting a reply. He surprises me by nodding enthusiastically. “Caw, caw, caw.”

“Bird” I mutter, shaking my head in exasperation and amusement. “You gonna follow me around now?” He nods again, “Caw, caw, caw.”

“Ok, then…lets go.” I start jogging in the direction I was already heading before finding myself waterlogged and stung. My cheek hurts, there’s a huge whelp there…great. Every step is squishy from wet boots. “Did Cassandra send you to follow me?” I ask Pip as he alights from branch to branch ahead of me. “Caw, cawwww.” He answers and I remember I don’t speak crow. Still, his presence is somehow comforting.

Finally we are out of the forest and the afternoon sun starts to warm me and dry my coat. I walk towards the riverbank to try to pick up more tracks; usually the wet earth reveals something. It’s as good a place to start as anywhere. A loud noise above catches my attention and I watch Pip and what appears to be an almost equally large bird fight it out in mid air. The other bird makes a deep slash across Pip and I watch him slowly fall towards the ground. [Perception success]

Rushing to where Pip will hit, I am able to catch him before he crashes to earth. [Athletics 16]. He is cut up pretty badly and, in spite of the fact that I have limited slinging ability, I cast one of my few ‘Heal Wounds’ on him.

If an oversized crow can give thanks, Pip does just that, with a quiet “cawwww” as he shakes himself out and tests his previously wounded wing and leg. Finding them to be returned to normal he gives me a little bird bow and takes to the air again. I assume he’s had enough for today and will head back to Cassandra, but am surprised when instead he continues to follow me around and sticks with me during my disappointing search for clues the rest of the day. Nothing else of interest turns up.

There are a couple of hours before the Baroness’s dinner as I come through the gates of the keep. Pip flies overhead and lands on the roof. Nobody seems to notice him but me.

Captain Durante is waiting at the entrance. “I’m ready for your report.” He states without preamble. I want to get fired up and angry at his demands, but instead find myself laughing quietly and nodding. I can’t fault the man for being concerned or direct. In fact, we are remarkably alike. I can’t help but like him.

“OK, let’s go up on the roof for some privacy.” Truth be told, I just want to go up there to survey the land and see where I need to check next. He leads me up the grand staircase to another set that takes us up to the roof.

The scene of the farms, orchard…the winery… is the very definition of serenity. As I look out on the miles I covered today, and those I have ahead of me I realize I haven’t gotten any answers to report. Stalling for time, I step to the edge of the roof and look out at the gate. I see Matteo and two other guards coming into the Keep from patrol, I make a mental note to ask him about the wolves.

“Well?” Captain Durante has finally waited long enough. I turn back around to tell him I’ve got nothing, there are no new clues; when Pip starts to furiously squawk from where he’s perched on the edge of the battlement.

As my eyes trail from the Captain to where Pip is having a fit I see a blur in the sky between me and Durante. In an instant, my bow is in hand and an arrow is drawn. I enchant my arrow so that it will explode into a mass of thorns and strike whatever this invisible thing is that has Pip so agitated. [Perception check 24, Hail of Thorns spell to hit]

Surprise registers on Durante’s face as he sees me suddenly turn, fire, and hit an invisible demon that was just in front and above him. The creature becomes visible and gets one last quick shove as I sink a second arrow into its small flying body, killing it. My arms flap wildly, trying to regain my balance as I start to tilt off the edge of the rooftop. Reacting quicker that I would think a man of his size could, the Captain flings himself at me and grabs the front of my coat, pulling me back to safety.

“Whew, thanks.” I say while gathering my breath. “That was a close one.” I kick at the little demon body with its limp leathery wings. “What the hell is that thing?”

“We call them Watchers.” Durante answers gravely. “They are ‘troubles’ that come out of the Rift. Legend says they travel with a more powerful being, or are sent to scout out an area in advance. They’re used as spies.” He draws his sword and cuts off its head before signaling to a guard below to come up and get the remains. He looks back at me with a new sense of respect, “How did you see it?”

“I turned to see what the ruckus was with Pip and I just caught a glimpse of….I don’t know…it was like a shimmer in the air or something. I just let loose with an arrow and hoped I hit.” I wave Pip over towards me as I’m talking and the big ‘ol bird decides to just perch on my shoulder. I have to steady my stance to hold him.

“Did you know that thing was there?” I ask Pip. “Cawww, cawww,” he nods as he responds. “Was he following me today? Invisible?” He nods some more. “So, you stuck with me…..to warn me. Thanks bird.” He butts his head against me and I laugh, “I guess we’re even now, huh?”

“Cawww, Caw, Caw” he says and alights off my shoulder towards the forest where Cassandra is. I guess this means the danger has passed?

“What the heck was that?” Durante asks, breaking me out of my thoughts.

“That was Pip. He ‘belongs’ to Cassandra. Although I imagine belongs is relative…I doubt either of them would agree to that description. Let’s just say they’re friends.” When I look away from watching Pip I see a dark look on Durante’s face.

“You mean like a familiar?” He asks. Oh, great..we’re back to witch.

“No, more like a friend…a companion. Huh, I wonder if that’s what she meant?” I mutter as I watch the guard toss the dead demon into a rough burlap cloth to be burned in the yard. Durante gives me a questioning look but obviously doesn’t want to say anything in front of the soldier. Once he is retreating back downstairs with his task, “Before I left her clearing Cassandra held my hand as if she was reading my palm. She went into a trance and said ‘Don’t Hesitate’.” I shrug, “I was wondering if this was the moment she foresaw.”

“Sounds like a gypsy trick. What did she charge you for that?” He scoffs.

“Nothing. And yes, I would agree with you…except….she didn’t seem to be herself when she said it. It was like she was possessed by something else. Like it was a real vision.” I’m acutely aware that I am speaking with a skeptic so I choose my words carefully and intentionally leave out all the mysterious details regarding Cassandra. The less he knows about her, the better for both of them. Attempting to change the subject, “I need to get ready for this dinner, do you mind?” I gesture towards the stairs down.

“No, yes…sure.” He seems a little rattled by what just transpired. “I’m going to stay up here for awhile.”

On my way down I am approached by a very worried Diedre coming up the stairs with a maid. “What happened? I heard that something happened on the roof and saw a soldier leave with a bag.” She looks past me, concerned.

“The Captain can fill you in, he’s still up there.” I gesture up the stairs. “I need a bath and to change clothes if I’m going to be presentable tonight.” At that, the girl turns to leave, saying she’ll prepare the bath.

“So, Juan is OK? He’s not…” she collects herself, “..neither of you were injured?”

For a moment I have to figure out who the hell Juan is, then I realize she’s talking about Captain Durante. “We’re OK. Everybody’s fine. He decided to stay up there to mull over my report, I guess.” I try to sound unaffected, not like I just almost plummeted to my death. “I need to get ready for tonight….”

“Yes, that’s fine.” She is already climbing the stairs. “I can’t wait to hear your stories.” Her last volley as she turns the corner. Crap, stories.

The bath is warm, and while soaking I consider the day; my discoveries. If this thing followed me around all day and was sent to spy on various locations could it be the thing that was upsetting the animals? It seemed awfully small to wreck such havoc on livestock. Is it a scout for a larger, more dangerous creature and if so, is it already here? There was nothing in my training to prepare me for this. Do I stick around and see if something more is going to happen? How long do I wait?

I tuck these questions and others away for later perusal. From my pack I remove my lone dress, the one Darlene gave me. It makes me think of Lex, our argument at the Inn. That seems like forever ago. Putting it on, I smooth out the wrinkles as best as I can and make my way towards the dining room.

Deciding to put my Ranger skills to good use, I stealth my way there, hiding my entry as best as I can. The din of conversation helps to hide my steps and from the edge of the doorway I can see that everyone has arrived, pretty much. Diedre and Captain Durante are there, my empty seat is waiting by Diedre. There are about 36 other adults and kids around the table, and two other empty seats. I sneak silently the rest of the way to my chair without being noticed [Stealth 16] until I’m right behind my seat.

“Oh, Lily! There you are. We’ve just been waiting for you and the Mittler’s.” Diedre gestures towards the other two empty seats.

I hear the people around the table comment on the missing couple to each other:

“Surprised, they’re not already here.”
“Scobe has never missed a free meal”
“They’re usually one of the first to arrive.”

Diedre and Juan don’t seem to be phased by the talk, or at least they don’t appear that way on the outside. The kids I’ve met wave enthusiastically at me from down the table and I return their gesture causing giggles galore.

Baroness Diedre stands and clears her throat to gain everyone’s attention. She is in a nicer gown, but it wouldn’t be considered fancy by any means. Durante is in his armor, as he always seems to be. The gathered families are dressed in their ‘nice clothes’. I can tell because this is how my parents would make us dress for gatherings too. My Innkeeper’s dress seems to fit right in. In fact, I would lay money on the fact they never expected me to be wearing a dress at all, so I won’t be judged harshly by my wrinkled appearance.

“Hello Everyone,” she begins. “We’re pleased to have Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel here to join us for dinner.” I see some eyes widen from the adults who just learned I was actually a Captain. “She has agreed to tell us some stories, and news from her district. Let’s give her a warm welcome.” She turns and smiles at me, encouraging polite, welcoming applause with her own.

I stand to address everyone as she seats herself; bowing my head slightly to her in recognition, “Thank you, Baroness for such a warm welcome. Thank you all for….for….coming to check me out.” My honest sarcasm earning me several chuckles.

“As far as news is concerned, well, I’m afraid the news I carry is usually kind of bad, I guess…..temporarily there was a group of dangerous creatures roaming the territory; we lost a couple of ranchers to them…but I dispatched them, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

“What does ‘dispatched’ mean?” I hear a small voice at the end, where the kids are, say.
“It means she killed them!” Replies an older boy, probably brother.

The adults seem a bit put off, and Diedre gives me a look that says ‘Are you serious!’, and Durante rolls his eyes and smirks. OK, when they ask for news…I guess they don’t mean combat news. I search my mind for something more appropriate. “There’s a new Commander at Three Rivers……”

“Really? What happened to the old one?” Diedre blurts out. The adults at the table look at me expectantly. The children look disappointed, they wanted more fight stories.

“Well, it turns out he…well….um.” Great. I backed myself into another ‘how they died’ story. “He was found in dereliction of duty.” Everyone is completely taken aback by that remark.

Captain Durante is very keen, this is military news, after all. “Was there a trial? What happened?” He enquires.

“Well, I was investigating some…unethical behavior…..and illegal happenings. I submitted my evidence regarding the Commander and his Officers to the capital. By the time I arrived at the garrison the Royal Observer was there.” At this point there are intakes of breaths and wide eyes. I forget how much fear and respect Martume’ garners as the Royal Observer. “He kind of took over from me once I provided my evidence and conclusions. He took care of their…discipline.” (please don’t ask me, please don’t ask me)

“The Commander and all of the Officers?” Durante continues asking. I guess it is pretty unusual for an entire command staff to go bad. I nod in the affirmative.

“What did the Royal Observer do for punishment?” One of the farmers asks. Oh crap, now I’ve done it.

“Ummm, he…. Well, he gathered everyone and read the decree that described the charges against them, the evidence, and the conclusions.” I look at Diedre and the Captain, helpless. “and then they were hanged.”

Again, there are coughs and intakes of breath. Durante rolls his eyes and Diedre gives me an ‘are you fucking serious’ look. That is, if she were one to use such language.

“Is there a new Commander?” Diedre sputters, still interested, but a little afraid to ask any more questions.

“Yes, there is.” I picture Lex, the first time he rode into Three Rivers. His smile, his warmth…..I feel myself start to blush. “He’s quite….competent.”

I clap my hands together and loudly declare, “So! Does anyone want to hear some stories about dwarves?”

“Yay!” Shout the children
“Yes, that would be nice…” “Oh, we’ve never heard any stories about dwarves” and “I bet it involves drinking..” Are the responses of the adults

And I hear “Does it end with them getting hanged…” murmured quietly from Durante, which results in a swift kick from Diedre.

I begin telling the story of the Hausen Hold Dwarves and the Acid Pudding. I’m just at the part where I’m leaping at the pudding as the dwarves climb upon each other when a guard rushes in with an old woman.

“Scobe is missing!” He shouts over the hubbub and the room goes silent except for the soft weeping of Sara Mittler.

View
Witch in the Woods
Rude girl

As the Baroness….Diedre, starts to speak; Captain Durante interrupts. “There’s no proof there is a witch. It’s just the kids talking.”

Diedre looks annoyed, either by being interrupted or having her ideas dismissed, I cannot tell. I take a seat in a leather chair near the sofa and turn towards her. “I have seen things that no one else in the realm has seen or fought before. I believe there is more out there than we realize. But, at the same time, I won’t say ‘there’s a witch’ until I have investigated the circumstances.” Looking at the Captain, “The truth is; there is something happening. It is affecting the animals, their milk, their behavior. It is not so bad as to affect production yet……yet. But it is a real thing that is happening, and I need to pursue every lead to find out why.”

Diedre is whip smart. She has a gleam in her eye and a slight grin, “How do you know about the animals being affected, about the milk?”

My expression matches hers, “You don’t think I came straight here to ‘report in’ do you? Sometimes it’s better to check out your surroundings before you show up where everyone expects you to be.” Durante looks annoyed. That somehow makes me happy. “So, as I said…what have you heard. Tell me about your ‘witch’.”

“The children come here for lessons, I teach them in the little house in the front of the keep.” Ahh, that explains one of those out-buildings. I’m impressed that she goes to that effort for the kids.

“Before school one day they started talking about the witch. They said she came out of the woods and started yelling and throwing curses at them and scaring them away from the forest. Then they said that Mrs. Quipple caught her doing something to the well on the edge of their property…..putting something in it. And the last thing was that one of them saw her messing with one of the cows on their farm. It was mooing loudly so they went to check on it in the field and found her touching it. She ran off and it had a large gash on its flank.”

Durante comes around to sit on the couch. He looks as though he’s heard this before, but wants to see how I will handle the information. He’s not quite challenging, but guardedly curious.

“From what I heard,” I’m intentionally not revealing my source, “this ‘witch’ has lived around here for years, is that right?”

Diedre nods, “Yes, it’s been rumored that people have seen her on and off starting at least ten years ago. But she never approaches anyone.”

“But whatever has been affecting the animals has just started, the earliest signs were around the start of winter, right?” Diedre nods and Durante leans forward, his interest peaked. “So why now? Let’s assume you’ve had a witch in your woods for almost ten years and other than the occasional creepy sighting she’s done nothing. Then suddenly this year….she’s harming your livestock randomly. Why? What has changed?”

Diedre and Durante look stunned. I get the feeling that the witch was the argument they’ve been having and being so intent on proving the ‘who’ and ‘what’ they never considered looking into the ‘why’. Where he was standoffish before, he is leaning in and interested now.

“Nothing.” He says, but is clearly searching his memory to see if there is something he’s missed. “The patrols haven’t seen anything unusual all winter. Nothing has come from the Rift or anything out of the ordinary.”

Frowning, “What is this Rift?” I recall it listed on my map, and it’s huge. According to my map, though, it’s pretty far away. “Isn’t it several days from here?”

Diedre answers this time. “Yes, at it’s closest point it is still four, four and a half days away.” She gets up and refills our glasses. “The Rift is….it looks like a giant tear in the earth. It, and the land surrounding it, are brownish red colored. Like rust. There is a constant wind emitting from it and sometimes demons…and ‘creatures’ come out of it.”

This is the second time tonight that I’ve gotten to choke on a sip of wine thanks to her. She gives me a moment to finish my coughing fit.

“You’re telling me there is a place about four days away from here where an occasional demon pops out?” It’s my turn to look flabbergasted.

“Very rarely.” Durante interjects. “And those demons are small….about the size of a ball, and flying. We knock them out of the sky and chase them away.” He waves one hand in the air like they are not a threat. “They are annoying, but having anything come this far from the Rift is rare. It’s the mines nearby that see them the most.”

I make a mental note to go to the Rift and the mines next. “So, you’ve never had any issues coming from there before. Nothing large or notable, or affecting the farms?” They both shake their heads ‘no’.

“Are specific farms targeted over others? Is the issue localized?” Maybe if I can pare down to a location in the valley I can start my search there.

“Not really,” Diedre starts. “From what I’ve been told livestock at each location has shown some signs: lack of milk, sour milk, hens not laying eggs. It’s really affected most of the farms.”

“But not in a large, noticeable way.” Captain Durante interjects.

Nodding, “Right, just random and only affecting a few animals at any given time.” He nods in agreement with my understanding.

We three sit in silence for a moment while I digest all the information. They wait patiently, watching me process it all. “OK this is what I’m going to do….” They both unconsciously lean forward, “I’m going to pack up as though I’m leaving tomorrow. Go out the front gate with my gear, cross the river to the road and start heading east. After a few miles I’m going to cut into the forest and start a search pattern all the way back up towards the farms. If anyone is observing me maybe they will think I have left and drop their guard a bit. Give me an opportunity to see what they are up to.”

“But you’re not really leaving?” Diedre asks.

“No, I will be back for your dinner.”

“That’s not what I was thinking of; you’ll be back to continue looking even if you don’t find anything tomorrow.” Her concern for her people is plain.

“Yes,” I use my most convincing tone. “I will be back here regardless. If I find nothing tomorrow, that just means we need to look in a different direction or in a new way. It’s not a dead end.”

She smiles widely, she seems to have more confidence in me than I do. He….well, he seems less skeptical than he was a moment before……and more respectful.

“Then I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow. I assume you would like to start early?” She asks.

“I’d love to start late, but it’s better to get out early. I have a feeling it’s going to be a really long day to cover so much ground.” We agree to speak again at breakfast. I say goodnight to them both and make my way upstairs.

The view in my room overlooks the forest I’ll be checking out tomorrow. It is cloaked in darkness. Quite the contrast for the bright torchlight around the walls of the Keep. Which gives me an idea……

I gather up my pack and gear and shimmy out the window using my grappling hook and rope. Waiting until the guards are walking away on their route, I slip through the gate and down the path towards the river. Parked along the dock is boat that ferries folks back and forth across the river. It’s all dark but I knock on the deck with my bow.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” a rough voice barks out. The door to the cabin cracks open and I can see an eye peering out at me. “Who are you…what do you want?”

“I’m the Ranger and I need a ride across.” I say softly, re-enforcing the need for quiet.

The door closes and I hear grumbling before it opens fully, allowing the grizzled (and sleepy looking) Captain out. “You wanna cross now?” In spite of his frustration I appreciate that he’s keeping his voice low. I nod.

“Well, come on then. What are you waiting for?” He impatiently asks.

“Permission to board, Captain.” I see him spin about as if to check if I’m making fun. I’m not. My mother taught my brother and I that you never step on board a ship before asking permission. She said it was the rudest thing you could do to a seafaring Captain. I assume river boats have the same rules, I’m not sure.

“Permission granted….come on, hurry up so I can get back to sleep.” He gestures towards a rope tied off to a cleat and I spring to it and start unwinding. I jump onboard with the rope and he starts towards the other side. He hangs a lantern off the bow.

“Do we really need to have a light?” I ask.

“Since I can’t see in the dark…yes.” I look to see if he’s really pissed and it doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s more like this is just the way he is, and I’ve happened to wake him in the middle of the night. As if reading my thoughts, “I have to start early, get folks across back and forth before the logs start. Before dawn usually.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I wanted to start my search of the area earlier than expected.” I look into the darkness upriver, “Should we be worried about the logs now?”

“Nah, them lumberjacks don’t run ‘em down at night. Too risky.” He watches me for a moment as I scan the opposite bank and forest behind. “What exactly are you hoping to find out here in the middle of the night?”

In a rare moment of openness, I answer. “I’m looking for the witch everybody keeps talking about.” I figure if anybody might know something it’s the guy who shuttles everyone back and forth and overhears all the gossip. I’m completely right.

“Oh her.” He nods as he leans on the rudder and lights his pipe with a match. “Finally caught the eye of a ranger, huh.”

“You’ve seen her before?”

“Briefly. Just before she steps out of sight. Seen her bird sometimes too, more often than her.”

“So it’s true she has a crow?” I see the glow of his pipe go up and down as he nods.

“Do you have any suggestions of where I should start looking?” This is the real reason I told him the truth, I figure I might be able to narrow my search if I get some good intel.

“Head east after you get out and then towards the middle. Not sure if she’s really in there or not, but that’s where I’ve seen her before.” After a pause. “You need me to wait around here tonight, take you back to the castle?”

“No, that’s OK. I’ll probably be out all night. I’ll catch you tomorrow.”

“OK, but if I’m not over here you just ring that bell hanging there on the dock and I’ll come as soon as I can. If the logs are running you’ll have to wait. Otherwise, I come right away.” He motions towards the dock we’re about to connect with. I ask him if I need to tie off or help and he just waves me off. “Just jump out and I’ll turn her around and head back to the other side, see you tomorrow Ranger.”

With a wave I hop out of the boat onto the dock. I see the bell he was talking about in the moonlight. Before me the forest is black. There is a slight breeze and the remnants of snow here and there. I get on the road and start moving east, just past where I intend to start my search. If anyone is watching me at the moment they might think I’m getting the heck out of here in the middle of the night.

Where the trees cast a shadow in the pale light I slip to the left, into the forest. Fortunately, my darkvision enables me to see as if it were early morning and I can easily pick my way through without making a sound [successful stealth rolls].

Initially, I have a weird feeling, like I’m lost or disoriented, but I’m not. It’s impossible. But then again, that fallen tree does seem kind of familiar. I stop and take a deep breath, close my eyes. I focus on where I want to go, get a path in my mind. I start again.

[Game notes: I’m rolling a d12. I don’t know why I’m rolling a d12, but I am. I notice (finally) that when I roll the same number again and again I’m seeing the same landmarks in the forest. I declare the meditation and focus thing and now I can roll a d12 with advantage!….I still have no idea why. And I continue to roll and roll.]

Once more I find myself in a familiar area. Looking at the sky through the trees I realize that hours have passed. If I wasn’t so stubborn I would have given up long ago. I ready myself to continue and then…… through the trees and undergrowth is the flickering of a fire. I hear the cawing of a raven, but don’t see it. I must be close. I draw and nock an arrow as I’m creeping up to the campsite, silently…..

Then the bird starts, “CAW, CAW, CAW” and just won’t shut up.…”cawCawcawCaw” Geesh bird, get a grip!

“You can come out now. I know you’re there” a woman’s voice comes from the clearing.

Stepping through the trees, arrow at the ready, I am struck by the oddity before me. I’m looking at a wagon, sunk into the ground to its axles, that appears to have once been a boat. It seems like it was once a colorful, jubilant caravan wagon that is now faded, peeling and……forgotten. I’m so taken by the sight before me, I completely missed the woman standing there.

“Hello?” The old gypsy says to me. Wait….I shake my head as if to clear it. She’s not old looking but she acts like it. Her manner, her clothes…her super long creepy fingernails. Especially her clothes and posture, they are like the caravan; worn out and forgotten.

“How old are you?” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

“How dare you! Who are you to come into my camp and ask that. How rude! I suppose you wish to know my weight next, Yes?” She is indignant. And reasonably so.

“No, yes. NO! I don’t care about your weight. But you…you are not what you appear to be. I know it!” I have completely lost control of this conversation, and it just started.

She puts her hand on her hip and juts it out challengingly. Her expression is a mischievous grin. In the wrong light it could be a sneer. There is something about her that exudes power. It’s like a powerful energy is rolling off of her and if I’m not careful I could be in trouble. Except I haven’t been careful and I am in trouble and it’s too late.

“You think I am a witch, yes?” She says as she sashays…..really, it is literally a sashay…..over to her campfire and her cookpot hanging above it. She slowly stirs the contents as she watches me. It is…uncomfortable. “I am a witch because I live alone here, because I mind my own business. I am doing nothing wrong here. You-“ She gestures harshly at me with her wooden spoon, “you are the one who comes into my camp…brandishing a weapon….and asks how old I am!” She punctuates her next words at me with her spoon. “You are rude, Rude, RUDE!”

Well, at least I’ve figured out that she’s not a witch. Because if she was one, I’d most likely have my ass busted right now. Whoever she is, I get the impression she’s way above my league. And being confronted by a Ranger with an arrow drawn doesn’t phase her in the least. My shame makes me think I should just leave. But my curiosity reigns supreme, so I try to begin again.

Slowly, I lower my bow and replace my arrow in it’s quiver. Holding out my empty hands, “I apologize. I had been told there was something bad going on around the farms and I need to protect these people. It is my job.” Near me is a log stool, aged and worn. In a flash of inspiration I remove my pack and start digging through it as she watches. The woman hasn’t said anything since my apology, I think she’s still holding out judgement. Her bird is just staring too. Hopefully, this will help my cause.

Near the bottom of my pack, I find what I’ve been searching for and retrieve my prize. Slowly I produce the quart jar of strawberry preserves that I’ve been carrying since the Edwards cabin. I hold it towards her and sit it on the log, stepping away slightly.

“If you would be so kind, I would like to share your fire with you and talk. Please except my gift for your hospitality.” I hope this works because I believe she is not what everyone thinks and in fact could hold many answers to what is happening.

“Are those strawberries?” She asks as she looks skeptically, and hopefully, at the jar.

“Strawberry preserves, yes.” I had noted the rabbit and squirrel skins curing, the wild onions and root vegetables nearby, but no sign of fruit. My choice of strawberries was not accidental.

She arches her eyebrow at me once more, except this time more in approval and amusement. “Would you like to begin again?” It is obvious to both of us she is in charge of this show.

“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.”

She nods at the stool and holds her hand out for the jar. “Please have a seat. Would you like something to eat?”

Nodding, “That would be lovely, if you have enough to spare.”

“Cawww, Caw.” Says the large raven to her. I think he’s concerned about losing his share of the meal.

“Oh, shut up. If you hadn’t made so much noise she wouldn’t have found us, this is all your fault.” The large bird caws at her in response and she gives him a sneaky smile, “That is possible….”

Mental notes: she can talk to this bird, she is much older than she appears based on her clothes and caravan, she doesn’t seem to carry a weapon, and no one has any idea this camp is here or they are keeping it from me.

“Why do you think I’m a witch?” Oh, she’s talking to me again. I snap out of my reverie.

“Well, they said you chased the children, screaming at them.” When I say it out loud it sounds downright stupid. When did screaming at kids make you a witch? That would mean every mother in Ratik is a witch, my own mother in fact….well, actually…..

“I was scaring them off the path because a bear was coming. They like to cut through the forest on their way to the dock for school in the mornings. On this day the bear of the honey woods was roaming close by.” She looks perturbed, “I was trying to save them. Is that all?”

She goes into her wagon and comes back with two carved wooden bowls. “Well,” I’m hesitant to answer, so I go for the worst charge against her, “they said you had wounded a cow, it had a slash on it’s hind quarter.”

She stops as she’s doling out the stew. “That cow was injured, I was applying a salve to it. It had gotten loose and wandered into a thorny thicket. Did they forget to mention the healing salve on their beast?”

She looks perturbed as she hands me the bowl, the stew smells good…lots of natural herbs. “What else have they said?” There is a bit of sadness when she asks me this.

“They said you poisoned a well.”

“What!” She shouts so loud it startles me and the bird. He caws at her. “Can’t an old woman just have a cup of water on a hot day. Does this make me a witch?” I feel bad for her. While she is understandably annoyed, there is also betrayal there too. That these simple actions were interpreted to be nefarious.

I remind myself that I am the Ranger for this district and she is part of my district. Before the silence stretches too long I stand. “Forgive me for being rude. I am Ranger Lilykai Kodel. You can call me Lily.”

She watches me for a moment, taking me in….and then smiles. “I am Cassandra Babayoige.” She extends her hand and gestures to the clearing, “Welcome to my home.”

“Why are you skulking around in the night looking for witches?” She asks me after we have resumed eating. I’m not sure why, but I have the feeling she already knows the answer. It’s like she’s testing me.

“I arrived this afternoon and spoke with the goat farmers near the ridge. They said they’ve been having trouble. Loss of milk, some soured. Then after dinner the Baroness told me other farms have suffered the same thing. All of those signs point to something evil skulking about. Not necessarily a witch, but something troubling. You were my….sorry,….this was my first lead. So I started here.”

As I respond she gets a gleam in her eyes. It’s actually as though she’s proud of my answer or something, not quite sure. “I wouldn’t think it is common for a Ranger to jump to the conclusion of a witch so quickly. I know the Captain does not agree so easily. But you are correct that something has been troubling the animals here.”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit so far, so I don’t dismiss anything until I’ve investigated it fully.” I note that she is quite astute in the goings on in the Keep and estates. “Speaking of…do you mind looking at something for me?” I sit my stew down and fish into my coat to retrieve my journal, flipping it open to the pictures of the Crickets. I cross the distance to show her my book. “Have you ever seen these before, moving through the forest?”

Instead of just looking at the picture she takes my book and leans back with it, studying the drawings. She shakes her head, “No, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Ever? In all the time you’ve been here? Are they maybe an ancient creature.” I reach towards my journal, she pulls away slightly and flips to the pages to right before and after the drawings. I give up momentarily and sit back down with my food.

She shakes her head again, “No. Never. You encountered these things?” She is continuing to peruse my journal, occasionally stopping to read something and then moving on.

“Yes, they are….were….very deadly. They’ve killed a lot of people in the North.” She looks up at me then. I’m not sure if it was the quality of my voice or what I said.

“You killed them? These creatures?” She asks.

“Yes, eventually. I hope I got them all. There is no record of anything like them in the Ranger Corp. I thought they might be something regional that we were unaware of. If they are a ‘new enemy’, that is…..important.”

“I haven’t ever seen anything like this before. I will keep an eye out though.” Her remark reminds me that she does seem to know lot about what goes on around here for someone who is rarely seen.

“How do you know so much about the estates? You really seem to keep your finger on the pulse of things here.”

“I was here before there was an estate. Before the Baroness built her castle. I watched it all grow around me,” She says with a mixture of pride and possessiveness. Looking around, I realize that the trees here are too large and close together for her caravan to have traveled through. Which means she arrived here a very long, long, time ago. Generations. “and Pip helps me keep an eye on things.”

“Who is Pip?”

“Caw, cawww.” The bird suddenly pipes up. Cassandra gestures towards him. “That’s Pip, you’ve already met him.”

“Oh, sorry. Good to meet you Pip.” I give him a slight bow. He returns the favor with a bow and a wing flourish. He may indeed be her familiar. She continues to flip through my journal. After I finish my bowl I stand to hand it to her. “Can I have that back?” I ask her reservedly. She was just looking at some sketches I made of the dwarves at Hausen.

“Sure,” she closes it and hands it towards me. “I only have a couple of books and I have read them many times. It was nice to see something new.”

This may be an opportunity to garner some trust. “I have a book I can loan you.”

There is a look of utter surprise on her face, “Really? You do?” I nod and start digging through my pack again until I find an old book I brought from home. An adventure book about explorers to an uncharted land. I’m keeping the mining book and dwarven translation book; still working my way through those. My other book is a history book. Not sure how she’d take to that. I hand over the adventure story. She is looking at it as if it were a huge bag of gold or something equally as valuable.

She caresses the cover and spine on the outside, “Thank you. You don’t know how much I appreciate this.”

“Well, it would be great if you could help me out with what’s going on. What have you and Pip discovered, what is the story here?” I hope this works.

She looks at me shrewdly, “Do you mean that you are willing to exchange this book for information and assistance while you are here?” There is a twinkle in her eye that tells me this transaction just went from ‘loan’ to ‘trade’.

Pursing my lips, I sigh. I need to know what she knows, and somehow I like her. I don’t mind being cornered into this trade. “Deal. Now what can you tell me?”

Her smile lights up the clearing. “Wonderful!” She hops up and springs into her ‘house’. I would swear she looks younger than she did when I first walked up. She comes back without the book (maybe in case I try to change my mind?) and a dark brown bottle. She pours some clear liquid into two small cups she brought out and hands me one. Taking a sniff, I think this is paint remover with a tinge of juniper. She drinks hers in one gulp and looks at me encouragingly. I take a deep breath and slam the contents of the drink. My sinuses clear, my eyes water and I do everything I can not to cough because I think it’s unsafe to near an open flame.

“Nice…” I say in a scratchy voice. “So….information?”

She pours herself another cup (I decline respectfully) and starts, choosing her words carefully. “I have sensed something moving around the estates. It has been doing this over the whole season. Sometimes it will disappear for long periods and then I will sense it again.” She pauses and looks to the woods, “I cannot tell where it hides or what it is after. It seems to just be watching.”

“Do you have any idea where it came from?” I ask, “Have you sensed something like it before?”

Slowly she shakes her head, “I imagine it might have come from the rift,” I nod along with her assessment. “But I have never felt anything like it before. It has power.”

It makes me nervous that this woman, someone who I feel is probably pretty powerful herself, considers whatever this is to be a threat. “Do you sense anything right now, at this moment?”

“No, I haven’t since you arrived.”

I believe her. For whatever reason, I think she’s telling the truth. About everything. I start to rise, “Well, I should get back to my room. Thank you for taking the time to talk, and for sharing your meal.” I extend my hand to her.

“Thank you for not shooting me on sight Ranger Captain.” She retorts. Honestly, I’m unsure if I could have gotten a shot off or wounded her if I did. Just as I realize that I had never told her my rank, her grip on my hand increases to a tight squeeze. I see her eyes glass over and her head tilts back as she sways. I try to pull away and can’t. Her voice is eerie, thick as if it has been enhanced to sound like an echo.

“DON’T HESITATE!” Her words pierce the silence of the forest.

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Lex's Letter (1)

[Game Note: This is the letter I wrote during the campaign when Lily wrote her letter. It is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it gave me the ability to hash out some things that I didn’t get around to, or forgot about, during RP. It also helped to build upon the relationship, even though they will be apart for most of the campaign. This is the first of many letters she sends. Secondly, and really importantly, I got XP for this! It wasn’t expected, but as usual…bonus XP is always appreciated. :) ]

_Dear Commander Smith,

I wanted to let you know I reached the logging camp safely. It was certainly a better trip the second time around, without tearing through the forest worrying about being chased by Crickets. Although I am missing being able to talk with you during my travels, as we have before.

I thank you for coming to my aid at the mine. It meant a lot to have you there guarding my back….and for just….being there for me. I want to address something you said when we were there.

The demolition of the hive was not about payback as you put it. It was about safety. We (you and I) must never use our abilities or our means for vengeance as it will only lead down to a dark hole of regret. We cannot save everyone as much as we would like to, but we must always do our best to keep those that count on us safe. I was not entering the mine to exact revenge for the Norman family but rather to ensure that it was not repeated for the rest of the farmers in my district. You must always look ahead at those times Lex, what has past we can’t undo, but we must make sure to stay strong for those who remain. It is hard sometimes, I know. And we’ve never discussed the loss of your brethren from your patrol. I cannot imagine the grief and pain you must feel about that. I tell you of my failures so that you know I am not the perfect example you sometimes act like I am. Every person that has been lost on my run I remember. There are plenty believe me. Sometimes I arrive just a little too late and it haunts me if I let it. I must put that grief aside and fight for the ones who are still here and you must do the same.

I know you will; you are a good man and a great commander.
I can tell by how your men respond to you and how you treat them. I am very proud of you Lex, you have earned and deserve everything that you have accomplished. Just don’t let Martume get to you with his garrison inspections. When I met him at Griff he was investigating the length of the grass growing in front of the palisade. He will nit pic the crap out of you, but that’s just who he is. It is obvious to me that he thinks a lot of you, as do I.

I must wrap this up now, it is almost dinnertime. I’ll be leaving early tomorrow for the Baroness’s Keep. I think of you often. The last thing I picture before I fall asleep at night are your gray eyes meeting mine as I woke up from the smoke filled mine-shaft. I will forever remember that moment when I looked up and knew I was safe because I was with you. Be safe my sweet prince and know you are never far from my heart.

Yours,
Lily_

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The Baroness

“It would have been nice if you’d been more specific. For example, ‘Hey Ranger, there is a large Winter Wolf in the area that has been harassing my men’. That is a lot different than what I was led to believe.” I’m giving Shaloren my ‘stink eye’ look as I approach, dragging my torn pack in one hand and my broken bow in another.

She is unfazed.

“It was a wolf wasn’t it? I didn’t mislead you.” I don’t think she realizes there is a difference. “Did you get him? He’s pretty smart. Uses some of his pack to distract my men while he hits us from a different direction.”

“Did you not think it would be important to tell me these things before I went out to get him?” My voice takes on a mocking tone, a bad imitation of her, “Hey Ranger we’ve got a small wolf problem out there, if you could just check it out…..”

I hear a couple of the men chuckling as they watch the show.

“Yes, that’s correct. That’s what I said.” She doesn’t even seem annoyed. “You’re kind of a mess again. We’re going to need to burn those clothes.”

I have a fit right there in the yard, throwing down my destroyed gear. I’m sputtering curses in elvish, goblin and the few new dwarvish words I was taught at the hold.

“Do you feel better now?” Shaloren asks calmly.

“Yes.”

“Stay another day, so we can fix your armor for real this time. And replace……well, everything.” She is signaling to someone behind me and giving orders. Defeated, I scoop up my belongings and go to the barracks to change out of my bloodied clothes and armor so I can deliver it to their blacksmith. There’s finally enough damage that twine isn’t going to do the trick.

After delivering the armor, I set myself up in the mess tent again; writing another report. Once the report is wrapped up I pull out more paper to write Lex. I stare at the bank pages, wondering how to start.

The guy from the supply hut materializes in front of my table, “You should have taken them,” is all he says. I know he means the healing potions. I nod, and grin. “You’ll take them next time.” He declares. Again, I just nod….no arguments from me. “Shaloren says you need a new pack.”

“A new pack and more gear. Rope, bandages, rations…..I lost….a lot out there.” I hold out the ratty remains of my former gear sitting beside me, the leather backpack torn where the wolf had grasped and shook me.

“It’s not a problem, we have most of what you need. Our stuff isn’t Ranger issue though, you’ll have to make do with regular.” I agree once more and he excuses himself to get a new pack together for me. He offers to take mine and move my gear, what is salvageable, from one to the other. God knows what he’s liable to find in there….I tend to collect things. Speaking of, “Wait a minute..” I grab out one of the Cricket throwing stars to study more closely before releasing the bag to his care.

I have put off writing Lex’s letter long enough. I decide to write in Elvish in case someone intercepts it. He admitted that he was taught Elvish at his mother’s insistence. Should I be mushy (how beautiful his eyes are, how much I like his smile) or should I be…well, me… (this is what I’ve killed since last we met, yes, I’m OK. Please don’t worry). Along with those questions, is the problem that I’ve never written a love letter before. I don’t even know where to begin. My first draft is…..horrible. I should never try to write romantic, mushy letters. They just sound sarcastic. If I were to ever receive a letter like the one I was just writing it would worry me. OK, so mush is out. I start again, and again.

On the fourth try I finally have composed something that is meaningful, but not idiotic. Truly a feat. I angst over how to sign it, how to close. I don’t want to be too presumptuous or too cold. How did relationships get to be so tricky? How is it I can defeat a foe without hesitation and then freeze in terror over ending a letter ‘Sincerely’, ‘Warmest Regards’, or ‘Love’. If I sign a letter ‘Love, Lily’ does that tell him I love him? Will he think that? Is it too fast, too soon? Will it sound needy? How the hell do people do this! Okay, I think I got it. I used ‘Yours’. That implies affection and dedication without saying ‘Love’, right? Right? Gods, this is ridiculous.

I’m just folding up the letter to him when Shaloren sits across from me with a cup of coffee. It is not quite dinner time. I want to greet her nicely, but instead, this comes out: “Everything OK? Do you have a lost kitten that I need to track down that turns out to be a hungry Snow Leopard?”

She rolls her eyes, “No. Nothing like that. Just taking a break. I talked with Vance about your armor, he said it will be ready tomorrow. It was pretty beat up.” She looks a bit aggrieved at that. Perhaps this is how Shaloren apologizes. I decide to cut her a break and change the subject.

“What can you tell me about Baroness Ratik’s estate southeast of here?”

“Is that where you are heading next?” I nod. She seems relieved to have something new to talk about. “It’s rather large; you know she’s technically a Princess, but she declined being in line for the throne to move North and carve her way out here.” I gather from her choice of words and tone that Shaloren has a level of respect for the Baroness. “She’s scratched out 6 estates on her land: one raises chickens, one goats, I think one is a winery….Sayen…Cryon…”

“Cian House.” I add.

“Yeah, that’s it, Cian House. How do you know? Have you been there?”

“Nope, just know a little about wine is all.” I answer nonchalantly.

Dinner is beginning to be served and we are interrupted with one of the girls bringing us both plates. After profuse ‘thank yous’, Shaloren continues. “Baroness Ratik’s people are very loyal to her, very dedicated. She is disciplined and committed to her farms and the people there.” She pauses to think,..…”She’s made a lot of money, she has a yacht.”

“A yacht? Like a big boat?” That just seems….indulgent.

“Yeah. It’s always moored by her pier near the keep. Pretty fancy. We have to be careful when we’re sending down logs, gotta make sure she…and none of the other boats are on the river when the logs are coming down. Have to keep to the schedule they set.”

“So, you’re telling me that if she decides to take an excursion around the river all of your work comes to a halt until she’s done sightseeing?” My tone is disdainful.

“She does not ‘go sightseeing’. Occasionally, they travel to Dunn for trading, but mainly there are caravan ships or ferries moving across the river to service everyone. Her Keep establishes the schedule because they are the largest presence on the Father River until you get to the Port. She keeps everyone safe.” Shaloren is clearly not pleased with my interpretation, and is loyal to the Baroness.

“Oh, I see what you mean. Sorry, I misunderstood. Well…it’s good you have a system in place.” I sheepishly change the subject. “Can you send mail for me?”

“Sure. We send stuff out with the supply caravans that eventually go to Three Rivers. You got a report to send?”

I nod. “Yes, and a letter if you don’t mind.” I hand over the sealed letter and report sitting beside me. I have to stop myself from taking Lex’s back and trying to change it again.

We finish our dinner gossiping about the other lumberjacks in the North, specifically Camp 13. I tell her about the snow terror. Cryptically she says, “looks like I owe somebody a drink” but doesn’t elaborate. After awhile we say goodnight and I walk to the bunkhouse that I have begun to call home.

The next morning is clear but cold. I had replaced the fur lining in my coat when I was traveling to the mine, I’m thankful it is still relatively intact. Currently my entire coat is a testament to my poor sewing skills, and decent fighting skill.

After breakfast I find Shaloren working and let her know I’m leaving…again. “Thanks for putting up with me so much.”

Shaloren’s expression has taken on a seriousness that I haven’t really seen since the first time I arrived. “No, thank you for your service.” We shake hands and then I’m off….

I am in newly repaired chainmail, a new pack full of provisions, a new set of clothes, life is good. I wave goodbye to the men rolling logs into the river as I run towards Baroness Ratik’s estate. I go all day, eat from my food pocket for lunch, and continue into the night. I can see in the dark, the weather is still good and the terrain has been easy. Finally, around 8 o’clock I decide to stop. In spite of it being late I make a fire and have a decent meal.

The next morning is misty rain, but above freezing. Because I pushed further last night, I won’t be in this weather for long today. I will make it to the estate hours before nightfall. The forest has been very normal during my trek. No giant spiders (or anything else giant), no warg tracks, no cricket tracks. It’s all rather ordinary, which is amazing. The river has been to my left for some time now and I’ve watched large logs slide along it, passing me by as I near the overlook that rises above the farms and Keep.

I am not prepared for the scene before me as I come upon the vista of the estate below. Immediately, I am choked up. My home is in the Hickory Valley, a couple of hours south of Marner, the capital. Even though we are close to the city we are a self-sufficient little community. To the West of the road you’ll find our vineyards, orchards, gardens, and….estate. Lex wasn’t too far off in his description of my family. The main house overlooks the valley on a small ridge. Nearby are the cottages of our ‘farm family’; the people who work at the vineyards with us, people I have known my entire life. Beyond that are other farms who raise goats and sheep, or have chickens. The Corbett’s across the road grow wheat and grain for the livestock farms nearby. The Martindale’s have a small cattle herd and pigs, the Evan’s just grow vegetables; enough for them and others. We all trade with each other, plus sell the excess outside the valley.

With the exception of the river and castle, this pastoral valley could be my home. The various houses and fields sprawled out before me are so familiar in their design and setting. I see a goat farm, there is another with large chicken coops, and on the hillside….a vineyard. Unexpected tears fill my eyes as my heart lurches with homesickness. I’m flooded with memories of myself and my brother playing between rows, racing towards the house. My father’s tall frame hunched over the grape vines, silhouetted against a setting sun. My mother collecting vegetables and flowers from the family garden for the dinner table that night. I have to take a moment, and a few deep breaths, to regain my composure before jogging downhill. I aim for the first house in front of me.

Intersecting my route is a beaten down path. I stop to study the horse hoof prints and realize it is from a regular patrol. That’s good. It is hours before dark as I approach the farm. I notice three teenagers, a girl and two boys, milking goats near an outbuilding. Actually, two are milking, one is gathering the next in line and getting them ready. An organized affair.

They don’t notice my arrival. I’m not actively trying to sneak up on them…..honestly. Does it give me a bit of a thrill that they all jump a couple of feet when I say “hello”? Yes, yes it does. I try to smother my grin with a cough. After a pause, while they take in my sudden appearance, the girl suddenly screeches “The Ranger! The Ranger! The Ranger!” as she runs around the corner of the building. OK, that was……loud.

“Hi! I’m Copar, that is Waymer.” The oldest looking boy says and points to his brother. The brother, Waymer, chimes in. “That was Evanda, our sister.” He manages an eyeroll as he says that. Over the bleating of the goats I hear doors slamming open and closed from somewhere else. “You’re a girl.” Copar says.

At least a half a dozen smart ass responses run through my head…. “Last I checked,” is the one I choose and smirk.

We end up just staring at each other for a minute until, thankfully, the silence is broken by the arrival of the parents. Breathlessly their daughter follows them still repeating “Ranger, ranger….” Except in more hushed tones.

“We can see her.” The mother says over her shoulder. “Hello! I’m Allison, this is my husband Kingsley. We are the Alvin’s. Welcome, welcome…..” They hold out their hands to shake mine as I approach.

“I’m Ranger Kodel, Lilykai Kodel. You can call me Lily if you want.”

They are welcoming and a little shocked, it seems. As we turn to go towards the house the girl tries to follow. “Not you,” Kingsley says, not too harshly. “You have to help your brothers finish.” Evanda openly pouts, but relents and turns back to her chores.

“You’ll have to forgive us. Rangers usually don’t stop in here. They usually go straight to the Keep to report in.” Kingsley starts to say. “But don’t worry, we love the company,” his wife interjects. “Please stay and rest for awhile, dry off from the rain. You look tired.”

I note that the goats are all healthy, as is the herb garden near the house where we go in. Kingsley notices me observing their farm. “We raise goats for cheese and milk as well as meat.” He starts to explain. “Allie figured out to add some of her herbs into the cheeses. Its really popular.”

“Ah…yes, that’s a good idea. So you haven’t had any problems around here, then. No predators, nothing to be concerned about.” Whatever I’ve said, as innocent as it seemed, has struck a nerve and I note Kingsley and Allison exchange a look. “Come on inside, we’ll talk.”

I scrape my boots and remove my wet gear to set by the fire before joining the Alvin’s at the table. “I hope you don’t mind..” I gesture towards my stuff.

“No, no…of course not. Sorry, we didn’t mean to stare. It’s just that you’re-“

“Small? Young? A girl?” I take a whiff of my shirt, “Stinky?”

Allison looks affronted, “No! Not any of those things!…well, maybe a bit of the first two…”

I laugh, “Well, I’ve heard all four recently so that’s not a surprise. If it’s any consolation I’m older than I look.”

Kingsley has been looking at my coat, spread out to dry near the fire. “And a lot tougher too,” he mutters.

I join him at the table while Allison bustles around getting tea brewing and snacks. “So, what is going on that you want to talk about?” I prefer a direct approach.

“Well, it’s probably nothing.” Kingsley starts.
“It’s not nothing” Allison interjects. “When it affects our production, it’s not nothing.”
“Well, it hasn’t been that bad-“ he counters.

“Hold up, hold up.” I interrupt them both. “Everything starts out small, not seemingly important. Then it grows. I’d rather solve it when it seems like ‘nothing’ before it’s too late and we’ve got a something on our hands.”

“Exactly!” Allison declares triumphantly as she settles the tea and cups on the table. She brought cookies. She is now my friend forever.

“Tell me what’s going on, no matter how small it seems.” I urge them, as I savor my first cookie.

Kingsley starts, a bit hesitant at first. “A couple of the goats started giving sour milk at the beginning of winter. It’s been a weird winter. Cold then warm, windy sometimes. Then more goats started either giving sour milk, or very little.”

I hear Allison quietly mutter while he’s speaking ‘it’s the witch’. I act like I didn’t hear it.

I’m alarmed at what he says. This is their livelihood he’s talking about. “Has it affected your income? Is your farm suffering?”

“No, nothing as bad as that yet. It’s just here and there. Not constant. Which is why it’s got my attention. It happens to a couple of goats, and then it’s gone for awhile. And then it happens to others.” He explains.

“And you haven’t changed their diet, there’s nothing wrong with the feed. Have you gotten it from a new source, anything like that?” I want to explore every possibility of how this might happen. My questions surprise them, based on their expressions.

“You know about goats? About farming?” He asks.

I chuckle, “Not much about goats specifically. A bit about farming. I grew up in the country.” They look impressed.

“No, I haven’t changed their feed and I did make sure none of it was spoiled.” He shakes his head. “Just can’t figure it out.”

I turn my attention to Allison now, “So, tell me about the witch.” I’m not certain there is a witch, but I want to know what makes her say this.

She looks a little shocked that I had heard her, and stammers, “Well….there is an old woman in the forest around here. Nobody knows exactly where. She shows up once in a while out of the blue. Never talks to anyone, and disappears again.”

“Have you seen her do anything?” I’m wondering if she’s really just a hermit.

“She has a big crow that follows her around.” Allison offers, a bit less conviction in her tone.

“But you’ve never seen her do anything specifically?” Allison and Kingsley both shake their heads, looking a bit despondent. “Still, anything is possible. I will try to find her, see what she’s about.”

They both perk up and look at one another like they’re surprised at my reaction. “Really? Thank you…thank you for….that.”

Finishing my tea, “It’s no problem. This is my job, I have to look at every angle, not matter what. I thank you for telling me. If you, or the kids, remember or observe anything else….please send word for me. I don’t know where I’ll be-“

“Oh, you’ll be at the main house, I’m sure.” Allison interjects. Kingston nods. “The Ranger always stays in the keep.”

I’m immediately disappointed in this Ranger, whomever he is, that stays behind walls instead of investigating the countryside. I have no desire to stay in the Keep for any length of time. “I may not stay there if I’m working on an investigation. But it’s as good as place as any to send word for me.”

I rise from the table and collect my newly dried coat and gear, it’s time to look into this situation. “Thank you for your hospitality,” We shake hands again and say goodbye. “I will let you know if I discover anything.”

“Thank you Ranger Lily.” Allison says. “Thank you for your service.” Kingsley adds. “We’ll see you at dinner tomorrow.”

What? “Wait…what?” I ask, confused. How do they know where I will be tomorrow for dinner.

“Oh, yes! The Baroness always has a big dinner when the Ranger comes. We all go to the main house and eat together and hear your stories.”

I’m quite certain my fake smile doesn’t come close to reaching my eyes. “Okay, yes. We’ll see each other tomorrow then.” I give them a ranger salute and step out into the drizzle.

“If you go to the road out front, it will take you straight to the Keep.” Kingsley calls to me as I depart. The road is easy to spot. Where the other path was just a narrow trail where horses traversed in a line; this is wide, where carts and horsemen could easily pass each other.

Less than a mile away I’m near another farm; an orchard with nut and apple trees. I hear thundering hooves coming up behind me. Dammit, I was just about to jog off the road and towards the trees. I’m sure I’ve been spotted, they are picking up speed. When I hear them right behind me I cut suddenly to the right, off the road, and stop. They struggle momentarily to slow their steeds and wheel around to face me. I make sure to have my hand obviously grasping the hilt of my sword, ready to draw. I don’t say a word, simply give them a hard stare.

The riders are three soldiers in plate armor. Two have crossbows hanging from their saddles. I check them out, they’re not knights…those aren’t war horses. But they are trained better than most. I could take them though, if given a reason.

“Ranger!” One announces, a little louder than necessary. I raise my chin towards him, but don’t say a word yet. I’m not sure what to expect from them, and don’t drop my guard; my hand now only lightly resting on my hilt. “We can escort you to the Baroness-“

“I was going to sleep in the forest, thanks.” My plan to hide out and watch what’s going on is now foiled.

“It’s customary for the Ranger to report in to Captain Durante upon their arrival,” their leader, a Lieutenant informs me. He waits for my reaction, noting my stance. This one is sharp.

I look off towards the nearby trees in the orchard as if I am contemplating my choices, although they are few. “I am Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel. You are?”

They hadn’t noticed my rank; the expressions of surprise on the faces of the two in the back reveal that. Their leader, however, had. He bows his head in acknowledgement. “I am Lt. Matteo. This is Jesper and Rodrick.” He leans down and extends his hand, not unlike Lex when he offers me a ride on Steve. “May I give you a ride to the Keep, Captain?”

There is a moment where no one says anything, nor moves. My eyes flick beyond Lt. Matteo to the men behind him, who seem a little disconcerted by my behavior. Releasing my sword hilt, I smile broadly, disarmingly, and give Matteo my hand. Beneath his helmet his eyes sparkle a bit in mirth, just as mine do. Both of us acknowledging that we were sizing the other up and both thinking they could have won the fight if it came down to it.

“Tell me about your Captain.” I ask Matteo as we ride.
He stiffens in front of me, “He is a fine officer. He is a captain of the Royal Guard.”

He adds nothing more. It’s only a few miles to the Keep looming in the distance. It has 4 towers, one on each corner, a drawbridge (currently down, allowing access) and a dock. I notice that it is protected with a boom, both it and the fancy yacht that Shaloren mentioned. Thankfully, Lt. Matteo can’t see the smirk and shake of my head when I spot the elaborate seagoing vessel that is docked on a river. I hope Shaloren’s estimation of the Baroness was accurate because right now all I can see is a huge fancy castle, with a huge fancy boat, and fancy almost knights riding around her countryside. ‘Definitely a princess’ I think.

I realize that I should not hang around here very long. My mouth and attitude are bound to get me into trouble. I try to keep in mind that this is Lex’s sister, she can’t be that bad. But then again he would never live like this, with all this pomp. She’s probably nothing like him. Yes, it’s best I make the expected appearance and get away as quickly as possible. I can always tell them that I need to move on and then hide in the forests to investigate the ‘witch’. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Matteo nods and salutes the guards at the gatehouse who have stepped out to view our arrival as we pass through the raised portcullis. I look around as we enter. This is a fortified castle. It is large, and the yard and gardens around it are large enough to house and support this whole valley if needed. There are several outbuildings too: barracks, stables, blacksmith, and other small houses for storage or something.

I’m stirred from my examination by Matteo turning and helping me off the back of his horse. “It was good to meet you Captain Kodel,” he says quietly.

“You too Lt. Matteo.” I nod respectfully. His eyes catch something or someone behind me and he acknowledges them before riding away towards the stables. Turning to see who it is, I am greeted by a tall, thin man in formal….butler?….attire. I bite back the words ‘Oh shit’ that are fighting to leave my lips.

He literally is walking towards me with his nose in the air. Literally. Nose in the air. “Good evening, Miss-“

“It’s Captain. My rank is Captain.” I bark out impatiently. If we’re going to have a pissing contest I’m gonna win.

“Of course, of course. I meant no offense.” He immediately backtracks, but still carries an air of superiority. “My name is Eric Bronston. I am the Steward here.” He pauses and I wait for what’s next. He purses his lips slightly and continues, “The Baroness sends her regards. We have prepared a room for you to change for dinner.”

“I won’t be staying, Bronston. I’m just here to give a report to Captain Durante and then I’m off to do my job. But thank the Baroness for the invitation. Where can I find the Captain….please.”

He’s a bit ruffled, and I stifle a smirk as I watch him try to figure out how to make me do what he wants. He recovers his composure as he finds his answer. “The Captain is currently with the Baroness in a meeting. He won’t be available until dinner. I will make sure you are seated near him so that you can file your report. I will show you to your room so you can prepare for dinner.” He turns and starts walking towards the entrance to the castle.

Touché Bronston, well played.

My room is on the third floor. It’s a fancy room. Fancy as in there is a great view, lots of space, and a big fluffy bed. I think this is actually the family floor. Why are they putting me up here? Bronston gives me a slight bow and he informs me dinner will be in an hour. Right after he has left, before I’ve had time to take off my boots, a girl arrives with a steaming pitcher of water and pours it into the basin in my room.

“Would you like a bath after dinner? I can bring one up.” She tells me.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having someone serving me like this, its just not me. “No, this will be fine. Thank you.” The little voice in my head screaming ‘Are you nuts? Free bath!’ I just bat it away.

“If you want us to clean your clothes we can. Just put them in that basket and set it outside your door.” She adds, indicating the basket in question.

“What? You don’t want me to burn them?” I mutter sarcastically.

She looks taken aback, and I realize I said that out loud. “No, we can just wash them.” She gives me that sidelong look you give to people who are a little soft in the head.

Laughing, I nod. “It’s an inside joke. Sorry. I’ll put them in the basket.” I start unbuckling my utility belt and shrug out of my Ranger coat. “Thank you.”

She departs, leaving me alone to wash up and change. Even though it’s not a bath, the warm water feels amazing and I’m cleaned up in short order. I retrieve my other clean clothes, my only other set, and put the dirty ones in the basket. If I do this it means I’m staying the night. I debate it for awhile and then put the dirty clothes into my pack. They can’t make me stay here, even with the allure of clean clothes and baths. Slipping my coat back on, and my sword, I proceed downstairs to dine.

As I’m coming downstairs I catch sight of the Baroness and, based on his full plate attire, Captain Durante arguing in a corner away from the rest of the guests.

[Perception success/failure. I see the argument, can’t overhear what it’s about]

They stop as she notices my entry into the room. “Ahhh, Ranger. I had been informed you had arrived. I see you have been given your room.”

I stop a few feet away from her. She seems like she’s in her early 30’s, but she must look younger than she really is…I remember Lex said he was a boy when she moved away. Captain Durante stands behind her. He is at least ten years older than she, he scrutinizes me with a soldier’s eye.

When I was young, I was subjected to having an etiquette tutor. I’m certain this was my father’s decision…..elf thing. She was supposed to only be in our employ for one season, but thanks to my antics it ended up being almost two years. That poor woman. As a result of her teachings, I can execute a perfect curtsy; even by royal standards. Which I do to the Baroness; bowing very low, eyes downcast, to acknowledge her station. Out of the corner of my eye I see a shocked expression from the Steward. I’m sure he didn’t think I was capable of this. Little do they know that what I do is less about respect for their station and more about keeping myself apart from them.

“Baroness Ratik” I say in a serious tone.

She clears her throat, “Please…”

I look up while staying in my perfect curtsy to see an expression of sadness cross her face. Maybe she does know what I’m doing after all. I begin to stand again, but don’t interrupt her.

“…call me Diedre.” She finishes and gestures to her surroundings. “Welcome to my home.”

“I’m Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel.” Her eyebrow raises slightly at my name. “You can call me Lily….if you want.”

The expression on her face transforms into a bright smile and she comes towards me with her hand extended. “Welcome, Lily. Thank you for joining us for dinner. Would you like something to drink?”

She knows how to greet a Ranger, I’ll grant her that. Put a drink in their hand. I notice that Captain Durante hasn’t said much, and has not lost the frown on his face since my greeting. He is still sizing me up, deciding what he thinks about me.

Dinner is rather formal, at least to me. Everyone who works in the castle is here. I listen as each head of a division, or whatever you call it, reports to her. Stuff they need, what they’ve accomplished or are in the middle of. It’s like a big dinner meeting. I just listen quietly and enjoy my wine. (Cian House, of course)

Finally, after everyone has reported, she turns to me. “What news do you have to report, Lily?”

Swallowing quickly, “Uhhhh, nothing? I just got here, there hasn’t been anything to report yet.” I feel put on the spot.

“Surely you’ve had some excitement. We can all see your coat.” She smiles.

Curiously, I don’t feel much like sharing. Even though I’m getting better, I’m still a pretty shitty storyteller. But I can tell she’s expecting some sort of answer. “Well, um…you know, the usual. Wolves, ummmm some bandits” Were there bandits? I can’t remember…oh well, it’s out there now. “Some goblins.”

At that there are loud intakes of breath and frightened expressions. The Captain looks hard at me. “Oh, but hey…those were way West of here, near the Griff Mountains. Not near here…..oh yeah…and a Grizzly Bear!” I proudly show the sewn slashes from the claws across my chest, much to the alarm of most of the table.

After a bit of silence Diedre speaks up, “OK, well…maybe you can regale us with a story about one of those things tomorrow at dinner. Everyone in the Valley will be here.”

My expression reveals my discomfort. “I was planning to move on tomorrow-“

“It’s a tradition. When a Ranger comes through everyone from the valley comes for dinner and news. You get out a lot more than we do. It is an event when the Ranger arrives.”

Her tone is sincere….and patient. I hadn’t considered the fact that the people here really don’t get to see new faces and hear about what is going on elsewhere. “Oh, okay. That sounds fine. I will stay around until then. I didn’t realize that was tradition.”

The awkward silence after my answer dissipates and conversation picks up again. I notice Durante hasn’t said a word. He hears everything though, I imagine that makes him a good Captain of the Guard. He is definitely protective. After desert the others start to filter away from the table. I begin to make my excuses to leave when she quietly says, “Stay, please.” Her tone is not quite an order, but I don’t feel like it is a simple request either.

Once the last person leaves, she has us (her Captain and I) follow her to the study. I suspect she has something to say so I’m taken aback when suddenly Captain Durante speaks.

“So why don’t you tell us what really happened on your run. Those slashes didn’t all come from wolves, bears, and goblins. What are you not telling us?”

Typical soldier, I think, and turn to him with a predatory smile. “I’m not in a habit of scaring people during dinner. That does not mean I’m hiding information. If you have specific questions you can ask nicely, I’m happy to share.”

Before he can respond, Diedre intercedes, “She’s right Juan. It’s not like you said anything during dinner.” He looks like he wants to argue and she smiles like she’s got him right where she wants him.
He turns back towards me and in a possibly sarcastic tone asks, “Did you encounter anything dangerous on your way? Anything we should be worried about?”

Shaking my head, “No, I mean yes…I did encounter something dangerous on the way here…a Winter Wolf,” Diedre looks very alarmed, she must know what those are. “but it’s dead now. So nothing to worry about. As far as everything else I’ve encountered…..they’re dead too. Nothing to worry about.” I decide to leave out what I’ve only recently heard regarding the goats and what the Alvin’s told me about the witch. I imagine these two don’t put much stock into talk like that, they probably want to downplay stuff like witches in the woods. Don’t want to frighten anybody or possibly look foolish.

“We think we have a witch in the woods.” Diedre blurts out. He grimaces.

I choke on my sip of wine. “Tell me everything.”

View
Burning for you

It’s morning as I watch the tendrils of smoke coming off of my burning shirts, both undershirt and tunic, the dried blood darkening even more as the flames lick across the fabric.

“How many shirts have you had to burn?” Lex comes up behind me and leans down to kiss my cheek. I’m unused to the familiarity and….his affections…. so I concentrate hard not to stiffen up or pull away. It’s just so…..weird.

Consciously making an effort to lean back against him, taking his hand without looking away from the fire, “Too many. That one was from the lumberjack camp, it lasted a whole……two days. The sisters had given me extra before I left there, before you were at Three Rivers. I’m wearing the last set from them, the rest are gone.”

He absently wraps his arm around me, almost protectively. I imagine he’s thinking of something consoling to say about it, to make me; or him, feel better. Instead……

“You know you’re gonna get in trouble for that. You’re only allotted so much budget for clothing and supplies. They’re probably already docking your pay for reimbursing these folks for all these clothes. The auditor probably thinks you’re just burning clothes whenever the old ones get sweaty…..he thinks you don’t like to do your own laundry. They’ll send the Royal Observer after you.”

Appalled, I spin around…my face a picture of incredulity. “What! They can’t-“

My words are cut off by Lex’s belly laughs. And that is exactly what they are, he’s leaning forward holding his sides he’s laughing so hard. “I absolutely got you! You should see the look on your face. It’s hilarious.”

“You are not funny at all.” I huff.

“Yes…yes, I….am.” He’s wiping a tear from the corner of his eye and breaks out into giggles again. Giggles….he’s giggling at me. I shake my head.

“Mean is what you are.” I point my finger accusingly. But deep inside, I’m thankful he’s found a way to laugh about it rather than be troubled. I like that about him. He grabs my hand, the one pointing at him and pulls me towards him again, for another kiss.

“Do you have time for breakfast? I know you’ll want to cover a lot of miles today. I can make something filling so you won’t have to stop for lunch.” He says, as he nuzzles my neck. In spite of how much we are attracted to each other, it’s odd, how fast things seem to be progressing. Although I don’t want to take a step to stop him, to slow things down….after today it will be months before we see each other again. Months.

I consider his offer and nod my assent. “More oatmeal?”

“Nope, a surprise. I remember you bake, can you make us something to go with it? More of your biscuits like last time?” He asks. I’m pleasantly surprised he remembered our meal at the Norman ranch. Beaming, I agree to his breakfast terms and start getting my supplies for the biscuits I will be making.

We’re quiet while we work. But not an awkward ‘don’t know what to say’ quiet…more the content and happy kind. Several minutes later we’re looking at warm biscuits and ham-potato hash. Inhaling deeply, “Mmmmm, that smells great. If I traveled with you all the time, I’d put on weight.” He opens his mouth to chime in….”No, no, no” I shake my finger slowly back and forth at him, “first rule you need to learn is never talk about a girls weight. Especially if you want to date her.”

He grins and nods along with my advice. “Duly noted.” After we’ve both eaten a few bites, “My men should be here soon. I imagine they are eating rations and traveling into the night when they can. I would bet they arrive before lunch at least.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” I tease. The look on his face can only be described as mortified, his mouth is full so he can only shake his head in the negative….furiously. “I’m just kidding……unless you’re embarrassed to be seen with me. Understandable.” He just resorts to rolling his eyes.

“I just know you’re eager to get back on your route. I know you better than you think.” He states plainly.

I’m intrigued by his remark, but it’s territory I’m not sure I want to travel..at least not now. It seems like it could lead to arguments between his perception and my reality. I don’t want to part ways again after an argument. The one during dinner at the Dancing Bear is still memorable to both of us.

After we finish breakfast I’m antsy. He’s right, I’m really itching to get moving again. I just know there is still so much left for me to do, and as I have been reminded repeatedly; I’m already late. “I’m going to the lumberjack camp next.”

He nods, “Yes. The #4 nearest here. Where will you go next? After that?”

Getting my map out, I show him my planned route. “I want to get back on track. I’ve finished visiting everyone to the west, now I just have the east to go.” He comes and looks over my shoulder. “I’m supposed to depart back to the capital from the Port of Dunn so I need to end up there…..eventually. But there’s so much open space here, crisscrossing back and forth will take months, so I’d like to group things together. I’ll go to the Killian and Pokku ranches together and then the Village of Dunn, they are all in a row. Which means my next stop…after camp 4, is the Baroness Estates.”

He is nodding and studying the path my finger has taken across the map. “That is a lot of land to cover. So, you’re going there next…” he points at the icon marked ‘Baroness Ratik Estate’.

“Anybody you know?” I ask with an eyebrow cocked.

“It’s my sister.”

“Is she like you…or is she like…” I leave ‘the Queen’ unspoken, hanging in the air. Based on my mother’s descriptions, the Queen is little more than a spoiled elitist snob. But I don’t say that to Lex, she is his mother after all. Even though he complained bitterly about her interference in his life.

He gives me a knowing look, like he gets what I’m saying…or not saying. “I’m not sure really, there is a big age difference between us. I was still a young boy when she left to start her farms…. estate. I remember she would come back regularly and bring me sweets. But then something happened and she quit coming so often. I always thought it was something between her and mother.”

“Does she know you’re at Three Rivers? That you’re in the military?”

He shakes his head ‘no’. “No one in the family knows, other than Uncle Mordecai and father. And Martume’ and you.”

“I suppose you want me to keep it to myself, then?” I ask. I don’t like keeping secrets from families, but in this case it is really unlikely the subject would come up.

“If you don’t mind. I’m not sure if she would divulge it to mother or not.” The look on his face tells me he regrets having to say that. That he doesn’t like keeping secrets either, but he wants his freedom if he can have it.

“OK, not a word from me then. Your secret is safe.” In truth, I can’t imagine introducing myself as the Ranger and then declaring ‘I’m dating your brother.’ I doubt the Baroness of an estate wants to hear that from the likes of me, whether she’s like her mother or not. I start folding my map back up.

The weather is decent today, the mine still emits some smoke, but not enough to be worried about. There has been no sign of any stray Crickets. I even scouted around today to see if there were any new tracks. There are not.

“Should we take down the tent? Pack up your stuff?” I ask Lex.

Shaking his head, “No. The men will be weary when they arrive. I’ll let them rest before we have to deal with the mine. We’ll camp overnight here before returning to the garrison.”

[Perception 16] About this time I can faintly pick up the sounds of marching coming from the south. “It sounds like your reinforcements are getting close.” I look back in the direction the noise is coming from. “They will be here in minutes. They must have really been pushing.”

When I turn back to face him, Lex is sporting a frown. I try to smile, “You knew I would need to leave eventually.”

He nods and steps towards me, entwining his fingers with mine. “Yes, I knew.”

I too feel a little sad I have to go, in spite of the harrowing fight and almost death, this has been a nice break from my normal solitude. I never thought I would think that, having been thrilled at the prospect of being on my own when this job first started. “I will write you when I can, OK?”

He nods, “Please do.”

Behind me I can hear the jogging march even louder. Lex, looking over my shoulder, must be trying to see them. He is studying the forest behind me. When he looks back at me I raise up and kiss him with all I’ve got. A promise to write, to fight and live, and see him once more….it’s all in that kiss. This time it’s his turn to be a little caught off guard.

Silently, I pick up my pack and bow. Nodding to him I start jogging in the direction of Camp #4, I dare not look back, but give him one last wave over my shoulder.

———————————

Because of my late start I don’t even make it half-way to Camp 4. I’m using the cart path again, so my progress is easy at least. I did eat my extra biscuits that I had stashed in my pocket, so there was no need to stop until nightfall. For the sake of ease I decide to forgo a fire and simply climb into a tree to sleep. I haven’t forgotten the giant snow spider I encountered on my way out. I don’t want to meet his mate…or hers.

The next day my travel is uneventful again, which is a relief. I make it all the way to the camp, arriving right after dark. Stopping in the trees nearby, I observe guards keeping watch. They all have horns to warn the rest. I smile, knowing that Shaloren actually listened to me. At first I consider doing my best to sneak up on them for my own entertainment, but realize it is unnecessarily cruel. They are doing their job well, they should be rewarded with hearing my approach. I make as much noise as I can and it still takes them awhile to register my appearance. Once they realize it’s me I see them visibly relax. “Go get the foreman!” One shouts.

I go towards the fire barrel and start warming my hands while I wait for her. Before she arrives one of the lumbermen can’t contain his curiosity, “Ranger…?” He asks, not knowing exactly what to say.

“It’s all clear. Nothing’s coming.” I see relief wash over the men’s eyes and their nervous stances relax as they smile broadly along with me.

“So, I take it you’re bringing good news since you’re all standing around grinning like a bunch of fools.” Shaloren sounds gruff but not angry. There is a quirk of her lip like she’s trying to hold back a smile herself.

“Yep, that’s pretty much it. Everything’s taken care of.” I make sure to grin even more like a fool.

As she gets closer, “Whew, Lily…what the hell did you wade into!” She waves her hand in front of her nose.

“We weren’t gonna say anything.” One of the men says to her under his breath. It is then I realize they had moved to the other side of the barrel when I approached. I figured they were just making room.

Sniffing myself, “Is it bad? There was an awful smelling smoke when I lit the place on fire, but then it quit smelling.”

“Well, it mighta quit smelling to you because it broke your sense of smell. But believe me…there is a stink coming off of you.” Shaloren declares.

This is the second time lumberjacks…no wait, the THIRD time lumberjacks have said I stink. “Well…” I state over dramatically, “I should do something so as not offend your delicate senses!”

“My thoughts exactly. Ben, go tell the girls to fill a bath for the Ranger." One of the men nods and runs off towards the kitchens. She looks back at me, “And we’ll be needing to burn those clothes.” I can’t help but think of Lex’s joke and how it’s starting to not be funny anymore. And how I half expect Martume to show up and question me about my clothing allotment.

“Now wait a minute! These clothes are perfectly fine, I already burned the bloody ones I wore into the mine. If anything stinks, its just me.”

“Well, at least we can agree on one thing.” She quips. “Give the girls your clothes to wash, but if they smell anything like you do…they’re going in the fire.” Then more softly she adds. “We’ll talk together in the morning. You look like you could use some rest.”

I nod and head towards the back door to the kitchen, where I know a warm bath awaits.

I’m up early the next morning thanks to the sounds of chopping and splashing. Just like the other lumberjack camp, they are eager to get their haul downriver while they can. When I step out of the bunkhouse I see a thick fog, giving everything a ghostly quality. It’s warmer than usual at this time too, explains the fog. I go to the mess hall and carry my coat instead of wearing it.

“Morning.” I say to Shaloren as I come in. She nods as she finishes up with one of the men who heads a group. I go through the line and fill a plate….extra bacon.

“You smell better.” Is how she greets me. I just roll my eyes in return. “So, you want tell me what happened?”

My explanation is brief and I leave Lex out of it completely. There is no way I would be able to explain his quick travel. She was there when I sent that note. She nods along with my description of what occurred. How I have double and triple checked that there are no more Crickets.

“So, I guess this means you’re moving on then?” She asks as she refills her coffee mug. After I nod, she continues. “Do you mind checking something out around here before you leave?” This catches my full attention, the Crickets still weighing on my mind. She shakes her head dismissively, “Not anything that bad. We’ve just had some trouble with a wolf, an aggressive alpha hanging around.”

“Really? A single male?”

“No, he’s got a pack we think, although we never see the others, just their tracks. He’s tried to get my guys, gotten close to them. Just keep an eye out when you’re leaving.”

“Of course, where was he last seen? I’ll make sure to leave in that direction, see what I can find.” She probably doesn’t realize that this means I’ll be searching until I track it down. A rogue wolf pack; that’s willing to take on a human, is not going to get anything but more and more dangerous. She tells me where the last attack was, downriver in the forest. I assure her I will track it down.

“Just keep an eye out, in case you run across him. I’d appreciate it.” I nod my understanding as I finish breakfast.

After eating I take the time to remove the fur lining of my coat; its a hot, humid day and I will be miserable with that lining in. The girls in the kitchen have more smoked meats and cheese for me, and I replenish my flour and oats. I stop by the supply hut and replenish my arrows, between the spider and Crickets I’m running low. They only have a handful of healing potions so I defer taking them. They are for emergencies in the camp. I’m sure there is a stock of them at the Baroness’s keep, I can wait to replenish there. In spite of the protests by the man running the supply hut, I decline to take any.

“Thank you for your service.” He says as I start to leave. It’s plain he still doesn’t approve of me leaving behind the potions, though. I just give him a nod and start out towards where the wolf tracks were last spotted.

I will admit it, I feel a little indestructible right now. Those Crickets….damn, they just stressed me out. Fast, silent, hard to kill….and those weapons, so sharp it practically hurt to hold them. Now I’m just facing wolves. I never thought I’d be so thankful for such a mundane foe. Not a quarter mile from Camp 4 I find fresh tracks.

Damn, these are kinda big, and really close. This guy has no fear, that’s for sure…..and that is dangerous. I slow down and become more alert to my surroundings. There are more tracks; looks like a pack of 6, coming down to the river. I follow from there and find a kill site. I have know idea what…there is little left to investigate. [yeah, I failed a perception roll].

Based on the way they are traveling back and forth I extrapolate where they should be heading near the river next. I move directly in that direction and only a few minutes later hear yips and playful barks coming from the other side of a low ridge in front of me. I ready my bow and hunker down to spy on the pack.

I’m laying down flat on the edge of the hill watching the Wolfpack play below. [perception 15] I realize that none of these wolves are large enough the leave the big tracks that I found. [Insight roll 19] I also note that all of these wolves before me…all 5, are female…and pregnant. It’s a harem. A wolf harem. But where is the male? Hunting?

At that moment I hear a low growl over my shoulder. And by over my shoulder I mean, right on top of me. “Ohhhh, fuck.” I quietly exclaim. As if in answer the wolf pounces on my back, grabbing my pack in it’s mouth and slinging me back and forth like a rag doll. Crack! I hear my bow break from his large paw stepping down on it. The scenery in front of me swishes back and forth in a blur as he slings his head side to side. I hear rips and fly off in one direction as my pack is torn apart. My shit is everywhere.

The wolf is upon me before I can get off the ground and I have my first look at him. It’s a Winter Wolf. I had been warned about these when they gave me the north. As large as a dire wolf, except smarter and more dangerous. They also have the ability to attack you with the cold itself. Some holdover from whatever unnatural beguiling created them.

He pounces on my legs. My sword is trapped on my back, my bow is in pieces, I’m pinned down on the ground. He lunges at my face and I cram my forearm into it’s mouth before he can clamp down on my throat. Wrestling with my belt, I finally unhook my hatchet and beat on his face over and over until he finally releases my chewed sleeve and arm and backs away. There is blood on his maw, both from my hatchet blows and from the bite. I think my arm is broken and bleeding, it’s useless.

He steps off of me just enough so I can roll up and draw my sword. I sling my healing as I move away so I can use my arm again. Now I’m ready. He draws back to pounce, I think. Instead he releases a freezing cold breath at me, I can see tiny ice crystals blowing in my direction from him. Luckily, my reflexes are quick enough that I dodge the full force of the attack and am only subjected to a glancing blow [Dex saving throw to cold attack is a success, I only take half damage]

Taking the opportunity to strike before he has recovered completely from his cold barrage, I slash him across the neck and stab deep into his side. He moves quicker than I anticipate and snaps his giant head around to clamp down on my side and try to claw me with a front claw. I feel him trying to force me to the ground again and know that if he succeeds I’m a goner.

I spin away from his mouth, feeling my chainmail and coat tear in the process. Again, I stab deep into him twice, the last one severing an artery in his neck. As blood spurts freely on me and the torn up ground he finally falls.

The barks and yelps have increased. Like the females know he is dead. I run to the edge of the overlook and see them fleeing together into he wild, away from the lumberjacks. They are just regular wolves, nothing like their mate, but I have had enough battle for today. Yes, I should probably kill the whelps, but…….I just can’t see myself killing the unborn. It just doesn’t seem right. I look at the ground around me. My belongings are everywhere, I’m bleeding profusely and everything is torn up. I sling my last healing and gather my things to return to the camp once more. This time more bloody and wounded than before. So much for invincible.

View
Recovery

There is something wet hitting my face.
There is something sharp poking my back.
I can breathe.

I open my eyes and see two very worried storm gray ones looking back intently from only a few inches away. My thoughts are muddled from passing out; I can’t tell how long it’s been or where I am. A fine rain patters on my face again. The rocks beneath me stab into my wound. Neither of us say a word, we’re just staring.

“Did you know you have green flecks in your eyes? They’re not just gray.”

Lex bursts out a laugh and hugs me close to his chest. “I thought I lost you.”

After a moment, “I’m actually pretty amazed you found me at all in the darkness with all that smoke.” My voice croaks. Between the pain in my throat and lungs and Lex squeezing the life out of me I can hardly speak.

“You made it all the way to the ladder before you collapsed. I waited as long as I could stand it and then went down to get you. You were at the bottom of the first ladder. I couldn’t tell if you were alive or dead.” He finally releases me; lays me back on the ground, to look at me again. His face is covered in the oily soot that was coming from the fire. Looking up into the sky, I see it still belching blackness into the air.

“Anything come out after me?” I rasp. He shakes his head ‘no’.

Now that the fear from chasing down the Crickets is gone I find I’m extremely tired. Laying my head back down on the ground I close my eyes to rest.

“Please don’t do that.” Lex immediately states. “Just not…yet……I wasn’t sure if you were going to wake up, I’m still a little worried you might not.” He lets out a slow breath, “you were barely breathing.”

Nodding my understanding, I recall countless hours of sitting in our tree-well watching him breathe, wondering if he would ever wake up. That seems like forever ago, years instead of months. “I understand. Help me up and we can figure out a place to camp.”

He stands and then bends down to help me. I’m shocked at how weak I feel, like my muscles are made of jelly. “You don’t happen to have some healing potions do you? I used all mine up.”

He nods, “A couple. Not enough to completely heal you, but enough to keep you from deaths door,” he says a little grimly. I start to protest but then realize that he is, in fact, right. I was that close.

He picks up our gear, both packs, and starts leading me off the rocky hill outside the mine. The body of the cricket still lays where he died. My eyes linger on that awhile. Lex says, “We’ll take care of the bodies tomorrow, I think we’ve done enough today. It’s getting dark soon.” I nod, too spent to argue.

I realize we are both covered in the oily soot that came out of the hive. Our clothes, hair, faces and hands coated with it. It smells bad. “I stink.” My nose crinkles at the sickly odor coming off of me, my clothes. It’s like a burned sugar smell.

“I didn’t notice.” Lex says as he stops and surveys a spot to camp. It’s on the edge of the clearing, but not near my last battle with the three Crickets. He sits the packs down and unrolls the tent. Going to his bag, he starts fishing through it. He pulls out 2 healing potions and hands them to me before going back for something else. After several minutes, “Dammit.”

“What?” I’m slowly sitting down on a fallen tree, still a bit wobbly even after taking the potions.

“I think I lost my hatchet in the tree.” He stares at his pack accusingly.

“Here, use mine.” I unhook my hatchet from it’s loop on my belt and hold it out to him. “Oh, that’s right….you said you’d explain once we were done.”

“Yes, I did….” He takes the hatchet and walks away to cut some branches for tent poles. I rest and drink water, I can wait…. I will have answers soon. He can’t put it off forever.

After many minutes of putting up a tent (it is a rather large, round pavilion style, you can stand up in it, definitely big enough for both of us) he stops and faces me sitting there on the log watching him.

“You know….. I’m a prince.” He starts haltingly.

“I’ve heard.” My sarcastic answer.

He gives me an annoyed look. “Well, you see…every member of the royal family is given something.” He pauses and looks at me like he’s searching for the right words. I give him that ‘go ahead’ look.

“So….it’s a scroll…..we each have a scroll.”

“Ok. Can you please just spit it out.” I’m too tired for guessing games.

“Umm, the Royal Observer gives us scrolls that allow us to teleport from one location to another. They’re meant for when we are in danger so we can escape. I used my scroll when I got your message.” He spits the words out fast, like he’s embarrassed about it or something.

“So, let me get this straight. The Royal Observer…Martume’….gives you a scroll to teleport out of danger. And you had enough faith in it that you actually decided to use it?” I start laughing at my own joke, “you have met this man, yes? And you trusted a scroll he gave you? You’re braver than I thought.”

My reaction is completely unexpected, along with my burst of laughter. He joins in. “Now that you put it that way….it was a pretty crazy idea.”

“So….do your men know who you are? How did you explain that you just popped out? Disappeared?”

He shakes his head, “No. I told the Lt. to gather a large contingent and start out towards Paxton mine. I was going ahead on Steve to make better time. We rode out a couple of miles or so and I tied him to a branch, got my gear and used the scroll-“

“Wait a minute….you left Steve tied to a tree!” I’m in shock.

“No, no..wait…I left a note so when the troops find him they will bring him. I told them I decided it was safer to go stealthily on foot.”

“Oh, oh…..you are gonna have some explaining to do to that horse. He’s gonna be pissed. And if your men have ever traveled with you through the forest they’ll know you were lying. You? Stealthy? Please.” I cross my arms and do my best ‘you’re not fooling anybody’ face.

“It’s all I could think of OK? You’re the one you sent the note ‘see you on the other side’. I still can’t believe you wrote that.”

“It sounded cool.”

“It did not sound cool.”

I shrug off his remark. We’re quiet for awhile. He starts to build a fire near the tent. “Hungry?” I nod. He starts prepping our dinner.

I’ve been putting off asking something and now I can tell it will not wait any longer. The two potions were enough to lessen my bleeding, particularly the wounds across my front, but the deep gash from the throwing star in my back is still not faring well. I have to break the silence. “Lex, I need your help.”

Maybe it was my tone, or merely the fact that I directly asked for help. Whatever it was, he immediately freezes and looks alarmed. “What is it? What’s wrong?” He rushes to my side.

“I took a couple of good hits down there….in the mine, and I can’t clean and bind the one on my back. The ones across the front I could probably handle, but I can’t reach the one behind me and I think it’s still bleeding.”

He looks alarmed and leans to inspect my back. “Lily, oh…Lily. I didn’t realize. We need to get you in the tent.”

[Game note: In the mine, the encounters with the Crickets had left me with only a handful of HP. I could not go another round. You know that sick feeling when you realize that you don’t have enough hit points to survive minimum damage…..that’s where I was. Even after 2 potions of healing I would still be considered ‘bloodied’ and I had exhausted all my healing spells during the fight.]

Whatever he sees it must be bad because his manner is all business. He helps me up, which is sweet, and leads me inside. “What did this again? One of their thrown things.”

Nodding, “Yeah. I was taking out one and another hit me from behind. I tried to just leave it in there, you know like you do with a knife to keep the bleeding down? But It hurt too bad when I moved and my coat would tug it, so I had to get it out.”

“How did you do that? It’s in the middle of your back.” He asks as he’s helping me to carefully remove my coat.

“Used my bow, hooked it and jerked it out. Hurt like hell.” Now that my coat is off I can feel the wetness of my blood, saturating my armor and clothes.

He let’s out a low whistle at the sight. “I need to heat up some water on the fire to clean it up. Do you still have those tins of salve you use?” I nod in response. “OK, I’ll grab your pack too….I think I’m going to need to sew this closed.” I feel the blood drain from my face, recalling how it felt when Bathilda had to sew up my grizzly bear wounds. Lex picks up on my silent panic, “It will be OK, don’t worry.”

When he returns with my pack I pull out the first aid tins I replenished at the garrison. As I do that he’s setting up stuff from his kit: needle, thread, gauze, bandages. He adds the tins as I hand them over. I dig through my coat until I find my flask, open it and take a huge swig of whiskey. I know what’s coming and I’m terrified in a whole new way. I am covered in healing and healed scars; marks from battle. No one has seen this before, not even my family. When I left home I wasn’t like this. Even I was surprised at the map of violence on my skin when I caught sight of it in the mirror of my room at the Dancing Bear. There are a lot more now than there were then. And this man is going to see them all.

“You’re going to need to take off your shirt.” I hear quietly behind me. I look at him.…and take another huge drink. “Your shirt and armor are soaked with blood and I have to clean and sew up the wound.”

Silently, I nod my acceptance and purse my lips to express my displeasure as I turn away from him and start loosening the ties on my tunic. But pulling it over my head becomes problematic, the pain flaring when I try to lift my arms; I hiss at the intensity of it.

“Here, let me help.” Lex gingerly takes my shirt from the bottom and tries to lift it off without hurting me too much. Every time I flinch or wince he slows or stops his movements until I urge him on. Once the shirt is removed there is my dwarven chainmail. After that is my undershirt. I glance at my shirt on the ground, it is saturated with blood on the back. That’s going in the fire.

“This chainmail isn’t ‘of Ratik’.” Lex states curiously. “It’s beautiful.” He is lifting the edge of my sleeve and inspecting the intricate tiny loops. If you had to compare my current chain to our military issue you would find this one’s links outnumber our normal chain 3 to 1 at least. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when you see it; when it’s protecting you.

“It’s dwarven. I got it at Hausen Hold.”

“They gave you armor? This armor? That’s generous.” He starts lifting it off of me, which I’m thankful for, I discover the less I have to move the better.

“They said that they would repair my old armor, my military issue. So I took it to their blacksmith, Klob, and he…….well, it kind of offended him. So he made me this new one.”

“Oh really? Ratik armor offended him?” I hear an annoyed tone in Lex’s voice. I can’t help but smile. The conversation is distracting me from the pain and embarrassment, so that’s helpful.

“No, I think it was specifically my armor that offended him. I had a run-in with a goblin raiding party at Artus compound, some wolves before that, and a grizzly bear…..oh yeah, and my sleeve had disintegrated from acid. So by the time he saw it there were huge slashes and tears that had been repaired with random bits of metal, pot handles, spatula, parts of a hoe; whatever we could scrounge up at Artus. That’s what offended him I think. That I was wearing that as armor.”

As I’ve been talking Lex has helped me out of my last layer, my undershirt. Instinctively, I cover my chest with my hands and arm, but I feel especially exposed, specifically all the scars. I find that I’m curling into myself in shame.

To his credit he hasn’t said a word about it, just began cleaning the wounds, all business. But here, at this moment, he stops completely and leans around to look me in the face. “You mean to tell me you were using bits of farm equipment and cookpot handles to repair your armor?” I nod. “Well, yeah…seeing as he was a dwarven blacksmith I bet that would be offensive.” He starts back to work. I hear a quiet snicker but before I can get too self-conscious over it I hear him mutter “pot handles”.

“Wait a minute, why had your sleeve dissolved from acid. What was that?” He has finished sewing my back and is placing a bandage over it.

“I fell into a lair/trap of a ground locust on my way to the hold. It spits acid.” I answer as plainly as if we were discussing the weather.

“Ground locusts are real!” He exclaims and looks into my eyes again for verification. “I thought those were just wives tales that they use to scare us when we were kids.”

“I know, right! I thought the same thing until I was looking one in the face. Nope, those things are real.” He shakes his head in surprise and goes back to patching me up.

“I think these wounds in the front won’t need sewing. I just need to clean them and put the salve on so they won’t get infected.” He hesitates and looks me in the eye, asking permission. “OK?”

I nod, keep my boobs covered with my hands and arms as well as I can, while he administers first aid on my sides and stomach. I watch to see if his eyes stray or if he seems put off by all of my old wounds, but there is no sign of either thing. He is, what can only be described as, professional. Once he finishes the front, he goes behind me, I feel him prod the bandage on my back. He must be pleased because he stands and says, “I’ll clean up this stuff and go back to making dinner. If you need any help, or if you find anymore wounds…..call me.” Then he leaves me alone to dress.

I dig out another undershirt and regular shirt. For now I’m leaving the chain off. I need to clean and oil it and frankly, it feels nice to have the weight off of me for a bit. I move out of the tent carrying my chainmail and my little stewpot. Scooping some snow into it I set it by the fire to melt. Lex is currently chopping some branches off the fallen tree I was sitting on. The snow melts quickly and I start using the warmed water to clean my gear. I have time to do it before dinner is ready.

“How long will it take them to get here?” I ask Lex as he returns with more wood. My trek to the mine was a roundabout one, I don’t know how long it is straight from the garrison.

At first he looks confused, then realizes I’m talking about his troops. “At the warrior’s pace, about four days. They will probably arrive the day after tomorrow.”

“That will give us time to burn those bodies and make sure nothing comes back.” He nods in agreement.

“So….the tree?” Hope he didn’t think I forgot about that.

“Can we talk about something else?” He asks wistfully.

I continue to clean my chain mail, my sword is next, and act as though I’m thinking it over. Which I am not. “Nope, I want to talk about the tree. Specifically, you hanging upside down in it.” And then I smile… a real big smile.

“I came to rescue you.” He mutters to the stack of wood.

“I remember you mentioned that before. Right after you scared me to death.”

He takes a deep breath and starts his explanation. “You see, when you’re using one of those scrolls, you have to picture the place you’re wanting to go in your mind and then say the words on the scroll. I have never been out here, so I studied the map in my office….”

“Oh, my god. So your visualization was….. from above!” I stop everything when it hits me. “How far did you fall?”

“It was pretty high up actually. Luckily I smacked into a few limbs to slow down. And then the rope tangled…..that slowed me down.” He shrugs. “It was….it was not something I recommend doing.”

“No shit! I’m amazed you’re sitting here alive. Forget the fact there were deadly Cricket creatures running about….I mean…compared to ‘falling from the sky’ they are small potatoes.” I shake my head in amazement and go back to my task. After a few more minutes, “You would risk that…..try that….for me?”

“Yeah,” he nods as he stirs our dinner. “I really didn’t want you to die out here alone.”

“I guess we are even now.” He looks at me quizzically. “I saved you from them and now you’ve saved me.” I speak to him with a flourished fake accent, “You are no longer beholden to me young sir, you are released from your life debt to continue your journey in peace.” And then I bow, and hiss and cringe from pain.

“Serves you right smarty pants.” He mutters. “Dinner’s ready.”

Setting down my gear I grab up the offered bowl of stew and fill my mug with warm tea. “Thank you for making this,” and more quietly, “and for saving me.” He just grins and nods.

“So, tell me about this Spring Festival.” I try to change the topic and he gladly complies. We spend dinner discussing what is traditionally planned and expected. Being from Marner (him) and me from a valley nearby, neither of us has experienced a true Spring or Fall Festival. It sounds like it’s quite an event for the country-side. Before long all the food is consumed and it is fully dark. I’m exhausted and he is too, although we both have a nervous energy around us.

Lex rinses our empty bowls and asks, “Do you think we should have watches tonight?”

I’ve been thinking the same thing. Haven’t been without my weapons since he got me out of the mine. “I’m thinking we might have got them all. I know they’re vicious and I think a little vengeful. If there was one left in the woods, he would have come at us by now. I’m willing to take the risk, just to get a solid night sleep.”

“Me too” he concurs.

Retiring into the tent we say goodnight rather awkwardly and fall asleep in our bedrolls. Right before I finally doze off I realize that we discussed everything of importance. Everything, that is, but the kiss.

——————————-

Lex is already up, making breakfast by the time I wake. I hear him outside and smell coffee. Moving slowly, I test my wounds. They are much, much better. Still a bit achy but I don’t have any worries about renewed bleeding. I find my armor and put it back on under my shirt.

Stepping outside, I’m greeted with a warm fire, and a dazzling smile. “Good morning sleepyhead!”

“You let me sleep in.” I mutter accusingly as I reach for the coffeepot.

“Of course I did….ah, ah, ah.” He removes the coffeepot from my hand. “Not for you.” Before I can protest he produces my teapot, that was warming in the coals. “I remembered this time.” He pours me a cup of tea. “Hope you don’t mind I got it from your pack.” I shake my head no.

The tea is perfectly strong and hot, warming my hands as I hold my mug. “What’s for breakfast?”

He smiles, “Oatmeal with brown sugar, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Hope that’s OK. Didn’t bring any eggs.”

“If you had they would have broken.” He nods and makes a face like he doesn’t want to be reminded.

“Are you leaving today?” Lex asks. He already looks both disappointed and resigned, I haven’t even answered yet.

“Actually, no.” he perks up at my response. “We need to burn those bodies,” I look and see that the mine is still smoking, “and monitor that.” I leave out the part that I am still sworn to protect the royal family and leaving him alone here in the middle of nowhere is not really doing my duty. If something were to happen after I left…..

He nods with my assessment, “I was thinking of sending some men down there to make sure it’s all burned out before we leave.”

“Don’t want to go down there yourself, huh?” I tease. He looks guilty and shakes his head no. “Yeah, me neither. Sometimes rank really does have it’s privileges.” We both laugh at that and agree.

“So, how about this, we pile up the bodies that are out here and burn them by the mine. Then I’ll hunt us up something for dinner and you can make it.” I suggest.

“Why do I have to make dinner? I made dinner last night. I can do the hunting and you can make dinner.” He counters. I know he’s just being contrary. I can tell by his playful expression.

“Well, that is true. I do have a full stock of rations. I can make us dinner like I did the first time we met. That’s perfect.”

He narrows his eyes, “I remember that mush you called food. You might just have to branch out and cook something I catch or kill for dinner.”

“Rations it is, then.” I state definitely.

“Hey! That’s not fair. You’ve never seen me hunt in a forest-“

“I’ve never seen you be stealthy or remotely quiet in a forest either. Perhaps those things are related? Anyway, how do you plan on sneaking up on game and killing it with your….sword? Don’t even think about using my bow.” I raise my eyebrows and grin smugly. He is so fun to tease.

“That’s not…ok well….maybe.” his shoulders slump a little. “You hunt it and I’ll cook it.”

“Let’s take care of those Crickets first.” He nods his agreement.

After breakfast, we gather the bodies. It takes an hour or so to drag them together and cut enough wood to make a pyre. I point out their pouches and what I’d found on the others. He takes a couple of the throwing stars for his report, evidence. As we watch them catch fire and burn Lex takes the opportunity to ask how I found them. I tell him about going back to Bob’s body and circled out to figure out how they moved. How I tracked the elk, the Edwards cabin, and the Hawthorne Settlement. Once the fire is doing it’s thing I say, “Come with me, I’ll show you their tracks.” Lex seems really curious to learn and agrees wholeheartedly.

We circumvent the area I know has tracks so that we don’t disturb the snow. I find ‘tree-sign’ and stop just far enough away so he can make it out. “If you look there, you can see where they knocked snow off the branch. And then you can see the slight scratch on the trunk where it reached out with its claw.” I move us forward a few paces, “And there is where he landed between trees. Eventually, you can predict where they will land and jump and it makes it easier. You get a rhythm.” I look ahead and find the next tree it jumped to, “See. There is the next one he went to. They hunted a lot in this part of the forest, so their signs are everywhere.”

Lex is looking all around us. He has seen what I’m talking about but he’s also not trained to see and track like a Ranger. He shakes his head and looks at me, “That is pretty amazing. I’m not sure I could’ve ever figured that out.”

“Well, if you had been trained to do it you probably could. I mean, it’s not your fault you went into the cavalry and are therefore insufficiently trained to do much more than ride a horse…..” He catches the amused twinkle in my eye.

“Shall we discuss animal handling? Horsemanship? Riding?” Lex replies with an equal amount of amusement.

“No, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say.” He snickers.

I have my bow, quiver and sword with me so I suggest that I start hunting from here. He agrees and goes back towards camp. I begin circling around this area, just to make sure nothing has changed. I see no new Cricket tracks anywhere. After several hours of looking I finally start to relax. Remembering where I had last seen fresh animal tracks I swing north in the forest. Not long after I find several game trails. [medium percentage roll] I am able to follow a trail [perception success] and get two good sized hares for dinner. It only takes a couple of minutes to field dress them and I’m back at camp shortly after.

I’m met with, “I was getting worried.”

“Tried to be quick. Searched where I last saw the Crickets, just making sure….and yes, no new sign. Then it took awhile to find some game, thanks to them.” I try not to be glib, but not apologetic either.

“I thought that was the case, but still-“ when he looks at me I just shrug. There’s nothing more to say about it. So I hold out the hares.

“Nice. They’ll be great. You do realize that if I wanted I could have tracked down these two and stabbed them with my sword.” He grins.

“Oh absolutely, in fact, I bet you wouldn’t even have to track them. You could just charm them into throwing themselves on your sword with pretty words and sweet smiles.”

“You think I’m charming with pretty words and sweet smiles?” He asks.

“No, I think you scare the hell out of me by hanging upside down from trees in highly dangerous territory.”

“You did look pretty startled. Man, you were down on the ground and up with a sword in no time.” He chuckles.

We continue to banter back and forth until dinner is ready. It is as delicious this time as it was the first time I had it and I take the opportunity to remind him that it was this exact dish that outed him as the prince to me.

Tonight as we eat by the fire he sits much closer to me. We share the last of my whiskey. He is nervous and flirty, and I notice him glance at the tent and then give me a look and then leans in……

I lean back, “What, exactly, is your plan here?”

He looks a little stunned, “Well, I thought you and me….”

Narrowing my eyes, “I am not just another notch on your headboard.”

The mood is killed. “I do not have notches on my headboard.”

“OK, fine, headboard, swordbelt, whatever. I am not a notch.”

“I never said you were. Why would you think that? What about me makes you think that?”

“Well, because you’re the prince. And I’m nobody. I’m just…I’m just a farmer’s daughter who is a ranger. You are meant for better than me. We-” I gesture back and forth between us, “-aren’t meant to be. And I’m not just going to be someone you play around with until it’s time for you to move on. I deserve better.”

He looks hurt. And mad. “First of all, Miss Kodel. You can drop the farmer’s daughter act. I know you are Lilykai Kodel, daughter to Thanos Kodel of Kodel Wines. I know your family’s estate is a couple hours from the capital with a sprawling vineyard. I do believe the proper term for what you are is actually…..heiress.”

“I am not an heiress.”

“Your family’s estate is very well established, and is one of the premier wineries in all of Ratik.”
I look appropriately humbled and start to retort but he holds his hand up and continues, “And even if you weren’t the daughter of a highly esteemed and wealthy winemaker, it is up to me to decide who is worthy of my attentions, regardless of their upbringing. And for your information…” at this point his voice gets a little harder, “I have no notches on belts, or bedposts, or anywhere. How could you think that of me?” He is hurt and mad all at once.

“Because you are….you know. And Baron Mordecai is your uncle and I have heard plenty of stories about Moredcai and Eldiss from when I was supposed to be in bed and snuck downstairs anyway. And he’s a role model for you! You want to be like him, you’ve said it.-“

“In the military, not the bedroom. Lily, I think you’re the one who thinks she’s too good. You’re the one who has these notions about me not being worthy of you!”

This conversation is not going the well. “Look, I’m just saying….. I just don’t want…..” How do you tell someone that you really like them, but you’re afraid of getting hurt. I wish I knew. “OK, let me ask you this. Do you actually want to date me, or do you just want to sleep with me and be done with it. I just want to know which it is. One night stand, or a relationship.”

He still seems mad, but looks deep in my eyes and says, “I want a relationship.”

I release the breath I was holding. “OK, if you want a relationship, a real relationship…..you have to ask my father’s permission to date me.”

He’s stunned. “Look, I’m not asking you to marry me-“

That was not the thing to say, and my crossed arms and the expression on my face relays that to him quite well.

“No, no…I mean….I’m not asking that right now. I just want to….” He’s unsure now how to progress.

“You just want to sleep with me and be done with it. I understand.” It figures, I’m starting to move away. I feel the disappointment collecting in my heart, in my gut. I turn and stand to leave.

He grabs my shoulders and spins me back around, holding me. “That is not what I was going to say….or do. I will write your father, I will ask his permission. I will do whatever you ask. You are worth it. But my question is, am I? Is this something you want to do with me…date me….have a relationship. Even though I am a prince?”

The intensity of his eyes, his words. His hold on me, our closeness. All these things work to take my breath away, and as a result my answer is a whispered, “yes.”

The kissing begins.

View
See you on the Other Side

It is usually two full days of travel between the Paxton Mine and Lumberjack Camp #4. I run straight through. Early on I start covering my tracks by slinging [Pass without trace x2], I certainly don’t want to lead them straight to the lumberjacks. The two day trip takes me a bit over 20 hours of running. I arrive at midnight. The camp is quiet and without guards. Why would there be? What danger are they in; in the middle of the wild, in the middle of the night. I’m sure that’s their logic until the Ranger comes blasting in the mess hall door, out of breath and exhausted, coat cut apart and covered in her own dried blood.

I pretty much scare the shit out of them.

“Who’s…. in…. charge?” I puff out between long, deep breaths.

There is a small group of men and women, younger cooks and woodcutters sitting around a table. One of them jumps up without a word and rushes out the door I just came in as I lower myself to a bench. Another brings me a cup of water while a third yells, “I’m getting some tea!” Thank the gods.

The girl who went into the kitchen comes out shortly with a hot mug of tea and a couple of stale biscuits. “I’m sorry, we don’t have any leftovers…” she starts to say when the door opens again and an older woman enters the mess. She was obviously asleep and is extremely alarmed. Once she has a good look at me she is even more so.

“Are we in immediate danger?” She asks, straightforward. I shrug as I’m washing the most delicious stale biscuit down with warm weak tea. She doesn’t seem pleased with that answer, her frown deepens. She waits for me to answer.

Swallowing, “I’m not sure. I covered my tracks……very well. I ran through the day and night, they don’t travel at night.” The more I say the more scared those around me look. “You should set up a watch, pairs….no one alone. Give them horns or something for an alarm.” Now they really look scared.

The woman in charge starts barking orders to those in the room; wake up others, get a watch ready, she tells the cooks to start brewing coffee and tea for them. Then she turns to me. “I’m Shaloren Melville, I’m in charge here.”

I nod, “Thought so, or at least you sound like it. I’ll tell you what it’s about….” She stops me before I can continue and gestures me to follow her out the door.

“I think it’s best if we talk in private later. I will set up the watch and wake you if anything happens. You look like you could use some sleep. Why don’t we talk in the morning.” She is leading me towards a bunkhouse. “There’s room in here for you.”

I want to argue, to tell her that we need to go over it all tonight, but….she’s right. We’ve got at least 48 hours between us and the Crickets, that’s even if they happen to get on the right trail. And I’m pretty tired. I nod my thanks to her, “We’ll talk in the morning.” I hit the nearest empty bunk hard……

And awaken about 12 hours later. I briefly heard shuffling and whispers at some point, but couldn’t seem to pull myself from unconsciousness. I’m so thirsty. In my haste I almost miss the pitcher of water and glass that’s been placed near me. I drink almost all of it at once, making myself sick in the process….slow down Lily….didn’t you just warn Newt about that! I take some deep breaths until the nausea wears away. Then a few little sips. I blink myself awake enough to take stock of my appearance.

My clothes are a filthy mess. Blood, dirt, and Cricket guts have gotten all over me. There are deep gashes in my coat and chain. I’ll need to get it repaired again soon. Too bad they don’t have someone here. I’ll just wire it together or use string. STRING! The new chainmail repair tool. It’s a wonder I’m not dead.

I change into my cleanest clothes that aren’t torn up. I hope there is something that can be done with the ones I was just wearing. I’ll bring them with me and see if I can get them cleaned. My body is achey from running so long and sleeping in one position all night. I stretch and stomp my boots to wake up. It’s bright outside and no one is in the bunkhouse. Definitely afternoon. I’m going to scrounge up some grub.

As I’m leaving the bunkhouse carrying my torn, bloody clothes I hear, “Get the foreman! Tell her the Rangers up!” Yelled from somewhere. There are only a handful of people milling about. The air is filled with the sounds of chopping and hauling trees. I go towards the mess tent.

As I enter the few remaining lumberjacks getting their lunch stop eating and stare at me. Feeling self-conscious, I only briefly glance at them. I pick up snippets of conversation as I move towards the serving line.
“-that’s the Ranger-“
“-she’s what the fuss is about-“
“-kinda small-“

It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, you get used to it after awhile, The girl serving me is the same one who brought me tea and biscuits last night. “I didn’t get to thank you before-“

“It’s no problem. I’m glad I found something to feed you. You know with lumberjacks, leftovers are pretty non-existent.” Her extra cheery manner is in contrast to the tinge of fear in her eyes. Probably not afraid of me, but whatever news I’m bringing. She busies herself by making me a plate. It looks to be a hearty ham and bean soup, and bread.

As she starts to hand me a bowl I hold up my dirty clothes. I think encrusted is the proper description of them. “Do you think-“ I start to ask….

“I’ll take those.” I hear a strong, familiar voice behind me. Shaloren takes my dirty clothes from my hand, walks over to the fireplace and pitches them in the fire.

“Hey! Waitaminute! Those were my..…”

She holds up her hand in a ‘halt’ gesture. “We’ll get you replacements. We have some that will fit you in the supply hut. Those were unsanitary.”

“They were new.” Is all I can think to counter with.

“Couldn’t tell by lookin.” She says and gestures for me to join her at a table, one of the girls brings her a cup of coffee. She waits for me to eat some first and then talk. “You scared my people pretty good last night.”

“They should be,” I blurt out without thinking, then see the look on her face and realize I was out of line. She’s worried about them, her people, her responsibilities. More respectfully, I begin again, “They are very dangerous…creatures. I really can’t call them anything other than that.”

“Horde?” She asks.

I shake my head ‘no’, “Nothing like that. Nothing anyone has ever seen before.” Pulling out my journal I flip it open to the same pages Alea and I went over, with my drawings of them and all my notes. I describe how they move, jump, attack. Then I tell her about the mine. The new hive.

“I thought my fire arrow would ignite their goo, that I could just burn them all out down there. But nothing happened. At that point I felt they knew I was there and I needed to get the word out, get a message to others. So I covered my tracks and ran straight through to here.

“You ran straight through from the Paxton Mine to here?” She asks. Of all the stuff I just told her, me running straight through is shocking her.

“Good plan, but that mine’s not built like that.” Another voice from the next table over pipes up. Both Shaolen and I turn to see who belongs to the gravelly voice. Most lumberjacks are tall and brawny, but this guy…..if I had to describe him….I would say lanky. Which is a nice way to say stringy. Once he knows he has our attention, “Name’s Milter. Milter Johnson. I mine the Pax until it closes in winter. Too damn cold. Then I come over here and cut wood. Still too damn cold, but the work’s good.”

“Okaaay, good to meet you Milter. I’m Lilykai Kodel, Ranger Captain. You can call me Lily.”

“Captain, huh….aren’t you a little young for that?” I’ve learned not to answer that question. “Anyway, as I was sayin’…..mine’s not built like that. So you can’t just light it from the top. It’s got steps.” He has moved his lunch and self over to sit with us.

“So, it’s a bunch of steps down?” I’m unclear on what he’s saying.

“No…not steps. Steeepppps.” He draws the word out longer. Like it means something different when you say it that way.

“Wait, you mean like Floors, like Levels?” Shaloren asks.

“Yeah..like levels. Like you have a little level on the top and it gets wider and wider as you go down. Like one of those shapes.” He says with authority.

“Like a pyramid shape?” I hold up my hands and tent my fingers in a rough ‘pyramid’ shape.

“Yeah, just like that. Except the ladders down are in different places on each level. You know, so a damn fool can’t shoot a fire arrow down the mine shaft and catch it aflame while there’s a bunch of miners down there.” He says accusingly, testing to see if I take offense. I don’t.

“That makes sense, actually.” It explains why there wasn’t the kaboom I expected. My arrow just hit that first level ground and went out. The goo must be deeper, that’s the bad news. The good news is that they probably didn’t realize I had been there until they found the body of the guard (and hunters) so they probably aren’t on their way here.

Turning back to Milter, “Can you draw me a map of the mine? So I can go back and finish the job?”

He scratches the salt and pepper stubble on his chin, “Spose, so…I can give ya a close proximation. Good enough ta do ya.” I start to say something to Shaloren and he interrupts, “But ya can’t get innit unless you can drop 15 feet. We take out the ladder so we don’t come back to squatters living there.” Shaloren and I exchange a look at the idea of squatters moving into an underground mine so Milter adds, “or varmints.”

“Seems to me like you’ve got some varmints in there now.” My response. He nods, “True.”

Shaloren says, “Milter, go to my office and have Lorne give you some parchment and charcoal to draw it for Lily before you take your next shift, I bet she wants to get going sooner than later.” She looks in my direction and I nod as I finish my soup. “Do you have other supplies you need to replenish? If so, we’ll take care of that too. We’ll go to the supply shed next.” I nod thanks as I’m brought another bowl of soup and bread.

“Ooooh, aren’t you the lucky one…” Milter cackles as he takes his leave and goes to draw me a map. Shaloren watches him depart.

“He’s a good worker. Kind of an old coot, but I think it’s mostly an act…he really isn’t that old.” We share a laugh and I finish my second bowl as she checks on her men. She’ll meet me back here in a half an hour.

I get my pack and start writing my report regarding the Hive and the mine. I include everything I learned from Alea and also the loss of the Edwards cabin and the hunters from Hawthorne Settlement. In case any of them have relatives in other places that need to be notified. Once again my thoughts turn to Lex, our planned date at the festival. If everything goes well during my lone assault on the hive I will be able to make it. If things don’t go well……

Just then Shaloren comes back in so I can ask her, “Do you have messenger hawks out here?”

“Yeah, sure. We’re so far removed we keep some. Do you want to send a message?”

“I thought I would let the Commander at Three Rivers know about this. In case…in case…” I leave the rest unsaid. She nods her understanding.

“You can only send a short message though. It’s a tiny piece of paper. We have a hawk that’s trained for the garrison. He will know where to go. You have room for about 25 words or so.” She gestures for me to follow her to their aviary.

Once there she hands me a tiny slip of paper and a quill. I look at the blank scrap and try to think of what I should say, what I want to say. What needs to be said. Finally I start.

“Found new Hive. Paxton Mine. I’m at camp #4. Heading back there tomorrow a.m.
See you on the other side – L”

[Game note: I was told I had space for 25 words for my message, I had to write it on a slip of paper and hand it over to the GM. I really had to choose my words, on the spot, carefully. I thought it held a lot of bravado. Others thought differently]

Having read the note over my shoulder, Shaloren inquires, “So you’re staying the night?”

“Yeah, it’s late in the day already, I won’t get very far before it’s dark. And if I’m going to make a run on them alone it would be best to be well rested and fed.” She nods along with my assessment and attaches my note to the bird’s leg before she lets him fly free. I watch him until he a tiny blip in the sky.

“Let’s get you some new clothes, and since you’re staying I’ll have the girls draw up a bath for you in the room behind the kitchen. No offense, but you kinda stink.”

“None taken.” I respond automatically. Although it’s pretty insulting when a lumberjack says you stink.

The next morning finds me very well fed (three meals), new clean clothes, clean from the bath, and new rope and supplies. The kitchen made a hamper for me with smoked meats, cheeses, and bread. Enough for today’s lunch and dinner. The word about what I’m facing, what I’m doing has spread throughout the camp and I’m on the receiving in of lots of random handshakes and respectful nods. And the occasional “But she’s so small” that they think I can’t hear. I took the time to sew my coat up as best as I can, and yes, fix my chain with random bits of twine. The dwarves would be so offended if they saw their work now.

Shaloren catches me slipping a couple of pancakes wrapped around sausages into my food pocket, she quirks her eyebrow. “Got everything you need?”

“Yep, got my gear…thank you. Got my map from Milter. It’s a pretty good map. Extra food from the kitchen, I appreciate that too.” She nods, pleased with my renewed inventory.

“When will you get there?” She asks.

“I’ll get halfway today, camp out and arrive late in the day tomorrow. I’ll go ahead and make my run at them then. No sense camping right outside the mine. It’s dark either way, so I might as well go for it.”

“How will we know if you’re……successful?”

I grin at her avoidance of the words dead and alive, “I’ll come back and let you know.”

She holds out her hand to shake, “Well, good luck Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel.”

“Just Lily is fine,” I say quietly.

“Not today,” she responds. “today you are The Ranger.” I smile and shake her hand. Then I’m off into the woods.

——————————-

It snowed a little yesterday. I note it because I am relieved that it will help hide my tracks. Milter told me about a rarely used cart path to the mine and I find it pretty quickly. I can follow it and keep my attention on the trees so I don’t get jumped.

Midway through the day I see some tracks. Initially my heart feels like it has stopped beating altogether, then I’m able to discern that these tracks are a little “off”. I follow them for a short distance away from the trail and just as I realize what I’m tracking he tries to spring his trap: Snow Spider. My sword is already drawn so I just dive towards it, slashing at it’s legs and then body. I’m so keyed up he doesn’t get a hit on me at all. I’m thankful, not wanting to face the Crickets with fresh injuries.

I find a good sized tree well to make camp. As dusk starts to settle I notice that there are plenty of birds and small game tracks around here. Another good sign, no Crickets in this area of the forest. I skip a fire and have the last of the smoked sausages and cheese the lumberjack camp provided. It’s nice to go two whole days without being hungry. I set my Alarm and nod off to sleep, it’s going to be a big day tomorrow.

The morning goes fine, no new tracks, more birds. I’m feeling more hopeful than I have in awhile. The big question in my mind is how many Crickets there are at the new site. It’s looking more and more like there aren’t as many as before. My buoyed spirits and quick pace bring me close to the mine around 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m right on time, based on my estimates.

Because I’ve been searching the ground for tracks all along my trip I quickly make out the debris field that is ahead of me. There is stuff scattered all over the place. Was a hunter in the area? There’s not supposed to be another Ranger through here for months. I slow my pace as I get closer….this stuff is military issue.

Standing in the middle of it, I’m making out a bedroll, a backpack, waterskin, a dagger…….oh….a sword. I know this sword. I know this…. My vision starts to swim as tears fill my eyes, as the air is ripped out of my lungs and my heart shatters in a million pieces.

This belongs to Lex.

I feel my legs want to collapse under me, I have to stuff a gloved hand in my mouth so as not to wail, I’m taking deep breaths to try to maintain control. It’s not working.

“Little Help.”

What the fuck!

The voice comes from above me so I throw myself on the snow and roll away, coming up with an arrow nocked and ready.

Lex is dangling upside down from the branch of a tree. There is rope and saddlebags, a tent…all manner of shit caught in this tree. And Lex.

“What the Fuck are you doing in the tree? What the fuck are you doing out here? How are you here? What…just WHAT?” I’m doing my very best to scream but not scream so I’m whisper screaming.

“I came to rescue you.” He says it so matter of factly that I hear a burst of hysterical laughter that borders much more towards hysterical than laughter, and then I realize that sound came from me.

“But how….how are you” I gesture at his dangling form.

“Can we talk about this once I’m on the ground? This upside down is starting to give me a headache.” He asks plaintively.

“Yeah, uh OK…..just hang on.” I’m sluffing off my pack and moving towards a lower branch to start climbing up. I get above his leg, the one that has the rope wrapped around it, holding him in the tree. I start to grab the rope to hold and lower him, or at least slow his descent once I cut him free. Then I remember how damn bad he’s just scared me so instead I just slice the rope and let him fall unceremoniously the last 8 feet. It’s not enough to kill him.

Thwump, “Hey! A little warning would have been nice.” He complains.

“Tell me about it.” I say as I climb around the tree picking up his belonging and throwing them at him on the ground.
“Are you aiming that stuff at me?” He asks as he barely dodges his tent when it comes flying down at him.

“No,” I say as I launch his second waterskin at his head. Damn, missed. He gives me a look, I smile innocently. (I’m not very convincing)

I toss the final bits down before following them and landing gracefully on the ground, feet first. I give him a look that says ‘That is how it’s done.’ He rolls his eyes at me.

“What the hell are you doing here?” My hands on my hips in exasperation.

“What the hell does ‘See you on the Other Side Mean’?” He retorts. “What am I supposed to think about that? You’re on a suicide run? How could you send that to me?”

“Well…I just thought….I’m going at this alone, someone should know they’re out here….I thought it sounded cool…you know, brave.”

“It did not sound cool.” He says in his low, Commander voice. “It sounded terrifying.”

“So now what? We both might die, instead of just one of us?” I’m trying to sound defiant.

“Yes. We both….together.” He gestures between the two of us. It’s kinda touching in a macabre way.

OK, wow. I have to get my focus back here. “We’ll need to talk about this later. I want to hit the place before it gets too late.”

“Agreed. What’s your plan?” He asks as he packs up the rest of his belongings.

“Oh, OK…plan. Well, I have a map of the place I memorized and I was gonna use my rope to climb down and then basically……burn shit up.” He looks at me like there should be more to the plan, so I add “and try to get out alive.”

“Well, the last part of your plan is pretty good. Do you have any more details about the other part, the burn shit up part? And where did you get a map?”

“A lumberjack made it.” I say it so blandly that his expression looks like ‘of course’ until he realized it makes no sense. I just shrug at him and dig it out of my pocket, hand him the scrap paper with the map.

As he studies it I begin to elaborate my NEW plan. “OK, so you can lower me down on the rope and guard the mine so no other Crickets can come in behind me. I’m gonna work my way down until I find out where the rest of them are and….light the shit on fire. That flammable goo is down there, you can smell it from the top. But I want to kill all the females before I light it up.”

“I’ll go down with you-“ he starts to say.

“No, I go alone.” Lex’s face immediately transforms into anger at being left behind, I imagine it’s a Prince thing. Always being left out for his ‘safety’.

“I can see in the dark, so I don’t have to light a flame until I’m ready to really start trouble. It could be dangerous to go in that confined space with a lantern or a torch.”

Once he realizes my plan revolves around safety and open flames, and not just telling him ‘No’ for the sake of it; he relaxes. He understands it’s a darkvision thing and nothing more. “Come on, let’s see if anything has changed since I was last here.” I don’t give him an opportunity to argue any more and start leading us through the forest so we circle around to where I came out last time.

We come to the site of my last engagement. There has been a light dusting of snow here, but not enough to cover the bloody snow. The Crickets I killed are just as I left them, all three undisturbed. From the edge of the trees I see the lone sentinel at the mine entrance, dead and sprawled across the rocks.

“Nothing has changed.” I whisper to Lex. “Doesn’t look like they’ve been disturbed at all.” He nods.

He draws his sword and I ready an arrow as we dart across the 100 yards to the entrance. It’s no less nerve wracking the second time. The door to the shed is hanging open as it was before. I check and nothing is inside it, no change. “Wait for me in here, once I’m in the hole.”

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’. It’s the only safe cover.”

“I can’t keep an eye on you if I’m in the shed.”

“You can’t keep an eye on me if you’re looking in that dark hole either…..I need you safe.”

Neither of us are giving an inch. I don’t want to waste anymore time. “Fine, just try to be careful. You aren’t any help if you get killed out here.” He gives me a half grin and a nod.

In the shed, we find the mechanism for a basket. Similar to what the dwarves used in Hausen Hold. That’s good, we tie the rope off to it and toss the other end down into the mineshaft. I wait topside to see if anything comes up to investigate, nothing does.

To lessen my load, I give Lex my pack. I retrieve my fire arrows, my remaining oil flask, and flint and steel. Of course my weapons are with me. The moment I start lowering myself down is when I’ll be the most vulnerable. I think he realizes that, he looks worried. “I’ll give you 15 minutes and then I’m coming in.” I want to argue how ridiculous that time estimate is, how arbitrary, but it won’t matter. He’s made up his mind, so I just nod.

Climbing down, my lower half is below the surface. My head and shoulders are the only thing above the mine entrance. I take one last look at Lex, try to give him a brave smile. Suddenly, he reaches down and grabs the lapels of my coat, jerking me towards him. Before I can react his lips crash against mine, he holds me there for a few seconds, a few hours, years…I don’t know…I’m in such shock I can’t even react. I forget what I’m doing and let go of the rope….

And promptly fall 10 feet.

[Game note: at the table, when ‘the kiss’ happened. I just sat silent with a shocked expression. Didn’t utter a word. Picking up on my surprise (I never saw that coming) my GM says, “roll for surprise”. I rolled a 1. “You let go of the rope.” Roll Athletics. Rolled 18. “You caught yourself quickly, you only dropped about 10 feet.” Sometimes the dice tell the story right.]

‘How does he expect me to concentrate on what I’m doing when he pulls shit like that.’ Is about all I can think at this very moment. I’m hanging in mid-air by a rope in a pitch dark mine; possibly surrounded by the most dangerous creatures I’ve ever known, and all I can think about is a kiss. That man is going to get me killed.

Taking a breath I start easing down to the floor. Milter said that after this level the ladders should be intact for all the rest of them. In the darkness I can make out the edges of the columns, the walls and there it is…..the ladder to the next level down.

According to the map there are only 4 levels, if you include this small entry point. But they get progressively larger, with stone columns cut out every 5 feet or so. The second level is about 25’ square, the third about 35’ square, and the 4th is about 50’. That’s a lot to cover in 15 minutes before Commander Fantastic decides to come down the rope. I start moving quickly. Early on the second level I hear clicking. I halt and wait until I hear it move around a column and I jump out and shoot it dead. Definitely got the drop on that one. I finish searching the level as quickly as possible and move to the next. The ladders are on opposite ends from each other. I realize I would have never been able to light it up from the top.

The smell on the third level is much stronger and there is a fog. It is a lot warmer too. I wonder if it’s the temperature and humidity creating the fog. I hear clicking now and again but the fog is messing with my vision. It is going to take me forever to search this whole place, and quite honestly it will be easy to miss one of them. I decide to change tactics and make some noise. I get into a corner and tap my bow against a column. Forget hunting them down, I’m going to draw them in. I move towards a corner and tap another column. Sure enough a large form comes out of the darkness, the fog swirling around them. As soon as I’m certain it’s not Lex (that would be my luck) I punch two holes in the thing with my sword. Before I watch it sink all the way to the obscured floor I feel a hot searing pain in my back. Another has come up from the other direction. It’s second throwing star fails to find me, I feel the air rush past as it barely misses my neck and I turn to face the Cricket. I put one arrow into it’s torso and then charge, with my sword. I need to close the distance so it doesn’t get another throw. I slash it’s arm and leg, dodge it’s reaction strike. We’re making plenty of noise now.

Finally, this one is dead. I forgot to get healing potions at the lumberjack camp. I’m honestly not sure if they had any. I wonder if Lex does? Probably. I’m taking this moment to re-focus and put the pain behind me….and listen. I don’t hear any more noise on this level. I move to the other side to the ladder leading to the last floor.

The fog is even thicker here and the smell of the goo is really strong. I have to stop and put a rag over my face, the smell is sickening. And my vision is further hampered by the thick fog. In the darkness I cannot make out color, but I am sure it is green, like the flammable slime from before.

[I’m rolling CON checks to not puke now and covering my face allowed me to roll them regular and NOT with disadvantage].

I start along the edge of the space, along the walls. I’m afraid I might get turned around and lost if I move towards the middle. I hear clicking, but the fog makes it hard to distinguish its location, it seems to dampen the sound. There is another set. Great, two more down here. I’m just about to intentionally make some noise when BOOM, there’s one on me. She has a staff weapon, and cuts across my midsection, it’s not too deep, my chain takes most of the brunt of the damage. I can tell that she’s a female because she’s bigger, she’s fierce, and she’s pissed. She’s clicking and calling for all kinds of help. But it doesn’t save her from my longsword. She drops dead in front of me stabbed through multiple times.

I keep moving along the wall. There is another one here….hopefully just one more. I haven’t seen any babies running around, so maybe I caught up to them in time. Where is the other one….hopefully just one. I have moved along the entire back wall and am moving towards the opposite corner when it occurs to me that I can see. There is a glow ahead of me. The fog is still thick, the smell still awful, but now there is a glow along with it. As I move along the wall I see that it is brighter in the far corner.

Of course it is the opposite corner from where the ladder is. The furthest point for escape. I have a sinking feeling about what I am coming closer to. I continually stop and listen, trying to hear the other Cricket, but nothing. [I’m blowing perception rolls like a champ] Now that I am less than 10 feet away I can see that this area of the mine is different. It’s the newest digging area off to one side, the corner is more rugged and rougher rock. I don’t have to get all the way to the opening to see what’s inside. A giant birthing chamber. At least a hundred eggs all nestled and glowing, all the walls are covered in the green goo.

I have to free my hands to light the spark. A spark could ignite this fog and engulf me along with everything else in seconds. I might burn alive but I don’t hesitate. Crouching, I put down my bow and draw out an oiled arrow. Right before I focus fully on lighting the flame I see a quick movement. [Perception success!] I think she might’ve missed me because I’m crouched so low. I grab my sword and wait for her on the other side of the column. Just as I see the edge of her torso I leap up and strike. Cutting her down, blocking her attack, and finishing her off. Last one……I hope.

Going back to the arrow, have to re-find my flint and steel and start striking. It ignites on the first try…and the fog around me doesn’t, yet. I don’t even bother to aim, I just let the arrow fly towards the middle of the room and start to run. I don’t make it 4 feet before the whole level is engulfed in flames. The concussion of the explosion pushes me forward and off my feet. I stay low and feel the flames shooting over my head, from where I’m crawling on the floor. The fire is green and blue it’s so hot. I need to make it to the ladder and get off this level.

[Roll Constitution: success]

I found the ladder, I made it up. Flames are everywhere and as I’m climbing up I feel the air from above being sucked into the fire, feeding it. It’s right on my heels. God I hope there aren’t any more bugs. I can’t do anything right now but flee. I crawl towards the opposite end, where I know the other ladder is.

[Roll Constitution: fail]

I’m halfway across and losing strength. The smoke is getting thicker from the flames. It’s black and inky, if smoke could feel slimy this does. My breathing is labored, I’m taking short breaths. I don’t think the rag is working anymore, but I’m afraid to remove it.

[Roll Constitution: fail]

I’m at the ladder. Thank the Gods. I hope Lex isn’t in this, it’s horrible. Stay away, don’t come down here. I think I might be trying to yell that, but only a whimper comes out. I start to climb just feeling my way to the top of it. I’m on the next level, the air is being pulled down faster and faster. It’s like the air in my lungs is being pulled out too. I pull the cloth down to get air, but there’s nothing here to breathe. I can’t see any more, the smoke is burning my eyes, I can’t keep them open, I try to crawl to the last ladder but……

[Roll Constitution: Critical Fail (1)]

There is only darkness, and quiet.

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