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.