I pause, looking over the farmstead. I’m currently crouched on the other side of a small berm. Once I stand and start towards the house I have no cover. I listen further for any signs of life and hear nothing but the beating of my pulse in my ears. The shutters and door of the house are closed up tight. This could be a good thing……or. I shake off my hesitancy, unfasten my snow walkers, and walk straight towards the ranch house door. I’m carrying my bow, but without an arrow ready; I don’t want to act like I suspect anything just yet. I step up on the porch and listen at the door. No noise at all.
The silence is unnerving. I walk to the end of the porch to look inside the barn and it’s swinging door. I cannot make out anything beyond the darkened doorway. But on the bright side there aren’t any crossbow bolts sticking out of me yet. If someone was laying in wait they’ve had plenty of opportunity. I go back to the front door and knock. The sound, even though I’m not banging hard, seems deafening compared to the still silence that once was.
“Hello in there! It’s the Ranger, is there anyone inside.” Nothing. Not one sound. I’m watching from the corner of my eye and there’s nothing coming at me from the barn either. I try again, “Hello! My name is Lilykai Kodel, I am an official Ranger of the realm, is there anyone in there?” For a brief moment I think I hear some movement, but it stops. I rack my brain for a way to get through to them. If this is the family, how can they know I am who I say I am. Then I get an idea. “Emme, I stayed with your Da and Mom last night, they’ve sent me with letters for you and some clothes for baby Luanna. Sybil says hello too.”
That did it. I hear quick steps towards the door. I step back a bit and put my hand on my sword in case it’s a trick, but as the door flies open I immediately release it. Before me stands a woman around my age, [Lily is an old maid at 23, she wed the Ranger service] dark circles under her eyes and shivering. I can see her breath even though she’s inside, she has the look of a cornered animal, and I hear a tiny whine from within the room.
As calming as possible, I say quietly “Emme, you’re going to be OK now, I’m here. Let me in and tell me what’s happened so I can fix this.” She moves swiftly and grabs my arm at the elbow, jerking me into the room and slamming the door shut right behind me. My eyes adjust quickly from the brightness of the snow outside to the dim interior of the house. I see what appears to be a pile of blankets shifting on their own, and a man not much older than me in a bed under a large pile of quilts and….clothes. The room is barely above freezing. I can smell the remnants of smoke and see soot here and there on surfaces in the room.
“They came in the night.” Emme starts. She goes to the shifting blanket pile and pulls out a little girl, dressed in everything she owns by the look of it, and cuddles the baby on her lap as she sits on the edge of the bed. “They said they were from the Garrison, and were here to help us,” Emmie starts to tear up “but Micha could tell something was wrong. He was a soldier there. He had his sword and said he didn’t believe them…..and they attacked him. They all got him at once. He hurt one of them pretty badly and got into the house. I locked the door behind him. They tried to get in and couldn’t.” At this point she pauses to collect herself, wiping away tears. “They couldn’t get in so they climbed on the roof and stuffed something in the chimney. They said they could wait us out and if they couldn’t kill us the smoke would. I had to put the fire out and we’ve been locked in here ever since. That was the day before yesterday.”
“Have you heard from them in awhile?” I ask. She shakes her head ‘no’. I have to organize my thoughts. Put my priorities in order. “Let me take a look at his wounds.” I drop my pack and start towards the bed. The baby fusses as I approach and Emme immediately tries to shush her. “Let her make noise, as much as she wants. I dare them to try to come in here.” There is an edge to my voice I have never heard before. At once I fear I might have scared Emme and look into her eyes, I’m met with a flinty look and a wolfish grin. Good. I turn my attentions to Micha.
He’s hurt pretty bad. Cut to the gut, stab in the leg, and a shoulder wound that goes almost all the way to the bone. Emme has wrapped him up pretty well but the wounds are still seeping blood. He seems a little feverish too. The cold might actually be helping him not to bleed out. I have three healing potions in my bag……..but a shit ton of trouble facing me. It doesn’t take me a second to decide. I reach inside my coat to an inner pocket and come out with a vial of shimmering blue liquid. I hear Emme gasp, as she realizes what I’ve got. Lifting Micha’s head and tilting it so I can pour the potion down his throat…. Slowly, slowly….I don’t want him to cough it up or spill any. The guy needs every drop. Once it’s done I let his head rest back on the pillow. He is still unconscious, but he takes a deep breath, filling his lungs….I can see that the wound on his side has stopped bleeding.
I turn to speak to Emme, but before I get a word out she gushes “Thank you so much! I know those are supposed to be for you…..” I shake my head, “They’re for me to do with what I please. Now we need to warm this place up.” I tell Emme that I’m going out and up on the roof to clear the chimney. When it’s done I’ll come down and knock on the door 3 times and she’ll know she can start a fire. Then I go to the barn.
I slip out the front door. It’s about an hour until dusk so the shadows are long which is working in my favor. I’ve left my pack inside so I’m quicker and lighter. I slip into the shadows on the far side of the house and away from the barn. If they charge me, I’ll have some room to shoot. The house is a timber construction, but the corners has been left overlapping so it is easy to get to the top edge of the roof. But beyond that is smooth slate tiles at a good slant. I take my grappling hook off my belt [dwarven made and collapsable!] and snap it into shape. It takes me a couple of tries [Dex rolls] but I hook the lip of the chimney and climb across the roof to it. It looks like the men had tossed in anything they could grab and carry up here. There are several tree branches, a bucket and random clumps of hay. I pull the largest things out and toss them to the ground. The hay I let fall through to the fireplace. Maybe it will help the fire get going. All the while I keep my eyes trained on the barn, waiting for them to come out at me. But no one ever does.
I retrace my steps back down to the porch. Releasing my hook once I’m at the edge again and winding it all up as I watch the barn door from the corner of the house. No movement, no sound. The stillness bothers me more than I care to admit. I’ve only got about a half an hour of daylight left. Which is fine with me, the darkness works in my favor [darkvision]. I creep across the front porch and rap three times quickly as I pass the door, not breaking my stride.
The space between the corner of the house and the barn is wide open. There’s no cover except for the trough near the barn. That’s my target. I bolt, full speed towards the trough and slide in the snow, crashing against the side of it. My bow is out and an arrow nocked, but I didn’t hear a thing as I dashed across and still there’s no movement. If someone is laying in wait, they are very patient. Patient is deadly.
My next advance is through the open doorway. I will be perfectly silhouetted against the dying light outside so again I must be swift. I dart from my hiding place through the door and further to the right, hunkering down low and giving my vision time to adjust.
The first thing I see is carnage in the middle of the barn. It takes a half a beat for me to realize it is a pig, a lone sow. She has been haphazardly “slaughtered” in the barn. I don’t approach to investigate yet. First I must make sure it’s all clear in here. I work around the sides of the barn. The bottom level, this level, is ringed with pens. Plenty of opportunity for someone to lay in wait.
Slowly I creep around the perimeter. In my ears my steps are as loud as an approaching army. At every opportunity for me to be ambushed there is nothing there. By the end of my check I’ve only found dead animals, frozen in their pens. That leaves the second level and once again, the perfect opportunity for me to be vulnerable to attack. I creep up the open stairs. Minding that I place my feet towards the outside of the steps, right over the nails holding them together in hopes of keeping as quiet as possible.
Once again, no attackers come at me out of the darkness. The loft is open except for some bales of hay and bags of feed. I hear scurrying off to my left. I spin, my arrow pulled and ready for release. Breathe…..breathe…….A rat scurries across the floor. I make my way around the perimeter again. I’m saving the stack of feedbags for last. It is the remaining place that someone could make a stand. But by now I know they’re not here. There’s no way that regular fighters could be this quiet for this long. I figure I’ll find the remnants of their stay, nothing more. So I am a little surprised to find a dead body behind the bags.
He’s one of the three, that’s for sure. I go and get a lantern so I can study his corpse for answers. I return from below with the light to a grim sight. Micha did indeed get a couple of good slashes in before they returned the favor. There’s a nice slash across this man’s thigh, he certainly wasn’t going anywhere fast after the fight. It looks like his companions took anything of value, he’s been left with the bare minimum of items, flint and steel, a canteen, and a dagger. Not much more. Not even a blanket. No honor among these thieves it seems. But the most striking thing about his appearance is the look of abject terror on his face. It is literally frozen in place upon his death. I can’t figure out why really, apart from the blood soaked pant leg there doesn’t seem to be any other signs of harm to him. I squat down so that I can look straight on at his face, as much as I’d like not to, and that’s when I see it. There is deep bruising around his throat. No honor among thieves indeed. They decided to kill their companion instead of just abandoning him to his fate. I stand and start down the steps of the barn thinking. Maybe they were afraid he would talk. Maybe he knew what their plans were going to be. Which means they had plans, which means these folks aren’t safe until I find the other two. I pick up my pace and run to the house.
“Emme, it’s Lily. Let me in” I holler through the door as I knock more quietly.” She opens the door and steps aside. I can already feel a little more warmth in the room from the fire she has going. Little Luanna is sitting on a blanket near it. I glance in Micha’s direction and note he’s still unconscious. I get to the point, “There’s one dead in the barn, Micha got him pretty good.” I leave out the part about strangulation. “But the other two got away, I’m going to follow them now before it snows again and covers their tracks. Don’t open the door for anybody but me. If anybody else shows up you tell them the Ranger gave you an order.” I expect her to argue with me over going out again but she just sets her jaw and nods. “I’ll be back, just remember…..only open the door for me, and don’t leave the house.” I hear her bar the door after I’ve closed it behind me.
I take the lantern and go back towards the barn. I can see several footprints coming and going, I follow different sets around and find recent ones that are going straight east into the meadow. After a few paces I realize there is a third pair of footprints following them. I didn’t recognize them at first because, quite frankly, they don’t make sense. The third set is barefoot. Now that I’ve found the trail I douse my lamp and follow the tracks into the darkening horizon.
I’ve tracked them for about three hours. It is a clear night so I’ve been able to follow their tracks pretty easily [three passed observation rolls!….In A Row!!] Before I cross over a small rise I smell smoke from a campfire. I immediately crouch and start to ease over the hill. Just as I’m raising up I hear a blood curdling scream from the direction of the camp. I leap up and start to run towards it. Is there another victim? Am I too late?
As I’m running in the darkness towards the light of the fire a shape charges towards me. I freeze and draw my sword, ready for whomever it is. As he nears I realize from his disheveled appearance that it is one of the deserters from the garrison. “Drop your sword! Don’t……” before I can finish my order he has run full speed past my position. It was as though he didn’t even see me. Then I hear another gurgling scream and continue running towards their camp. As I approach I see a man, his body really, slumped over on his side. I can see that his neck has been broken, similarly to the one in the barn. But I don’t see anyone else, and no one passed me on the way here….it doesn’t make sense.
I look around the campfire and see some belongings strewn about, a broken sword, and I think some of the pig from the Abner place. [Observation roll…..passed!] Then I see more of those crazy barefoot prints. Except this time they are really fresh and I can tell they belong to a really big man. He would have to be well over six feet. How did I run so close past him and not see. I decide to think about it later and just follow those tracks. I run full speed, not having any idea who I am after. I am utterly shocked by the scene that plays out before me.
The deserter that ran past me has been caught. The man that caught him is large, he is a bear of a man. He is wearing overalls and a checked shirt……and no shoes. It is below freezing…how is it he’s running around without shoes. My mind just won’t let that go.
“Heeeelp meeeee.” the deserter’s voice whispers as barefoot man raises him off the ground by the throat. I ready my bow and draw an arrow. “Let him go!” I order. Nothing changes. The deserter is clawing at the arm and hand of the barefoot giant of a man. “I am the Ranger, I will see that he faces justice. Put him down!” I try once again. I don’t want to shoot this man. I don’t know who he is but my internal voice is telling me to hold my shot. The deserter soldier starts screaming. His features are fully contorted in terror.
“DROP HIM!” I scream at the big man as loud as I can. I pull the arrow back, this has to end. Slowly the large, shoeless man turns his head towards me. I don’t want to see his face, I don’t want to see whatever the terrible thing is that makes the soldiers scream. I cannot look away.
The face I see is of a man, a regular man. His expression is the most sorrowful one I’ve ever witnessed. My heart rends at the sight of him. I lower my weapon. I notice the wounds on him; a throat wound beneath his bandana, a wide slash across his torso. They are surely fatal, but there is no blood. As I’m trying to understand he turns back to the whimpering deserter and snaps his neck.
It’s as loud as a crack of a whip and then total silence. There is a soft thud as the body is dropped in the snow. The man then turns towards me, I curse that I had lowered my arrow and bring it up again, though inside I know it is of no use to me. Before he is fully around the wind picks up and he disappears. I am left in total darkness, the cold is creeping in to my bones I have stayed still for so long.