I quickly decide that I can deal with the bodies and the mystery barefoot man in the morning. As it is I won’t be returning to the Abner house until around midnight, that’s if I don’t have any surprise delays.
I can smell smoke as I’m nearing the house. I barely make out light between the slats of the shutters on the windows. Emme has stayed up for my return. I knock lightly on the door, “Emme, it’s me, Lily. You can open up.” Immediately I hear the bar removed from the door and it swings open. Emme looks tired but happy. Immediately I realize why, “Ranger, is everything OK?” I hear a hoarse voice from the bed.
“Yes, those men won’t be harassing anyone else.” I say to both of them. Micha is sitting up slightly, there is a lump in the bed beside him and a tiny hand poking out from under the quilts, resting on his chest. I smile in spite of the situation. I turn to Emme, “I left them where they fell. I will pack them up tomorrow and take their bodies to the garrison after I’ve delivered you to your parent’s house. She opens her mouth to object but I continue before she gets the chance. “All the animals are dead, they either stabbed them…..for sport….or they just froze. You,” I look in Micha’s direction, “will need at least a week for that shoulder to be usable. And there’s still a pretty aggressive wolf pack wandering around. I can’t, in good conscious, leave you here like this. But I need to move on to my next stops.”
“She’s right.” Micha says from his side of the room. “I’ll feel better if you and Lulu are at your folk’s place. And your mom can help me out with this.” he lifts his shoulder a bit and then winces. He turns his attention back to me, “Thank you Ranger, for….saving me. Em told me what you did.”
“You’re welcome, but it was not a hard decision to make.” I give them both a tired smile. “I don’t know about you two, but I could use some sleep.” I say as I make my way to the fire, Luanna’s blankets are still on the floor, I try to slowly lower myself onto them but instead I crumple like a piece of parchment. I hear Emme take a step towards me, I lift my hand and wave her off as I roll to face the fire and warm up The next thing I know I’m laying on my back and something is rhythmically patting me.
I squint my eyes open a little at a time to see a rosy cheeked two year old playing “patty cake” with my cheek. She notices me watching and erupts into giggles. It is the best sound in the world.
“Lulu, don’t wake the Ranger!” I hear her father admonish her as I awaken fully. He is scooping her up which only results in more delighted laughter. “It’s fine” I say as I sit up. I’m a little stiff from the floor, but nothing I can’t shake off. Emme is bustling around in the kitchen and calls over her shoulder. “I’m making pancakes for breakfast, they’ll be ready soon!” My stomach growls in appreciation. I go to sit at the table, the house is warm and smells delightful from the breakfast being prepared. Bacon is on the table and I snatch a piece before I can stop myself. It’s delicious.
Micha sits across from me with Luanna in his lap, one arm in a sling. He too picks up a piece of bacon, breaks off a bit for the baby and, when Emme catches him and gives him the evil eye, points to me and says “She did it first!”
“Oh, right…sell out the Ranger, see if I ever save your life again.” I quip. They freeze for a moment before we all burst into laughter. Baby Luanna applauds like it is the grandest thing ever. It feels good to relax and laugh after yesterday, but thinking of that reminds me of what I need to do after breakfast. “How do you plan to get to your parent’s place?” I ask them.
“Our oxen were in the pasture with the cattle” Micha begins to explain, “I just need to go up and get them, there’s a small field further west of here where they go. It should only take me a couple of hours at best.” I nod along to his explanation, that is perfect timing for me.
“I need to gather the Bastar…” I pause a moment, and catch myself before I curse in front of the wee one “…..bad guys who started this whole thing. If it’s OK I’d like to use some of your spare lumber to make a rough sled to carry them.”
“Sure, anything you need. I can even help….maybe….a little” Micha says as he examines his arm in a sling. “I’m sure I can use your help.” I reply, much to his relief. I know he feels like he needs to repay me, even though I was doing my job.
We all dig in to a hearty breakfast. And a whole lot of hot tea for me. I’m preparing myself for the task ahead. Micah and I leave together, he heading towards the pasture, me the lumber pile. [Intelligence and Dex rolls…..yes, it takes me a few tries. For every failed dice roll, I come up with an alternate way to accomplish my task, or a reason for the failure (rotten piece of wood), finally I roll 3 successes in a row]
After a half an hour I have a pretty good sized sled that I can use to drag the bodies back to the garrison. It’s daylight now, so the trip to the camp, and their bodies, won’t be as long. I tell Emme I should be back in about 3 hours total. Sooner if I can. I start running where the dead men lay.
There was a fine dusting of snow overnight, but my tracks are plainly visible to the meadow and back. I retrace my steps to the last man, the one I saw killed. As I crest a small hill I can see where it happened about 100 feet in front of me. What catches my attention most, though, is a bright red object in the tree nearby moving in the light breeze like it is waving me down. I go to it first and see that it is pristine, as if newly purchased and never worn. It is lightly tied to the lowest tree branch. I know exactly the last person I saw wearing a red bandana just like this one. He disappeared right in front of me. I reach up to grasp the end and it comes untied from the tree limb as if on it’s own accord. Even though I am warm from running all the way here I get goosebumps suddenly and cram the thing in my pocket. I’ll study it later.
I go to the body. He is stiff from death and cold. I roll him onto the sled. I don’t look at him too closely. I know how he died, I do not doubt what I saw with my own eyes. I drag the now occupied sled to the body by the campfire. I drag him onto the sled beside his companion. I do take a moment here to go through the camp and I find a bag of items that they appear to have taken. There are some coins, mostly coppers and a few silver, a small piece of jewelry, and most notably; a silver brush, comb and mirror. Obviously a set, and obviously not belonging to the deserters.
Thanks to the sled I am still able to keep a brisk pace and make it back to the Abner farm before lunchtime. I go straight towards the barn and start to pull the dead man from the loft. Micha has already been dragging the animals out and putting them in a large fire pit far from the structures. He doesn’t want to encourage wolves by leaving the carcasses abandoned. He insists on helping me even though he has an arm in a sling. I think it makes him feel better to help, so I let him. We pile this body in with the others and cover them with an old sheet so the baby, and Emme, will not have to look upon them.
Then we are ready to leave. The house and barn are locked up tight, we have some preserved and canned food and we start back towards the Belag farm. We’ll arrive soon after dark, barring no encounters with the wolves. I hear them howling in the distance as the sun starts to set but they are far to the east. It is cold enough so that the smell of the dead won’t draw them. I finally start to breathe easy when I spy the lights of the ranch house ahead of us.
As the wagon pulls into the yard I see the door of the house fly open. I have broken away to stash the sled out of view and away from the animals. If these deserters get chewed on by wild animals I’m fine with that, but I don’t want them to lure wolves to the livestock. I use my shovel to half bury them in snow to keep them frozen until tomorrow morning. With these below freezing nights that shouldn’t be too hard.
I’m coming around the corner of the house, looking down as I brush the snow from my gloves and sleeves when I am unexpectedly pounced upon. Arms grab me from front and behind, and squeeze. I startle and tense momentarily before I realize it is Maeglad and Falwyn embracing me, their heads pressed to mine as they quietly say their thanks to me. Once they release me all three of us are hastily wiping away tears.
We go into their house to find Luanna being entertained by Sybil, Micha by the fire and Emme setting the table with more plates. Dinner is about to be served. None of us speak of what just happened during the meal, we’re just not ready to go into it again. After Sybil and Luanna are put to bed, I open up my pack. It is then I remember the items I was supposed to deliver to Emme and hand them over. “So much for being a good messenger” I mutter….Maeglad just refills my wine glass. I then pull out the bag of items that I found at the deserter camp.
“I don’t recognize any of this” says Wyn. “It might have been a wedded gift, it looks like that quality.” She doesn’t know who it might have belonged to though. The five of us solemnly study the once loved items.
“I didn’t kill them, you know.” I start. They all freeze and look at me. I describe what happened: the looks of fear on the men’s faces, the barefoot tracks, the huge man I saw break the last guy’s neck and disappear before me. At the end of my tale I pull the red bandana from my pocket and lay it on the table. Falwyn gasps loudly and exclaims “I know what this is!” We all look to her for answers. “My mother told me about these spirits. When a loved one is taken from someone in a violent way before that person is killed themselves they can become a ‘Vengeful Walker’. They roam the land until they take revenge on whomever or whatever killed the person they loved. That man was probably one of those.”
So, this is now a ghost story. I hold up the bandana, “What is this, though, why was it left behind?” Wyn explains further, “Probably because you didn’t interfere, or because you said you were going to make him face justice. Either way, you were on the spirit’s side. So he left you this boon.”
I shake my head slightly, “ I don’t know about that…it seems…creepy.” She shakes her head and picks it up to examine it further. “No, Lily, you don’t understand. This token has been hallowed. It is intended to keep you safe. You must wear it as protection.” she folds it up until it looks like a cuff, winds it around my wrist and ties it on securely. “Always wear this to keep you safe……protected.”
[Game notes: So this was a weird session, couple of sessions actually. I never killed anything….Ok, let’s explain The Vengeful Walker. This is actually a Revenant as found in the Fiend Folio (1981). My GM just changed up some things and added it to the narrative, made up a story and a new name for it. It is a super powerful monster and as he put it “the smartest thing you did was not try to fight it” apparently, it was way above my level/pay grade. Also, because I not only did not try to get in his way, but tried to reason with it I got an extra, extra boon…the bandana. After we wrapped up the session and xp was awarded (bonus for not fighting the vengeful walker!) I was told “write bandana, protection from evil, on your character sheet.” This marks the first magical item that Lilykai has in her inventory. Seriously. Every bit of her equipment and weapons are regular military issue. Nothing magical….until now. Here are the mechanics of the bandana: evil creatures and people….basically anything EVIL has to roll with disadvantage against Lily. Roll 2 d20’s take the lowest number. This bandana has gone on to save Lily’s ass more than I care to mention. Lily loves her bandana, she hasn’t taken it off in a year and a half game time. She even wears it to fancy dress balls. Because it is magical it still looks brand new.]