In the Shadow of Leaves 6: Won’t Be Denied


The voice had been so beautiful and loud, his head vibrated and his ears rang. Tears had sprung from his eyes and the ground had suddenly leapt up at his face. He had seen it laid out before him so clearly. Emptiness, endless, unassailable emptiness. Then in that emptiness, he had floated. A light familiar but different, like a brother, had echoed far away. That same light burning warmly within his chest aching to seep from his pores. Cupping his hands around his lips, he exhaled light. It grew to a small candle-light orb, floating above his palm. As he’d moved his hands away, a lantern had formed, then a crook for it to nestle against. And the emptiness parted around him. Behind were shadows, figures without faces, but dressed in familiar garb and manner. He’d seen the fiery hair of a figure he presumed to be Isabel. The veil of Cadence, perhaps? The tri-corner hat of Theo floating above an empty coat. The pale blue bodice with wisps of songs around it that must have been Marinette. They had followed him through the emptiness on a path of light that he left behind him.

The way was fragile, though, and the thing that had broken the world was hungry here. Darkness clawed at it, vengeful and fiery. It grabbed at clothing and tried to pull his flock into the darkness off the path. But he knew- *knew*- that he could guide them. The Mists were no barrier to him. Not anymore. Not with that warm glowing white light held aloft for all to see.


The elf was beautiful, there was no denying it. Dangerously so. Ancient, powerful, and evil beyond measuring. Perhaps its nature wasn’t evil. Perhaps its nature was just so foreign that the concept of Good couldn’t contain it. It had spoken honeyed words and made subtle gestures with its striking eyes and flowing hair. Henri could only remember snippets of the things it had said, so distracting was its features and manner. The alien creature had almost seemed… hurt at his rejection of it, in that dark grove, surrounded by its seemingly mindless guardians.

Then it had moved, slain one of its own, and ate of its flesh. It had shouted words of summoning, and a skeletal stag had appeared. Even the blood running down its chin had seemed as if loving artists had painted it there simply to accentuate the litheness of its neck. As their party turned to ruin and foul magics battered upon them, again Henri had felt that light. He had poured it into Arbor’s lantern, and the battering had stopped. They were safe. And he had waited until the last of them had fled the woods before he had allowed himself to return himself. His flock, they were his flock, and none would be allowed to stray.


The warm white light had flickered in his breast as Cole had shouted her defiance at him. The patience and love that had been so easy to feel, so easy to cling to just a few short months ago wavered. The Community, his Purpose, was fracturing even as it bonded. He could not remember the words, but he had remembered the look of hurt on her features as she’d turned away and the warmth of righteousness had swept through him.

Theo had manifested in his vision, as he swam in the light. The voice had been grating and persistent, a cloud of mosquitos trying desperately to annoy and demean. The light had shifted, turning shades of red. He could see with absolutely clarity phantom flames of black and green lifting from his hands. He knew- *knew* – that all he had to do to silence the annoyance was reach out his hand and touch the human before him. And his Purpose had suddenly felt as if it a lodestone, and the light a lake he was treading water in.

The weight of it would pull him down so far that none would see him again, not as this, not as he was. His eyes would blaze with red and green- all would love him and be terrified of him. Instead of a shadowy elf pulling at their fates from the shadows, they would have a priest in white telling them how to live and how to find harmony. There would be peace, an eternal, terrible peace.

The buzzing had passed and the light was white once more. But he could see the red in it now, just beyond his sight. A red that hadn’t existed before. A light that was so… deeply comforting. So easy to reach for. So. Tempting.

He’d fled to the woods. Deep, deep to the woods. Under a tree, by the side of a creek, he’d sat and shook and wept. Life had been so much simpler in ignorance. With each step down this new path he took, the world grew more complicated, more rigid, more inevitable. What peace was there for him now that he could see his Purpose laid out before him? What escape was there in simple pleasures? What existed for him beyond this thing now?

As his tears dried, he prayed. And the prayers didn’t stop until well after the sun had set once more.

In the Shadow of Leaves 5: Despair

The swamp was silent, absent of the usual whine of bugs, chirps of birds, belching chorus of frogs. There was beauty in the silence, but a pervasive sort of sadness dominated it. Snow didn’t tend to linger in the swamp. The water never quite froze here; the roiling decay of underbrush and plant detritus kept things warmer than the rest of the region most of the year. Still, some pristine white clung to the top of the taller trees. The air had a crispness that was only slightly colored by the undercurrent of scent that labeled the region so very clearly a bog.

For generations beyond counting, the Chasseur family had lived in the depths of the swamp. Most folks tended to consider the area unlivable. It was hard to travel, if you didn’t know the ways, and eking out a living was harder here than most places. The Chasseurs were a stalwart sort of people, though, and rather than working hard against nature, had simply learned to be more content with less. At least they had. The last of them stood muddy on the largest little hill in the muddy region. Houses could be built on stilts, but the family graves didn’t have that luxury. Generation after generation had been laid to rest here. Markers ranged from coarsely chiseled stone to simple woodened planks. Most lacked writing, but had a picture carved or some symbol to indicate who lay buried there. Land was precious, so once the eldest forgot who was buried where, the markers were collected on the edge of hill, and a new body was laid to rest over the bones of the old. In typical times, this was a slow process, as the dead slowly overtook previous generations for dominance of the little hill. Today was different.

Over a dozen plots had been dug. Bones decorated with scraps of skin and hair had been wrapped in rotted sheets and gingerly laid in each their spot. The peat-rich soil had been replaced. A section of relatively clean wood had been carved with a symbol for each person who slept there now. Many had come out to help with the burial; more than had ever come from outside their swamp for a funeral before. More faces than could reasonably be remembered. They were gone now. The only living soul was seated at the edge of the smallest of the plots, legs tucked up to his chest, forehead resting on knees, tears streaming down face.

The darkness of the crypt was clinging, like a cold fog that set everything soaking with icy water. Each step was treacherous and forced a small, almost timid stride. The… *thing* that had spoken from the shadows had been cruel before. It had thrown rocks, or shadowy tentacles, or sharp pains at those brave enough to weather the assault and liberate the souls of the fallen. Henri had gone in several times, shrugging off some of the attacks, absorbing others. It was exhausting work, but Marionette had refused to quit. And Cadence had refused to quit. And Isabel had refused to quit. So Henri had refused to quit. Again and again, he guided someone into the dark, protecting them from what he could, and pulling them out again. The thing had called him light-bringer. The thing in the darkness had hated him. Then it had levied an assault against him that he couldn’t shrug off.

“What do you know of family, outcaste?” it had hissed, while Henri clutched a collection of assorted bones to his chest. “What do you know of a family staying together even in the darkness?”

Then it had grown quiet, mocking sympathy had colored its tone.

“Oh, but you do know. You know what it is like to lose family… and it broke you,” it had laughed quietly then and it was as if someone had ripped a warm blanket from the old man’s shoulders. A comfortable bulwark against the cold darkness had been shredded and discarded. Months of reflection happened in moments. He had been forced to see the truth of things and his own terrible cowardice.

He had seen, in full color and horrid sensation, the plague that had swept the town finally rolling over the swamp. His father was the first to succumb, a man who had never so much has had any sickness worse than a cold, had taken a fever and died within hours. Then his mother. Aunt. Brother. Sister. Cousin. Each had fallen as quickly as the last. Too quickly to bury. All Henri had been able to do was sequester the dead from the dying and pray for any hope of cure or succor to come. Alas, no panacea had presented itself; no divine miracle to save them. As his family fell one by one, his panic had grown, and his efforts to care for the dwindling survivors had grown frantic.

And then the unthinkable had happened. The dead started to return. For three bitter days, the family he had tried so valiantly to save would rise at night to try and claim the rest of their humble clan. His spear and fierce refusal to submit had kept them at bay, but he couldn’t stop the tears as his Aunt’s rotted face had dominated his vision, her boney claw-like hands grasping for her own son and shrieking a non-language at him.

Noémie had been the last to fall. She had been so frail and thin by then. Hollow cheeked, but bright of eyes. Lips chapped. Perfect blonde hair coming out at the roots in clumps. She’d smiled at him as she lay dying in his lap.

“We just need to rest now, Uncle Henri,” she’d said, in a whisper so small he could barely make it out. “We’s tired is all. Just let us rest and we be raat as rain.”

Then her unblinking eyes had stared off into nothing and his wails shook the house.

If only the horrors had ended there, perhaps the old man could have forgiven himself. But that wasn’t the end of it. He could see and not see. He was aware and unaware. The corpses of his family, too many to bury, too many to mourn, had seemed whole once more. They called to him merrily. He had blinked back tears and kissed each one. They were sick, obviously, but safe. They asked him for help, and he put them to bed. Each was tucked in and kissed goodnight. He hunted for turtles and made soup. The thick stew had dribbled down chins and caught in bedsheets.

He saw and didn’t see as his family’s eyes sunk away. How their lips and gums pulled away from teeth. How the flies collected. How they bloated and released their putrescence. He saw and didn’t see how the swamp consumed them. The heat of summer bringing their torrent of feasting insects. How discolored and rotted the sheets and bedclothes became. Every so often, one would rouse itself and attack him in an effort to eat of his flesh. He saw and didn’t see how he laughed at their orneriness, gently holding them until they were still again, and placing their diminishing remains back to bed.

The dark spirit in the crypt had taken away the didn’t see. Now he could only reflect on the horrors he had survived and the sad consequence. Noémie’s sweet angelic face had turned pale and translucent, floating after him to speak at times. Other times he had spoken to her bones. Other times to a compelling shadow that had been nothing. He saw himself speaking to the bones of his mother, soup coating exposed teeth, as he had provided her answers to himself.

This was monstrous. He was a monster. It had broken him; he knew that through and through. The tears had blinded him. The sobs robbed him of breath. He wanted to curl up until he was so small he would just disappear into nothing. But Marionette had worked through her blood. Cadence through her exhaustion. Isabel through her fears.

Wiping away his tears and wrestling his sobs to sniffles, he had gone back into the crypt again. And again. And again. One by one, the ghosts had been pulled from the gestalt darkness until only Roger had remained. The door had been nailed shut with spikes of silver and priestly rites. He had gathered his belongings, wounded and bloody, he’d shuffled to the place where he slept to weep until he had no more tears to weep.

There he sat, exhausted and alone, among the buried remains of his family. He’d gone to the other family homes and found them all in a similar state. They’d all been collected and buried. They’d had words spoken over them. They’d had stories told and names remembered, they would for as long as he could remember.

“I’m so sorry,” he muttered weakly against his knees. “Nonna this shoulda happened. Y’all deserved somethin’ better than what I done and what I couldn’t do.”

He’d sleep here tonight, he knew that much. His friends had given him the space that he wanted, but someone would come looking for him if he didn’t go tell them he was alright come the dawn. The exhaustion went beyond the physical- it has soaked past his bones and into his soul. He’d never been so tired in all his life. Shifting, he flopped to the wet moss covered earth and closed bloodshot eyes. Cuddling his knees against his chest, he cried himself to sleep. The morning would be cold, so very cold. But it would also be bright. And with the dawn would come hope. That sweet tingle of God’s light would set him right once more.

In the Shadow of Leaves 4: That Ain’t Raat.

“It was like some oily fingers were all fiddlin’ right under mah skin,” he said with a frown. “You know when yer workin’ da skin off a lapine, an ya slide a finger up der ta loosen da pelt? Felt like dat.”

The room slanted room was cold in the winter air, and the small fire in the hearth did little to banish the chill from the drafty room. Noémie sat with her wide, glittering eyes watching him from her perch by the fire. She wasn’t her usual chatty self, but the family got sedate this time of year. It was hard to shake the oppressive darkness of the woods when the days were so short. The friar understood and continued on, trying to fill the space with his warmth and words.

“Ain’t never felt nothin’ like it,” he said again, brows furrowed. “Like all the beautiful tings on God’s green earth went squirrely all at once. Da preacher man says it something called annie-croix. Gots ta do wit dem wizard folk. Can’t square it in mah brain.”

Reflecting, he could clearly visualize the multi-armed monstrosity. As if a spider had merged with a person, but also weapons, the wall, and the ornery temperament of a bear with a sore tooth. When it had touched him, that oily not rightness had swept through him. Like his bones were trying to shift under his muscle against his designs. It had hurt and caused a strange distress to his stomach he’d never felt before either. It was as if the lunch he’d eaten had wanted to climb out of him. Unsettling and uncomfortable.

“Dun tink Imma go back,” he continued quietly. “Felt… wrong. Da most wrong I ever feel, down der in dat lab. Cadence an dem said it was some sorta body er some tin. Corpse of a witchking? I dunno, didn’t make no right sense ta me.”

A shiver crept up his powerful shoulders. And then when the moss covered mage had ‘corrected’ the problem in his bizarre way.

“The doc say dat it weren’t nothin’. Dat mah body could take reams more before, but I ain’t so sure,” he said doubtfully. “Felt like mah skin was peelin’ off and bones was crackin’. Didn’t hurt so much as felt real… wrong. An’ his boss-man, dat one ain’t all der, I dun tink. Askin’ after my mind. Doc said I was a functional lunatic. Ain’t sure what he mean by dat. Seems rude as hell, honestly.”

With a glance at the pale girl, he blushed slightly.

“Forgive ole uncle Henri, cher,” he said. “I dun mean ta use the vulgars. Anyway. Dat boss wizard did somefin wit his fingers an my body twisted up and smoothed out right. So I guess it all fine in the end. Just… dun wanna go back der.”

It was a strange sensation, when he reflected on the cave. He wasn’t afraid. That wasn’t a thing he’d felt in a long time, if he really thought on it. It wasn’t fear, just a deep abiding wariness. The feeling of being entirely unprepared for a situation and going in there anyway. It just felt wrong was all.

He let out a long sigh and straightened up, dusting the dried and frozen mud from the white of her clergy clothes. Then he walked to Noémie and scooped her up.

“Duncha worry yer pretty head about it, cher,” he said. “Past yer bedtime, and Uncle Henri be jess fine. Dun cha worry none.”

He carried her up to bed, the room cold and quiet, just the occasional sound of shifting bodies to let him know his family was present.

War Journals 4: Rage

A life spent in campaigns and raids, marching through mud and hiding in gore; the old knight had seen losses before. He’d been defeated before. Such things were inevitable, if one was truly honest with themselves. It was impossible to have perfect control of your soldiers. Impossible to know with perfect certainty how a rival would move, or how quickly their troops could muster.

These were all excuses that he told himself, saddled on his powerfully built warhorse, tromping through the hoarfrost. It had been a slaughter, there was no other word for it. The painted faces of the Hollow Song had come through the woods in a single long line, stretching further than the eye could see. They had been slathering at the mouth, adorned with the flesh of others. The Grym had faced their out runners and scouts in forum. The Hollow Song had refused to stay dead even then. How many had he killed? He’d lost count Their ravening cries between deathblows frantic, without greater purpose. The red haze that had descended across his vision had never truly lifted. [i]Her form had been limp, nestled against the base of the damned menhir. Red wicking through the pristine white of her robes. Her voice weak and sedate as it called to him.[/i]

When an army suffers a grievous blow and is in an ordered retreat, there are sounds one expected. A morose sort of silence. The whimpering of the wounded and the drag of their sleds. The occasional shout of alarm as each branch becomes a new imagined enemy. Curses, both at their ill fate, and also their inept leadership. His troops made little of these. Instead, there were growls, unsettling and deep. There were no curses from them, only demands that their retreat halt that they could return to the hopeless battle. They had been slaughtered when their force was twice this size. Now? They would hardly even slow the madmen. Some dark seed had been planted in them, and Sven, the Elf-Blood, wished to water it. More than anything, he wished to wheel his horse about and ride back to face them.

The painted faces had been goading, by the end. He had been surrounded by a dozen or so dead of their number, a hundred more of his own. They had been grinning, nearly lecherous at them. They flesh adorned men, faces grinning and painted, words oddly encouraging, had made a hole. They’d allowed half his soldiers to slip between their lines. The intentional release couldn’t be ignored; his lines had rolled up like a carpet. They’d been doomed; he’d expected to die with his troops, and they’d let him go.

“How old were you when you killed your first man, Troels?” he asked, not really caring. The commander of his forces said something in a growling voice, but Sven hadn’t asked because he cared for the answer. Sixteen, he thought. “I was nine.”

Eyes glassy, breath frosting and catching moisture in his beard, he stared into the distance. Some memories were burned into your mind for all time, and this one was just as clear now as it had been then.

“My Uncle took me hunting. He wasn’t so much older than me. My father was Earl and had given up most frivolities to focus on managing the house, for all the good it did him. A true Gothic in all but name, father was proud to divest himself of all but his furs. But Uncle Hakon… he was all history and romance for times gone by. He was so proud of his Brand. Hakon Iceblood, the vacant eyed killer. He taught me the trade more than anyone else,” the old knight shrugged. “He would often take me hunting. Sometimes for elk, sometimes for bandits. It made little difference to him.”

He was rambling now, but it didn’t seem to matter. Words were being used as a crutch, and he needed them to keep his men moving away from certain death. The blood in his veins boiled and demanded some sort of satisfaction. To be gratified on flesh.

“Uncle Hakon collected me from the city. The usual excuses were given. He wished the heavy pelts of larger deer in the North. He said we would be gone for a few weeks. It was a long trip. We met his men a few days out of town, and we moved north. A challenge had been issued; I didn’t know it at the time, but someone…” Sven’s features shifted to a frown in though. “I can’t for the life of me remember with who. Someone had challenged someone, and now their small armies were jockeying about to find favorable ground for a battle. I’d never seen such before. Not a real one. Two organized shield walls moving and counter moving. The axes pulling open holes. Spears and blade slashing through the openings. Iceblood won. I’d never seen a man move so fast. I’d stayed back with the followers; the cooks and blacksmiths and wounded too tired to assist materially. Far enough for safety, but close enough to observe”

The scent of the battlefield had been more jarring than the sounds. The slashes of blood making mud of the ground had been greater than any hunt. Nothing in this life smelled like the belly of a man torn asunder.

“When the matter was settled, Iceblood came back, grinning like a loon. He had taken a knee and clapped me on my shoulders. ‘This is mans business’ he’d said. The gravity of the situation was broken by the manic levity painting his face. He taken his knife from his boot. A lovely blade with a hilt of polished horn. He pressed it into my palm,” the knight looked down at his gloved hand as his horse plodded on. He could still feel the small nubs dotting its length and biting into his palm. “He took me by the shoulder and guided me to the field where the wounded lay. Some were crying. Some were dragging themselves off. Some were just blinking up at the sky with bewilderment. Iceblood found a fearsome specimen. Tall as a mountain. Some axe or another had taken a deep wedge of flesh from his side. His hair was the color of embers as they burn low, with a fearsome beard to match. Darker flecks dotted the beard, looking black in the evening’s shimmering light. ‘This is mans business’ Iceblood repeated and just stood there, expectantly. I was confused. I remember looking up at him and wanting to ask what was mans business. But it was the bleeding fellow that brought clarity to me. ‘It falls to the boys to cut the throats of the fallen’ he said. ‘This is our way. Cut the throats of those who will not rise on their own again. Call it a kindness lad.’ But there was no kindness there. I was dizzy and young and had no mastery of the blade. The first thrust hesitated and caught on his rib. It skittered away, sending shivers up my arm. Damnedable feeling, the bone grating against the blade. Iceblood let me stab him three times before he told me where to cut a man that he would bleed out. Didn’t show me, mind. Told me. I never learned the name of that red maned giant, but I remember his eyes still. I cut the throats of six more men that night. Their faces are less clear to me.”

He looked up from staring at his palm to view the woods thinning to plains as they marched towards Runeheim. Word would have already reached the Avalanche and Ingvar of their devastating lost. They would be wheeling their forces about to secure the populace. They were good, moral lads, in their way.

“I don’t know what brought that to mind,” the knight said absently.

In the Shadow of Leaves 3: White

A jolly hum vibrated through the chest, reaching beyond the individual and bounced merrily off the walls of the empty, slanted, living space. It was filled with crescendo-ing high notes and deep rumbling low notes, though it had no specific cadence or rhythm consistently in line to call the hum a tune. Instead, it was the unadulterated expression of contentment.

The floor contained, amid the broken and slowly decaying furniture, a creature with mud under its nails and a grin approaching blissful. Across its lap was a dress. It had been modest, with little neckline to speak of, and had once been white, though now it had a more yellowish quality with age. Compared to the creature working its edges, it was of a radiant purity that belonged far away from this swamp.

“Was awful nice of Auntie Olivia to give you her dress,” Noémie said from the darkened stairs that led to the upstairs makeshift infirmary. Her eyes glittered like angelic sapphires hung by the hand of God himself in the pale, angelic face. The one with the dress across its lap looked to her and smiled broadly. The white teeth slashed a path of cheer across the dirty beard, a hovering disembodied moon of pearls across a backdrop of twig invested tangled hair.

“Oh cher,” it boomed across the room to her. “Yer daddy taught ya better than ta lurk in doorways and spy on folk. Come on down now an get ta hemming!”

The girl giggled in the way of innocent children, and scampered towards him in the way of children; caring not for their safety with the intention to barrel into their target. Which she did promptly, wrapping her thin arms about the filthy man’s neck and throat, planning several kisses on the cheek, heedless of the quagmire of filth that tended to roost there. The man boomed a happy, indulgent laugh and reveled in the connection for a moment before shooing her off.

The dress was no longer a dress. The yellowed luminescent fabric had been reduced to a wide strip, now quite the width of the swamp-man’s shoulders. A pair of heavy, rust pocked sheers could be seen near the right hip, the fabric pooled over the lap. Along the edge of the cleanly cut fabric, small muddy fingerprints could be made out where someone had tucked the edge under the length of itself and driven a pin through to prevent the wriggling fabric from escaping its new shape. The pins were spaced at intervals, that even the most generous soul couldn’t call even. Along one side , another series of muddy prints decorated the edge where a needle with an unintentional bend had been driven through to tie the two sides of the fabric together in a crude sort of matrimony. The thread could be seen clearly, as no great effort had been made to find white thread. We could call this activity a ‘stitch’, though a tradesman with any semblance of talent would shudder at the work. The ‘stitches’ were randomly space, though they did seem to capture both sets of fabric most of the time. From a distance at least, it would give the passing semblance of a straight edge, though closer inspection would no doubt draw a tear to the eye over the atrocities committed to the cloth.

“What’s it gonna be, Uncle Henri?” the girl asked innocently, as she threaded another needle and began working the opposing hem. Her movements were much more confident, and that edge stood as a proud bastion against the invasion of the sloppy stitch-work on the other side.

“I dunno the proper name fer it, cher,” the creature denoted as ‘Uncle Henri’ replied. “But its a thing them friars wear. Sorta a white strip a cloth over the back n’ belly that sets on the shoulders like.”

The girl looked up from her work, and tilted her head sideways in the way of an inquisitive child.

“Why?” she asked, innocently.

Henri opened his mouth to answer. The brow furrowed in thought, leaving darker creases in the mud between his eyes.

“Well cher, I tink it be dat folk need ta know who is walkin’ the Path,” Uncle Henri said after some reflection. “Its so er’y one know who dey be an’ what dey be about. Papa Clement said dey use dif’rnt colors ta mean dif’rnt tings, but I ain’t worried bout dat.”

The little face of divinity smiled up at her uncle, “Ooooh.” Then it glanced around the room, and she took her turn to furrow brow. “Where ya spear be?”

Uncle Henri, a title the man truly loved to respond to, sighed in a relieved sort of way and shrugged.

“Gave it away, cher,” he said in a tone that implied a great joy. For her part, she looked surprised and blinked at him.

“Why?” she asked in a puzzled tone.

“Dun need it na more,” came the reply. “I’s only gonna have the tings da I need ta do the good werk.”

She looked more puzzled, “Huh?”

The man sighed again and put down his messy task that he would call sewing and most others would call atrocious.

“I gave off all ma tings, cher,” was the reply. “Tings… dey get in da way of folk. Once dey start wit da needin’ of tings, dats all dey do. Its all dey be. Some is more strangled by it den most, but its a seed dat gets planted deep in ya belly. Hits a point were folks stop askin’ on da why dey need a ting and focus more on da need of it. Ain’t no man or woman on God’s greed erf dat can truly see what they need for true over what day need fer want once dat seed sprout.”

The girl looked confused, the intricacies of the gesture escaping her.

“But… dat spear was ya most precious ting! I ain’t never seen ya witout it! Why ya give dat off?” she pleaded, eyes turning to small saucers. He’d seen a fine plate made of impossibly thin material once that had that same pale blue crystalline quality. It made the old fellow smile.

“Oh cher,” he said sadly. The old, well cared for wood was in his hand. He had stepped forward. Cadence had her back to one of the fellows. The man, dressed in dark clothing, lifted a glinting blade. The spear leapt forward as if it was a living thing. A serpent. Something born to kill. Between the bottom two ribs, it caught the man and drove forward as if the fellow was constructed of some sort of marshmallow material instead of flesh. A flower of crimson had blossomed immediately, and he’d dropped like a sack of grain poorly laid across a cart, falling to the ground under its own limp weight. The feeling of revulsion and horror. Reality had shone down through the clouds. It was impossible to escape. The face of the gasping man turning down towards the spear in its side, then up at the one holding it, tears of pain blooming in his eyes. The spear falling from nerveless hands and dirty fingers pressing and holding the wound. Frantic cries for help unheard. The ones that had traveled with he that held the spear turned towards the two dully, confused. They shrugged with indifference, all save Cadence. Why did they turn? Why could they not care that someone was hurt. That *he* had hurt someone. Vicious bile churned and threatened to appear from deep within the man as the blood of his victim leaked through fingers. Tears cut vicious swaths of clean flesh across the muddy cheek. Why had this happened? Why did it have to happen? Back in the room, the man pales slightly and swallows before forcing a sad smile to his lips.

“Oh cher,” he repeated. “I dun never wanna hold dat ting again. It weren’t some ting precious. It were a weight dat held me down. Now I ken be free ta fly.”

In the Shadow of Leaves 1: Literature

There is an old book in the Chasseur family. François Chasseur had called it his grandpappy’s War Journal. Of course, if he had paid just a bit more attention, he would have known that *his* grandpappy had called it the same thing. There really was no telling how old the thing was. The paper was wrinkled, and of a deep brown that felt delightful to the touch. The leather was of an even darker brown and had the dry look of well cared for leather that should have long since turned to dust. The writing had been in charcoal, and much had faded over the years. None in the Family could remember how to sound the letters, but they all liked to look at it from time to time and pretend. Henri’s recollection of his Uncle before he’d left for military work included a wide array of the book being brandished and thumped for emphasis, spouting tales of knights battling great monsters of old.

The dirty figure hunched over it ran a filthy fingernail over the page lovingly, imagining in the complexity of his mind’s eye, that the words made sense.

** … we have chased the beast through the wood and into the hills. Its voice drive them to madness. I swear to the Almighty God, in whom I have entrusted my soul, never have I witnessed such horrors. It spoke of hunger, and we were hungry. Some of the men turned on each other, eating of their flesh and drinking of their blood. Their minds warped; there was no saving them after. Their screams haunt my dreams. The bliss in their eyes as they chewed the intestines of their children haunt me. There can be no redemption after such things. I pray to God for forgiveness for what I have seen and done in this war.

We have sealed the beast in with the sacred rites. The King has decreed…**

He knew what it said, in his heart he knew. It was talking about a dragon sitting atop a horde, and the brave knights that slew it. Something noble and pretty, like his when the girls dance in the spring with flowers in their hair. A smile splits the weathered face of the man. He dips a corner of the rag into the shallow dish of water and gently rubs it along the page to pull off the words. Gently, he blows on the page to dry it once more. Then the tip of charcoal touches the page and he closes his eyes.

“How den dat go? La-th-eye-a had a youngin’ fer a king, who was called Benny-lass. Benny-lass raised up as a king of this scary city, was protector of them bad religions and their exotic rites. La-th-eye-a had cults with great wealth to its king for dis protection of der sacred places where their differen’ worship could do their endless circle of sacrifice and orgy,” he said with his brow furrowed. “Alright den.”

The charcoal tip started to draw simple images. Lethia was a tower with a halo. Benalus was lion in a crown. There is a pause. This was a young king. The image is wiped away, and the tip drew a lion in a crown without a mane. A shield comes after the lion cub in a crown. Then three simple robes wearing spiked halos. Then a coin. Then an alter with a robed figure behind it.

It felt good to write down the good book. The dirty figure smiled as he accented the halo over the lion.

“Das good,” he said, feeling warm inside.

War Journals 3: Honor in Battle; Dishonor in War

Sven bent armored knees to pluck an apple from the cold hands of a Cold Hand. He polished it on the corpse’s coat before he tilted his head to examine the face of the dead man. His eyelids were unnaturally puffed, lips swollen and blue, and the tip of a tongue protruded from his mouth grotesquely. Poison was a miserable way to die. The first bite of the apple is delightfully sweet as the knight straightened.

“Troels,” he said, speaking around the fibrous fruit currently occupying his mouth. “How sits the tally?”

Finally, he wrests his eyes away from the blue-hued corpse to the commander of his forces.

“Just over five hundred dead,” he says, sniffing in a disapproving way at the poisoned body. “Including… them.”

Sven nods, taking another bite and munching slowly.

“Our losses?” he asks, swallowed and took another bite.

“Some wounded, but they’ll recover. All still capable of fighting, but I’d give the spears a chance to catch their breath,” he carefully schooled the disapproval off his face before the knight before him could see it. They were both of the Bear Hide and had strong opinions on forth-right action. Sven took the tally in stride and nodded before tossing the remains of the apple on the corpse he’d taken it from.

“We won’t have much rest, I’m afraid. We need to press east hard to get to this land bridge before winter falls upon us,” he says, wiping juice from his mouth with the back of a hand and turning back towards his troops. They had hit hard and utterly destroyed this force before they were even aware they were under attack. Laying in wait, as they had been, had blinded them to the Imperial force’s approach. All the better, really. Hard marching troops through unpatrolled woods was typically a recipe for disaster.

Troels for his part nodded, accepting the necessity.

“We will need to find a secure footing before winter snows fall, my Lord. Or cut the Southerners loose,” he said. They were both keenly aware that the northern winters were debilitating to the Gothics in their ranks. The knight just shrugs without answering.

“Find me a rider. Sir Ingvar’s forces are some miles to the West handling the rest of the Unseen’s forces. I wish to know how they fared. Ask if there is any word from the Avalanche and his boys with their orc fiasco,” Sven intoned, striding out of the killing fields towards his horse. Troels snaps a salute and turns on his heels, barking orders to those soldiers too foolish to see the foul mood that had claimed him.

A few men helped Sven mount the armored warhorse before he heeled away and made a slow cantor to the servants setting up his tent. What old age and countless battles had taught the grizzled knight was this: there was no honor in war. There was only the living and the dead. In duels? In boasts? In Courtly love and politics? There, much honor could be found. Far from this… slaughter. What difference did it make to these men whose blood soaked the earth, to die from sword or spear or poison? What difference did it make, if Sven had loudly declared to them that he brought troops against them and to form ranks for the charge? They were just as dead. And the dishonorable action of one knight had likely saved hundreds of lives.

No. The ‘honorable’ war was one quickly lost. To survive, you needed to understand just how far your enemy was willing to go to kill you, then go further to make him die. Always have one more knife than your enemy believed you to possess. Never let them take your full measure. The first priority of any battle was to survive. The *second* was to kill the enemy. And the third was to weaken your true opponent sufficiently that politics can resume. War without a political exit was doomed to extend forever.

So he would teach the Rimelands just who it was they faced. Just how brutal he could be. And when enough of the Clans had been put to the sword, the others would capitulate. And once again, there would be peace. He would make the very thought of raising a sword against the Empire so disgusting, so horrifying, that the Rime would gleefully abandon their horrific monstrosities they had enslaved themselves to.

Then, they would all find warmth and love in the kind and gentle embrace of the Emperor and the kind and gentle redemption of Benalus.

“A thought so sweet, I just may weep,” he grunts to himself with a laugh as he heels his mount to greater speeds.

In the Shadow of Leaves 1: Family

Nestled deep in the swamp stood a house. The house was old, far older than folks might realize. The support beams sagged. Thick sweeps of moss hung from the eaves. The back porch had long since slipped into the boggy mud. While the primary resident was far too polite to ever tell mamma (again), the sitting room also slanted heavily, causing any vaguely circular object placed on it to immediately make a mad dash for the front door. No glass stood in any of the windows. And there were large patches in the roof that, even from a distance, it was quite obvious kept out precisely nothing.

It was home, and had housed the still proud Chasseur family for so many generations, that the family’s meager math skills were sorely tested with the counting of them. There was a small buzz of activity around the house’s only fireplace. The hearthstones had been sunk deep, deep into the mire around them. Great grandpappy had often boasted through a toothless grin that the whole house was built around that chimney; the hearth built on top of some ancient pillar now hidden under the crumbling house. Either way, the white stone had long trails of black soot lapping up the sides to disappear in the creaky stone tunnel, ushering away the smoke into the night air. The night bugs flew around the dirty figure singing quietly to himself.

“Uncle Henri!” a small voice called from the other room. The hunched figure muttering over the pot straightened and turned towards the voice with a broad smile splitting his face.

“Oh cher,” he cried. “What you doin’ up at dis hour?” he pronounced it nearly as ‘her’.

The small voice giggled, and whispered on in a conspiratorial whisper, “Nanna See is cursin’ up a storm somethin’ fierce, Uncle Henri. She sayin’ you done burned the stew again, an’ that yous gonna leave the shell in der too long and foul it up.”

A pale, dirty face with the most beautiful watery eyes that God had ever graced in a child, dipped into the light. She giggled again in that way she always did when causing some small degree of chaos. “Ain’t none of us ken sleep up der with her howlin’ after ya.”

Henri sighed in an overly dramatic way, placing hands on his hips. “Noémie, what did ya pa say bout tattlin’? You keep up with that, yous gonna be cuttin’ a switch before the sun peeps over dem trees. Now get back ta bed, scat! Yous know the floor too cold fer ya sickies! Soup will be along directly, its done. I ain’t got na bread, but we make due.”

The girl looked forlornly at Henri before nodding and sulking back upstairs. The one who had answered to Uncle Henri started to ladle the chunky stew, a color not unreminiscent of swamp water, into the wood bowl deep enough to nearly be a cauldron in its own right. Humming softly, he mounted the stairs himself, a stack of splintering bowls and spoons under his arm. One always had to mind the third and seventh stair in the old swamp house. The third because it was simply missing, and the seventh because, no matter how often it was nailed down or replaced, it always seemed to pop up along the left side. Normally, there were always folks in the house. Ma and Pa had themselves two children besides Henri, and Pa’s sister was still about. Henri’s brother, Francis, who was named for Pa’s younger brother, a brave man who’d left the family near twenty years before and had stopped sending letters nearly a decade ago, had himself a wife and three children of his own. Among them, Noémie was Henri’s favorite. Aunt Beatrice had her own kit, and their house wasn’t too far north from them. There had been more of them at one point, but a few years back, the rest had just stopped visiting or sending along word. There was a proud certainty in the house that these others were fine, but some general concern that they had forgotten Family Sundays.

The second floor of the dilapidated house was where the young and sick were always shepherded. Great grandpappy had always said that those who were frailest needed to be kept in the best air. Hence, the second floor. Past the broken banister was a large central room, broken only by sturdy blocks of wood holding up the roof. Night air came in through the window and roof alike. Night bugs making nests in the blankets of the ill. The noble soup bearer was greeted by a series of happy shouts and waves. They were a family of huggers, and had they been feeling more themselves, they likely would have leapt from their beds to wrap him in a series of tight embraces.

“How y’all are?” was their responding call. The fellow couldn’t wave for desire to not drop the stew. But he did offer a broad and happy smile to the crowd.

“Henri!” the voice of the man’s mother cut through the joy around her, which died off with good natured chuckles. “I know you w’rn’t born with sense God gave a squirrel, but I *know* you didn’t burn my dinner. Again!” There was no venom in her words, it was just her way. Too many children, and if you didn’t speak to them firmly, soon enough there was chaos in the house.

“Na, mama,” he said, tugging his forelock her direction once the soup was settled on a table that was surprisingly level, given the state of its fellows. “I stirred it the whole time, and set the pot just on the embers overnight. Just like yous said ta.”

She gave a withering glare for a moment before the pale figure nodded contently and crossed her thin arms across her chest. “Good. Glad ta see yous ain’t beyond learnin’.”

Henri, the noble soup bearer and wrestler of turtles, bowed his head her direction before gesturing to Noémie.

“Cher, you hand out the bowls,” he said with a smile. She immediately stamped a foot in protest.

“Uncle Henri, if ice hand out da bowls, den I gotta eat last. I never get a lump a meat when I go last,” she said, clearly unable to decide if she wants to fold her arm in indignance, or reach out to accept the immediately offered bowl her direction. Henri didn’t wait for her to settle on a choice before he gestured with the handle of the ladle towards the farthest cot, her father.

“Go on nao,” he said, gesturing a second time. She huffed, but did as she was hold. Her father accepted the bowl and spoon, giving his daughter a playful ruffle of her hair. Henri had seen her carried across his shoulders through the fields where the marshes dried out a bit. The sun had caught in her eyes, dew in her dimples. He’d never seen his brother so happy. Francis had always been a sullen figure, prone to sulking and fits of slothfulness. But since the day she’d been born? Since he had bundled her into his arms and strutted around the family home, just as proud as you please? Since that day, he’d never been without a smile. Henri’s heart could nearly break at remembering that day. Discretely, a tear is wiped away before Noémie can notice.

The ritual is repeated half a dozen times before the child was allowed to settle into a chair not far from Henri and dive into her stew. Once she was seen to, Henri hovered near his mother. She had a bowl of the soup settled in her lap. Gingerly, he helps her sit up, adjusting the pillow behind her shoulders so her neck didn’t have to crane at a sever angle to drink in the soup. She hadn’t been able to really feed herself of months now, and his father didn’t even have the energy to speak. He’d never been a verbose man, but as the years had worn on, it seemed his vocabulary and desire to exercise it diminished every season. These last few years, aside from headshakes and some grunts, he’d nearly given up on speaking to anyone at all.

“Yous a good boy, Henri,” she said, reaching up to pat his cheek with a gaunt hand that was always too cold. “Always was. Never gave me a lick a trouble. Is hard on ya sometimes ta make sure the mettle in ya is keen.”

Henri offered her a smile and nod, pulling up a stool to settle his weight on before scooping some of the stew onto a spoon and bringing it to her lips.

“Hush now, mama. I love you with my whole heart,” he said. She smiled before nodding and her lips parted to accept the soup. She recoiled a bit as she chewed, her brow furrowing immediately into a sign of disapproval bordering on disgust.

“Boy, you ain’t salted this atall!” she shrilled at him. Henri looked confused, scooping some of the soup onto the spoon and give it a try himself. It tasted… fine. His was never as good as his mothers. She was a mighty fine cook, everyone said.

“Its fine, momma,” he said. “I salted it. Give it another go.”

She resigned herself to the inferior meal, though she still scooted a bit closer to her son. Sometimes it was hard for folks to speak their feelings for fear of appearing weak. His mother was one such person. She patted his knee as if acknowledging her own failure before settling back to be fed her meal.

And so it went; one spoon for her, one spoon for him. She had never been a good eater, but he had devised this scheme once it became clear that was was more concerned that her son ate. Their bargain had been that she would eat precisely as much as he did, no more, no less. So they shared a meal.

“Ya know mama,” he said. “I been back ta town the other night. Cousin Thomas passed. Or seemed ta say he did.”

She gasped and covered her mouth, “How dare ya speak of so dark a topic over dinner. Who raised you, boy?”

He nodded sadly, spooning another bit of stew into her mouth. It was her turn, after all. “I’m sorry mama, I just feel so bad about it. I was just over an auntie’s house, and they was fine. Still under the weather, but this cold won’t kick. I’s gonna check on em tamarra. I’ll be sure ta leave extra soup with Noémie, and I’s sorry ta leave so soon after gettin’ back. I won’t be long.”

Granny See nodded after a moment. “You give Olivia ma love now. And don’t dally; I won’t abide you passin’ off yer chores ta Noémie, since she can’t seem ta say no ta you.”

Henri offered her a broad smile and nodded. He stood, straightening and picking up the wooden pot. He had a system with the girl, where she would collect up the dishes and bring them back down, and he in turn would give her some small treasure of the swamp. She was partial to flowers of a blue or purple hue, or wild honeycomb. He ruffled her hair, more gently than her father’s had, as he passed her by. They continued their quiet murmuring conversation as he slipped away. The pot was put back by the hearth, and he wrapped a mud soaked bit of dangling fabric around his shoulders. The spear he favored when hunting boar or gator was left by the door; ma didn’t like big weapons in the house. Boys always got to them and couldn’t be trusted not to break every little thing they crossed.

“Be good now,” he called to Noémie. She waved from the top of the stairs. By the time he was a half dozen steps away from the front porch, his ankles were lost in the muck. It was a full day’s walk to his Aunt’s home; his goal was to be there by midday. He’d never had much trouble walking through the night. Family came first, after all, and he wanted to make good time.

The house fell back in the darkness. Silent save for the buzz of flies and the quiet dribble of soup colliding at top speeds with the floor.

War Journals 2: The Shadow Wall Has Fallen

The cacophony of camp being struck had died down. It wasn’t precisely still, with the shifting of armored bodies, and the quiet murmur of fellows speaking softly to one another. Lord Sven had done his inspections of the ranks and the site to ensure that muster had been handled in the most appropriate manner. The servants would follow the fighting men in their train, and the quartermaster would draft their reports.

The various plans were still gently tumbling about in his mind. It would be months until the next forum, which meant that he was able to be where he was most comfortable, among the fighting men and women under his command. He and Sir Ingvar had worked out the bulk of the particulars for this season. That fucking witch had raised the Karls under Longstrider that he had already massacred once, and their odd brand of shambling order had put the monstrosities between his forces and the settlement of Runeheim. The Lord Marshal was chomping at the bit to get back to the town.

Sir Ingvar was to take his force and move through the hills to the forests to the South. Word that the bastard Overturner had put them into a political bind… not un-artistically, at least, had reached them via a courier in the forum. Supplies, they had said, were coming from Overturner to secure a landbridge somewhere to their East in the yet uncharted areas of the local theater. How Vidar, the detestable cunt, had knowledge of this bridge was beyond him, but he’d found a way to force his actions almost immediately with Sven’s return to the North. The highborn snorts and spat noisily in disgust.

Sven, for his part, was to assist in the destruction of the undead horde encroaching on the settlement and allow the Lord Marshal to fall back and secure the town. Then he was to move further East to explore along the river to find this bridge he was to secure. It was a reasonable plan, if boring. With the inspection of the lines done, he shouted to Eda to bring around his horse. Already clad in his armor, it took two men to help settle him into his saddle, but already he was feeling better about the day. He gestured to the two figures tasked with the day-to-day of managing his troops, and calls were immediately given for the army to advance towards the shambling undead. They would wait at the tree line for the Lord Marshal and that Hothands fellow to strike their camp and join him. Perhaps he would alleviate his boredom with a playful attack to their flank. A… training exercise. Just to get the blood pumping. The idea amused him.

Sven wheeled his horse around and began riding up and down the length of his line, shouting to his men and joking as he passed. The troops liked him; but it was hard for soldiers not to like him. He was proper and noble when he needed to be, but he could drink most in the camp under a table, and knew more bawdy lyrics and course jokes than half the legion combined. The rank and file liked a little spit and dirt on their officers. He was just preparing to give the order to playfully encircle the firemages camp and begin sparing with the unprepared soldiers when a scout rode up, his horse in a lather with blood on his temple. The scout jerked his horse to a skidding stop and issued a distressed salute.

“My Lord, the town is under siege!” he panted, once his salute was acknowledged. Sven furrowed his brow. That seemed… unlikely. The only force they had been aware of within striking distance of Runeheim was the six hundred or so risen Karls, the stench of which wafted up after the scout like some horrid perfume.

“At ease, soldier. Take a breath,” he said, raising a calming hand to the scout whose name was escaping him. Lief? Erik? He couldn’t remember. “Start at the beginning, how does the town find itself under attack?”

The scout took a deep breath, which helped him find his center, before he began again.

“I was scouting out along the river to find the line of the dead things as ordered,” he began. Sven nodded patiently; he remembered issuing the order. “When on the horizon I noted the sails and pennants of ships crossing the river. Longboats, my lord. Dozens of them.”

Sven frowned again. That seemed… unlikely, though not impossible. The other side of the river had been difficult to scout or find a foothold in. Still… to cross through those unforgiving mountains, onto boats, across the river, land and lay an assault… whoever this Warlord was, they were talented.

“Do you know more?” he asked, rolling the situation around in his mind. The scout nodded, but didn’t seem pleased.

“When I saw the troops leaving the longboats, I rode closer. They moved to attack Runeheim, milord! The town itself!” he seemed in a near panic again. Sven raised a calming hand.

“What of the defenders?” he asked in that same placid tone. “What banners did you see? Think man, take your time and remember.”

“I saw the pennants of the Shadow Wall,” that was what the locals called Shadows of Nemesis organized under Sir Niven. “Sir Ingvar, Dame Solace, and someone I didn’t recognize. All of them were pushed out of the town and fell back to the hills, milord. The town is undefended!”

Sven raised a gauntleted hand to his chin and pondered for a moment.

“Carry this message on to the Lord Marshal’s forces,” he said after a few moments. “Tell whomever you find there that I will punch through this undead horde and carry on to the town. They can catch up when they finish striking their camps.”

The scout saluted and rode off, his horse thundering into the distance.

“Pushing through the dead without support will be hazardous, my lord,” a voice called from the horse next to him. Sven looked over to see one of his Commanders, Troels Hadvarson. A good man; he’d been with him for years. The grave features of the Bear Hide weren’t afraid, just aware of the peril. “Those dead aren’t simple. They hold their weapons with confidence and are unsettling to look upon. If there were just living Karls, that would be a tough battle. But as they are…?”

Sven shrugged, “We’ve little choice in the matter, Commander. Issue the orders, I want a brisk march to the enemy. I can smell them from here, and I’d like this done with.”

The Commander snapped a salute without further comment and began issuing the orders. Sven drew his sword and looked back to his line. Vengeance, the massive black stallion under him did a small excited side prance for a few steps. It could smell the unnatural terrors that they were about to engage, and it had no love for the idea. But it was also one that had been drilled from birth to obey. All it took was the gentle heel to the ribs, and the horse leapt towards the enemy. The roar of his men behind him rolled through the forest.

Ahead of them, the dead turned their vacant gaze towards the sound and formed up in surprisingly orderly ranks. They issued no commands that he could hear. They bellowed no challenges. The only sound from that side of the battlefield were the bloated flies and the click of armor. Of all the terrors of the undead, their echoing silence was the most unnerving.

The battle was thick and intense. The dead did not retreat, but rather fought until the very last of them were downed and dismembered. They had been tough and terrifying and not at all the bumbling ghouls he had cut his teeth on to the South. These had been touched by Sveas, may the good Lord smite her wretched essence back to whatever darkness had birthed her. Still, they had been rudderless. Their lines had held, but not responded well. Whatever witch had empowered them had abandoned them to their own devices. The angle responses of the bellowing Sven and his Commanders had easily outmaneuvered, overrun, and massacred the forces of Longstrider a second time. Covered in rotted blood and viscera, reeking of month old decay made fresh and sprayed across the bodies of his triumphant soldiers, they had been afforded no rest. Rather, they had marched directly on to the city without pause.

The intention had been to attack the Warlord from across the river before he could deal much damage to the innocent people of Runeheim. But, at the sight of the enraged Fenris forces cutting through the dead and barreling his direction, they had issued orders to fall back to their longboats and retreat across the river. Sven had reigned up his horse impotently, staring at the sails of the retreating ships just out of reach. He had no archers, and even if he had, he wasn’t sure they could have landed a shot against the wind coming off the sea. Sven grit his teeth and spat again. First from the frustration. Then a second time from the rotted stench coming off his armor.

“Secure the beach,” he snapped, irritated, to Troels. “And send a runner to Ingvar and Solace to return to town.”

The Commander snapped another salute and began issuing orders.

“And tell the men to wash their armor, this stench is unbearable,” he shouted to his retreating subordinate’s back. Long years of experience told him that this missed engagement would haunt him the rest of the season. He ground his teeth in rage, casting a final look to the retreating sails of the longboats before wheeling his stallion around and trotting back to town. If he and his men were going to be spending the next few months this close to town, he was going to find a proper drink and maybe a fuck to vent his rage. “And tell the Epoch to start burying these fucking bodies!”

War Journals 1: A Certain Perfume

The tent was a familiar space. Certainly, he’d spent enough time on campaigns over the years for it to be more of a home than whatever passed for his actual home these days. The well oiled canvas had a few patches here and there from travel pains, but was largely in good order. Sif was handy with a needle, and Svetlanka hand set up and torn down the large tent more times than either of them cared to remember.

The trappings of the tent were sparse. A set of folding chairs, a collapsible table, the armor stand, and a cot in the corner stacked high with skins and blankets. Outside, the cacophony of a victorious army was at work. Drinking and revelry were abounding. The cook fires were still high with spring offerings; a welcomed change from the dried rations of winter. Their scent was nearly enough to cover the smell of the battle. Blood and bowels always marked a battlefield, when it was fresh. But as the heat took it, the scent would change towards something even less pleasant.

Sven chuckled to himself and pushed himself up from the table, striding to the tent and pushing himself out into the daylight. Men had cordoned off a proper campsite, but it was really broken into two parts. The area immediately around his tent were the sworn men of Runeheim, newly anointed in battle and still a bit wobbly in their expected duties. Ultimately the weaker of the two forces, but the more loyal. The second area was a bit less orderly, but rapidly growing in the afterglow of victory. These were the Karls; fierce warriors of the North drawn to victory as shit drew flies. Half of the assembled force had defected from the failing Hadvar Longstrider forces. Such was the way of soldiers of fortune; when things grew boring or the spoils thin, they would disappear in the night as shadows in the noonday sun. The old warrior let out a sigh, but still smiled happily.

“Eda!” he bellowed, looking about for the diminutive squire recently assigned to his command. She came up from behind a tent a few rows down, wiping her mouth and looking ill. The older fellow squinted at her. “Bit green around the gills?”

She nodded and opened her mouth to speak, but Sven waved her off. He found her wide-eyed trepidation charming, if overly naïve.

“We’ll talk inside, I need you to take a letter to Sir Ingvar,” he said, holding the flap open for her and gesturing to the writing kit on the table. The pages were blank, and clearly he intended her to write his dictations.

“Yes, sir,” she muttered, pulling quill and inkwell from the box. Sven turned his eyes back out on the field until he recognized one of the fellows from earlier.

“Lief,” he bellowed, pointing to a fellow who jumped in a startled fashion and scrambled towards the commander, bowing. “Has anyone found Hadvar Longstrider yet?”

Lief shook his head, “I don’t think so, sir.”

Sven gave a considering nod before speaking.

“Double the men looking for him. If his corpse is recovered, I want his bow and head,” he said. Lief gave a nod.

“And if he is alive, sir?” he asked, taking mental notes.

“Put him to the question. I want to know everything there is to know about this Lionslayer or killer or whatever he calls himself,” he said. “I believe Harold finds the work rewarding. You’ll find him in my kitchen deployment.”

Without further word, Sven slipped inside the tent again, catching the barest hint of perfume on the air. A slow smile set about his lips as he eyed the skins adorning his cot. When he noticed Eda looking at him expectantly, he cleared his throat and began pacing.

“Sir Ingvar,” he began as Eda scratched on the parchment. The task seemed to have grounded her a bit, though she still smelled faintly of sick and disappointment. “My force is currently East of Runeheim, along with those of the fire wizard and Lord Marshal. After our forces went their separate ways, I engaged Longstrider twice, and have decimated his forces. Casualties are negligible. As Runeheim lacks the infrastructure to support prisoners of war, I have instructed survivors to be put to the sword.”

There was a pause in the scratching along the paper as Eda faltered with the order he had given. She had been present when he issued it, of course, and she hadn’t seemed to care for it now either.

“Something wrong, Squire?” he asked in an amused, if cool, tone.

“It seems… unnecessary to kill these troops. Where is the honor in it?” she looked up at him with too big eyes. There was almost a plea to them that would have moved a younger man. Alas, for her, the grizzled figure before her had seen entirely too much blood to be swayed by the tears of youth.

“There is no honor in war, Eda,” he said. Frowning a moment, he settled in the other chair to be more at her eye level. It was important to educate squires in their knightly duties. “Honor is for duels and skald’s poems. We won’t sully ourselves by boasting of this victory in grotesque terms, but killing the enemy is always the objective in war.”

She frowned a bit and seemed unconvinced. Sven nods, and continued.

“Let us consider a moment,” he said. “Our enemy numbered roughly 800 fighting men and women, not to speak to their scouts, cooks, travel slaves and so forth. Of those 800, at least 500 lay dead in the field just an hour’s walk from here. The rest have fled or been wounded or joined with my forces here. Of the wounded and surrendered, reports have it at just over a hundred men and women who are enemies of the Throne.”

He cleared a small section of the table, so that he could draw with his finger and tap to elucidate his points.

“Runeheim has no prisons. Their stockyard is a literal tree with a chain wrapped about it. They are discussing if there are sufficient prospects to support the war effort through the winter. Further, I saw no priests or secular doctors in town, though I heard rumor of one,” he said, his tone growing more patient as she paled out before him. “Such as it is, these prisoners have wounds that will go untreated simply because we lack the capacity to heal them. They would be chained outdoors for want of a prison or camp. They would suffer from starvation from lack of harvest.”

Pausing a moment to consider if she was appreciating what he was saying. She nodded, but seemed hesitant.

“Our force will not be able to move if we are securing over a hundred warriors. And they would cast our own ranks in chaos if they managed to break free,” he said. “Our own force is made up of citizens that were farmers and merchants a few weeks ago. Hardly trained to the task of prison warden. And the rest of our forces are their former comrades-in-arms; not the most trustworthy wardens, I think you’d agree.”

For a long moment, the two were silent as she fidgeted with the quill.

“Can’t we just… release them?” she asked. It wasn’t a timid voice she used, but it was quiet.

“And give them a chance to raise up arms against us in the future? Seems foolish to me,” he said.

“How are we to win the North over if we slaughter their men?” she asked a bit more forcefully. He smiled.

“It is not my job to win the populace,” he explained. “It is my job to disarm and emasculate them to such a degree that the thought of rebellion sickens their stomach. Anything beyond that is a matter for the clergy.”

Sven clapped her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze as if that settled the matter. Regardless of her mouth opening to voice further protest, Sven rose to his feet and continued the dictation.

“Let’s see, where was I… ah yes, put the prisoners to the sword,” he nods and begins pacing, lacing his fingers behind his back as he does so. When he speaks again, it is the bold voice of dictation, from a man expecting his words to be captured. “I haven’t the time to construct crosses, else I would begin to line the roads with the crucified fallen. Not that there is much in the way of roads out here. Dispose of yours how best you see fit, though I imagine that Sister Solace will want to issue words over them or attempt to convert or liberate the thralls. When time is less pressing, we will formulate a plan to handle prisoners of war more efficiently in the future. Perhaps, if Sister Solace feels the pangs of guilt at the treatment of those laid low, she will utilize her forces into more of a prison camp managing system and we won’t have to worry about it further.”

The elder pauses a moment in thought, that wasn’t a bad idea. Perhaps that would solve both problems at once… Something to explore later.

“We haven’t been able to secure the body of Longstrider, though I will know directly if he survived the conflict. Named men taken will be put to the question before execution. We should see about developing our logistical support, and perhaps see if we can incentivize some of the locals to collect the weapons of the fallen for use within our forces. I expect the forces of the Lord Marshall to retreat back to Runeheim at the first opportunity, but I will meet with the leader of the Fire Wizards to see if it is their intention to continue on with us or fall back with the rest of the troops,” he said, continuing his pacing. “I expect a full report within a fortnight on the state of the farmers. Yours in triumph, Lord Bryjar, honorifics, and so forth. Dictated, but not read.”

He gestures in a ‘so-on’ way. Waiting until Eda finishes the letter, before signing the bottom and sealing it with his signet ring.

“Take the evening to settle yourself, Squire Eda,” he said, clapping her on the back again. “Then I expect you to deliver that without delay to Sir Ingvar. Travel along the road the army has passed. There will be some scavengers among the dead, but they won’t be trouble if you stay mounted. Longstrider might be in the wood, or some of his straggling soldiers that avoided capture. If you come across any resistance, return, don’t engage.”

Sven offers her a smile and formal nod of dismissal. Eda, to her credit, only hesitated a moment before saluting and exiting the tent. The old warrior smiled as she retreated before turning his eyes to the sheets of his cot and their sweet, guilt laden perfume. Whatever sweet heaven might be promised to humanity beyond this life, it wasn’t for him. He would just have to find his own heaven here, regardless of the protests of his soul.