War Journals 10: Rooks, Ravens, and Crows

The old knight sat in the cold, wrapped in his thick black coat and waited for the sun to rise.

The Spring war season had been shockingly quiet. The Doghearts had disbanded rather than face him on the field. Guthar had been crushed over the winter. The Dwarves had been sequestered in their home, though no word on the progress of the Fafnir forces had reached his ears. The settlement of Runeheim was reasonably secure. The banner of the black fort flew over the cursed Fort that had caused the knight no end of trouble since its discovery more than a year ago now. All and all, the immediate surroundings seemed to be in a good place. So he had taken his forces East through the woods his men referred to as ‘Murder Alley’. The name was only partially in jest; most of the casualties of war had taken place in those woods.

While his troops has passed through without issue, Sven wouldn’t be willing to swear there weren’t still enemies laying in wait there somewhere. It had been a troubling stretch of land since his arrival in the Theater. However, with his fighting men and women successfully on the other side, the land bridge was finally in his sights. That humble muddy stretch of river was the key to this entire campaign. It was the lifeblood of commerce. It hid the dreaded serpents. It was an open gate between the Njordr and the Rime. If they could control the land bridge and build his chains on the river, the knight was confident that they could bring some security to The Throne.

The only real hiccup with his Spring had been the unpleasantness in the tavern surrounded the Lady Dressler and certain members of The Grey Company. He sighed at the recollection of it. The knight had been charged with prosecuting the war in the north. He was at war with literal gods, and every small victory came with a similar loss somewhere else. Truly, it was exhausting. Things would be what they would be, however, and he would accomplish little by worrying about it now. Things outside his sphere of influence was, by definition, something he couldn’t impact. Therefore, it stood to reason that devoting thought and worry towards it would accomplish little. In that vein, he elected not to worry about it now. Honey had a hard time going back in the comb, and this situation seemed to be one of those. At the very least, immediate violence had been avoided.

As the light of the sun starts to color the sky in the grey of pre-dawn, the knight sighed. In less than an hour now, his staff would rouse themselves from slumber. He would instruct his horse to be saddled, and the knight would journey back towards Runeheim to assist in the moving of materials from the outskirts to the farms for build projects. A truly spellbinding waste of his talents, but it was, he had been told, important to be at least seen attempting a penance for his violence in war. His niece had been clear with him; some people were unhappy with the good works he did for The Throne. The knight understood the troubles; the North hadn’t ever accepted a doctrine of total war. They were slowly learning his lessons. Eventually, he was certain, they would understand. Until then, he would strive to enlighten the populace, at the bloody tip of a sword if need be. And in the meantime, he would haul wood from one corner of the Theater to the other. Because that was the best use of a high born general’s time.

In the Shadow of Leaves 9: Of Things to Come

The longer the old hermit was allowed with his thoughts, the more he pondered things he’d never pondered before. On reflection, most of his life to date had been spent in a sheltered sort of daze. His ‘otherness’ hadn’t been terribly apparent, at least he’d never noticed it much. Folks had always been nice to him, and he’d always been nice to folks back. It hadn’t made much difference if it was in the wood or the town or the church or whatever. Folks were nice, he was nice, the world kept moving at its slow and steady pace.

Something had happened a few years ago, and that had started to change. The mists that had protected and kept this place walled off from everything else had started to change, and with those changes, his awareness of his otherness had also changed. It wasn’t a bad thing; the hermit had decided that the mists were bad a long while ago, and that they would need to be dispelled at some point. They existed separated from the rest of Humanity, and the light that burned just behind his eyes was so excruciatingly clear that their *purpose* was to be united. Standing apart was preventing them from fulfilling what God had set before them. The world was broken, and it would forever remain broken until Humanity united in thought and actuality. The town’s resistance to dismissing the mist, he felt, was pure fear, a concept he didn’t really grasp well anymore. To the hermit, it was simple; Luisant’s resistance to pushing aside the mists and rejoining with their fellows was much like a child who had long outgrown their crib, yet insisted on staying within its comfortable confines.

Those thoughts. Yeah, that was a new thing. He’d used to like to watch insects for hours. Or track deer just to watch their ears swivel (they had really cute ears). Or listen to water trickle off the leaves during a rainstorm. They were simple appreciations of the natural world, but that had been where he’d spent most of his thought. Now it was… well, he wasn’t sure what it was. Bigger? More grand? He could still appreciate these little things, but he had to slow and be still for a time. His vision had to be narrowed down to something fine and miniscule to notice the wings of flies or a raindrop.

When the world was quiet and he could just sit in contemplation, the light would envelope him. Peace would wash over him with the warmth of it. Voices would filter through the haze. Words that gave encouragement, reassurance, and banished hesitation. He knew that if he sat with those voices long enough, true enlightenment would come. All that was uncertain was if he had enough time.

As their world and the outside world came closer to merging, the horror that lay dying and locked in the earth thrashed about and roused. The reckoning was coming, he could feel it. In the pit of his stomach, he felt it. Any yet, no fear came with that realization, just resolve. Before long, his Purpose would be fulfilled. And with it, he would either pass from this earth to be reunited with his beloved God. Or that choir of voices would reveal the rest of his Purpose. He would be equally satisfied with either. The voices told him there was nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. And so, sitting in the quiet wood, he hummed to himself quietly and waiting for new dawn to rise.

War Journals 9: Guthar- Devoured.

Warfare is about resolve, deception, and a willingness to do whatever your enemy doesn’t think you’re willing to do. It wasn’t complicated. Certainly, some formations were tricky. Some of the histories were tricky. But when one considered it at its root, it was all about control. In war you needed to control information. You needed to control terrain. You needed to control timing. You needed to control your troops. You needed to control the enemies troops. A whirlwind of things that needed to be controlled all crystalized into a single experience, manifesting itself at the tip of a spear.

And, at the end of the day, control every possible variable, and you still needed a monumental amount of luck.

“Intel checks out, sir,” Troels said, looking over the same documents that Sven had been pouring over for the better part of an hour. “What’s the plan?”

Sven was looming over two maps, one fine sewn leather, another ink blotted and occupying paper that had once held a letter of some sort. The knight was silent for a moment.

“If Sister Solace is willing, we have a chance,” the knight mused. “This village the Stormhammers are looking to raid is a problem. They will be able to freely attack Runeheim from that position. Bolstered by fresh Thralls, and the advantage their cavalry will have on the plains of Greywater…”

The knight closed his eyes, envisioning the slaughter that would come with the spring thaw. No. That must be avoided at all cost. The Citizens were vulnerable, and that would not be allowed to stand.

“But, it is well outside their surveillance range. They know we are too far away to easily defend it, not with half our force being Gothic,” the knight mused. “They will expect an easy push of it. In fact…”

He sketched a line from the mountain fort they had taken last Forum to the wooded village in question.

“They can move here and be largely unseen by our forces at all,” he said, finally. “If Gottfried hadn’t seen scouts here, and Siggy not collected the reports… I think its safe to say, this would have taken us entirely by surprise. I would have taken our force South to the Fort and found it empty. The only word we would have had of their movement would have been the fires of Runeheim as it burned to the ground the first weeks of Spring.”

Troels nods.

“With the snows, we still cannot get to the village,” his commander commented.

“We can get close enough,” he said. “If my niece is willing to bless our troops, I think their flesh won’t faulter before we secure it.”

The grizzled old commander looked up confused.

“Why wouldn’t she bless us?” he asked, genuinely surprised.

“I threatened to kill her,” the knight said without looking up from the map. Troel’s eyes grew to the size of small saucers. If rumors were to be believed, Sven was overly fond of his niece. Doting, one might say. But, he’d served the knight for close to two decades and had never known him to make a casual threat. If whatever had been their argument was enough to warrant a threat to Solace, further inquiry might just be enough to earn him an early death. Wisely, he lets the matter drop.

“Your orders?” he asks instead. The knight looks at the smaller map.

“Break camp and mobilize. We’ll march through the fields here and land in the woods along this vector,” he says, drawing a line on the large map, then marking the smaller. “Station our dragoons here. Our archers here. Flamberges and Armsmen here. We can use the terrain as cover. Last count of the Stormhammers had ten or eleven units of Karls. They’ll have some Thralls from their taking of the Saenger fort. Let us assume twelve units in their force. Their previous disposition was a very long, single line.”

The knight begins to set up small mock-ups of the units in the battle.

“If we’re lucky, we can obliterate their center before they even know they’re in a battle. A long single line marching through the woods this way is very vulnerable to attack,” he concluded. “Let us make all due haste. We’ve no time to waste if we’re to get these Southerners to the woods through this ice and snow.”


The battle had been glorious. He called it a battle because two armies had fought together, so it was technically correct. However, anyone that had witnessed it wouldn’t have used that word.

It had been coming on to evening with the Stormhammers had surrounded the village. It had been their hope to move their forces orderly onto the village, enslave all the peoples there, and then set up a camp for some carousing. With the fading light, they never saw the flamberges, the most well equipped, seasoned of the vanguard forces carve into their lines. There had been no trumpets. No war cries to signify that battle had been joined, Just quiet soldiers moving about their bloody business. Hundreds had been slain before Guthar had even had a chance to react.

By the time Guthar had drawn up his cavalry for a retaliatory attack, the green dragoons of the Krigare force had been mid unruly assault, drunk on the rush of battle, unlike their seasoned linemen. But it had been effective. The light dragoons and archers, even hampered by the winter and wood were brutal in their efficacy against the slower, heavily armored troops they fought. The Stormhammers counter attack hadn’t even pierced the heavily armored lines of Sven’s forces; their cavalry not even having a chance to encircle their enemy. Guthar’s forces had been reenforced with archers, and had been three hundred larger than expected. But it had amounted to very little difference.

The battle was over in a few hours. Then the slaughter began.

Traditionally, when an army was routed, it was given some latitude to regroup. Wounded were collected. Missing comrades were given fall back points. Standing orders for where to go and who to answer to were standard faire. But not when the Fenris were involved.

Part of the fearsome reputation of the Imperials came from their unwillingness to allow these polite niceties. Their doctrine was more… brutal. Those who felt were run down like dogs.


Sven clamored off his massive warhorse, well adapted to the cold and large enough to draw a wagon on its own, the beast was nearly as fearsome as the man. His muscles were fatigued and blood marked his face, along with the rest of him. He’d spent hours with his men riding down the retreating Stormhammers.

Battles in the ice were beautiful. The crimson gouts of blood steaming in the air, splashing against trampled or pristine snow, melting towards the earth until the heat of life faded and the crystals reformed. The snow started white. Then splashed with red. By the end it resembled black mud, such was the slaughter. The canopy of the wood was thick with crows and ravens in the fading light and growing dark, hungry for the feast below them. A handful of survivors had been pulled to a small cordoned area. The fifteen hundred men and women of the Stormhammers had been reduced to a few dozen. Their eyes were blank and glassy. That distant look that Sven understood so well. His own men had stared at the ground with that look as they’d marched away from their bout with the Hollow Song. When his enemies wore that look, it was much more pleasing to him.

“Is this all of them?” he asked, settling his cloak about his shoulders after getting jostled about on the saddle. The officer standing watch over them put fist to breast before executing a sharp salute.

“Yessir,” he said in a clipped, professional tone. “The Devourer himself made it away, though. We counted less than ten with him.”

Sven nodded and approached the line of loosely bunched Karls. He looped his thumbs into his sword belt and glowered down at them. He would have taken a knee, but he was sore from the saddle and his armor granted little latitude with moving.

“Stormhammers,” he said in a booming voice designed to carry. “We have come to an unfortunate crossroads. The Branded whom you have elected to follow was arrogant and foolhardy. I believe he boasted that he would raise a flag over our fort. And then did no end of crowing that he did that very thing.”

The knight bends slightly for dramatic effect.

“He raised many Karls to come fight for him, using that victory as a springboard for his recruitment. Some of you, perhaps. Now all dead,” Sven said. “I am Sven álfrblóð. For all of the Devourer’s faults, he is a man of singular purpose. That purpose can be of use to me. Because of that, one of you will be given clemency to carry a message to him. Are there any volunteers?”

One of the glassy eyed men, a fellow with a beard and long golden locks struggled to his feet. Sven thought he might have recognized the figure, perhaps he was one of the Stormhammers who had interrupted the warfare planning meeting.

“Imperial dog,” he said in a shaky voice that grew in confidence as he continued to speak. “None of us will serve you.”

The knight nodded slowly.

“I wasn’t looking for a servant, just a messenger. Does this… fool speak for the rest of you?” he asked. A younger man, scarcely more than a boy, looked up through his blood spattered and snowflake marked hair.

“No sir,” he said. “Please let me go and I will deliver your message.”

The knight smiled as genuine and kind a smile as his armored, blood smeared visage could muster.

“Excellent. What is your name?” he asked.

“Leif, sir,” he said shakily.

“Leif. What a charming young man you are. Step over here to the edge,” he said. “The message is simple. The álfrblóð has defeated his force, slaughtered his men, and knows precisely where the Devourer has fled to. I only don’t chase him now as a kindness. I wish to offer him the same deal that I have offered to all of the Branded that I have bested in warfare: he needn’t die with his men. He can work for me, and I will show him mercy. Tell him that if he is willing to be baptized and offer me his oath, he can live. I will even grant him glory against the Ironbloods and Doghearts. This needn’t be where his saga ends.”

The knight waited a moment to see if the youth understood. Then he reaches out and placed a mailed hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Look at me, son,” he said softly, waiting until the boy looked up, eyes betraying tears wishing to well up. “Can you remember all of that, Leif?”

The boy nodded twice before his head drooped towards the ground again. Sometimes watching the iron melt out of a man was exhilarating. It had a fragrance to it, like arousal on the wind. It stirred something within the iron clad figure. Were there time to experience this youth in a different way, it wouldn’t take much to make him appealing.

The knight smiles.

“Good lad. Stand here on the edge, away from your fellows,” then he gestures to Troels from the side. “Commander, this is Leif. He is to be given fresh travel clothes, a warm cloak, and enough trail provisions for three days. He is to be taken to the edge of our encampment, told where Guthar the Devourer has fled, and allowed to leave to deliver my message, escorted of course. Once the message is delivered, he will be free to go about his business.”

Troels nodded, “Of course, sire. And the others?”

Sven smiled, never looking away from Leif, refusing to release the boy’s gaze, even as his head drooped and hair began to obscure his eyes.

“Crucify them. Start with the large one that has called me an Imperial dog twice now. See that Leif watches. I want the full gravity of the message intact when it is delivered,” he said, his tone soft, nearly gentle. A giant about to step on something insignificant in a way that would crush it utterly, forever.

“Goodbye Leif,” the knight says, giving the youth’s shoulder another squeeze before releasing it. “Should I see your pretty visage again, I shan’t be so gentle with you a second time.”

The black cloak swirls around the figure as he turns to walk off into the darkness, sparking a chorus of warnings from the crows at his passage.

War Journals 8: A Little Bit of Poison

This world could be a paradise.

If not for the wretched influence of the demons worshipped as the Old Gods.

They offer up to us, and we protect them. United under the light of Benalus.

Much weighted on his mind. The North was an unforgiving place. For every boon it granted, it took something away. It was the way of things here. For the last fifteen years, he had yearned to found an Imperial Order dedicated to the pacification of the North. His home had a stark beauty, but it was fractured. Corrupted. Perverted by the worship of these demonic things.

Solace had had a theory. Prove their false gods powerless and they will turn away.
Ingvar had a different theory. Kill them. They weren’t God. They could die.

Sven liked the knight’s approach better.

Before him lay the corpse of a horned figure. It had been a man once. The muscled bulged grotesquely. One eye was red, the other yellow. Sigils and runes were carved into its flesh. Even dead it seemed fearsome.

One hundred of the Sons had repelled four-hundred of his men in Spring. He had returned with seven hundred this time. There had been no quarter.

“My Lord,” Troels said, rousing the highborn from his gazing. “We have received word the Saenger fort is about to be raided.”

Sven nods. “Right on time.”

“Shall we engage?” his right hand asked.

“They are too far,” the knight replied absently. “We evacuated as much of the populous as we were able. The Saengers are aware of the hopelessness of their remaining position.”

Troels clears his throat and nods, waiting for orders.

“Crucify the survivors,” he said after a long moment. “String these twisted remains up for the world to see. Cut off each one of these fucking runes.”

“That will take time, my Lord,” he answered.

“Have the bulk of our Force erect the palisades and set a parameter,” the knight continued, wondering if the unnatural rage that had infected his soldiers from the Hollow Song had lingered in him. Even crucifixion felt… too kind. “I want to see this done properly. In a few weeks we will ride South and engage the Doghearts. Cowards that they are.”

Troels gave a confused look, “Not the Stormhammers? Won’t they fortify through the winter? And in striking distance of the settlement?”

Sven shrugged. “Can’t be helped. We might be able to push them out. But not before the first winter snow.”

The knight looked up once again, “These Southerners are good at killing, but soft as cheese. How many would we lose to the ice of the mountains?”

Realization dawned on Troels, who struck a sharp salute and nodded before turning and going to issue orders. Lord Sven álfrblóð Brynjar turned and strode towards the men collecting the carving knives and rope. The long nails forged for a single purpose and the long handled hammers to swing them properly. Standing stock still, cloak flapping slightly in the wind, he watched as the men started collecting the brand of the Ulfrandr. As a small collection started to pool at his feet, the rest of the last market filtered through his mind.

A letter from the King saying the very thing Sven had dedicated his life to was about to come to fruition.
A very dear friend called away forever.
A charming walk with pleasant company.
One of the most trustworthy warriors tossed dead at their feet.
Stealing something back from under the nose of the Sons.
An unfortunate series of murders.
This glorious slaughter of the Sons of Ulfrandr.

It was enough to give a person motion sickness. The hammering of vulgar iron through flesh, bone and bark sounded in its oddly muted way through the trees in flapping fading echoes. Further south, he could hear the phantom cracks of cannon, and a part of him wondered how Markus Fafnir was faring against the dwarves on their third front.

“My Lord,” Troels said, holding up a note. “Word from the East. Ragnar Stoneskin’s forces were decimated.”

“Does Stoneskin live?” Sven asked.

“No word, sire.”


War Journals 7: Heretics in the Dark

The runner had approached the mobile camp in a huff. Still pleased with their victories through the Spring, his men were eager for anything resembling action. Blood was in the air. They’d heard rumors of Storm Hammers to the East and Dwarves to the West. More foolhardy than wise, the fighting men and woman of the Obesegrade Krigare were eager for either. But then, that was often the raw vibrancy of youth and a siloed experience. Most had never faced down a line of riflemen, or seen the small metal punching through line and armor like a knife through cheese. The scent of sulfur paired… poorly with the offal of the slaughter it inspired.

“My Lord,” he began having jumped off his horse in short order and performed a sharp salute. Sven turned to the voice, registering the face. Emil. One of the scouts attached to his vanguard, the much vaulted Flamberges, the pride of the Krigare.

“Emil,” he said. “Report.”

“Sir Ingvar rallies for aid,” he said. “Storm Hammers. A thousand or more with cavalry. He’s outnumbered, sir.”

“Well,” the older knight said, pushing himself to his feet from the camp chair. “We must indulge him, mustn’t we?”

Then to the rest of camp.

“Break camp! Sir Ingvar and his men are outnumbered by the Storm Hammer Clan here to make war. There is no malice here. They have invited us to play. Are we to sit back and let the Ice Fangs have all the fun?” his voice boomed across the encampment. His beloved Karls had died some months ago to the Hollow Song. But his levies, the soldiers he had acquired when he first entered the theater, along with a hundred or so fresh men, they had fought and bled with him for well over a year. They were as fine soldiers as he’d ever had the pleasure to serve with.

Freshly rallied, Sven gestured to Troels Hadvarson to oversee the breaking of camp. Another gesture summoned his horse. Hadvar had served his uncle for years, and his son hadn’t left his side for decades. The ease of the military routine settled well on his shoulders, and it was with a happy step that Sven and sundry wheeled their force South, marching threw the woods east of Runeheim. A stretch of trees that had affectionately been dubbed ‘murder alley’ for its tendency to host and hide enemy forces.

Unfortunately for the Krigare, the woods lived to its name.

A few days from Runeheim, as they trekked through the woods, calls and screams started to sound from deeper in the woods. Confusion yielded to an ambush. From the darkness leapt dozens of figures. They had horns and spikes and their flesh was adorned with horrid jewelry and scars. They fought savagely.

At first, Sven thought the Hollow Song had returned, such was their ferocity. But as they fought a hurried retreat, the sigils adorning the flesh of their foes was more abundantly clear. These were the Sons of Ulfrandr.

Amid the chaos, they were pushed back and well and truly routed. Four hundred veterans repelled by a hundred or so enemies. Ingvar’s attack when unaided. He was likewise repulsed. A flurry of letters back and forth to coordinate another attack on the Stormhammers, but by then they had bunkered down and were able to repel the combined forces of the Knights Fenris.

Retreating together, a dark glow settled on the pair of knight’s shoulders.

“I am going to kill every one of these pieces of shit, and anyone that has given them aid,” Ingvar fumed. To which the older knight simply nodded.

“No quarter,” he agreed. No quarter.

In the Shadow of Leaves 8: On Being Human

The swamp was always a strange place when the seasons changed. It was never quite as cold as the rest of the region. Pa had said it was related to all of the stuff rotting beneath the water. Corpses had their own heat, he used to say. Something his pappy and his grandpappy had said before them. Corpses had their own heat. Their own life. They moved through the motions, the same as the rest of us. Just usually less talkative. Idly, the old friar wondered if their swamp being so close to the kruzy-more swamp had caused some of them Gothics to rub off on his own little tribe. Maybe. Pa had a morbid streak, no denying that.

It hadn’t been until they were gone that the friar had given consideration to the nature of his parents. When they had been alive, they’d been towering figures. And when he’d been small, they might as well have been gods. Powerful, wise, patient, fearsome. That’s probably a very… human thought, the preacher reflects. Exalting one’s parents. When you’re small, they are your whole entire world. Then as you turn from them, you see more that surrounds them and they become smaller. Eventually, he reasons, there comes a time when you can look back and see your parents as human. Hopefully kind and well meaning, but human regardless.

His father had been a brave man, though his mother was the fearless one. The preacher remembering his father well, though if he was being honest, the father he remembered was the one of his youth, not what he’d been at the end. Not that he’d been wretched or anything, just that when the preacher closed his eyes and thought on his pa, his hair was chestnuty, his beard thick, and his back unbent. In his mind, he could remember the old man’s smile, or how he smelled on the hunt. He could remember with startling clarity, his pa’s hands. Their myriad of little scars, and the strange hash pattern skin makes when it gets all crinkly. The cleverness of the fingers as they tied a knot, or the way they could just scoop him up like he weighted nothing at all. They were good thoughts. But of all the things he remembered about his father, the thing that kept coming back to him was how his eyes, blue as a clear sky, would seem to flex when he was afraid, and pushing that fear away. When the food stores were slow in winter. Or when one of the highborn had a demand of the house. Or when his uncles were fighting over petty things. Those blue-blue eyes would turn from joyous to concerned. Nothing else would change, just the eyes.

Henri wondered the last time he’d felt afraid. Or hurt. Or weak. Or frail. There were… so few clear recollections of those moments. Perhaps the Mists had taken them. Or perhaps they’d never been. Its not like he could ask those that had known him best; they were all dead and buried (now).

A sigh escapes the lips of the fellow, and he resumes his work. A series of leather thongs that he was braiding into long strands. Something to keep his hands active while his mind processed the events from earlier that day.

Cole had come down in a lather. She’d been frantic, saying the guards were slaughtering Theo and Alphonse. The preacher made a mental note to discuss her habit of fibbing with her later. Regardless, she’d been quite upset. And, likewise regardless, his personal feelings on Theo or Alphonse was immaterial. They were a part of the Community. His Community. For all their flaws, they didn’t deserve to be killed in such an ignoble fashion. Though… part of him wouldn’t be surprised if Theo did die eventually to some overly zealous guard.

So up the hill he’d huffed and puffed. There’d been others that had answered the call, but they’d been slow, or wanted to gather something up first, and he hadn’t waited. If Cole had been right, they’d be dead when he got there, but maybe he could drag them back to Sophie for stitching…. actually… best not to dwell on that. When he’d crested the hill and seen them, there were no corpses, just two figures shouting at each other while two other figures sort of watched. The guard had a gun leveled at Theo, who was holding a dagger of some sort. The grip was odd, it was hard to say if it was a brandish of the dagger or just holding it, but neither individuals seemed peaceful.

As he’d gotten closer, the heated argument became clear. Theo was demanded that those two guards return with him to Delphine. Lately folks had taken to listening to Delphine more and doing what she said. Which, the preacher supposed, was all well and good. Though part of him kept circling back to the nagging argument of Friar Bullet. Why did we even have nobles if their sole purpose was to protect folk from other nobles? It did sort of seem like hiring bandits to protect you from bandits without really addressing the bandit problem.

A thought to pursue in another moment.

The preacher had slowed to catch his breath and his bearings as he’d approached. The guards were refusing to come, stating something about the Owl’s Nest needing to remain guarded. Which on its surface seemed reasonable. But honestly, it seemed like the crux of it was that Theo was Theo and the guard didn’t seem to care for poor folk. The priest had inserted himself into the conflict, hoping to buy time for the rest of the supporters to land on the scene. And perhaps to defuse the situation.

The guard had shifted his pistol from Theo to himself. Holding out his palms to show he was no threat, but also clearly stating he wasn’t leaving had gotten him nowhere. The guard was incandescent and indignant.

“Look, I can’t leave, you need to come with us,” was the last thing he’d been able to say before the pistol fired. The force of it was the most surprising thing. It had caused him to take a step back, but just a flesh wound wasn’t going to slow him up much. Which… the guard also seemed to immediately assess. Moving faster than the preacher would have thought possible, the gun was reloaded and fired a second time. This bullet lodged lower and forced the air from him.

‘Well. I guess this is happening,’ was all that he’d been able to think before Henri reached for the gun, causally tossing it over his shoulder. He’d expected it to end there, but the second guard that had been observing swung his sword, slamming into the preacher’s gut. ‘Still happening.’

It had taken a bit longer to disarm the second guard. By the time the preacher could return his focus to the first, he’d been shot and was on the ground bleeding out. Henri moved to put hands on the guard before his own blood loss caused him to nearly keel over. Alex had been handy with the bandages, and Sophie the needle.

There was a stillness that had fallen over their little group. The guard was ranting about scum this or scum that, folks were arguing back, but the preacher just leaned against a log and looked up at the sky as Sophie stitched him back together.

He hadn’t been afraid. Not when the gun had been leveled against him. Not when it had fired. Not when it had torn through him a second time. No fear. He remembered the glowing eyes of Primus and how so many had stepped back in fear. Or the spiders and their harmless webs. Or the ghouls that would lunge out of the woods. When was the last time he had felt fear?

The needle worked through his flesh. He was aware of it. More the tugging than anything else. The way his skin sort of clung to the needle and thread as it was pulled through him. When was the last time pain had motivated him? Or hunger? Or sex?

It had been a perfectly crystal moment. That guard could have killed him. Probably would have. But he’d not been afraid. He hadn’t felt much of anything, really. A mild irritation that Convocation was delayed. Nothing else.

How much of the human experience was motivated by these basic urges? These… ‘low’ urges? He saw it. It saw it running through his Community every day. Fear was rampant here. Fear of the outside. Fear of the kruzy-mores. Fear of the inkqisishon. Fear of the vecatrians. Fear of the benalians. Fear of the elf. Fear of the mines. Fear of the feasting king. Fear of his child. Fear enough that were it a rising tide, the whole of the community would be swept away and drowned by it.

Yet he felt nothing.

When he’d seen Isabel’s hand mangled, the preacher had taken her hurt onto him. Yet that hadn’t really hurt either. He’d exclaimed more from the surprise of feeling anything than for feeling something bad.

Another braid was done, and he went down the length tying knots at regular intervals.

It was so hard to pick apart what made a person a person. Animals felt pain, but they weren’t people. Maelific felt emotions. But they weren’t people. The elf had all the right cosmetic parts, and yet was also distinctly not human. And the more the old preacher reflected on the essential parts that made a person a person, the more he realized that he lacked them in some raw, fundamental way. It simply wasn’t what he was anymore. Maybe he never had been.

For all the flaws he saw in his Community, he loved them. God help him, he loved each one of them. Even the guard that had shot him. Even his fellow that had stabbed him over and over. Even those in his Community that he knew were quietly betraying their fellows. He loved them all. Which is why the guilt, one of the things that he felt most clearly, was always so telling. He knew, or thought he knew, that what he had done wasn’t a bad thing. And yet, the guilt of it gnawed at him. Like some beetle, burrowing into a tree to consume it from the inside. It gnawed and gnawed and gnawed.

The preacher undid his belt. He lifted his frock over his head. He shrugged out of his jacket. And he discarded his shirt. There was a chill on the breeze, his flesh puckered in gooseflesh immediately. The leather he’d been braiding was added to the others, and the preacher gripped the lot of them, a dozen in all, in his dominant hand. Kneeling on his discarded clothes, he swung the braided leather into his back, as hard as he could. His flesh felt warm. A sensation that might have been pain erupted across him. It did nothing to slow the second blow. Or the third. By the dozenth stroke, the skin had worn away. By the hundredth, thin droplets had arced from the trailing leather, painting patterns of his own blood across the sagging room.

Eventually, the preacher collapsed in a bloody heap, unconscious from his own efforts. It hadn’t been the pain that had stopped him, but rather the maims, in the end.

In the Shadow of Leaves 7: The House of Chasseur

If the old swamp priest was being honest with himself, it had started with Friar Bullet. He knew that wasn’t his name, but couldn’t seem to remember names of late. The old priest had asked him about his conviction, and questioned why he had wanted to give up his things (such as they were) and walk the path of the penitent. Henri hadn’t had a good answer then, it had just felt right. There had been a light, just behind his eyes. A light he could only really *see* when it was dark and he shut his eyes. A warmth that he’d always known but never been aware of. It had warmed him and comforted him, and he’d known that it was the right path for him. Not many had understood it, but it had been more than a year now, and ole Henri, Friar Henri now, wouldn’t undo that decision for all the gold in all the world.

The sun had finally burned away the clouds, lifting the oppressive muggy feel and replacing it with the dry feel of a drafty oven. The sky had been a dazzlingly pure blue. The trees a crisp vibrant green that struck awe into him each time he saw them. A lone butterfly beat its seemingly too big wings and floated in an exaggerated up-down of their bobbing stride. In the distance, melodious windchimes danced in the breeze, their clanging bodies creating wordless music that delighted the senses.

It was a fine day, indeed. His ears still rang from the whispers of divinity that had occupied his evening. He often prayed at night, finding the solitude of slumbering bodies comforting. While others slept, he’d prayed. With all his might, he’d prayed. On the nature of sin, of spirits, of God and gods, on the Forest Folk and their Circle, on Primus the weeping god of the feast, on the nature of choice within sin, and on the truth of Heresy. The humble priest had been brought up in a dilapidated moss covered home in the woods, with its slanting floors and leaking roof. Grand questions weren’t ever anything he’d had to struggle with before. He’d listened to his priest, and prayed, and done as he was told. But the truth of the matter was more complicated. In his heart, he knew that the Church of Mankind had formed a sort of shorthand code for sin, making a complicated, nuanced problem into a stark black and white issue. It was simple and straightforward, something a child could easily understand. But the trouble with childish morality is that it stunted the growth of those that cleaved to it. As a people matured, they found the world full of fine colors, not just this or that. It was better to not live in ignorance, and that choice, of all the choices he had ever made in his life had been the most dangerous by far.

As the ringing in his ears had faded, and the colors and sensations of town swirled around him, Nadja Kroozie-more had leapt into his view. She had seemed frantic, hurt maybe? Her words had come tumbling out. At first, they’d made no sense. The forest hated her because she was a Kroozie-more? That didn’t make any sense. They wanted her blood, or Kroozie-more blood, or noble blood? It hadn’t made sense to him, but it seemed genuine to her.

“How can I help?” he’d asked, once he realized that understanding the actual problem was well beyond him. She had blinked at him and said:
“Can I be a Chasseur?” she asks, reaching out to hold his forearm with both of hers. There had been a genuine pleading in her gaze. She’d come to ask honestly. And how could he say no?

And just like that, he wasn’t the only Chasseur anymore. And then Cadence. And then Milo. He’d been alone, and now he wasn’t, and the world was a brighter place for it. It felt right to be a part of a family and watch it grow. It lightened his heart, as if lead had been pumping through his veins and it had been purged from him. He wasn’t certain how his feet remained planted on the ground.

The peace had stayed with him. As he’d ran through the woods to head-off the red-hued huntsman. As folks had argued about the proper course. When the community marched into the mines, shoulder to shoulder. That peace had stayed like a great fluffy cloak wrapped about him. The blood that had trickled down his leg and palm, the fearsome face of the monster that tossed folk around like so much kindling. The poison spewing tree. The bloody visage of Gabriella. The glowing skull of Primus, sad and rejected, speaking in images and feelings. All the while, calm.

Fortified by family, community, and love, the Friar was centered and the light was pure. The faint red that he knew waited for him there was distant again. Like the layered light of a sunset, the dangerous color was just one of the symphonic voices calling him, the others so sweet.

He walked without fear through the night, though he thought that if he wished it hard enough, he could have flown.

War Journals 6: The Blood of Spring

Two seasons. He’d been trapped in two for two. Damned. Seasons.

They had been productive. In addition to rallying the defense of Runeheim and executing the battle plans flawlessly, he had gruelingly drilled Sir Knut and his men. For months. For months they had drilled. This formation, that formation. The movement, that movement. How the enemy might attack differently. How to leverage terrain better. How to get into and out of kit faster. How to form up lines faster. How to dig ditches faster.

The Lord Marshal’s force hadn’t been green, but they’d been little more. Having avoided the bulk of the fighting, they’d grown fat on the barley and meat of Runeheim. And because of that, they were soft.

So they ran drills. And mock battles. And drills. And mock battles.

He trained the Lord Marshalls troops and the Templar forces. He taught the various commanders how best to leverage their own abilities. He taught the Council how the logistics of war operated. For months, for longer months than living memory, Sven stayed in one place. His battles became negotiations over drinks, politicking in dark corners, clandestine meetings and coded messages.

He made deals for horse. Deals for wars. Deals for archers. Deals for more. Was this a better use of his time than leading from the front? Who could say; certainly not him. What was certain was things were starting to happen now. One of the most prominent commanders of the Cold Hands had joined them, and would in time, fall under his command. Ingvar was ready for promotion. The Branded had unofficially demarked him as their leader. They had a single cause, and so much of the previous miasma of bad blood and foul thoughts seemed to have blown clear.

Things were making a turn for the better… which no doubt meant that something dark and evil was coming. Something unsavory. He could feel it in his bones. With Spring not yet done, he once again made war with a pen. He drafts letters to his Knight Commanders, Vindicta, the King, the Templars, everyone. They’d had a good season, nothing more. No lasting victories had been won. They needed to stay vigilant. They needed to stay thirsty. They needed to keep clamoring for aid and supplies and men. They had a toehold, finally, but little more.

War Journals 5: A Plan Well Executed

The winter was drawing out like a blade. The old knight had had his plans dashed, along with the bulk of his Force, some months ago by the blood thirsty Hollow-Song. They’d come through like a tidal wave, crashing through his lines and scattering his men like so much chafe. Their march back to town had been uneventful, and the rest of the forces of Runeheim, he found later, had all abandoned their individual pursuits to likewise fall back.
He had wanted to winter his men at the land-bridge. To squat there on the maddening shores. To send word to the Overturner about the security of the mythical bridge. To perhaps enjoy a quiet cup of coffee on the hills.
No sense crying over spilt milk, as his mother would say. Sven was stuck in town. And the defenses were poorly maintained. He should have trained the Marshall’s men before leaving the first time. And, squatting in town as he was, he had taken control of the war effort. The commanders had agreed his voice would carry. They had spent weeks going over the particulars of the defensive strategy. They had taken the weakness of the forces into account, the frailty of their commanders, the sum of the tactical knowledge available about their enemies. They had read and studied and prepared. Soon they would take the field.
Though not with Sven himself. His men were… aggressive. And what remained of his center line was Gothic, not known for their snowshoes. So he would stay and coordinate the defensive efforts. The Templars had said they would arrive to our defense come the Spring. They just had to hold the enemy in place. Just… tie them up long enough for hope to arrive. They could do that.

The battles had been infuriating. Skirmishes and dread battles happening *miles* away. Scattered reports coming in. Some, finely drafted and proper, as with Sir Ingvar. Others, sloppily delivered vocally, like with the Avalanche. The forces had divided neatly into two. Sven and the Lord Marshall’s forces in Runeheim, along with the mercenary captains forces. They weren’t as well fortified as they seemed, but there were enough bodies on the battlements to ensure the enemy wouldn’t see them as an acceptable target. The offensive force had formed up around Sir Ingvar’s strong center and archers.
Into the woods they had poured. The Hollow-Songs, still reeling from the loss of their commander couldn’t muster an effective assault. They were pushed back twice, deeper into the woods. Sven had summoned back Ingvar’s forces, the design to reclaim the archers for Runeheim in case the Iron Bloods designed to take advantage of their relatively weak defensive stance.
The Avalanche and Stoneskin were left in the woods. A powerful force of Gorm’s Lionslayers was north of the river. Another was in the woods, and they’d lost track of it. The old knight had surveyed the landscape again and tapped an area of plains north of the Land-bridge.

“There’s going to be trouble on this one. Not much in the way of farming up there; if I was in the Rime, I’d have planted something here to hold the line,” he muttered, rubbing his chin. “Tell the Branded to cut off pursuit and prepare to spend the rest of winter in the trees. Those raiders will be back; we need a screen to dissuade them.”

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.