Chapter 10 - Reunion in Exile, Part II
"You haven't been making overtures to her, have you?" asked Taril, looking up from his seat at the wooden table in the middle of the room. He, Warriv, and the Bedfords had sat down for supper, and the food had been spread out before them. -- "Really, Taril?" -- Taril shrugged. "You never know, with these kinds of things. You know, that's why I had her go help you out, right? You two seem to be hitting it along very nicely already."
"Next time, Taril, I'm going to have you wash my back, and have her make off with your clothes."
"Ouch, that burns," said Taril. "I'll have to pass on that."
"Well come on in and grab a seat," said Nathan, gesturing to the open two empty seats beside him. -- "Supper's ready," said Penny.
"Ooh, food!" shouted Selena with anticipation as she rushed past Art and grabbed a seat. -- "Did you forget something?" Art chimed in. "Selena?" When she looked back up at him, he gestured at his bare chest. -- "Selena, I thought you were going to help Art with putting on his clothes?" asked Taril. -- "Oops, sorry, I forgot!" she said, feigning guilt and rushing back to help Art with his clothes. -- "Yeah right, you forgot," retorted Art as he waited for her to finish.
He took a moment to survey the house. A meager wooden dwelling with only the fireplace built out of stone, it had a thatched roof daubed with mud to keep out the rain. Aside from the table and chairs in the middle of the room, very little furnished the room: a single cabinet, which he assumed held all the clothes, and a second table littered with as yet unprepared food and utensils. Assorted odds and ends lined the far wall. Beyond a single wall paritioning with a simple door lay a large straw bed.
Nathan saw him looking about. "You'll have to forgive us for our humble dwelling," he noted. -- "Or, if you find it too small," said Penny. -- "We can always check with our neighbors," -- "See if any of them have room to take in another two." -- "No worries," Art replied. "This is more than enough. In fact I mean to thank you, for allowing Selena and I to stay here." -- "Come, take a seat," said Nathan, gesturing to the remaining empty seat at the table.
Art sat down, saw the food spread out before them, set out upon pewter dishes. A veritable feast. Bread, sweetrolls, a roll of cheese, and soup with some carrots and lentils mixed in. Their hosts had even had a goose butchered for the occasion. He closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, let the aroma waft into his lungs. He'd not eaten so nicely in weeks, and compared to his recent experiences in the woods… "Ah," he said, sighing. "Absolutely heavenly."
"Well now, you must be mocking us," said Penny with a knowing smile. She tapped a dish with her fork. "Dig in."
"Thank you," said Art, then reached for his fork with his stump of a right hand. With a grimace he retracted it, reached for the fork with his left. The memories of losing his arm to the beast come out of the monastery's atrium gates flashed past him for a moment before he banished it, but as he looked up he realized the others had seen his foible, could sense their unease from their staring silence. Only Selena continued to eat, blissfully unaware. "Well then, Penny said it best. Dig in, all right?" he said, looking at each of them in turn and tapping his fork at the plates one by one, putting on a smile even as he kept his eyes dry through force of will. "Let's dig in." Then he led the rest of the adults by taking a bite from a sweetroll, spurring a round of agreeing sentiments and echoes of "Dig in", and "Let's eat".
They ate in relative silence for a good while, until Selena -- who'd started first and had been wolfing down her food -- set down her fork without a hint of propriety. "I'm done! Yay, I'm number one!" -- "What a fast eater you are," remarked Penny. -- "Can someone tell me a story?"
"I've been meaning to ask," said Nathan. "About what happened. I figured the sisters wouldn't be all that eager to speak on events surrounding their fleeing their great abode."
"Sure, ask away. I believe you've the general gist of it already," said Warriv. "I've actually been asking around, so I can fill you in perhaps a little better. So, quick overview: Shortly after midnight invaders burst into the monastery and launched an all out attack. From what I gather, they managed to catch the sisters unawares with their suprise attack. It started from the basement level -- the level underneath where most of the guests were staying in -- and the invaders quickly had the sisters retreating."
"How many invaders are we talking about?" asked Nathan. -- "Will they pose a threat to us?" added Penny.
"Now, from what the surviving sisters who had seen the battle all the way through have told us, the invasion force numbered at least one hundred strong. Most of them small, stunted little twits wielding blades, and a handful that stood as tall as you or I, wielding staves and throwing fire bolts."
"But the sisters numbered in the hundreds, surely they could have finished off the threat?" -- "And didn't they know the place better?"
"Aye, but the sisters are first and foremost archers. They don't do well in confined spaces. Not the ones who can't guide their arrows around tight corners, at least, and most can't."
"Weren't they also raising the dead?"
Nodding, Warriv answered, "And raising the dead. Had it not been for the rising dead, the sisters could very well have made quick work of them. But because of this dark power, the sisters had no choice but to retreat, and to do so quickly. In their haste, they could not stay to ensure that all the caravaners made it out safely, but they managed to slay any pursuing invaders that exited the monastery's gates, at least until they started traveling as a group here."
Art kept silent. That… sounded like a very sanitized version of the story. It completely glossed over the horror of that night: the sisters, some of whom hadn't seen sixteen summers, rushing headlong to their death. No mention of the atrocities inflicted on those unable to escape, who'd been killed or captured and slain. Some of that he could chalk up to them not knowing about the fates of those they'd left behind. He guessed he might have been the only one who had seen the true aftermath, being among the last to get out of the place. And the beast. Why hadn't they mentioned the beast? Did they not want the villagers to know, because it could rouse them to panic?
As he looked around the table he saw worried expressions on Nathan and Penny's faces. "Will we be all right? Are the sisters going to manage, fighting against the risen dead?" -- "Won't the enemy keep bringing them back up again?" -- "How do you fight against something like that?"
Warriv and Taril looked at each other, unsure. Looking at them, Art answered, "Thing with necroturges is they have quite a few weaknesses. This here is the biggest, most glaring one," he said as he pointed at the left side of his chest, right where his heart would be. "Necroturges are every bit as alive as the rest of us. They have to be, or they cannot invoke the way of the puppeteer."
"The… puppeteer?" echoed Nathan.
Looking at the Bedfords, he noticed he'd lost them. "Yes, the way of the puppeteer. It's how a necroturge is able to animate the bones of the dead. Or at least, it's one of them. You may have heard of the way of inner peace? It's the most common one, a building block if you will, to the other, more advanced ways."
"Ah yes, that one," Nathan nodded as if in understanding. "It's just that I'd always thought of the way of inner peace was just called a way because it's the way one went about meditating. But this other… way you speak of… That doesn't sound like meditation at all, it sounds like sorcery, through and through."
"Well, a mastery of the ways will seem like sorcery, I'll grant you that. Certain ones look it more than others. But at the core they are all about focusing the mind on a single concept, an emotive state, or a way of thinking. In that sense the way of inner peace, the way of the dancing leaf, the way of deathly living, the way of the hearth, and the way of the puppeteer, and all the others, are all similar. They all require the mind," he said, gesturing at his temple. "To think. And if a necroturge gets killed, he'll hardly be thinking then. Guess what happens to all his reanimated minions when he stops thinking about what they do?"
"They wander about out of control?" asked Penny.
"You needn't worry about that," he said, shaking his head. "It's just like a puppeteer controlling a puppet, actually. If the the puppeteer suddenly died, the puppet would simply fall to the ground, never to move again. That's all there is to it. What that basically means for us is, if they send their shamans against us, and their shamans send their walking corpses, we just kill the shamans and their army of the dead will fall," he snapped his fingers, "just like that."
"But surely it won't be easy getting to the shamans while they're being protected by their minions?"
"Well remember what the sisters wield."
Understanding looks crossed Nathan and Penny's faces. Nathan continued, "Well that, I have to say, certainly allays my concerns a bit."
"Oh you can put them to rest entirely. There's more to it than that," Art continued. "These skeletons are hard to control." He paused for a moment as he figured that he shouldn't draw too much from his own personal experiences lest they start asking the wrong sort of question, the kind that could get him thrown out onto the street that night. "They have to be. You ever tried controlling a marionette? If you've been to one of those shows, you'd see they oftentimes just jerk the thing around, up and down and side to side, and maybe make like one or two kinds of gestures at once. Getting them to move swiftly with any degree of accuracy? Forget about it."
Though, that hadn't been entirely true. The reanimated he'd fought against had managed to parry and block his blows on a number of occasions. Never with the skill of a trained warrior, that he was certain, but they'd not acted as clumsy as he'd been implying to them. In his most recent fight, he'd not been able to get past them without the assistance of some necroturgy of his own.
But, he thought, no reason to make them worry about such things if he could help it, given they were civilians. They had worries enough. If he could put their concerns to rest, give them back their days of peace, he'd be obligated to do it. It was the least he could do given their hospitality.
"The other thing to keep in mind is, these creatures still stand on two legs like you or I. Chop a leg off, the thing topples, and it ain't ever going to get back up again."
"How is it you know so much about how to fight these things?" asked Nathan.
"I may not look it right now, but I'm a swordsman, actually. Sellsword, though Warriv here has been having me guard his caravan for the longest time now," he said giving a cheerful nod toward the man. "I should think it my business to know the what's what of how to fight anyone and everyone." He put on a confident air. "Besides, I've fought them. On the way here, from the monastery. And I can tell you, either one of you would be more than a match for one of the reanimated. Even with no training at all. These things move like sloths."
"I'm still finding it kind of hard to imagine fighting these things," said Nathan. "To think they had these walking dead storming the monastery…"
"And that's exactly what the sisterhood did last night," remarked Warriv.
"And you… were you there, in the middle of the fighting, when all that happened?"
"Thankfully, we got out of the monastery without incident. The sisters guided us out to safety even as they went to confront the invaders, to buy us time to get out. They'd done that well."
That much Art could recall. Then he asked, "Then? What happened at the gates?"
"They had the caravaners head along the road west, to this village. We of course did as we were told. We didn't want the invaders to catch up to us if we could help it, you understand. As we went we could hear the sounds of fighting behind us. Sisters definitely died trying to kill off any would-be pursuers coming through the gates."
Art nodded, recalling the fallen he'd seen littering the road right outside of the monastery's outer gates, arrows sticking out of them. The story had started to come together for him.
Warriv continued. "Of course, in case us caravaners ran into dangers further up the road while the sisters fought at the gates, a good number of the sisters went with us, leaving relatively few to hold at the gates."
The sisterhood's place in his esteem had gone nowhere but up, Art realized as he listened to Warriv's recounting of events. They'd rushed to defend the caravaners, throwing away their own lives, not only within the monastery but outside it as well, to buy the caravaners time to retreat. They'd lost a good number of their fellow sisters in those fights. In the process, he reckoned, they'd saved Warriv and Taril's lives, and the lives of many others. They'd not saved his own life, per se, but as Warriv and Taril's close friend, he felt he owed them some kind of debt for their noble sacrifice.
"We didn't stop to look back," continued Warriv, "so not sure what happened afterward, but all through that night the sisters were all waiting and hoping for the rear guard to catch up to them. They didn't join up with us, though. My guess is something must have happened, or they had gotten lost or separated or gone another way. Boone was with the latter group."
The beast, thought Art, the beast was what happened. Yet, he hadn't encountered much in the way of human corpses on the way out from the monastery. The beast would have left a trail of devastation. Not to mention, he'd been the one who'd diverted the beast on a wild goose chase all through the monastery, potentially getting it lost. If so, it would have been in no position to go after the rear guard.
Nathan looked askance at Art. "From your asking… You weren't there for that part, were you?"
"Yeah, where were you, Art? One moment we were all running for the exit, the next moment you were nowhere to be seen. And by the time we noticed you were missing, we couldn't very well go looking for you, you understand. Believe me, I asked, practically begged, for the sisters to go looking for you with us. But the sisters would have none of it."
"That's all right, you did well in listening to them. It probably saved your lives," said Art. "But Nathan, you're right. I wasn't with the others. I got separated early on." He chuckled, staring down at his plate. "You could say that I got a case of the Johann and Tyler. Went off searching for adventure, what a fool I was."
"If… you don't want to go into it--"
"It's quite all right, Warriv. I don't mind, and what's done is done. Besides, you shared yours." He tapped his fingers against the table, wondering how to tell his story. He couldn't very well go into the gruesome details of his experience -- that wouldn't enlighten them in the slightest. "I went to join the sisters in their fighting, and wound up one of the last to leave. Then the…" He was going to say 'beast', but if the sisters had a good reason to not talk about the creature in front of the villagers, then maybe he shouldn't be the one to spoil it. "The invaders pursued me, and I led them around till they got lost. Of course, by then I'd gotten myself lost, so not sure if all that did any good."
"Yes it did; it helped distract the invaders while the caravaners were fleeing," Nathan pointed out. He set an arm on Art's back for a moment. "You did something honorable that night. You could easily have saved a good number of lives."
"Huh, guess I did." Art found it somewhat ironic, that he could have saved lives without knowing it. Yet it made some sense. The sisters hadn't been telling the caravaners about the beast, because none of them had seen the creature. Those who had seen it most likely all died, back in the cellar before they could make their getaway. If he hadn't diverted the beast's attention, if he'd gone to rejoin the rest of the sisters… Perhaps, the beast would now be dead, but on the other hand perhaps every last one of them would have fallen under its monstrous claws. And the most ironic thing was, to him, that none of those he'd saved would know he'd saved them. He wasn't about to go around telling them what he'd done; what purpose would that serve? And now, one look at his amputated arm and none of them would have believed him even if he did. "Guess I did."
"I ended up finding Selena…" Glossing over the part about freeing her, he continued, "And we fled the monastery." Would they believe the part about the battle that happened afterwards? he thought. Of course not. "We snuck our way out of the monastery when the invaders weren't looking, but got caught in a little skirmish." Right, little skirmish, he thought. Wasn't that ironic. Most people swasbuckled rather than downplayed their own accomplishments. "This," he said, raising his left arm, "was the result."
"You aren't telling the full story, are you," asked Penny.
"Whatever do you mean?" asked Art, not liking any of the ways this could be headed.
Penny as she took hold of the nearer of Selena's hands. "I mean this," she said, and set Selena's hand down upon the table. She still had manacles and four links of chain around each of her wrists.
"Ah that," said Art with a wry grin. "The invaders had captured her and put her in chains. I busted her out. Do me a favor, would you? Tomorrow, see about getting a locksmith to break her out of those?"
"You are treating all this quite lackadaisically," said Nathan, looking away from the girl's manacled wrists to stare at Art. -- "Oh great, now my host is going to think I have a screw loose," said Art, making a shrug of defeat. -- "No, I'm just saying… If the invaders had done that to her…" -- "Then you know why I hadn't gone into any more detail than I offered." -- "Did they… you know…" asked Penny. -- "I doubt it; but at any rate, she's alive and well, so does it matter?"
"So…" asked Nathan, turning to Warriv, "You mentioned you've been speaking with several of the Rogue sisters. Did they… give any indication of what we should expect next?"
"That should be clear to all," Art answered for Warriv. "This village lies right along the main road west from the monastery, which is surrounded by mountain ranges to the north and south and an inhospitable desert to the east. It's also the closest. We should expect the invaders to attack here next."
Warriv nodded in agreement. "That's what I've been hearing from the sisters all day. They make it sound like it's guaranteed to happen."
"It hasn't happened yet, has it?" asked Art. -- "Unless there's a battle somewhere nearby that didn't raise hue and cry? Not yet." -- "That's odd. A hamlet we passed by on our way here had been razed to the ground by the invaders. In the time it took me to get here, they could have easily gotten here already." -- "Hmm, maybe they took one look at the defenses of this village, what with all the sisters defending the place, and decided to back off," he said with a chuckle.
'Bawk off', the thought came to Art's mind when Warriv had said that last phrase. Images of the midget warriors fleeing, and screaming in terror. Of him cutting them down one by one like a reaper upon the wind as they fled for the atrium gates, and then as the lone shaman fled through the wheat fields, him firing bolt after fire bolt after it. He could feel the intent to kill that he'd harbored at the time…
"That's good then, isn't it?" asked Nathan. -- "They'll be too scared to attack us."
"It's actually really bad news," said Art, then explained: "It means they're not dumb and won't simply throw away their lives on a lost cause. It means they'll come back with forces that can overwhelm the defenses this village can put up. It may not come today, may not come tomorrow… But it will come." And, he thought without voicing it: the longer they wait before attacking, the more doomed this village would be.
"I… don't like the sound of this," said Nathan. "Don't like it at all." -- "But they will protect us, won't they?" -- "They certainly seemed confident that they could." -- "I mean, they must, right? Right?" Penny looked to Art with imploring eyes.
"I'm sure they will," replied Art, trying to stay their concerns. "As long as they're stationed here, the village should be safe, for the most part."
"As long as they're here… How long will they be here?" asked Nathan. -- "I mean, they have no monastery to return to any more." -- "They have nowhere else to go." -- "If they're staying here because it's the closest to the monastery," -- "And they mean to defend against the invaders sallying out from there," -- "Then won't that mean they'll be here," -- "Indefinitely?" -- Penny looked at her husband in concern. "So many sisters need a lot of food to eat," -- "And the village only has so much stocked up." -- "Not to sound unthankful for the protection the sisters provide by their very presence," -- "No, we are most thankful of that indeed, aren't we, Penny?" -- "But most of us here aren't all that well off," -- "The food will only last so long," -- "What will we do when we run out, husband dear?" -- "I'm sure the sisters can go out hunting for food," -- "But they can't be doing that while guarding the village," -- "Could they not pay for it with their silver?" -- "But Nathan, would they have even brought their silver with them?" -- "You're certainly right, Penny, they were fleeing in the middle of the night," -- "So they have brought no money with them," -- "Nor would they have anything to sell." -- "Then they will surely go hungry," -- "Which there's no way they'll put up with that." -- "But husband dear! Surely they won't force us to hand over what little food we have?" -- "I'm sure they wouldn't stoop to that level, Penny," -- "Oh, I'm sure also, but what if they do? What will happen then?" -- "I don't know, Penny, I don't know."
Art knew exactly what would happen then. Blood would be spilled. Blood, and death. But he couldn't very well tell them that. He smiled. "They would never do such a thing. No, the sisterhood will be beyond thankful for your hospitality. For one thing, your village has been such gracious hosts. I mean what a delicacy you've fed us lost wanderers. How can anyone forget such an act of goodwill?"
He looked from a smiling Nathan to a beaming Penny, conscious that his words had their intended impact. "Thank you so much for the meal. I am… we are," he said, stretching out his arm to encompass Warriv and Taril on one side and Selena on the other, "most indebted to you. Please, let me at least do the honor of cleaning up," he said, reaching out for a pewter plate with naught left upon it but leftovers. -- "Oh no, how could we possibly,--", interjected Penny, reaching out for the plate herself. -- "No, I insist. It's the least I can do to repay you." -- "But…" she said, glancing at his missing hand. -- "And don't think my not having an arm will inconvenience me overmuch, this at least I can do," said Art as he stacked up plates and carried them away.
"I wanna help!" said Selena as she jumped out of her chair and rushed to help pick up the plates, brimming with excitement. -- "Oh wow, how helpful you are, Selena," said Penny, standing aside to let her help and watching her with a smile. "Do you know what to do with it?" -- "Of course!" Selena turned to look at Art, who had started to use a spoon to scrape the leftovers into a single bowl. -- "Here, come help me with this," said Art, gesturing at the bowl. "I need someone to hold it up while I dispose of its contents." -- "Sure!" said Selena as she rushed to do as she was told.
"Oh, she's so adorable," remarked Penny. Out the corner of his eyes, Art saw Nathan and Penny looking at Selena work, stupid grins plastered on their faces even as they held each other, hand in hand.
"You can dote on her all you like," said Art, turning to her with a smile.
"I've always wanted a little baby daughter to dote on," Penny explained, then her smile faded.
Art noted the lack of other children in the house. That probably explained their willingness to entertain multiple guests. For a peasant couple in their late twenties or early thirties, he'd expect them to have at least three children by now. He didn't ask, but he surmised that perhaps one of them couldn't have children. If they wanted to have children, even if a daughter? He couldn't hope for better. Selena most definitely needed someone to take care of her, and he hadn't fancied himself up to the task. "She's all yours," he said, gesturing in a flourish.
With Selena's help to tilt each plate over, he'd finished putting all the waste into a single bowl. "Thanks Selena," he said with a pat on her head, making her give a beaming smile. "Where do you usually dispose of this?" -- "Oh, just bury it out in the garden at the back," Penny pointed. -- "Right on it," said Art, then took the bowl and stepped outside, heading for the garden at the back of the Bedfords'.
He had, of course, offered because it felt the right thing to do. Now that he'd scooped its contents into the bowl, however, he'd noticed what he was discarding. Leftover bread crumbs, some lentils Selena hadn't liked, fatty goose skin, and the goose's skeleton. Bones.
It reminded him of that time when he'd shattered the skull of his staff because he had no other bones to work with. That time, it had won him victory over the shaman, but he couldn't keep shattering the skull every time he worked with it. For one, that skull looked too much like a human skull, and he couldn't very well go around with it not on the staff or it'd draw too much unwanted attention.
On the staff, it could pass muster; clean and in one piece, the skull seemed like a proper headpiece for a staff, if a bit gruesome. The sisters had most assuredly seen them in their fight at the monastery, and they'd not question it nearly as much, and even if they were to ask him why he had one of the shamans' weapons, he could say he'd lost his own in the battle. The sisters had lost so much more that night, that he doubted they'd call him out on it.
But for him to walk around with the skull itself? Not so much. And once he'd shattered the skull, he couldn't very well put it back together again. Not to mention a skull hardly made for the best bones to work with, it being mostly a single round object.
Did he have to resort to using necroturgy, however? He'd much rather have an arming-sword; he'd trained with it for years, after all. But without his other hand to hold a shield, it had become far less effective, even dangerous, for him to charge into battle with a sword. And he'd yet to get his hands -- hand -- on a sword again. In the meanwhile, he couldn't use a bow with just one hand, and as he'd seen from the fight at the hamlet, the fire bolts from his torch-staff only got him so far. He preferred to keep his options open. When the time came to use them, the greater the variety of bones he could keep by his side, the better.
He tossed these bones onto the ground with the rest of the trash. Yes, he needed bones; but he didn't need these ones.
But as he used the shovel propped against the garden wall to make a hole for it, he unearthed other bones, which the Bedfords must have buried in days past. These ones had been buried for quite some time, what muscle and sinew attached to them had long since rotted, leaving just the bones behind, nice and clean. It wasn't like he'd find a better place to get decently clean bones. He reached down, and pocketed them.