A long, ululating scream carried to them on the gentle morning breeze blowing from the hospital camp below.
“Menites” sighed Garrid, wearily. Kosmo nodded, smiling ruefully.
“Da. God botherers with big swords. Is bad combination for man of Kosmo’s prodigious appetites, I am thinking. No drinking. No smoking and no women.” Kosmo’s face wore a comic expression of disappointment. Garrid raised an eyebrow, despite his disquiet.
“How does someone who can’t use personal pronouns correctly know a word like prodigious?”
“Is one of life’s mysteries, I am thinking.”
The two men stood on a grass sward overlooking the camp. Garrid had been well enough to hobble around on a crutch for the last 2 days and had wasted little time exploring his environs. Kosmo had been only too glad to show him around the camp, but Garrid had to admit to being more than a little disturbed by the nature of his benefactors.
“When I saw your uniform, I thought that I had been captured.” Again he added, internally. He liked the Khadoran, but he was still an unknown quantity in some respects.
Kosmo sighed. “My side, they is not so much with the ‘capturing’ you see? There is a few bad cookies in our army, but worst of all is Scarecrow. He is real nasty customer.”
“Who is this Scarecrow?” asked Garrid, casually. He squinted into the hazy, middle distance as a chill breeze caused his thigh wound to flare, angrily. It was still an improvement, even from the day before. He could flex his toes without any pain now and bend the knee with only mild agony.
“He is Kommandant of Kosmo’s army and he is being proper bastard and no mistaking. He has big, ugly lifemen as personal bodyguards and sometime he say to them ‘Lifemen, find banner for the Scarecrow’ and then lifemen are looking for deserters, rebels, or enemies to make into banner.”
Garrid frowned “You mean ‘make him a banner’
Kos, not make into banner.” The Khadoran raised an eyebrow and sneered, haughtily.
“Kosmo is knowing what he means, Garrid. Lifemen are to making prisoners into banner for Scarecrow. He is having lots of banners; a new one for each week during campaign season.” Kosmo shook his head and spat.
“Do you think that they will let us go, the Menites?” asked Garrid. Kosmo shrugged.
“They are saying that we are either to join their order, or leave once we better. Sir piss-pants will not let you go before good lady says though.” Said Kosmo, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. Garrid laughed and their escort bristled behind them.
The two soldiers turned to regard him, sceptically as they had been doing since he had first been assigned to their protection. Sir Boreal Klayne was young; scarcely into his twenties with short, straw-coloured hair and barely a wisp of beard on his strong jaw. His enamelled plate armour shone in the morning sun, as did his bared blade. He was big and solid looking. He moved with cat-like grace despite his heavy raiment and wielded his blunted practice sword with consummate skill during training bouts. His disdain for the two soldiers was evident and they took every opportunity to push the stiff young man’s vows of protection to their limit.
“Hey sir Bore.” Yelled Kosmo, loudly.
“My name is Boreal.” Growled the knight.
“Sorry, sir boring fart…”
“I am knowing your name boring man. Kosmo is not caring. Anyway, like I am saying before you so rudely interrupt senior officer…” but this was too much for Boreal.
“Montfels is my superior, not some ale-sotted lackwit like you!” Kosmo’s hands were raised placatingly.
“You correct, obviously. Kosmo is not member of your silly, god-bothering army with its stupid rockets and endless prayers, but Kosmo is still sir Boring’s senior.”
“You are a fool.” Snapped the young knight, truculently. There was silence for a moment.
“How can you be my senior?!” he barked, angrily. Kosmo smiled surreptitiously and cracked his knuckles. Garrid sniggered.
“Is simple, little toy knight. Kosmo is sir boring fart’s senior in ways of life. Kosmo has drunk, smoked and screwed his way across these lands of Immoren while the only teats ser boredom has known are his milk-mother’s. Also, with stupid vows of abstinence…” Kosmo wrinkled his nose in disgust “These are likely to be last ones he is seeing. Unless young boring fart is liking boys?” Boreal glared as Garrid tried to stifle his laughter.
“You are uncouth. Were it not for my vows before the lady I would…”
“You would be bedslave in some Ordik fleshhouse I am thinking.” Said Kosmo casually, waving a hand dismissively. “Step back out of earshot little boy. Men are needing to talk in private now, Da?” Boreal fumed. His eyes narrowed and for a moment Garrid thought the young knight may actually raise his sword, but the moment passed like a cloud over the sun and the young knight fell to one knee; his head bowed.
Garrid and Kosmo turned around. They had been here long enough to know who was approaching. Both men nodded respectfully to Errant Montfels, commander of the camp’s tiny garrison. He returned the gesture. His bare head looked ridiculously tiny atop that enormous, armoured frame.
His face was craggy and lined with age, but his eyes were clear, green and bright. White hair had been shorn close into his skull in a widow’s peak after the manner of his order. He walked beside his charge with three knights in tow. The lady looked slight and frail beside her protectors.
“Sergeant Syridian, Sergeant Kosmo.” She nodded, favouring the two men with a weary smile. Both men bowed as low as their injuries would allow. Garrid had never been quite sure what Kosmo’s injury was and had never thought it appropriate to ask, but the Khadoran bowed without apparent strain.
“You are looking well, I see. When first Montfels brought you to my camp you seemed at the very doors of Urcaen itself.”
“I owe my life and health to you, lady.” He replied immediately. She wasn’t the most naturally beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her face was thin and equine. Her eyes were far apart and very large. Her front teeth were slightly crooked and freckles dotted her high cheekbones, but still she radiated a purity and innocence that made it pleasant to be in her proximity.
Her smile thought Garrid She has a shy smile and killers at her beck and call.
“Your health, I gift to you. Your life belongs to Menoth, as do the lives of all men trueborn.” She replied, bowing her head. Her knights repeated the gesture. “Soon you will be well enough to leave us, or join?” she added, hopefully. Garrid had to admit, the peace of the camp was alluring. It might be nice to use his hands for something other than killing. Every time he closed his eyes the Khadoran boy’s face swam before him. Sometimes it was unblemished; other times his brow was swollen with a ghastly, purple lump. Sometimes it was the dead horse, which made him sadder than he would have expected. Last night he had dreamt of young Kuros alone in the dark, terrified.
“I must admit, my lady, that your way of life has great appeal to me, but these are not healing hands, I fear.” He lifted them in their new, kidskin gloves as though she might be able to see the blood that he did. She smiled.
“No man is without fault, or sin. Menoth forgives all who come to him seeking absolution.”
“For any sin?” asked Kosmo, suspiciously.
“Yes sergeant, any.” Kosmo smiled brightly.
“Well lady, when you are putting it like this: one time Kosmo’s brother was away at fighting and left his young wife at home. As if this is not bad enough, he is also leaving her sister there to defend her honour. There is only being one bed, as some no good scoundrel is to breaking theirs with an axe while I is out chopping wood, so Kosmo is then suggesting…”
“I think I understand the nature of your admission sergeant Kosmo.” Said the lady, calmly raising a hand to forestall the inevitable gory details. Perhaps it was a brain injury? Thought Garrid as he noted the stony glare of the lady’s knights.
“I digress gentlemen. There is another, more serious matter that we must discuss.”
“Pleas continue my lady.” Said Garrid. She nodded solemnly and drew a deep breath.
“Some men arrived at the camp this morning. Khadoran men. Soldiers.” Kosmo’s face was set, but Garrid thought he sensed the barest hint of a tremor at his eye.
“What do they want?” asked Garrid, in as measured a tone as he could manage.
The lady turned her head to stare at him directly.
“You didn’t have to come with
“Is no matter.” Said Kosmo with a strained smile. The Winterguard looked old, haggard. It was as though he had aged in the 2 hours since they had been told of the visitors. Garrid was dreading what they would find waiting for them in the dell. They asked for you by name said the lady.
The meeting place was a scant mile outside of camp, but the going was slow between Garrid’s crutch and the treacherous landscape of snow covered rocks and frozen bog. Sparse, sickly trees struggled up and Garrid recognised features of the area where he had been taken.
A mile was the closest the lady would allow visitors to approach. Pickets had hailed the Khadorans and bid them wait while word of their arrival was sent to the camp. Montfels had utterly forbidden the lady to attend, regardless of the slight to his honour that such disobedience implied. Garrid was glad that the old knight had come in her place. His physical presence was enormous and threatening when required, but more than that he exuded an aura of stern, implacable resolve. 8 other knights errant accompanied them, including the omnipresent and long-suffering sir Boreal. Kosmo’s uncharacteristic silence was providing the young knight with a reprieve today, however.
Apart from requesting that he accompany Garrid to his meeting, Kosmo hadn’t said a word since news of the Khadoran party reached the hospital camp. That worried him immensely. Kosmo was his friend of 2 weeks. He had been a winterguard for years and a Khadoran his whole life. For once, there was no way to tell what was going on in his mind.
“We are nearly there.” Said Montfels, softly. Garrid had spoken about the commander with the truculent Boreal one evening while they supped. At first the young knight had been suspicious; due in part, no doubt to Garrid’s association with the acerbic sergeant Kosmo. When he saw that Garrid was sincere in his interest, the prickly young man had entered into his idiom; haltingly at first, then with greater enthusiasm.
It turned out that Boreal was Montfels’ nephew by marriage. He idolised his uncle and was only too eager to share stories about his deeds. Tales of blood and valour sounded hollow to Garrid, but he listened politely as the youth talked; his simple meal lying uneaten on the platter before him.
The giant was already a living legend at the time when fighting erupted in the city of walls. Montfels was fighting beneath the walls of distant Sul when he suffered a mortal wound from the mighty Cygnaran Sword knight, Sir Brindborne of Highgate. The Cygnaran was well known as a winebag, lothario and deadly duellist of enormous dexterity and skill. He was fighting in Sul as penance for killing a distant relation of the Raelthornes in a duel.
Somehow his sword had found a weakness in the Menite’s defence; punching up through his mailed uxter and piercing the bottom of his heart. Montfels great broadsword had licked out as he fell; opening the plate mail covering Brindborne’s gut as well as the soft flesh beneath. The two mighty warriors had fallen to the ground while their brothers fought and died around them.
Lady Caducea had found them bleeding out. She was fleeing along with the remnants of her aunt’s household staff when their groans alerted her. The servants fled, but the young Caducea swallowed her fear and approached to find the two giants awash with blood, clinging grimly to life.
Both men had been fatally wounded; both had been recalled from the brink of death by the lady. Brindborne had forsaken Morrow in favour of the Menite faith and pledged his sword to her. Montfels did the same and soon word of her fame had spread.
“My uncle has been with the lady since the beginning of her order.” The young knight had bragged. “When I was of an age, he sent to Imer for me and made me his squire.” The young man said it with such fierce pride that Garrid worried for him. Kuros had been of an age with this young knight, he remembered. It had been a long time since he had thought of the trenches. It seemed a different lifetime now.
The trees gave way to sloping, open ground that led down into a clearing. The Menite party stopped at the treeline and Montfels addressed both sergeants.
“We shall brook no treachery from them, or you. Menoth is watching.” Said the old Knight flatly.
You mean errants with crossbows are watching thought Garrid, but considered it impolitic to say out loud. Montfels was a very different creature from his nephew.
“Remember sir, that if you suspect treachery on the part of this deviant, then you have but to signal and we shall intervene.”
Garrid nodded his gratitude– fairly certain of what Montfels’ intervention would constitute – and set off down the incline with Kosmo’s assistance. The Khadoran was silent for the duration of their descent.
A single fallen log lay in the centre of the clearing with a large, flat boulder nearby. No snow rested on the boulder and as Garrid approached, he noted scratch marks on its surface. Closer inspection revealed that they were crude runes, but there was no opportunity to examine them further. The Greylord was waiting.
He was seated on the log examining the beard of his rune-encrusted axe in its belt noose as though he had never noticed it before. A long, fur-trimmed cloak of sky blue was draped about his shoulders. Lobstered pauldrons of deep red capped his shoulders and his thin, grizzled face was framed by a shock of white hair and dirty, greying beard. The same beard hid his torso. He looked ancient, as though carved from frozen rock, but there was an undeniable sense of robustness in the man’s carriage. He’s younger than he appears thought Garrid.
A long staff of carved green stone glowed in his left hand. It was vaguely unsettling to look at. Garrid could almost swear that he heard a voice from somewhere far away. He was reminded uncomfortably of his experience at the roadside and cleared his throat, noisily.
The Greylord looked up from his axe, blinking as though in surprise at Garrid and then Kosmo who would not return the man’s gaze.
“May I presume that you are Sergeant Garrid Syridian of the royal Cygnaran military?” asked the man in perfectly accented Caspian. Garrid’s surprise must have been evident, judging by the man’s smile. “Please, don’t trouble yourself sirrah. Your face answers my questions in your stead. Will you sit?” he asked, gesturing toward the boulder. “We have much to discuss and I have no wish to further discomfit invalids any more than I have already.”
Kosmo helped Garrid to sit down awkwardly on the boulder, but made no motion to sit himself; neither did their host encourage him to do so. The Greylord smiled.
“You have given us quite the run around sir, but I fear that your race is at an end.”
“Do tell.” Said Garrid with a smile. “I think your eyes must be milking over old man. You missed my running partners.” Garrid gestured over his shoulder. The Grey lord’s eyes flicked to the incline’s crest where Montfels stood silhouetted against the sky like some primordial statue.
“I warrant that there are others in the wood surrounding us too.” Said the greylord with undisguised admiration. “You will find, however sir, that I too have companions.” His staff glowed brightly and for a moment Garrid heard the dreadful susurrus of wailing voices and agonised screams coming from a deep, fathomless place. Huge, muscular figures with colander helmets stepped from the treeline behind the Greylord.
Their powerfully built bodies were covered in tattoos and they wore mismatched armour in addition to their helms. Each was chained to a glowing, green blade that no normal man could use with two hands, let alone lift with one as the silent warriors did. Kosmo gave a barely audible groan of despair.
“Have no fear.” Chuckled the greylord “You are protected under the rules of parley as am I. Nobody can hurt you, but that will not always be the case.” Garrid stared at him gravely. The old man gave up smiling and sighed.
“I could care less about you sirrah. I am old and have borne my burden for too long.” Garrid suspected that the burden was his staff, but remained silent.
“My Kommandant has sent me to fetch you and here I am. I don’t know why he wants you and I care even less. I only ask that you consider your situation very carefully. It is in your best interest and the interest of your protectors that you accompany me to our camp.” Garrid sneered.
“The way I understand it sirrah, our lady Caducea is a notable. Her name is known at tower judgement. You would risk open war with the protectorate over a simple soldier?” The Greylord tutted loudly and scowled. He looked around before lowering his voice.
“Please sirrah, you insult me. I am old, not simple. We both know what kind of man pursues you. Even in the prikaz, he has influence. Whatever he wants of you, others will pay the price for your stubbornness. There are worse things in the woods behind me than my Doom Reavers, believe it!” Garrid wondered at that. “Believe me, my superiors would be unhappy were I to awaken the sleeping fire. I will not give you the excuse to draw the Menites’ attention away from Cygnar and just in case you doubt my sincerity, I have a stronger incentive for this encounter to be a peaceful one…” The old man reached into his robe and withdrew a wooden menofix. It was tied to a hempen cord and crusted with layers of burgundy paint. It had obviously been recoated many times and Garrid knew then that it was a personal treasure.
“Is that why they sent you? Did they think that the Menites would treat with one of their own? You’re still a wizard. These are fanatics, despite their mission of healing.” The greylord laughed out loud, slapping one knee with his free hand.
“You think theirs is a mission of healing? Of peace? Tell that to the ones who try to leave before your ‘lady’ deems them fit.” He looked meaningfully at Kosmo who made a show of staring at his feet. “Patients leave the order one of two ways: with a Menofix around their neck, or feet first. Your friend here knows this too, I think.” He said, gesturing to Kosmo who looked up at his countryman for the first time.
There was such despair in his eyes that Garrid felt a stab of anguish. In part it was empathy for his friend, but some of it was betrayal. Kosmo had become a friend and confidante. They were so intent on one another that they failed to notice the stealthy approach of Montfels.
“The hour grows late and my lady commands that we travel only by day.” said the knight, in his soft, commanding voice. The Greylord smiled at him.
“Is this great knight afraid of the dark?” he asked innocently. Montfels leaned forward, his massive bulk dwarfing that of the seated wizard.
“This great knight fears nothing, especially not your gaggle of rapists and thieves with their talking swords.” The Greylord smirked.
“You might fear them sir knight, were you to find them pursuing you through the woods by night.”
Montfels rested a gauntleted hand on his sword pommel, meaningfully. “My sword speaks too, but it only knows one word.”
The Greylord tutted impatiently and waved his hand. “I want this man for my lord Udzenko Sir Knight. You waste time and place your people in unnecessary peril.”
“This man’s life is his own.” Replied the knight, flatly. “You will take my own before you have his.”
Garrid was bemused to say the least. The Greylord could have been lying about his protectors. Perhaps Kosmo was merely a craven using the hospital as an excuse to keep out of the war? Why then, had he appeared so anguished at the mention of release? Nothing was making sense and the exchange of veiled threats between two old men was not helping matters.
“The only reason my Kommandant has not wiped your rabble from the face of Immoren is the Menite campaign army massing north of here. Yes sir knight, I note your surprise. We know much of what goes on in our country. We are not so blind as our southern neighbours. We have no intention of seeing another ‘Sul’ in Khador. Do not mistake my lord Udzenko’s reluctance to kill you for a guarantee that he will not.”
“Your visit has been wasted hedge wizard” snarled Montfels, pointing an armoured finger in the other man’s face. “You will leave while you yet can.” The Greylord leaned back involuntarily; looking angry for the first time.
“That will take time sir knight.” He said quietly, eyes smouldering like a winter sun. “As you can see, I am accompanied by 20 Doom Reavers, a column of iron fang and Grimwolf pikemen; not to mention a clan of Kossites – though I will admit to having lost sight of them. They are so hard to keep track of – I’m sure they will turn up in due time, however.” He finished with a little shrug. Montfels shivered with barely suppressed rage.
“You will make use of the guest right to tuck your ragged cloak between your legs and fly, craven. My courtesy is at its limit. Come patients. We return.” With that, the huge warrior’s armoured form turned on the spot and he stomped away. Garrid and Kosmo hurried to catch up to him, but not before Garrid caught his friend directing one last, longing look toward his Kinsmen in the treeline.
Garrid’s eyes met those of the Greylord one last time.
“Please.” He begged in a plaintive tone that resonated genuine exasperation. Garrid lowered his head and hobbled on in Montfels’ wake. Somehow the old man’s look of despair had been more unsettling than if he had been angry.
Kos?” asked Garrid, but the Khadoran didn’t respond. He placed an arm around Garrid’s back, taking the weight from his leg. He lowered his head and walked on in silence.
Snow began to fall in a wild flurry all about them, blotting out the weak light of the setting sun.
Night was falling.