Cuana Chapter 10 Entry 6

The savages had wreaked their havoc throughout the Westermark, slaughtering settlers wherever they found them by stealth, invasion, and even magic-wrought plagues. Always ferocious, their success in reclaiming so much land was due to a sort of unification of the tribes. Normally, Picts from one tribe will consider other tribes to be enemies, this continual infighting within their race preventing them from becoming a dominant power in the west. Now that they were acting together they were able to overwhelm the settlers, as well as the soldiers that normally kept them at bay. This massive assault on the settlers drew reaction from Aquilonia, who has sent military and supplies into the Westermark in an effort to shore up or reclaim their settlements. Caravans of wagons laden with food, medicine, and other supplies were sent where they could in order to provide for the settlers while they rebuilt, resettled, and prepared to fight back against the savages. I was riding in one such wagon, heading north to where Lady Coelia and a number of refugees were anxiously awaiting supplies.

While guarding the caravan I had plenty of time with which to reflect on my situation. My hatred of both this country and the Picts is as strong as ever, and due to the way in which we were treated in Tarantia by her citizenry, I am no big fan of Aquilonians either. Based on that alone I could easily justify leaving this whole wretched place for a coastal city – indeed I had been considering such an act for several days. I am just not able to abandon these settlers to suffer their doom at the hands of these feral, subhuman savages, no matter how low my disregard for Aquilonians. With the exception of very few, these settlers are honest, hardworking, and fair-minded – much tougher than their Tarantian counterparts, and though likely due to their experiences with the Picts, much more even handed in their dealings with people of other nationalities than those I met while in Aquilonia. I decided that I can forego a trip to the coastal lands for now in favor of aiding the settlers and ridding the world of as many Pictish curs as possible. My next opportunity to do so came very soon.

The forest had grown unnaturally silent around us. All that was heard was the creaking of the wagon wheels and muttered conversation. No sooner had I opened my mouth to raise a cautionary alarm when a hail of arrows tore into our ranks from the forest. I was immediately down off of the wagon and running toward the forests edge, arrows ricocheting off of my hauberk as I went. A pack of wolves burst into the clearing and began mauling whoever they could clamp their jaws upon. I took down four of the beasts as they tried to encircle me, their snarls ending in gurgling whimpers as they died. I saw two of the mercenaries who had been hired to guard the caravan go down under a press of gray fur and slavering jaws which quickly tore their throats out and turned their feral gaze upon me. I met their charge, and was again able to cut them down before they could sink their fangs into my flesh. Arrows still flew into our ranks from the forest, so I charged into the trees to try to put a stop to the deadly rain of bolts that continued to assail the wagons.

I say that I charged into the trees, but the denseness of the undergrowth in these woods makes charging all but impossible. My movement was greatly hampered by sheer thickness of scrub, roots, and tangles of vine. Regardless, I was closing on a large group of the savages within moments. There appeared to be at least two score of them, several of which put aside their bows and instead opted to use their crude cudgels and hatchets when they saw me coming for them. As I came toward them they fanned out a little way in either direction in order to attempt to encircle me, paying no heed whatsoever to the length of my blade and my superior reach. Before I was able to bury my blade into the guts of the closest savage, he caught me off guard by charging me, nearly knocking me flat. I was able to sidestep him – barely – but a second struck me and I went down hard into the undergrowth. Then they were on me like a plague, raining blows upon me as I struggled awkwardly to regain my feet in the treacherous undergrowth. Thankfully the damage I took was minimal, and I managed to get back up without dropping my sword or taking any serious wounds in he process. By this time I was completely surrounded, the stinking savages yipping like toy dogs all around me, lashing out with their sharpened twigs as if I was a penned pig to be prodded to the block. The periphery of my vision began to darken, the rage quickly building inside my chest until I thought it would burst. I bellowed incoherently and struck out in every direction as a rage of bloodlust washed over me. Anywhere I saw movement I struck, every direction I saw a savage my blade followed. I could hear more of them running toward me through the underbrush and I redoubled my efforts. I was soaked in blood, unsure how much of it was my own. I spun around, throwing the weight of my body into an arcing blow that nearly decapitated one. More fell screaming, one clutching at his belly in a futile attempt to retain his intestines as they bulged and squirted between his twitching fingers. I turned back to face the larger contingent of my foes, but saw that they fled, a cluster of wolves stumbling after them bearing crushed skulls and mortal wounds. The horror of the Stygians craft threatened to overwhelm me, but the feeling passed as soon as the undead wolves had moved out of sight and continuing after their prey. We pieced the caravan back together as best as we could, I tended the Stygians wounds, and we continued on, making it to the settlement without any further attacks or incident.

It was not so much a settlement as it was a collection of refugees. A scant handful of wooden buildings stood amid a mass of tents of various shapes and sizes, people busily going to and fro, occupied with tending their barest needs as best as they were able under the circumstance of their present situation. Our arrival was met with a great deal of excitement because the people were extremely low on provisions, and being held up as we were by the attempted ambush, the hour of our expected arrival had already passed and they had begun to fear the worst had befallen us. In one ear I heard that a noble, Lord Gasparus was with Lady Coelia and that we were expected to meet with them right away, but my other ear picked up a womans voice calling my name. I turned to look and saw Hema, the girl who I had carried through much of the forest after our rescuing her and two others from captivity recently. She looked much better than she had before, having had time to heal and regain her strength, if not actually rest under the strain of current conditions. She was waving after me and calling my name, and when I caught her gaze she flashed a brilliant smile and ran straight toward me and caught me up in her embrace, saying that she had been worried, fearing we had run afoul of the Picts. She asked me if I would like to come to her tent and have my evening meal with her and her sister, and I began to reply that we were ordered to meet with Lady Coelia, but I assented when she said she had been saving some herbs for stew to prepare me a meal upon my return, casting her gaze downward and her lower lip protruding in obvious disappointment. I chuckled, telling her if that were the case, I would love to join her and that the others could deal with Lady Coelia without me. Her face split into a grin, and she fairly dragged me away to her tent.

Once inside she quickly went to work and aided by her sister, soon had a fine stew prepared. Having had nothing but field rations for the last week or so, anything prepared at even so bare a hearth would have seemed a feast, but she served a truly delightful meal which I thoroughly enjoyed. The gaze with which she regarded me spoke of more than just a casual gratitude for my having saved her, and I returned her glances with a look of obvious interest on my part. Once we finished eating, she sent her sister out on an errand to fetch something – radishes, I believe – and hopped into my lap and began tugging at the straps of my hauberk. Armor, clothing, everything was soon lying on the floor as we dug into her bedding and made the best of what time we had alone together. It was too soon for my taste, but we had to stop and make ourselves decent again before her sister returned, which she did almost on cue as I was fastening the last strap on my hauberk. I bid them both good night, and promising to see Hema again tomorrow, left to join my companions at the lodge where they had gone to meet with Lady Coelia.

I walked into the common room and saw my friends sitting at a large table with Lady Coelia and Lord Gasparus, a typically condescending lesser noble of military rank who was attended by an ill-treated squire named Dion. Lady Coelia welcomed me to the table while my companions each met my gaze with either a sly smile or raised eyebrow. Their meeting was winding down, and Gasparus was talking about some Pictish prisoner who was going to lead us north, apparently to take the staff Gault had given us to a Ligurean grove somewhere to the north. Not bothering to remove my armor, I made myself a place to sleep on the floor and got some much needed rest.

We prepared to leave early the next morning. I decided to take a few minutes to stop down to see Hema before leaving so I could thank her for her hospitality the evening before. She seemed surprised that I would be leaving on another mission so soon, but I explained as best as I was able that putting an end to the Pictish insurgency was more important than anything else that any of the rest of us may wish to do, and that this settlement would be in peril soon enough as things stood right now. Though visibly troubled, she seemed to understand well enough and asked me to take something with me – a piece of purple silk that she had stored in a small trunk. I took it, tied it around my neck and gave her a hug, thanking her for such a sweet gesture. I then gave her three silver pieces – half of the money I carried – and told her that if things get bad here or if there was an attack on the settlement, to take her sister and try to flee north. I knew the money I gave her did not amount to much, but may still be of some help should an emergency arise. I told her that I would try to be back as soon as I could, that the fate of all the settlers in the Westermark that still lived may well rest with us and our mission to deliver the staff. Nodding her understanding and blinking back a tear, she hugged me for a moment and then I was gone.

I returned to the common room to see everyone else ready to depart. Dhak gave me a little good-natured grief when he saw the purple silk I had tied around my neck, while Tullweim just laughed knowingly. Lady Coelia was there and Gasparus was barking orders to his men who were bringing in the Pict that they were planning to use as a guide through the forest. I was surprised to see that it was a woman, and one much more striking in appearance than I am used to seeing in the women of that race of savages. Her build was statuesque, her movements almost serpentine in their gracefulness. Her only real garment was a tiny, otter-pelt loincloth which covered just enough to make a man wish to see what was hidden underneath, while her entire upper torso was unclad, covered only by the blue paint with which her people are known to adorn themselves. She maintained her regal bearing despite the manner in which she was treated like an animal by Gasparus. It caused an odd feeling in me, for despite my loathing of the entire Pictish race, I felt anger at her treatment at the hands of Gasparus. Perhaps it was simply that I loathe aristocrats as well, for I would assuredly gut Gasparus where he stood if he were to level that treatment at me, as I have already done to other so-called civilized men. I decided to put it out of my mind – she was a Pict after all, and therefore my enemy. Gasparus is a pompous, arrogant noble, and therefore has also earned my contempt. I am simply coming along to help guard the Lady Coelia and the staff, and to see that it makes it to its destination. Lady Coelia has thus far treated us with both honor and respect, and I will see that neither this Pictish woman or the arrogant knight cause any trouble for her in seeing her mission through.

Our trip north took us to where we eventually made camp, about six hours north of the Thunder River. We made no fire, instead contenting ourselves with eating cold rations and getting some rest. Gasparus continued to heap verbal abuse and disrespect upon his squire, Dion, who was bound by civilizations backwards view of honor to stoically accept the endless stream of insults the knight heaped upon him. I decided it was best for me to try to avoid any conversation with Gasparus, for he would easily read my contempt for him in my manner and my temper will not suffer any such indignities he seems to believe all those around him deserve. Best to just keep my distance while I am able and try to avoid the temptation to beat him to a pulp.

Tullweim took the first watch while the rest of us laid down to get some sleep. It seems that I had only just closed my eyes when the Nordheimer was by my side, waking me for my turn as sentry. As I got up and gave the area a cursory inspection, I saw Tullweim move over toward the area where the Pictish captive lay and extend a flask toward her. She took a swallow from it, passed it back to him, and within a few moments they were both walking off into the forest together. I had to smile at that – the image of a large, blonde snow ape rolled up in the passionate tangles of a sinuous forest serpent came to mind, and I decided it best to just let them go at it since the Nordheimer was plenty able to take care of himself in situations like this. They returned well before my watch was over, and I turned away when I saw them coming in order to offer them a little discretion. Nothing else of interest happened on my watch, so I awoke the Stygian for his turn at watch and went immediately back to sleep.

I was awakened by a scream of pain and was immediately upon my feet, drawing my sword as I stood. The scream had come from the Hyrkanian, who had been struck at least once by arrows fired from the woods. I ran straight into woods in the direction that some of the arrows had come from, the Aesir following directly behind, brandishing his bardiche. Was fairly crashed into a small group of the savages, my sword tearing into one and killing him on the spot. Tullweim was knocked down by one of them and had to muscle his way back to his feet while suffering blows from a group of Picts that had begun to surround him. I hacked into another of the savages, but he twisted at the last moment and avoided being disemboweled by scant inches. Another one fell to the Nordheimers fury and the rest broke and fled. I then ran to where I had heard sounds of fighting from the direction where Gasparus and Dion had gone. I entered the thicket and immediately found the knight on the ground where he had been knocked on his ass, a look of panic on his face as he shouted that the Picts had taken Dion and fled. They had been waylaid as they entered the forest, Gasparus apparently toppled the same way the savages had done with both Tullweim and myself. For someone who had previously spoken so largely of dispatching the Picts to suffer the torment of various hells, he looked quite lost, discouraged, and in a bit of a state of shock, especially after I told him that his squire, Dion, was likely lost.

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