Duncan Le Treu rode slowly through the woods. The day was bright but cold. His hands were tucked firmly in his greatcoat to keep warm. It was especially chilly beneath the tree canopy. The frozen light of Solus could not beat back the oddly cold spring weather. Its rays seemed fake somehow, and only confused the senses. Was it spring or winter? By all accounts winter should be two months past, but by some cruel joke or simple misfortune spring and winter had partnered and could no longer be separated.
He didn’t like it. The cold did not sit right with him. It’s prying fingers always seemed to find the nooks in his clothing, tickling the places that would make him shiver most. His hands suffered the most from this and, by association, his marksmanship. Clumsy fingers were a shooter’s worse nightmare.
But, honestly, he thought to himself I haven’t had to do much shooting recently.
He had expected a fight with the Render. Of course, it had to happen, didn’t it? A chance to fight the apex predator? The thrill ran down his spine. Duncan had wet dreams about this.
But as the months passed by the Render’s kill count rose. He couldn’t keep track of how many men he had lost to the monster. Somewhere between ten and twenty. He could remember their names if he thought really hard about it, but didn’t bother. They were dead and that was that. At least some had died fighting.
It killed townsfolk, guards, bandits, and livestock, but never came for him. Or, maybe he was simply never in the right place at the right time.
This drove him mad with anticipation, as if the most gorgeous prostitute had taken her time with everyone except for him.
And now it was gone, or so the Ranger claimed. Shot dead with an arrow.
No way. Not a chance. He’s just bluffing in the hopes that we’ll keep him alive.
Show him a body and he’d consider it.
The Baron might have never seen a Ranger before, but Duncan had. He knew what they looked like. That man in the dungeon did not look like one. He looked like a drunk, lost in the woods.
He had been wearing no uniform or Ranger regalia, no fancy precision bow, no insignia or chevrons – nothing to distinguish him as one of the holy order.
The Baron’s right, though. Word of this cannot be allowed to spread.
Mercy trod softly beneath him, following the path worn into the undergrowth. He made a mental note to stop using the same path every time. Probably unnecessary caution, he figured, but complacency had no place in this operation. Get lazy: get sent right back to Glaustow. He probably wouldn’t even make it that far. They’d put him before a firing squad in a heartbeat.
He dismounted and gathered Mercy’s reins to lead her forward. No signs of any sentries yet. Either they were doing their jobs very well or not at all. He scowled. It had better not be the latter.
It was ten minutes before he ran into another person. Mercy snorted and pricked up her ears before he could see anyone.
“War!” he shouted back.
“Mornin’ Duncan,” said a raggedy man has he came out of hiding.
“Hi Pete. Where’s One-eye?”
“Chatting with the others, probably.”
Duncan came closer, leading Mercy by the reins. “This perimeter needs to be widened, Pete. I could smell the fire long before you stopped me.”
“Sorry Duncan, nose has gone a bit daft on me.” He sniffled loudly. “This cold’s a cruel bitch.”
Duncan gave him a cursory glance. Pete looked downright miserable, all red-nosed and pale. His patchy beard grew in an ugly pattern, but nothing was new about that. He seemed sober, at least.
“No wonder, you’re not even wearing a coat. And you haven’t got any socks on.”
Pete glanced down at the mouse-chewed leather of his boots. “Ey, right you are, Dunc. Guess I lost feeling in em’ quite some time back.”
Duncan frowned and unclasped one of the buckles on Mercy’s saddlebags. He dug through the various supplies and tossed a pair of socks to Pete. “They aren’t new, but they’re better than nothing. Keep them warm or you’ll start losing toes. And for fuck’s sake, find a jacket.”
Pete nodded somberly “Alright.”
Le Treu lashed the saddlebags closed again. “You said One-eye was chatting?”
Pete stiffened. “Aye, he and the others. With Max.”
“Why aren’t you?”
“It’s for seniors only, says Max.”
Duncan’s blood ran hot. Seeing the look on his face, Pete took half a step back.
“There are no ranks in my crew,” Duncan growled at no one in particular. His eyes looked northwest, toward the camp. He turned back to Pete. “Who does Max consider senior?”
“Tommy, Spurs, One-eye, Harry, maybe Big Mic n’ some others…”
Duncan gazed into the distance, committing the list to memory.
“You’ll slow me down on those frozen feet. Hop on Mercy. Let’s see what they’re ‘chatting’ about.”
Mercy stamped her hooves and shied away from Pete as he drew closer.
“Be good,” Duncan commanded, and she went stock still. With a grunt Pete climbed up onto her back with a little push from Le Treu.
Duncan led Mercy by the reins with Pete bobbing on top.
“You sure about this, Dunc? Maybe I should stay behind…”
“You’re no use to anyone with frostbite. We need to swap you out.”
Pete nodded dumbly as he gripped the horn of the saddle to keep from sliding off. Mercy plodded on diligently behind her owner.
“Is it true, Dunc? The Render’s really gone for good?”
Duncan stepped over a fallen log and waited for Mercy to do the same. “Who’d you hear that from, Pete?”
He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Mink.”
“Who’d Mink hear it from?”
“Hmm, I dunno.”
“What else did Mink say?”
Pete sniffled and coughed. Duncan cringed at the wet sounds his throat made.
“Said a Ranger killed it, Dunc. A real Ranger! Like from the stories!”
“Yeah, I know the stories, Pete.”
“So is it true, then?”
“I Doubt it.”
Another sentry spotted them closer to the camp. Duncan gave the password and the two continued on. They approached the first of the tents and lean-tos. The smell of cooking meat grew stronger. Duncan could hear activity further in; talking, hollering, laughing, and the sounds of wood splitting.
He looped Mercy’s reins around a post and entered the enclosure without waiting for Pete.
The camp was home to roughly forty men sharing rickety shacks, hovels, and canvas tents that spread out a hundred square meters into the woods. Most of the shelters were tucked away in clusters of three or four, creating a sort of road network through the camp. Each of these clusters had fashioned their own bonfires, stools, and table. Bows, axes, pistols and sabers leaned haphazardly up against each other.
Some people were up and about, but most were simply trying to stay warm by their fires, smoking pipes and chatting. Dead center of camp was a number of cooking spits and benches flanking a large, smoldering bonfire.
A group of over a dozen men were gathered in the hazy smoke of fire and pipe tobacco. They had just finished a meeting by the looks of it, each man separating to their own business. Duncan’s approach put haste into their step. One-eye hurried into his tent. He saw mixed emotions on the faces of those brave enough to make eye contact with him.
This was not entirely new to him, but it had only been a feeling before, one that he could never quite place. He could see it now in the way they glanced at him and each other.
Everyone inconspicuously retreated into the camp, leaving half a dozen men in the center, passing around a bottle and chatting in high spirits. One of them towered over the rest by at least a head.
The first to notice Duncan and Pete was a man with muttonchops wearing a frayed top hat. His patched vest and green trousers looked fashionable on him, despite being stained with mud.
“Hallo, Max,” Duncan said.
Max spoke with a clear voice and showed his perfect teeth with a smile. “Duncan! What news from the lords and ladies of the castle! Give im’ some room, lads! Pull him up a chair!”
A stump was dragged over for Duncan by a tipsy young man with red eyebrows and a shaved head. “Duncan,” he nodded
The bottle was passed to Duncan and he took a swig.
“Good gin,” he said after a swallow.
Tommy grinned. “Ay, took it on the last raid. Had to pry it out the dumb bastard’s fingers.”
The giant of a man piped in: “Say, when we going for another raid, Duncan? Been nearly three months! I’m getting antsy.”
“Gotta go crack some heads, don’t ya Mic,” said Tommy.
Big Mic rolled the massive bulk of his shoulders. “Getting all stiff sitting out here with no village girl to warm my bed.”
“No girl to break in your bed is what you mean, ya fuckin ogre,” said a sallow-skinned, dark-haired man sitting across from him.
“You sound jealous, Spurs,” cut in Tommy. “You still smarting from the way that bitch slapped you? Not our fault you’ve got shit luck with women.”
The others laughed at this. Duncan did not. He was trying to read the air. The laughter seemed forced. Something was going on.
Max interrupted the conversation. “So what’s the word, Duncan?” They all turned their attention to Le Treu.
Duncan had considered how he would answer this question well before hand.
He shrugged. “Nothing much.”
Max made a show of looking to the others with confusion.
“How can there possibly be nothing much! Is the Render dead or not! Who killed it! Did you?!”
The last remark hit home. No, I didn’t kill it, you prick. But I wanted to. It should have been – it should be me!
“I’ve heard rumors, that’s about it,” Duncan replied without missing a beat.
Max didn’t let up. The others were getting excited. “How can the fucking Baron not know?! I thought nothing happened without his knowledge! What else has be got to do, besides shag that dead-eyed cunt?!”
Duncan almost lost control of his demeanor. His body screamed at him to draw his blade and cut the whoreson’s throat out. The thought of the Baron fucking Katherine (wife though she may be) made him sick with fury. He kept his cool.
“The Baron doesn’t know. Or if he does, he hasn’t told me.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
Tommy piped in. “He better tell us! We work our asses off for him! We’re the one out here suffering for his royal highness! We lost more men than anyone!”
Max gave Le True a knowing look “You wouldn’t be holding something back from us, would you Duncan?”
Everyone went quiet, just now seeing the train of thought.
Fuck you, pal.
“Why would I do that? Don’t be stupid, Max. There are rumors about everything. Remember that rumor about the well? You all believed that too, didn’t you?”
Max said nothing. Duncan decided to quickly change the conversation.
“He’s out hunting,” said Spurs. “Left before the sun came up. Said something about his traps.”
Duncan jerked a thumb at Pete, standing by the horses. “Pete’s gotta be swapped off sentry duty. He’ll die in the cold.”
“We’re all freezing here,” said Tommy. “You chilly out there, Pete,” he shouted in a mocking tone. The others laughed. Pete looked over from a distance, confused.
“I just pulled sentry duty yesterday,” said Spurs.
“An’ I did it the day before,” cut in Big Mic.
“No you didn’t! That was Mink,” said Tommy.
“No it weren’t! It was me,” replied Big Mic. “I remember cause you lot were hootin’ and hollerin’ back here the entire time! I could hear you from way out!”
Duncan lost his patience.
“I don’t care who did it last. Just get someone on it.”
A look passed between them. Max smiled.
“Alright, lads,” he said. “I’ll take it this time around. You lot, enjoy that gin for me!”
They gave him one last swig and patted him on the back as he left.
“What a gentleman!”
“A stand-up chap!”
“Go get em’, Max!”
Max walked off with a satisfied grin. Duncan frowned. He felt like he had just lost a battle he hadn’t signed up for.
The air had grown awkward and stale with Max gone, so the others finished off the liquor quickly before scattering to their corners of the camp. Big Mic and Tommy went together in a drunken stagger, singing a song terribly out of tune. Spurs went by himself. Duncan was left alone with a few men tending to the cooking. He sighed and stood up.
Hopefully Mink will have some answers.
Luck was on his side. He caught Mink trudging out of the wood line not long after, a handful of conies swinging over one shoulder. Mink himself looked ghastly as usual. His hair and beard were the same dark shade of red – so dark it appeared black. Where the head hair stopped and facial hair began was difficult to tell. His grey eyes peeked out from beneath shady brows. Duncan stood taller than him, but only because Mink hunched over like an older man.
But he was not much older than Duncan, and still walked with youthful agility. He was clothed in furs and buckskin breeches. A bow and quiver of arrows bobbed on his back. He walked past Duncan with a grunt of recognition.
Some people haven’t changed, at least.
Duncan followed him to his tent, around which were all the hunters’ essentials: tanning rack, butcher block, grindstone, workbench, and a large cooking fire.
He went about stringing up the dead rabbits. He glanced at Duncan from beneath the mess of hair.
“You heard about the Ranger?”
Mink paused. “It’s true, then?”
“It might be.”
Mink stuck his pipe between his teeth as he packed it with loose tobacco. “Well I’ll be damned. Render’s dead?”
“So he claims.”
“The Ranger. If he really is that.”
“Did you or any of the boys run into him, Mink? I need to know if he’s aware of us out here.”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“You know the lads. If they saw a Ranger in the woods they wouldn’t be able to shut up about it.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Mink started skinning one of the conies, his pipe held tight between his teeth. He spoke out of the other side of his mouth.
“Besides wilderness rescue and reconnaissance, you know what Rangers do, Duncan? Kill outlaws. And they’re damn good at it. We’ll be on his list.”
Mink paused at his own sentence. Duncan could see the beginning of an idea forming on Mink’s hairy face.
“Wait,” Mink said. “Is that why the Ranger’s here? For us?!”
Duncan sat heavily to a log. “I don’t know, Mink. What else have you heard.”
“I heard he’s wounded pretty bad.”
Duncan nodded. “That’s true.” He plucked a piece of grass and began toying with it in his fingers.
“Also heard the herbalist Fiona is working on him.” Mink paused to point the stem of his pipe at Duncan, not caring that he got rabbit blood all over it. “Bad idea, that.”
“I know. It was the only way we could keep him alive. I just need you to keep your mouth shut about it.”
Mink chuckled and spat on the ground. “Doesn’t matter what I say, Dunc. Word’s spread, sure enough. Sure, they’ll ask you questions like they don’t know, but you bet your ass they do.”
Duncan shredded up the blade of grass and leaned back. “What’s going on in the camp? People are acting strangely.”
Mink flicked some of the blood off his hands onto the ground. His pipe was now thoroughly covered in gore. He puffed at it without noticing. “Max has been organizing things whenever you’re off with the Baron. The others look up to him. Some are saying we’ve grown soft out here. Hadn’t had a raid in ages, they say. Max and the others are thinking it’s your fault.”
He looked gravely at Duncan. “Hiding the truth from them is likely to make that worse.”
“I don’t have much of a choice. What am I supposed to say? A Ranger killed the Render? He’s coming for your ass next? There would be complete panic.”
“Is that you speaking, or the Baron?”
“Does it matter?”
Mink shrugged. “You’ve always got a choice, Dunc. That’s all I’m sayin’. You gotta choose between pleasing the Baron and pleasing the crew.”
Duncan scoffed and went about picking the dirt from his fingernails with a knife that suddenly appeared in his hand.
“So what’s the Baron want with him,” Mink said. “The Ranger, I mean.”
“Like I said, we don’t know if he is or not.”
“What do you mean? Hasn’t he said he’s a Ranger?”
“No, technically he hasn’t. The Baron’s convinced, though. He thinks the ‘Ranger’ has some valuable information. Plans to extract it and sell it to Machia or some such.”
“Gonna torture him, then?”
Duncan wiped the fingernail grime off the knife, then went back to picking. “I don’t know what he has planned. Something crafty, knowing him.”
Mink shook his head. “What happened to the good ol’ days when you could just torture a man and be done with it.”
They both chuckled.
“Those days are long gone,” Duncan said. “These days everything is theatre. People just act their way through a fake performance.”
“And what happened to the Duncan Le Treu I used to know? Back then you spoke with your gun and reasoned with your blade.”
They both went quiet. The shared memory hung over the two of them like a shadow. Mink spoke up.
“Well whatever play you have to act in, you better act like hell. We ain’t going back there, Dunc. We promised. We lost too many behind those walls. So don’t screw up this business with the Ranger. Pick your sides carefully.”
“I won’t. I know what I’m doing.”
“Fuck me, I hope so.”