Ranger Of Path: The Widow's Arc

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Harvest Of Boys

Ishkur sways and spins, drunk on sunlight. Has east and west switched?

Left is still south with the public house splitting the road. A night and most of a day gone. Shadows of early afternoon are creeping up his legs, stretching to the street from the widow’s home of disrepair.

He falls and crawls through the fence to the corral’s trough. After dunking his head in stale water he climbs to his feet and spits. The well-rested mule eyeballs him as it munches. Head dripping and wobbling a little, he passes on testing the beast’s will. The last field remains untilled.

There’s a sign lying among flowering weeds across the street. He stumbles out and over. The post is rotted through and has the words “On The Way…”

“Path,” he says with half a breath and smiles at the sun. “Am I its lord?”

There’s a woman in the light looking down at him, a familiar body naked and on fire. She’s the Lady of Desire and doesn’t like him dozing on his feet.

“Your hair looks great dyed red and your breasts are perky.” Ishkur digs a thumbnail into his forehead as he repeats words said a week ago. “Our alignments are allied; can’t we stay together?”

He jerks straight. Hildr is not here. That was their last conversation.

He puts the broken sign under his arm. The public well isn’t far, but a swirl of dust blocks a clear view of who’s in the small line waiting.

She was jealous of his elvish blood every night when the fire under her skin eased to a smolder. He’s lost time, more than a night, worse than a post-tavern human. The betrayal of his heritage would disappoint her.

A mule snort, and Ishkur nods to his fellow hybrid. “I’ll come back.”

It’s slow going and his slovenly state gathers attention. She liked him messy. Dawn was their closest time. Both of them flaring to life before responsibilities soured spontaneity. This past week he’s honored her alignment’s ritual with a thumb to head every morning but this one.

The post snaps as he waits his turn, and a callused hand steadies him from behind. It’s the shovel man that had warned him. He bullies some space and then leans Ishkur against the cool stone of the well.

The half-elf rubs his neck and says, “You honor me with the manners of a gentleman.”

“Three nights when no stranger before has survived one. I’m Jorkin.” He motions and a girl steps up holding a full bucket with shaking arms. “This is my youngest Whisana. It’s a feat to have survived, but now you’re clinging with fingertips.”

The girl eases the bucket down and grins. “Sip don’t slurp.”

“I am Ishkur Inshushinak Ishtaran and you are a fairy, made royal in kindness.” She tsks as he gulps and spills a pint on his pants. “I’ve wet myself.”

She giggles and says, “You’re Ishpilly.”

The father slaps his back. “Refreshed? Ready to get far from here?”

“I’m not finished.”

“The Sticknot fields don’t need your scrawny back.”

“I pushed myself and felt the whisper of my god’s avatar.” He sips. “I’m drained, a reason for the taboo it seems.”

“So she’s addled you.”

“Poppa,” Whisana says, “be nice to the pretty man.”

“I’m not often respected for deductions.” Ishkur gulps and spills a cup. “I have rewet myself.”

“I won’t guess your secret stranger, but you should leave before Kelsa finishes you.” Jorkin slaps his girl’s hand away from the half-elf’s ear. “Behave or back home.”

“Momma will wonder what you’re doing.”

“Will she wonder why there’s an outline of my palm,” he says as she flicks water at him, “across your face.”

“More rest to replenish.” Ishkur sets down the bucket and holds out a hand. “Help me back to the widow’s lair please.”

“Are you deaf, blind, or stupid?”

“Poppa!”

“Sorry. Are you ignorant or an idiot?”

“Both sound likely.” He rubs his wrist. “What am I missing?”

Jorkin grabs the half-elf’s hand. “These two spots along your vein are bite marks. You aren’t feeling drained; you have been drained.”

“Wait. Are you saying the widow’s a vampire?”

Whisana clutches her father’s arm. “She’s a bad momma now.”

“My tears are sweetened by my fae heritage, but I hope my blood is more of a Cabernet.” Ishkur picks at a pair of tiny scabs. “She makes an odd salad soup. It’s quite good, but it makes me ache for a proper drink.”

“Three States, our public house, has no open beds.” Jorkin helps the half-elf stand. “How far can you walk?”

“No money anyway, and it’s a matter of crawling if a distance.”

“Whisana, tell your mother to set an extra plate for dinner.” She claps, and he hands her the bucket before she runs off. “To be clear, I haven’t yet offered.” He leads Ishkur away from curious ears and says, “First let’s converse more, and then we’ll see about a seat at my table.”

“Did she drag home the one with long nose hairs? Do you think he could still be alive and scratching?”

“Who?”

“A soldier turned bandit that I was tracking. How big is her basement?”

“So you didn’t get a tour of the cellar?”

“I don’t like rats. Not in cultivated lands. They mob up, get filthy and mean.” He points north. “Now in Cloden they’re big enough to take your arm, but are usually nice and clean.”

“Do you remember when she bit you?”

“What?”

“Your neck and wrists… do you remember?”

“She offered indefinite quartering, but I suppose she could’ve had a definitive end in mind.”

“Did she bite—”

“It didn’t wake me.”

“Kelsa has a soft touch.” Jorkin shakes him. “You don’t have to be sure on details, just that she’s a monster and not a protector. Can you say that?”

Ishkur slips the man’s grasp and staggers to the well. The young woman that gave him a pickle is standing there next to the old woman who took it back. The hag pulls the maiden aside with an arthritic claw hand as he grabs the broken sign by their skirts.

He smiles and taps the wood. “Don’t worry; I’ll be on my way.” Using the post as a third leg he returns to the man and says, “How’s your wife in the kitchen?”

“Better than in bed.” He winces. “Don’t repeat that and be ready to talk to some elders. Help convince them it’s time to end the Sticknot’s curse. Agree and I’ll invite you into my home.”

“Okay. She has a chest of men’s coats, different styles and sizes, dirty and moldy. That’s more ominous now. The house was also quite dusty. I thought she’d just given up on maintenance. Did a conscription army of Black really come through here? She has such a wild story about what happened to her family.”

“They came and pillaged.” He makes a fist. “Our families were close, and we miss them.”

“I was worried about prying deeper. Is it impolite to pester you? I’m an awkward socializer; forgive failing manners. Consider me a poor frog drifting across a foreign pond, trying to pay his passage with swallowed bugs.”

“You do seem a little green.”

Ishkur taps his ear. “I really am drained. That’s chlorophyll rising for better light absorption.”

“Don’t know about that.” The man points towards the widow’s house. “Artrik, her husband, came from Spicesun—”

“Oh, I went to the circus there. Such a transformative experience. Maybe I was a clown in a past life. Have you been to Circus Town?”

“No.”

“Inside the tent is a whole other world.”

“I’m sure.”

“Any true circus is a portal to that domain. Nothing mystic allowed; performances grip with authenticity, but are often just tricks done with clever mechanics.”

“If it ever travels our road I will be sure and take the family.” He crosses his arms. “It’s getting late.”

Ishkur starts walking and says as the man helps him, “So Artrik traveled a thousand yules from the great city of Spicesun with Kelsa?”

“No. She’s from another hamlet nearby. They met after he retired here.”

A young girl empties a chamber pot along the wall of the public house. “What got him to come here? Spicesun is about the best place your domain has to offer. Exotic vegetable buffets, open mic poetry, and competitive dancing, it’s a cultural mecca.”

“This is a humble place. Most people here don’t know what pretentiousness means.”

“No cesspits?” Ishkur spits. “Quaint shit still stinks, and I can smell your hamlet coming out of that pot.”

“We could grow into a prosperous village and need them if Merridian’s crusaders stop taking our sons and the Sticknot curse is purged.”

“This is a great location. I guess Three States Tavern is where the borders of three states meet, right where the road forks.”

“Three kingdoms, this is an empire. It’s called Three States for patrons starting sober, getting drunk, and leaving dead drunk.” The man swings his arm around. “Artrik came wandering in like you and stayed because he saw a future here.” He waves off a young woman coming from the house their heading towards. “We were kinder to strangers then, and had a proper protector. My uncle accepted Artrik’s offer of labor and sort of adopted him, the son he never had.”

The half-elf waves at the maiden too, and she blushes before hurrying off. “Did the recruiting legion of Black take your sons?” The man frowns and Ishkur says, “Should I not ask that?”

“Just daughters. That’s my older one you’ve flustered.” Jorkin steadies the half-elf. “Artrik knew weapons and war, but until farming knew nothing that got his fingers dirty but kept his soul clean. He put everything into the land, working so hard we had to force him to ease up and take a break. My uncle then felt a little responsible when Kelsa got pregnant. He sold them his farm for credit.”

“Human pregnancy fascinates me. You’re born like puppies and calves right?”

“The miracle of life or a bloody mess, either way it’s a searing moment when a baby pops out of a woman.” Jorkin looks away. “Artrik cried when his first son was born. I’d never seen him so…. They built a life, another son and three daughters. I was jealous having no son to carry my name, and then when the crusaders came and took only sons I felt shameful relief.”

“So my middle name Inshushinak is a patronymic derived from my father’s given name Inshushin. If your daughters don’t already have—”

“Wife’s maiden name, it honors the family and life she left behind.” He points back at the Sticknot house. “It’s surreal to imagine now, but Artrik fought them there. Hundreds swarming, thick as a herd, and he fought them. It was impossible, but he tossed orc and man aside with bare hands like he was a devil of Hell.”

“Was he a ranger?”

“I don’t know what he was, but his rage and strength got him to a hulking figure in obsidian armor. Wielding a long-poled scythe, that fancy monster tried to cut my friend in half. Quick as a snake, Artrik snagged it away mid-swipe. It was some special kind of weapon because the armored hulk ran and Artrik started cutting through anything that came too close, be it wood, metal, or bone.”

“Sounds like Endraker.”

“What?”

“You have a nice house.”

“I stood in my doorway, too shocked to cheer or hide. Spears got past his spin and he slipped or tripped, going down like a cut puppet. That’s when a towering orc bitch and a man half her height strangled the day’s light with the Pit’s own shadows. My chilled spine wasn’t firm enough. I heard and guessed the rest.”

“That armor sounds worthy of a champion, but you said it was a female orc and a small man, a human, that summoned shadows?” Jorkin nods and Ishkur says, “What’s the rest, heard and guessed?”

“The armored one gave orders. Death wasn’t enough. Artrik’s sons were soul-contracted as soldiers despite their age and inexperience. His wife and daughters were cursed with a thirst for blood and flesh, with him as the sacrifice to complete that ritual. I heard he was still alive when fed to them, with his sons forced to watch.”

“Do you know which of them led the ritual?” Jorkin shakes his head, and Ishkur dabs his eyes. “I hope your words stir my holy spirit. That leader of Black could be a champion and is much crueler than the one I know. Such a vicious war.” He pinches his fingers together. “Maybe this is why our spirits hide behind a veil?”

“I don’t know your faith boy.” The man glances at the sun. “I’m just a farmer trying to live simple, and depending on the weather I’ll praise the god of any color, even Black.”

“Green is mine. My spirit is a servant of Gardener. I am a warrior of life, and would rather heal a friend than kill an enemy.” He slaps his sign crutch and says, “I admit to feeling abandoned, and don’t know how strong my faith is without the power of my holy spirit. What am I if he never answers? A shell with a memory of being special.”

Jorkin grips Ishkur’s shoulder and points at the boarded up house a bit more than shouting distance away. “You’re special enough to stop being that creature’s meal.”

“She could use a combing and shower. Do you have to call her ‘creature’?” Ishkur rubs his neck. “Is countryside fear and gossip pushing wild fiction? My marks are circumstantial and I never saw any daughters, just sounds that could be rats, big rats.”

“Check the cellar. Maybe you’re right.” Jorkin gestures towards the sun. “Kelsa only comes out at night. You can wait for her, just not so close to my house. I don’t want her associating my place with easy meals.”

“It’s a sad story, and vampires are scary. I’ll hope for another explanation but won’t test a farmer’s ignorance tonight.”

“Did you just…. I’m well educated actua—”

“As am I,” The half-elf says with a raised finger. “My friend, a Champion of Black, didn’t like to curse people, but he still knew a lot about the undead. I remember a little of what he shared.” Ishkur wrinkles his nose. “There was this perfume of death. I thought it was just her middle-aged body odor.” He sniffs. “You smell good by the way, not sickly sweet at all. Cologne?”

“My wife has a sensitive nose.”

“Flowery with a bit of spice… roses and cinnamon?”

“I don’t know. She makes it.”

“I’d love to ask her.”

“If I let you in.”

“If the cursing ritual was witnessed, why do you need my voice? Why haven’t the people of On The Way gotten rid of the presumed vampiress?”

Jorkin glances at the sign the half-elf is leaning on. “That’s not…” He shakes his head and says, “Only some are sure she’s been made a monster. Most suspect something dark but don’t really believe those that saw that day’s nightmare. Remember also, all the boys brave or not are gone. Only old men worn out by too curious girls and bickering women remain, and monster or not many see Kelsa as our new protector. As long as we follow the rule, we’re safe. Never let anyone in or out after dark.”

“Feed me.” Ishkur rubs his wrist. “Take me in tonight, and refreshed I’ll face her and her daughters with morning’s light at my back. I’d rather face this truth than whisper a lie.”

“Hold still.” The man grips Ishkur’s mouth and feels his flat teeth with callused fingers. “I’ve heard elves are herbivores. Your teeth seem pretty close to human.”

“I am half.” He smacks his lips. “And you taste like manure.”

“Sorry.”

“It wasn’t a complaint.”

“Right. Well, it will put me on the spot skipping the elders’ consent. Opening my home makes you my guest. Maybe keep your plans to yourself so any explanation doesn’t need much of my mention.”

“I’ve stated my intent. I’ll skip details.”

“One last thing stranger, at night you’ll be chained down and bunking with me until you prove your intent.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” At the man’s quizzical look Ishkur says, “It was a practical joke. I got sold to a giant maiden, an ogress we recruited in Circus Town. Thankfully my holy spirit broke me free before the consecration.” He shudders. “I understand something of what those harvested boys must have felt, and I’ll never look at a tall woman covered in hair the same way again.”

“So… yes?”

“I trust you. You’ve got a lovely daughter that offered me water. I’m sure this isn’t some diabolical trap that’ll send me to the hamlet’s monster as an offering for continued protection.”
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