Wilterland was a drier land than Helberion. Most of the rain crossing the continent in this direction was diverted by the mountains, and the land they entered as they descended the southern slopes of the Grantens was almost desert. Yellow grass covered the ground, interrupted by the occasional stunted tree and large boulder. A cold wind blew across it and the men pulled their tunics close around their necks for warmth. They had long since used up the last of the trail rations they'd brought from Alby, the last town they'd passed through, and had finished off the last of the goat meat at last night’s supper. There was nothing larger than a small village on the path they would be taking through Wilterland, nowhere they'd be able to buy food for a long expedition overland, so the first thing they did was to divide up into a number of hunting parties, leaving Quill and Malone to guard their camp.
“You know, the city of Balmiss is just fifty miles or so to the west of here,” said Crane as he knelt to examine some rabbit droppings. “Beef, pork, mutton, as much as we want. We could eat like kings all the way to Mekrol.”
“The Brigadier doesn't want to attract attention,” replied Tallion. “Besides, it's too far out of our way. What's your name again?”
“Crane!” replied Crane. “You know? The tracker?”
“I didn’t know we had a tracker. How long have you been with us, then?”
“This is my first mission with you. Your last tracker died, remember?”
“No. Who was be, then?”
“I thought you were one of the old timers, been with the Brigadier for years.”
“Yeah. We go back a long way, me and the Brigadier. Real chums, we are. Close as brothers.”
“But you don't remember the name of your last tracker?”
“Didn't know we had a tracker. So are you any good?”
“Well, I can tell that the rabbits here aren't worth catching. Thin and scrawny. Not much more than a mouthful in each one.”
Tallion gave a short of disdain. “Hell, even I can tell that, just from the state of those droppings. If you were a decent tracker, you'd be able to lead us to the fat, juicy rabbits!”
“There aren't any fat, juicy rabbits around here, just look at what they've got to eat. I'm surprised there’re any rabbits here at all!”
“There’re supposed to be pheasants in land like this.” Tallion looked around the desolate landscape, the wind blowing his straggly black hair like the pennants flying from the walls of a castle, as if his large, muscular body was a fortress that could resist the might of an invading army for weeks. He lifted a hairy, thick veined hand to shade his eyes from the brightness of the sky as he scanned the horizon.
“Not as good as turkey,” he continued, “but better than scrawny rabbit. Partridge, grouse, all good and tasty. Forget the rabbits, go find us some grouse.”
Crane stood, arching his back to ease the cramp. “Their burrows will be that way, where the soil’s deeper,” he said. “I'll put a few snares out, then we’ll go take a look over that hill.” He reached into a pouch and took out a coil of thin wire, some of it bent and twisted from having been used before.
“Will there be partridges over there?”
“No, but there might be some wild goat.”
“I'm fed up with goat. I want some partridge! A nice bit of white meat. My father knew some good recipes for partridge. ‘Course, you've got to hang it for a few days to get the best from it, and you need some seasoning. Pepper and garlic's best, but I could do a very nice stew with a bit of nutmeg, or even parsley and ground saffron if we had any.”
“Well, you'll just have to use one of your dad’s recipes on rabbit, that's all. I'm sure the Brigadier will appreciate a bit of your herbs and seasoning, though.”
“I haven't got any herbs and seasoning.”
Crane looked up at him. “You just gave a long list of all the stuff you’d like to flavour the partridge with!”
“Yeah, if I had any, I said.”
“If you had any saffron, you said. You implied you had all the other stuff!”
“No I didn’t. Got a bit of pepper, that’s all. Always carry a bit of pepper around, just in case. My dad always said to carry a bit of pepper around, just in case someone tries to serve you something rotten. The pepper takes the worst of the rancid taste out of it.”
“I'll take your word for it.” He set off to where a small clump of tall weeds was growing and looked for a good place to set the snare. “If you really don't like rabbit, I might be able to rustle up a couple of hedgehogs. There's good eating on them. Pity the soil's not deep enough for moles. I used to like a good mole, back home. Takes two or three to make a good meal, but they're worth the effort.”
“I'd still rather have partridge. What was your name again?”
Harper and Spencer looked at each other. “Are you sure this is the right way? asked Harper.
“I'm pretty sure this is the way we came,” replied Spencer, slinging the brace of rabbits over his shoulder. “We came past that group of rocks, right?”
“I thought we did, but that should have taken us back to the camp. You should have kept a better eye on where we were going.”
“Why didn’t you keep an eye on where we were going?” He sighed and looked around, at the featureless grassland that surrounded them. “Okay, let's go to the top of that hill. We'll be able to see everything for miles around. We haven’t come that far. We'll be able go see the camp from up there.”
The two men trudged off up the slope, bows slung across shoulders, swords bouncing at their hips. Movement at the edge of his vision caught his eye and Harper looked over to see a jaycat looking at them, it’s yellow eyes fixed on the rabbits carried by Spencer. It trotted forward a few paces, eyeing them warily, and Harper turned to face it. “Shoo!” he shouted. “Get away from here!” The dog sized creature skittered away a few paces, then turned back to face them again.
“Bloody thing’ll probably follow us all the way back to camp,” he said. “Hoping for scraps.”
“Wonder if you can eat them,” mused Spencer thoughtfully.
“Eat cat?” said Harper, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
“Why not? They eat cat in loads of places. The Callowmen eat cat all the time. Dog too.”
“What does that mean, well then? Just because they're despicable, treacherous globs doesn't mean we can’t eat what they eat. Cat meat is supposed to be really tasty. Like beef, if you prepare it right. Maybe we can lure our friend into coming in close...” He reached for an arrow from the quiver strapped across his back. Something in his movements spooked the creature though, and it turned and disappeared from sight. Spencer swore and let the arrow drop back into the quiver.
“Wonder if the others have had more luck?” said Harper dreamily. “Would be nice to get back and find them roasting a haunch of venison over a spit.
”Dream on. The nearest deer are in Plydale Forest, unless there’s yellowface deer. They live in grassland. They're supposed to be really rare, though.”
“There could be a forest somewhere nearby. One of the others might have found a patch of woodland, hidden from sight behind a hill. Trees don't have to be that high to have deer in them.”
“Might as well wish for a cattle ranch, handing out free samples to passers by. Or a meat stall doing business for all the travellers crossing the mountains.”
Harper gave him a sour look. “It's easy to mock,” he said.
“It's fun too.”
They reached the top of the hill and looked around. “There!” cried Harper, pointing off to the east. “We were going almost exactly in the wrong direction!”
Spencer followed his pointing finger with his eyes. “I don't see anything.”
“There, look! Just to the right of that dead tree!”
“There wasn't a dead tree beside our camp!”
Harper furrowed his brow as he thought. “There must have been,” he said. “There’s nothing else out there.”
“There's Smithie and Dacson,” said Spencer, pointing in another direction. “They'll know the way back to the camp.”
“We can see the camp!” insisted Harper. “By the dead tree!”
“Come on,” said Spencer, and ran down the slope of the hill towards the other two men. Harper cursed under his breath and followed him.
“Company!” warned Smith, pointing towards the hill. “Oh, It’s okay, It’s just Harp and Spence.”
“Is someone chasing them?” asked Dacson. His hand went to the pistol at his belt.
Smith watched the hill behind their sprinting comrades, but nothing revealed itself. “I think they’ve just got too much energy,” he said. “Or Spence does, anyway. Harp’s just trying to keep up with him.”
The two men strolled over to meet them half way. “Any luck?” asked Spencer as he skidded to a stop beside them. “Got two rabbits!” He held them up for their inspection. “You have any luck?”
“Found a river back there. Caught some fish.” He held up a canvas bag and held it open to show them the five carp it contained. One was a giant, nearly two feet long. The others just five or six inches. “I caught the big one!” he said proudly.
“It's sick!” pointed out Dacson. “Look at the scales! It was just lying there, on its side. I wouldn't eat it if I were starving! Mine are good and healthy, though. Look at them, They’ll cook up beautiful tonight!”
Harper arrived, puffing heavily. “Bit out of breath, Harp?” laughed Smith. “Shame when the years start catching up with you.”
“Maybe a nice fish supper will sort him out,” suggested Dacson. “Why not offer him your fish, Smithy? I doubt anyone else will want it.”
“Can’t eat fish,” said Harper. “They bring me out in spots.” He looked up at the sun, now low on the horizon. “Maybe we should be getting back to camp.”
“Yeah. Hey, you brought a friend, Harp.”
Harper looked back to see the jaycat fifty yards away, watching them warily. “Bloody thing followed us,” he said, reaching for his pistol. As he aimed, though, a second cat came trotting up to join the first, followed by a third. “He brought his family. Let's invite them to dinner.” He fired a shot at the first, the bullet striking a rock and sending all three of the creatures running for cover.
“Tires out easily and a bad shot,” said Smith, shaking his head sadly. “What has the army come to?”
“I’d like to see you hitting something at that distance.” Harper scowled as he holstered the gun. “I don't remember you hitting anything back in Scowly.”
“I hit plenty, you just didn't see!”
“We should get going,” said Dacson, setting off to the south. “Camp's nearly a mile away. We need to get there while It’s still light enough to see landmarks.”
The four men set off across the dusty grassland. Dacson in the lead, the others in single file behind him.
“I suppose, if things got desperate, we could always eat one of the horses,” said Spencer. “One horse would keep us going for weeks!”
“And which one of us would walk the rest of the way to Mekrol?” replied Harper,
“Quill and Malone are small, they could share a horse.”
“No ranger worth his salt eats his own horse,” said Smith. “Some parts of the world, not having a horse is a death sentence, and we'll probably be passing through places like that before we get where we're going. We don’t eat a horse unless the alternative is starvation.”
“Yes, I know! Bloody hell, it was just a joke!”
“Some things you don't joke about. Not when you’re a ranger. Not when you're one of the Brigadier's own men. He only chooses the best. How you got in is a mystery to me, Spence.”
“He values my sense of humour. Keeps morale up when we're in a tight spot. Good morale is worth more than another three men!”
“If we could trade you in for another three men...” Spencer gave him a hurt look, and Smith didn't complete the thought.
Harper decided to change the subject. “There’s always globs,” he said. “There’re globs all over the world...”
“I'm not eating any more globs!” said Smith, a warning gleam on his eye. “If Malone tries to feed me any more globs he’ll be the next thing on the menu! I think he is a glob that went straight to human in one step! His parents got a little too attached to one of the slimy things!” The others chuckled at the suggestion.
“I doubt there're any globs around here,” said Dacson, looking around the arid landscape. “They like damp places.”
“There’re globs everywhere,” replied Harper. “You might have to dig down a couple of feet...”
“This soil is like three inches deep, if that.”
“Stop going on about bloody globs!” said Spencer. “The others’ll have had more luck finding game, I'm sure...”
Cowley scratched his beard thoughtfully, pulled out a nit and popped it into his mouth. “At least we've found something to eat,” he said. Spooner gave him a sour look but said nothing.
“We'd be eating like kings tonight if you were a better shot!” Still no response from the other man. “A yellow faced deer! An actual yellow faced deer and all you had to do was hit it from thirty yards away! How the hell did you ever pass basic training?”
Spooner looked at him again and shrugged. Spooner was a good shot when he wanted to be, Cowley knew. He'd proved that often enough in the past, in combat. He came to life in battle. A light came into his eye, an energy came into his body. He was fast and deadly, a terror to his enemies. The rest of the time, though, it was as though he walked in a dream. It was as though he just didn’t care about anything.
“Next time I'll take the shot. I can actually hit a running deer.”
Spooner gazed out over the arid landscape. It was as though he’d forgotten the other man even existed! Cowley dug another nit out of his beard, popped it into his mouth, and was rewarded by a look of disgust. It was the only thing he could do that brought any kind of reaction from the other man, and so he’d been doing it almost continually since leaving camp. The trouble was that he was running out of nits. What would he do when there were none left? I'll leave the last one, he thought. That way, I'll still have someone to talk to.
Cowley was a man who liked to talk. No sooner had a thought entered his head than he had to communicate it to anyone who happened to be nearby. It seemed to be essential to his thinking processes. If he stopped talking, it was as though his brain stopped working, as if new thoughts could only enter his head if he let the old ones out through his mouth. To be stuck with Spooner, therefore, the most sullen, uncommunicative man he'd ever met, was a kind of torture for him.
“I think you missed on purpose. I think you want us to starve to death out here. Starving to death is part of your cunning plan for world domination.”
Spooner glanced down at his feet. He stared at them as if wondering what they were and why they were connected to his body. Cowley wondered whether clouting the man about the head would bring a reaction. If it had been another man driving him crazy like that he might have decided to find out, but there was something about Spooner that freaked him out a little. He gave the impression, somehow, that if he ever did snap out of his mood, if he did start speaking, he might say frightening things, terrible things. Things that would make them wish he had stayed silent forever. None of the others liked him. Not for lack of trying. They‘d all tried talking to him, tried to bring him out of himself. All without success.
“Keep your eyes open,” he said. “That deer is still out there somewhere, and it won't be the only one. If you see it, just point. I'll take the shot. We can't go back empty handed.”
Cowley started walking, and after a couple of moments Spooner followed him. “There’re hills over there. Where there’s high ground, there’s water flowing away from it. The deer won't go far from it. Harp and Spence went that way, I know. If there’re deer there, they’ve either caught them already or scared them off, but I still think it's our best shot. We’ll give it another half hour or so, then we should he getting back. It’s getting dark.”
As they walked, Spooner imagined himself drawing his pistol and shooting the other man in the back of the head. He knew exactly what it would be like, how the gun would kick in his hand, how a tiny little hole would appear in the midst of Cowley's thick mane of greasy black hair. He knew how his face would disappear in an eruption of red spray, invisible to him from behind except for a momentary mist that would appear around his head like a brief crimson halo. He knew exactly how satisfying it would feel, how good it would be to see him toppling forward, maybe to his knees first, then the rest of the way to fall face first into the yellow grass with a heavy thump...
His hand actually moved towards the handgrip of his pistol while he looked around to see if any other members of the Brigadier’s patrol were within sight. Ridiculous, he scolded himself. There would be no way to conceal his guilt. They'd hear the shot, they’d notice Cowley’s absence. They'd kill him as a murderer, but the satisfaction he knew he’d feel tempted him terribly. His death would come later, but the gratification would be immediate, and what was the point of life, anyway, except for wonderful moments like that?
He forced his hand back to his side with a terrible effort. There would be other opportunities. A chance would come for him to satisfy his needs in perfect safety. He could wait. Moments like that were worth waiting for. “Yeah,” he said therefore. “Another half hour.”
Cowley stared at him. “You spoke!” He said. “You actually spoke! Say something else!”
Spooner just gave him a look, though, and went back to examining his feet as they walked.
Sergeant Blane hefted the deer carcass into a more comfortable position across his shoulder. “Wish you'd shot one of the smaller ones,” he complained, then wished he hadn't spoken. Griping only went up the chain of command, not down. It was bad for discipline. “Plenty of good meat, though,” he added. “The Brigadier will be pleased to see it.”
“The other ones were youngsters,” said Cotton. “Probably rabbits less than a year ago, with a brood of half turned rabbits back somewhere. This one was old, though. Won't do any harm to the breeding population to lose him.”
“You learn that from your poaching days?”
“That's in my past. I paid my dues...”
“Of course, but it’s still knowledge that can be useful to us. I would have just shot the one I thought was easiest to carry...”
“And then the pups would have died, and the next travellers to pass this way would have that many fewer deer to hunt. Got to think long term.”
“Yes, you're right. Good thing you're with us. Tell me, if you hadn’t been caught, would you still be poaching today?”
“Probably. My old dad kept on poaching all his life, right up until he went back into the ground. It's a good life, a good living, so long as you don't get caught.”
They saw the fires of the camp ahead of them and angled towards it, saw a figure standing against the ruddy red light of the setting sun. Too tall to be Malone. Had to be Quill then. An idea came to Blane and he carefully laid the deer down on the ground. Then he made a hand signal to Cotton, the sign for a stealthy approach. Cotton grinned. The Sergeant wanted to carry out an impromptu test of their guards. If they managed to enter camp unseen and overpower them, Quill and Malone would spend the rest of the night tied up and gagged to teach them to be more alert in future.
Blane and Cotton crept carefully towards the camp, therefore, using what cover there was. Freezing in place whenever the wizard looked in their direction, dashing forward to the next scrap of cover whenever he looked away. Where was Malone? If he was asleep on guard duty, Blane would make him rue the day he ever chose a life in the Ranger Corps, adopted son of the Brigadier or not!
The camp was less than thirty yards away now. The wizard was standing close to the fire, lit up brightly as dusk fell and visible across the low plains for miles around. Any enemy with a rifle would have had no trouble picking him off. Not that Blane would have used a rifle. The noise would wake up the whole camp. A bow and arrow would be better, but being far less accurate he'd gave to be much closer to the camp before using it. The Sergeant watched carefully, as still and silent as the evening itself, and when the time was right he rose and crept a few yards closer, to the cover of a large boulder...
He didn't see the figure crouching in the shadows until he was almost on top of him, and then he and Malone gave a start of surprise at the exact same time. Malone yelled, jumping to his feet and fumbling for his clothes, urine still dripping from his groinal slit. “Halt! Halt!” he yelled. “Who goes there? Quill! Quill!”
“It’s okay, private,” said Blane, standing up ruefully. “It's just us. Stand easy.” Cotton came forward too, trying to stifle his laughter.
“Bloody hell, Sarge! You scared the living shit out of me!” Malone turned his back on the other two men as he adjusted his clothing in a desperate attempt to recover his dignity.
“In a very literal sense, I suspect,” said Cotton.
“You picked a poor time to answer a call of nature,” said Blane. “If we'd been approaching the camp from the other direction you would have been off station and in dereliction of duty. This will go on your record.”
“Everyone has to pass water now and again!” protested the batman indignantly. “It just takes a couple of minutes and I would have been back in camp, on guard duty!”
“Who goes there?” called Quill from the camp. “Friend or for?”
“It's okay, Quill!” called back Malone. “It's just Cotton and the Sarge.”
“They got any food?”
“No. Too busy trying and failing to sneak into camp.”
“That'll do, private!” warned Blane. “You'll find a deer fifty yards back that way. Go get it and bring it into camp.”
“Yes, Sarge.” Malone scurried away before the Sergeant could reprimand him further and Blane and Cotton walked the rest of the way back into camp.
“Anyone else back yet?” asked the Sergeant when he arrived.
“Looks like a bunch of guys off that way,” replied the wizard, pointing off to the north. “One of them’s Harper, I think, to judge from the shuffling gait. There's three others with him. The others won't be far behind.”
“What about the Brigadier?”
“Last I saw him, he was going off that way.” He pointed off to the east. “I think he wanted to check out that old ruined cottage we saw earlier.”
The old ruined cottage looked to have been abandoned for at least twenty years. Fire had destroyed a large part of the building at some point, but the Brigadier thought it had happened more recently, possibly as a result of a lightning strike. The blackened remains of fairly large bushes stood within the area that had once been contained within its wooden walls. All that remained of that entire half of the building now was the stone fireplace and chimney.
It was the other half of the building that drew the Brigadier, though. It would make a good hiding place for a small group of bandits, presenting a potential threat to their overnight camp site, and so had to be checked out. Regulations said that he should have come with a couple of men in case of trouble, but he thought the chances of the cottage actually being occupied were small. There were no trade routes or large towns within fifty miles, nothing that a gang of brigands might be interested in. Any outlaws in this area would have moved further west, to where the lucrative targets were. If there was anyone here, it would more likely be a trapper or two, chasing the same game as his men.
He approached cautiously, though, aware that the only thing that could be predicted with complete certainty was that the world would present him with surprises at the most unexpected times. He stopped beside a large clump of gorse and used the cover to watch the building for a few minutes. No horses tethered outside, not on his side at least. No sign that the undergrowth had been trampled down recently. No smoke rising into the sky. No sounds above the gentle sighing of the wind and the distant cawing of crows. He kept still and silent, watching for any other signs that might appear, and only when he was satisfied that he’d learned everything he could from a distance did he carefully get back to his feet and step forward.
He circled the building, confirming that there was nothing to be seen on the building's far side, then moved slowly in. There were tall weeds growing up against the side door, the only one of the building's entrances to have survived, but the inner door connecting the still intact eastern half of the building with the fire gutted western stood half open, allowing him to see part of the floor and the far wall. There was no movement that he could see, and no light from a fire inside. Feeling more confident now, the Brigadier rose to his full height and walked forward with only the occasional glance around to check for danger, just from force of habit.
He decided to use the inner door, since it was already open and he could see that there was no-one hiding inside it. He stepped over the weed covered remains of the wooden wall, partially scorched by fire, the rest warped and half rotted and with the remains of a coat of paint flaking and peeling away. As he approached the door, though, he was brought up short by a disturbingly familiar smell wafting out from the opening. The sickly sweet smell of a body returning to the earth. Human or animal? He stepped forward and peered around the half open door.
It was a man, most of his flesh gone, bare cartilaginous bones showing through gaps in his clothes. His leg was broken, the Brigadier saw. Just some traveller who'd suffered some kind of accident, thrown from a horse or something. He'd crawled in here to die, knowing no help would come for him and that he faced a slow death from starvation. He'd known that only one kind of survival was possible for him, as evidenced by the position of his unbroken leg. It was up against the door. He'd been trying to close it when he'd died.
He'd failed in that last act, but he'd done enough just by getting inside the room. Here, the intact roof had hidden him from the crows, and the remaining walls had prevented the smell from attracting scavengers. The corpse, left in peace, had regressed, the flesh breaking apart into a thousand tiny globules of transparent flesh that split off and wriggled away in search of small, damp cracks in which to make a new life. The traveller had hoped that some of them would be adopted by worms and beetles and begin the long climb back up the ladder of life. Some of them might even become humans again one day. The traveller had managed to find a glubularium for himself in this old ruined house. A ramshackle alternative to the splendidly decorated and lovingly maintained chambers that most families maintained, ready for the day when one of them felt the end of their life approaching.
The Brigadier silently paid his respects to the anonymous traveller, then looked around at the rest of the room. There was nothing there but piles of old leaves and some scraggly weeds growing in the light slanting in through the empty window. He saw that the light was growing dim and red as the sun dropped towards the horizon and decided that the time had come to get back to camp. He closed the door behind himself as he left, to give the last of the globs time to find shelter and get adopted, and then left the ruined cottage behind him.
He arrived to find a haunch of deer cooking over the fire, fat sizzling as it dripped into the flames. Malone was prodding it with a skewer, frowning with concentration, while Cotton was cutting up another haunch they’d cooked earlier into thin strips. The rest of the deer lay nearby, still waiting to be cooked, while Cotton scraped the fat from the deer’s pelt, preparing it to be made into leather. Beside him, Harper was stirring salt into a pan of hot water, ready for the next stage of the process.
Cowley was on guard on that side of the camp, and he was the first to see him. “Come on in, Brigadier!” he called out. “We've got supper going! Hey, everyone! The Brigadier’s back!”
“Hope you like fish!” added Smith. “Got a nice big one cooking over here!”
“I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” whispered Malone as the Brigadier reached him. ”I didn't like the look of it. Better stick to the venison.”
“I'll do that. A nice big bit for me, I think.”