Painting a target
I once overheard a general in service of the Golden Lord say that if a man paints a target on his chest, he should expect that sooner or later someone will loose an arrow on him. The people of Three Cedars didn’t seem to care for this advice, and I was asked to leave the council meeting rather soon after dispensing it. Though I agree that the Bowman issue must be addressed, it is foolish for our people to go about openly bearing a symbol which marks them for death. Better to have allies to the cause who live long enough to actually support it. And that means being cautious.
While Hiraishin-sama and Three Cedars council discussed among themselves the next steps that should be taken, I talked with Sorscha, Xar’eth, and Nathaniel’s posse about what should be done with the message from Hemlock Field. We decided to rest for the night, having just gotten through another exhausting encounter with the Bowmen, who apparently count Werwölfe among their allies.
Our journey to Hemlock Field brought us another half-day away from Three Cedars, and further into hostile territory. Though it made me ill-at-ease to come so far away from the temporary safety granted by our imprisonment within Lochaid and the Rise, it was clear that something needed to be done about these constant requests for assistance. Neither we nor the people we aid can afford to travel between destinations where we are harried by Bowman forces at every turn. As we approached, the messenger let out a bird call which was answered by a spotter somewhere at the village perimeter.
Hemlock Field was like our base of operations, in that it consisted primarily of structures built upon the ruins of great stone buildings, obviously from the time of the ancient Thyatians; but that is where the similarity ended. Where Lochaid and the Rise had cold, stone roofs, Hemlock Field’s were made of thatch; where our place of residence was dead and long-deserted (save the recent presence of Bowmen), Hemlock Field had a feeling of home.
The villagers gathered around to see the strangers who had entered their town, and I noticed on some of them sets of armor similar to those we had seen at Temple Rise, though obviously more well-used, subject to the wear of centuries, and maintained with care. These bore symbols I was largely unfamiliar with, save one: the twined horns and triple triangle of the Thyatian Empire. As I surveyed the crowd, a man from a group of older villagers in the middle stepped forward, and announced himself as High Elder Johnston Greene. Elders Gray Anderson, Arlo Horton, Archie Murrow, and Alice Hart followed suit, and we began discussing the nature of Hemlock Field’s plight with the Bowmen.
As Greene explained, I grimaced at the similarity of this village’s story with that of Three Cedars. Yet again, it seemed to be a case of pride in the Watchmen overriding common sense in keeping one’s head down to avoid the ire of an enemy which clearly (at present) is much stronger. Three of the townsmen who were former Watchmen, inspired by the story of Exelar Vitarri and the Risers, had taken up the old symbol again. As they were returning from patrol, they ran into Bowmen, a fight followed, and (predictably) one of the men died. Apparently they were able to put up a fight sufficient that the Bowmen needed to retreat, but as they did so they vowed to return and slaughter the Watchmen and their families. Again I found myself voicing what turned out to be a very unpopular opinion about voluntarily donning targets in a land brimming with archers. One of the Watchmen, a man by the name of Quentin, offered me some platitude about not giving in to the demands of oppressors. I offered that the saying would make a fine engraving on his tombstone.
Marked for Death
We proceeded with discussion of the Bowman threat: when they were expected back in Hemlock field; what were their numbers; from what direction were they likely to come; until we had a plan of action for fighting squared away. Then I suggested that perhaps the best way to approach this was to avoid a fight at all costs. With the Bowmen likely a day away from returning, we had ample time to get the Watchmen and their families to the safety of Three Cedars. If they were gone, it might be that the Bowmen would be satisfied and be on their way without any in Hemlock Field needing to die. If it did come to blows, Sorscha, Nathaniel, Xar’eth, and myself would be prepared. To my great surprise, after some discussion the council and the townsfolk agreed with my proposition, save that Watchmen, Quentin and Derrick, would stay behind to fight the Bowmen, if necessary.
Preparations were made, tearful goodbyes were said, and a day passed. I lent my new bow to one of the more competent archers among the Hemlock Fielders, and told him to seek a good vantage point. He seemed ecstatic to hold the bow, and offered me most of his livelihood (several goats, a cow, and possibly one of his daughters, though I was only half listening) for the thing, but I declined emphasizing to not fire unless it was clear we would join the Bowmen in battle. Nathan took up a position in the belfry with the archer, with Caleb and Wulfgar standing guard below. Sorscha was hidden somewhere with Watchman Quentin, and Xar’eth was also presumably ready for battle (though he was well-hidden). I took position with Watchman Derrick in Elder Hart’s house, as it had the best vantage point for all the possible roads by which the Bowman could approach. Greene stood at the head of group of Elders in the center of town, just as he had to greet us the day before.
As the sun reached its zenith, the Bowmen came in from the Northeast. Two groups of three split out in opposite directions from from the main force as they came into town, presumably to flank the town’s center. Another four followed behind the main group, and spread out to hold a position a little up the road from Greene and the Elders. The rest came down into the center of town: four heavy infantry along with a man in robes, and the apparent leader; a man in black and red armor, with the arrowhead of the Bowmen emblazoned in crimson on the chest.
As he approached Greene, the crimson man removed his helmet, revealing a head covered with many strange tattoos. He spoke in a grating voice, introducing himself as Lieutenant Trask, and demanding that the Watchmen living among the Hemlock Fielders be brought forth for punishment. Greene informed him that those men and their families had been sent along to Temple Rise by way of Three Cedars a day ago. Trask muttered “Bloodfire will not be pleased by this,” and grit his teeth. Then he said that an example must still be made; the village folk should choose one among them to take the punishment meant for the Watchmen who deserted them. Barely a heartbeat passed before Greene offered himself. The crimson man seemed to shift position slightly, and Greene’s throat was open from ear to ear, blood spraying out over the soil of Hemlock Field. I could feel the tension in the air as Derrick moved his hand to the hilt of his sword. I motioned for him to stay, “Greene sacrificed himself so that his people wouldn’t have to die. Don’t throw that away.” The Elders cried out. Women and children wept. The Bowmen turned around and left.
Sorscha and I left the townsfolk to their mourning, and followed the Bowman force Northeast to make sure they didn’t leave anyone behind, or turn around and march back to destroy the town. They went a few miles, through a forest that looked like it had been levelled at some point by a huge blast, but had since re-grown. It had begun to storm, and my outfit was drenched before the second mile. Sorscha and I stayed back and watched as the Bowmen travelled downhill, around what appeared to be a large marsh. A flash of lightning blared in the dark, and the Bowmen were gone. Satisfied that they had left, Sorscha and I turned to go. As we started back to the Southeast, we heard a monstrous roar from the marsh. We shared a look, and supposed that the sound might be a dragon. Possibly the “Bloodfire” mentioned earlier.
Back in Hemlock Field, we discovered marks on trees around the perimeter of the town, apparently crafted only for the eyes of those who can see in the dark. We found the villagers in the town hall performing some sort of death watch ceremony over the body of elder Greene. We told them of the marks that we found, and they said it reminded of some ancient legends they had heard of the Vorscha; legends that implied the town was marked for death. After some debate wherein we assured them that the Vorscha were, in fact, real and were, in addition, working with the Bowmen, we convinced them to leave Hemlock Field in favor of the relative safety provided by Lochaid and Temple Rise. In the morning, Nathaniel, Sorscha, and I assisted the townsfolk in building a cairn for Elder Greene. As they set Greene’s body alight, he began to rise from the pit, groaning and reaching out to grab whoever was closest to him. Fortunately, he fell pack into the pit, and the weight of the stones crushed in around him as his body burned.
Over the next couple of days, the people of Hemlock Field began to pack up and leave in small groups, spaced an hour apart, until the last group which consisted of us, the Watchmen, and the archer to whom I had again lent my new bow.
We were waiting for a man named Soggy Pete, a tinker who, it was said, may have some information on the Bowmen in the area. We smelled him before we saw him; a fetid combination of rotten midden, mold, and what I can only describe as “swampfoot”. Standing at almost a pace above my head, Pete had greenish skin, carried a big satchel, and spoke in a slow drawl. After about an hour of talking to him, we learned much of the Bowmen, and the surrounding area of the Ruin. The Heart of the Ruin, to which Cutter had referred as the dwelling of the Vorscha, was the area Sorscha and I had been generally headed toward when pursuing the Bowmen. Pete said something about a “Great Patron” driving the Vorscha and the Bowmen to work together. He told us of Marcus Crowley, a Captain loyal to Vladimir Kroenen; of Boris Cotton, Kroenen’s right-hand man and high-ranking member of the Bowmen until Kroenen lost a bout for power with Idris Khan and fell out of favor, forcing Cotton into exile; of Kylan Bloodfire, a Captain of the Bowmen loyal to Idris Khan, who commands Lt. Trask, murderer of Johnston Greene; and of The Ironclad, from a land Pete called “Estrain”. The Ironclad, Pete said, hate the Bowmen and the Vorscha equally. They can be found in small presence at “The Boil”, a place called Carrion Hill, deep in the Ruin on the other side of “The Sink”, more than 20 miles east from Hemlock Field. Also at “The Boil” can be found Boris Cotton, a man with much information and no love for the Bowmen.
After a good deal of conversation with Pete, Nathaniel bargained for his company on the return journey to Temple Rise. He offered to give Pete a cloak that will disguise his appearance, though I can’t guess what use the man means to put it to, seeing that his stench would likely give him away more than his appearance. For the moment, I am glad that we are heading back, and that we have been able to convince the people of Hemlock Field that it is senseless to stay out in the Bowman-infested parts of the Ruin when there is room enough and there are people enough to help defend them in the area around temple Rise.
A hasty note
Lights at the Spire. It is now… complete?