You can feel your heart rippling in your neck. Images flash through your mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers: rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles. Pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls. Axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.
Your left arm tingles where a spear caught you, thousands and thousands of years ago.
(Five years ago.)
Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. You think you see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through you, you understand you’re still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume you.
You aren’t supposed to be here. Your muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But your body is soft and stupid.
You tense up, ready. You’re still not sure if you see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.
Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around your wrist. “We have to move,” he tells you.
“Did you see anything?” you ask.
“Not yet. But the enemy is well-hidden. We’ll need to quicken our pace, King in the Mountain. We’ll have to get to Strathbury by sunrise.”
You follow, dumbly. You haven’t learned how to question things yet. Not in this world. Perhaps in the other. You’ll learn, though. You managed last time. You can do it again.
(You’re reasonably certain, leastways.)
The forest envelopes you, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded you when the Great Evil captured you five years into your quest the last time around.
You can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steal and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded you. Blood had dried on you and them, red-brown like lacquer.
(You’re getting distracted, you realize.)
You hardly notice that Gormund has stopped to set up camp. Your thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like you’re on a treadmill.
(Or it would if you could’ve remembered what a treadmill was by that point.)
Gormund had wrapped you up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. You had forgotten about that part of the Realm.
Your remembrances filled the silence. Gormund didn’t seem to mind. He hummed to himself as he stoked broken twigs and branches. He struck flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to you. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the shamble-men, too.”
“Are there shamble-men hereabouts?” you ask. You don’t recall anything of shamble-men from you last time in the Realm.
“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”
You ask what shamble-men are. You can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But you can recall nothing of monsters.
The fire stokes in you memories of magic, elsewise. You feel aglow with the fire in your veins. Yes, they’ve sewn you up. Good as new, you know now. Good as new. Now all you need is your sword…
Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “Shamble-men aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. A long, long time ago. Still look like them, from a distance. But when they open their mouths to speak…” another lapse. He hrms and haws for a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Their necks are tangled and angled. Anything they say just sounds like crawing and croaking. They’re pale as the underbelly of whitefish, with the wrinkled skin of drowned men. And their teeth,” he tells you, “are pointed.” He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom. “The better to tear at flesh. They spare the little girls. Bring them back up north to Hultashia. For breeding. But the boys…”
He’s toying with you, you realize. Trying to stoke primal fear the way he stokes sparks every time he prods the fire. “They’d eat you, One-Eye. They’d eat you raw.”
“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” you say. But you aren’t sure you’ve kept the quiver from your voice.
“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. Monsters as damp as they are, it’s like making a fire out of driftwood. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against a shamble-man is about as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”
“What does that mean?” you ask. You realize you’ve no idea where Hultashia is. Or where anywhere is. All the names have changed in the Realm. Before he can answer, you ask, “Actually…this is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”
“Too small for any records if that’s what you’re asking. Nobody thought to mark us down on any imperial maps, leastways. We’re on the road between Vacher and Charville, for what it’s worth.”
“Do you have a King?”
“We’ve a Republic of Cecyan Lords.”
“Is that the name of this place. Cecy?”
“Aye,” Gormund says. He knits his brows together. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”
You nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” you mumble.
Gormund regards you seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.
(You know what those words convey. The action is foreign to you.)
“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for shamble-men. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”
“You should let me take a watch,” you tell Gormund.
“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. You don’t want to argue with him. Your head’s still spinning. You’re still tired. You still have so many questions that swirl through your mind as darkness plays across your vision and sleep takes you as you curl into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.