tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Song of Roland Ch. 17

The Song of Roland Ch. 17


"Hey. Wake up." The voice was an annoying buzz on the very periphery of Roland's cognizance. He ignored it, hearing nothing but the vague mumblings of a half-congruous fantasy in the murky darkness of his psyche. He felt so tired. His body was an aching contradiction. "Roland." The voice said, a crusty grate that scratched against his senses as he dreamt of days long passed. Always the same phantasm arose: crisp morning air, a foggy sheen as the door burst open. Loud shouting, clinking chainmail and a bright, burning blaze of magic. The rough shove, the last, longing look, and the tortured cry as the arrows shot forth. "For fuck's sake." Said the voice, interrupting his insensible reverie.

Something prodded at Roland's shoulder. He began to rise, the depths of his semi-conscious swoon parting like thick curtains over his mind as he opened his eyes. The room was a blur, but he felt it tapping at his shoulder like an annoying, stinging gnat. The stale, revolting scent of old death greeted his nostrils as he took his first mindful inhale, glancing down as his sight adjusted to the rush of sunshine coming from the cave's entrance to his right. "Wake up, you fickle nonce!" Someone said, poking him hard in the cheek with the offending implement.

In a rush Roland twisted in his bedroll, reaching up with his left hand to grab at the stick that Carl was jabbing like a weapon at his face. His thick fingers wrapped around the haft of the repurposed branch, breaking it in half with a sharp jerk of his wrist. Roland's right hand came around in a clumsy swing, his fist aiming in a curve at Carl's smirking face. The handsome rogue danced back on his nimble feet, laughing in delight at his companion's naked aggression. Roland kicked off his blankets and rose, a stormcloud brewing on his features as he stared down his nose at Carl's conceited, arrogant mug.

"Morning, you churlish git. How was your sleep?" Carl's smile was wide and patronizing. Roland noted with a warrior's awareness that despite his relaxed stance, the man's hand was at his hip, atop the hilt of his dagger. If it came to a fight, the red-maned mercenary would have to break his wrist before he buried the blade in his heart. "Restful, I trust. You know, Derion usually only needed to kick you once in your fat head and you were up at dawn. It's practically midday; you're getting slovenly in your old age, Roland."

"If you draw that wee blade," Roland said, "I will leave your bones for the wolves."

Carl's head tilted down to look at his still-sheathed dagger."What, this little thing? It's a hunting knife, you blind brute. I doubt it could even pierce the leathery skin you've got stretched around that boorish neck of yours." Carl laughed at the dark expression that grew on Roland's face. "And even if I did manage to cut your throat, what good would it do me? Your doxy broad has got her number on you. If I harm a hair on your ginger-thicket head, she'll turn me into a man-whore."

"You're already a man-whore." Roland growled, remembering all the amorous nights Carl had spent womanizing with camp followers, or fornicating with blushing whores in the local tavern instead of doing proper soldiering. "Kelsea'll just perfect the process."

Carl quirked a thin, yellow eyebrow at him. His knife-cut smile was irritating to his former comrade's perception. "She's got you calling her by her old name, eh? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: you always were a sentimental prick deep down, weren't you?" The blonde bowman shook his head ruefully back and forth. "Giving that thing a name is like calling my bow 'Annabelle.'"

"I thought you called it Katrine."

Carl's brow twitched. "Not the point. She's less likely to kill you than that creature is, on a daily basis." The bow in question sat off to the side, perched against the wall of the cave like a child cowering from its parent's fight.

"Only if your aim with her is awful." Roland replied, taking a quick glance around in the darkness of the cave. The two of them were alone. "That woman is more human than you think. You'd best mind your tongue."

Carl grinned. "Why? Are you going to ride in on your barded warhorse and sweep the sweet little damsel off her feet? She wants your manhood you dullard, not your empty droning. Touch her, breed her - hell, kiss her if the mood strikes you - but have a care to remember where the wench has been, and where her head is at now."

"Where is she?" Roland said, his fists tightening into balls of clenched rage as he struggled to not throw himself at the man.

"Ah, now you're catching on, aren't you old friend?" Carl pointed with his head in the direction of the cave. "That was why I was trying to rouse you from your maiden's slumber: she never came back last night. She's been gone since I got up."

A bolt of energy blasted up Roland's back. Despite his own lingering exhaustion he felt a flutter of aberrant panic rise within him, his mind sparking to the thought of her sudden, immediate absence. "How long?" He said, hoping against hope that the bastard with the wry smile didn't notice the quivering worry in his tone.

"Some time at least. I awoke at dawn to piss, and the little devil was nowhere to be found." Carl looked almost half-relieved at the revelation. There was a malicious gleam in his green eyes. "Do you think if she went and broke her neck in the darkness that you and I would be free from all this mess? Or are we some sort of accursed kin to each other, now?"

"You're going to be dead either way if you don't pick up your damned bow and follow me." Roland said, turning with movements that betrayed his fear as he stalked from the cave.

"What, no packing?" Carl called after him. Roland glanced back at the man.

"Pack up then; I'm going to find her." He said, heedless of his ripped shirt and lack of cloak.

"You do that." Carl said, laughing as he bent down to stuff his spare clothing down his satchel's throat.

Immediately upon exiting the putrid feast hall of their slain monstrous foe, Roland looked down and saw the presence of Kelsea's tracks, still exposed like overt crush marks in the snow. The sky was grey, but the sun's outline could be delineated through the thin cloud cover, shining down a pale, sickly white. Misty tendrils drifted and curled about the plateau, hustling through the creaking limbs with a swift, cloudlike gait. Roland shivered as a fell wind blew down from the mountaintop. He disregarded the needles of cold as he strode, heedless after spotting more of the half-buried tracks betwixt the deepening groves.

As Roland worked his way farther into the forest, he mused that there was a peculiarity in Kelsea's movements; nothing about her footsteps made any sense. As he bobbed and weaved about the brush, he followed a confusing, snaking pattern of frost-strewn tracks that meandered back and forth in a wide, snaking line. It made the Succubus' trail appear almost drunk, or at least unsettled. There was no consistency or logic in her movements: sometimes she'd forced her way through the deepest thickets of brush and through heavy piles of powdered snow, other times she'd actively avoided a more open clearing just off from her chosen direction and instead clambered over outjut boulders sticking up like sinking ship prows from the ground. It all seemed to lead, however, towards some singular point: a direction far into the interior of these dark, foreboding woods.

Carl caught up to him some time later, stepping forth with quick, quiet movements from behind Roland as he followed the far fresher tracks the big man left behind in his wake. Casting a sly wink in his direction, Carl tossed him Kelsea's pack. Roland caught it and slung it over his shoulder without a second thought, and for a time the two continued their slow progress.

Carl, as always, was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. "You know," He said, Katrine in his hands with one of his few remaining arrows slotted in his fingers for safety. "I actually have been thinking about something for a while now."

"What." Roland said, staring ahead past a wall of menacing, black trunks clumped in dense, irregular rows as the two stepped across a frozen rill's flecked, icy trickle. He could barely see through all the piney scrub.

Carl's voice carried in the forest's frigid hush. "What was all that business you tried to pull, back on the High Road a few days ago?"

Roland spotted a stray foot track and resumed his quest, weaving between trunks as the ground began to peak and valley. She had gone astoundingly deep into the interior of the alpine hinterland. Frozen pine cones lay strewn about their feet as they walked, adding a loud crunching element to their tread marks as they moved across the snowy earth. "What do you mean?" He said, only somewhat paying attention to Carl's ramblings.

Carl put a hand upon Roland's shoulder and brazenly turned them face to face. Carl's narrow lips twisted in distaste. His voice deepened, and he did his best affectation of Roland's sonorous mutter. "Carl, listen to me." He said, "If there is any part of you that can hear this: you have to leave."

Roland's face did not betray an iota of expression as he stared evenly into Carl's eyes. His former friend persisted.

"You can still get out of this, she's only using you, and she's going to keep using you." Carl looked at him, but Roland said nothing in response. "You don't have to be here. I'm trying to help you." Carl tapped at his temple with a finger, his long blonde locks trailing across his high forehead. The tall man was nonplused. "Now what did all that mean, I wonder?" Roland merely turned away, staring down in search of the trail he'd nearly lost. "-Because if I wasn't mad, I'd say you were trying to say something, there."

"Pipe down." Roland said in response. "Help me find her."

"Did you finally grow a conscience?" Carl continued as if he hadn't spoken, "-or is it possible that I misjudged you, back when you left us to rot in that Gods-forsaken swamp last year?" Roland stopped dead in his tracks. His back arched and he stood fully erect in the snow. He did not turn to face Carl, his shoulder blades sticking out from his back as he felt his whole body tense. "No one walked out of that quagmire unscarred, Roland. No one but you."

"You did all right." Roland said, his jaw tightening as he quivered in the cold. Carl's cloak billowed out behind him as the breeze kicked up.

"...Really?" Carl said, his voice quiet but fierce. "That's all you can say? You were on watch, you unbelievable reprobate. You took our last horse, you took the girl! We couldn't even get word out to the rest of the Dogs across the river that we were trapped, before the Dead were upon us. Half the party was slain before I so much as pulled up my britches. I had to use Little Marcus' fat fucking corpse as a raft to paddle across that unholy current, with the Necromancer's pets nipping at my heels the entire time. They all died, and no one had a single bloody coin to show for it." Roland didn't turn around. "Do you have nothing to say for yourself?"

"I'm sorry you didn't leave first." Roland replied, moving to step away. Carl let out an angry yell.

"May the Gods spit on your black soul, Roland!" The big man halted again. Carl's tone was enraged, "You really think Brimley and I were going to lay a hand on her? For how much she was worth? What myth in your addled brain keeps concocting these scenarios in your head, where all we wanted to do was ravish every woman we met?"

"The 'myth' of Reisau." Roland said, turning back with fire in his eyes. "The 'myth' that I saw what our fellow Briar Dogs were capable of: burning huts and looting corpses, taking turns with that weaver woman like she was a trifle, a plaything."

"We were sellswords, you high-minded fuck!" Carl snapped back, "We were hired to do a job, and we did it. Last I checked: you torched as much of that blasted town as I. Seems you weren't so worried about casualties, back when the coin was good and the ale was plentiful. You think I slept soundly that night, knowing what they did? "

"We didn't stop them." Roland said. "You didn't help her."

"You didn't help her!" Carl retorted. "Does one awful act deserve another? That noble girl in the swamp was safe with us, whatever your haughty judgement about two frightened men's playful jesting in the midst of dread circumstances."

"She told me I'd saved her from you, Carl." Roland replied.

"No shit, Roland?" Carl laughed in his face. "You tellin' me that a highborn girl was grateful that you rode off into the sunset with her clinging to your back, returning her to her father's castle with nary a wave goodbye from that fetid swamp of horrors? We would have all gotten away, safe and sound with coin jingling in our purses if you'd have just waited, roused the alarm and allowed all of us to escape. Derion would have called you a damned hero. You'd have gotten every toast at the next ten taverns, and deserved it!"

Roland scowled, "Empty compliments from a rabid dog. I don't need Derion's approval."

"So whose do you need?" Carl said, nodding at the trail of tracks leading away from them. "Hers? The little devil who's got you leashed by the cock to her little finger?"

"Careful, Carl." Roland said, his voice low.

"Why did you try to make me leave, Roland?" The yellow haired man said in reply. "I'm no simpleton, surely you meant every word you said to me back there. She's clearly given you more leeway than a demon normally does to their captives in these conditions. Is there something I'm missing, here?"

Roland forced his beating heart to slow as he turned away from him. A glacial caress ran up his back as the cold reality of their location added extra urgency to his movements. "There's only one end this all leads to. I don't want you following the same path I am on, yeah?"

"Why?" Carl said in response. "What could make you possibly give a toss about my wellbeing? You sure didn't care back in the company."

Roland overtopped a rotten log, moving in pursuit of the odd direction Kelsea's steps had taken. "Because I know what it's like, falling for a Succubus." He said, "You might be an obnoxious cunt, but I don't wish that fate on anyone."

"Except you." Carl said, following behind.

"Except me." Roland agreed, "But then, you already know I don't give a fuck about me."

"You took the gold and ran." The man said, picking his way across the heavy snow cover. "I'd say the only person you care about is you."

"I left the lass at her father's front gate, you dunce." Roland said with no emotion, as if calmly correcting a factual error. "I wasn't paid a ha'penny for the trouble. She even kept the horse."

"Then you're a fool, as well as a bastard." Carl said, letting out a weary chuckle, "People died, and it wasn't even for something like petty coin. Who'd have thought that between you and the Succubus, the goddamned bird has got more sense than the two of you combined?" They moved on for several minutes longer, Carl muttering under his breath as he went. "'Let her go at the gate.' Gods!"

They came to a small clearing, a break in the endless timberland which revealed the sky above to the pockmarked, green face of the plateau. The mountain peak was far nearer now, looming like a dark, shadowed giant in the shrouding mists in front of them. A keening cry split the air, and both men looked up to see a small dot in the sky, circling downwards in ever tighter rotations towards them. The Harpy cawed when she spotted them, trilling as she dove down in a sudden burst of motion. She dropped several hundred feet in a dive, only pulling up at the last moment as she made a hard turn, circling the treeline of the clearing before settling down to a dainty landing in front of them.

"Aawk!" She said, her woad-colored lips indicating that she'd been doing some spare herb collecting in her time away from them. The sultry woman seemed both proud and amorous now that she had reapplied her pernicious potion. Her wide, yellow eyes alighted on the mercenaries as she gave them a broad, toothy smile. "Rrr-aahland!" She cawed, all but bouncing back and forth on the heels of her bird legs.

Carl and Roland exchanged a look. "Did she just-" Carl started, his expression flabbergasted. Roland trudged towards her, extending his hand out to the bird woman. She hopped forward, folding her sky-blue wings as she planted her forearm in his palm, in a marked misunderstanding of his intent. Her smile deepened, her eyes lidding as she licked her blue lips. "Brrrt!" She tweeted, rolling her r's.

"Have..." Roland felt like a fool trying to talk to the thing. He didn't even know what to call her. "Have you seen Kelsea?" The Harpy tilted her head like a beast listening to an unfamiliar sound in the wild. Her chin turned in a clockwise angle as she stared, uncomprehendingly into Roland's face. She blinked twice in quick succession. She let out a questioning chirp; Roland's heart sank.

"She's a winged fowl with tits." Carl remarked behind him, sounding amused.

The blue-feathered woman reached out, tugging at Roland's hand with her other arm, pulling it with both of her own as she flapped backwards, as if trying to get him to follow. The sheer strength of her simple move caused Roland to stagger forward, and he had to right himself, lest he blunder directly into her with his body. The Harpy let out a loud cry. Her hand thrust behind them, her wing extending as she gestured in the opposite direction. There appeared to be some purpose in her movements.

Taking her cue, Roland followed as the eager avian leapt again into the air, sailing in a gentle glide across the clearing, cutting a path in the general direction of Kelsea's aimless, roaming footsteps. He hurried to keep up, ignoring the freeze in his spine and the chatter of his teeth as he ran in its direction.

They pushed through the thick weald, as dark and unforgiving terrain as any that had been proffered so far by the encroaching boughs of dreary foliage. Carl hustled to keep up, but he was nowhere near as quick as Roland's frantic stride. As he forced aside a particularly egregious stand of bushy shrubs, he came upon the wayward Succubus. She appeared out of nowhere, all but running into Roland as she stumbled out of the brush in front of him with an unsteady gait. "Kelsea!" He said, relief clear in his voice as he walked towards her. She matched eyes with him, and immediately Roland knew that something was wrong.

She looked dazed, her dilated pupils struggling to narrow as they alighted with a blind man's focus on Roland's face; there was a delayed flash of recognition. The purple-skinned woman pinwheeled with her legs, moving with the kind of woozy saunter usually reserved for the inebriated, or the infantile. Her demonic tail hung behind her, a boneless, dead snake latched to the base of her spinal cord. It swayed, dangling like a bit of rope wavering listlessly in the wind. Her horns had somehow twisted and turned atop her head, looking lopsided and malformed, with one unnaturally elongated past her forehead and the other contorting at a perpendicular angle to her skull, digging like a rodent's nest into the skin. Upon closer inspection, Roland realized that one of her irises was blue, but bloodshot. The other eye remained her characteristic red, with a spotless white in the sclera, imposing a dichromatic malady upon her visage.

She was shaking, an even more baffling affliction for the creature whose searing temperature should have been both eternal and immutable. Roland reached out, taking the insensible Succubus' shoulders in his hands. The moment Roland had her in his grasp she tripped forward, stumbling into him. Her legs gave out on her, and he had to lower her in a rush to the ground, cradling her limp body. "Kelsea, what happened?" Roland felt like he was moving in slow motion, sinking to the snow as the chill air made him shake as well. The Harpy crooned above them, landing on a high branch of the pine trees above, staring down with tensed legs at the two. She let out another lofty call, frilling her feathers and extending her wings.

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