The lonely scree of seagulls echoed from stark cliffs bordering their beachhead. Sir Kyle had managed to deliberately navigate La Poutain directly into a sandbar (“We beach the ship here, and then we can come back to it later as a getaway ride! Unless you want to raft back across the sea on an ice cube again?” he’d explained). Wardstein grunted, allowing for this foresight, but grimaced at their circumstance – a rough, stony beach with no apparent way off but to scale a high rock face encrusted with seagull feces.
“Way to go, Kyle,” James groused. “Why couldn’t we at least have a stopover at that island where we saw the chicks? Would that have killed you?”
Sir Kyle stiffened. “In case you forgot, the King placed me in charge. We remain on a serious journey, and can’t waste our time partying with women. That’s what sandbagged our “crusade” last summer, remember?”
“How can I forget when you remind me every two minutes?”
“Now SEE here – “ Kyle sputtered. But at that moment, an armoured man appeared on the beach, puffing with exertion as he trotted towards them. Wardstein immediately drew his bow and set fly one of his magical arrows. It hissed over the beach pebbles, flying true and catching the wheezing man in the middle of his face with a heavy thunk, knocking him flying onto his back. All the men then heard the familiar wet splorch! as his colon explosively released its contents. A dark stain appeared on the sand. “And that’s two points,” Wardstein crowed, raising an imaginary championship cup over his head.
Kyle was aghast. “Wardstein, that man has no weapon! Why did you not engage in a parlay to gauge the degree of threat before – “
“Nonsense, Sir Kyle. He was a threat, make no mistake. He was running! At us. Right James?” James shrugged. “Right. Anyway, let’s go check him out.” The men trudged over the stones to where the man lay. A scroll of some fancy description was clasped in his hand. Sir Kyle plucked it – carefully, in consideration of the splatter of feces in the immediate vicinity – and began reading.
“It’s from the King!” he exclaimed in surprise. “How did he know we’d be here? And to send the message across the sea? I don’t – “
“Enough, manure farmer,” Wardstein declared, snatching the scroll. He read aloud: “Boys. If you’re reading this, you’ve made it across. Maybe you’re willing to go a little farther. You DO remember the name of the town, don’t you?” Warstein looked at James, who shrugged. He continued reading. “Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…blah blah blah. Okay. Looks like we have to go to some town for some reason.”
“At least that guy wasn’t totally useless, he got to us by that path over there,” James pointed. “No cliff climbing for us after all.” He spat a wad of phlegm onto the corpse to punctuate how little his life had meant.
“Sweet!” Wardstein yelled. Just for fun, he spun on his heel and fired an arrow at La Poutain, beached some distance from the shore. The arrow arced over the water and flew through an exposed port, impacting somewhere inside the ship. Without warning, a crumping explosion rattled La Poutain. The men stared in amazement as shattered pieces of decking flew in every direction and flotsam began to patter into the water. High above, launched by the exploding powder magazine of the ship, the remains of Gerard soared, his clothing flapping in the breeze. His trajectory ended on a sheer rock face jutting at the shoreline, where his body detonated in a wide splatter, not unlike a rotten tomato. Seagulls descended and began to peck at the loose gobbets of rancid flesh. Out in the water, La Poutain capsized with finality as burning shards of fleur-de-lys flags fluttered into the waves.
“Exeunt Gerard,” James remarked. “Guess we’d better head into town.” He paused to urinate copiously on the face of the dead messenger before they trudged on.
Kyle pondered a moment since yelling out random numbers wasn’t working. The three men were walking through the forest, taking turn dragging the makeshift gurney they had fashioned. Well, Wardstein and he were taking turns. James had picked up the straps and then made an exaggerated reach for his lower back. Kyle didn’t buy it, but what can you do.
“Now you are cooking with gas. But no.” James tittered his amusement. “Come now, Knight-Fecal, surely you can figure out this simple riddle.”
“It’s not really a riddle,” Wardstein said. `You are asking him a direct question with an unverifiable answer.”
James, who seemed not to have heard, broke into a small dance. “Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big black cat?!”
“Now it’s a cat question? This I can get behind.”
Wardstein grimaced. He did that a lot. “Quite a merry caper for someone with a bad back.”
“What?” James stopped. “Oh….yeah. Wow, does that smart. Oh the pain, et cetera.” He made another agonized reach to his back.
“It was the other side.”
“Too true, good Wardstein, too true.” He switched sides affably and nodded.
Wardstein sighed and removed the straps from his shoulders. “Your turn with the chest,” he said, handing them over to Kyle. It was Kyle’s turn to sigh. His armor was heavy enough, and plus he was lazy. Still, he dutifully strapped himself it and started dragging himself (and by extension the chest) through the forest.
“So?” James asked.
“So how many fetal minks does it make to make a coat for a man of my stature.”
“Getting closer. Still way off, but getting closer.”
“One hundred and one? Like the cute puppies that were slaughtered?”
“You know, those puppies who were cute but then they all grew up and had to be killed. And I mean, a hundred and one is quite a large number. Can you imagine a hundred and one full grown dogs? All smelly and without a shred of dignity? They had to be killed, obviously. A mercy, really.”
“So they killed them all?”
“Oh, and how. A hundred and one, right? I mean, corners had to be cut.”
“I don’t think you have that story right.”
“God Wardstein, what?!” James spun around, suddenly furious. Wardstein had stopped ten paces behind them and was scanning the forest, his bow at the ready.
“Kyle and I are having a conversa-“ James stopped, mid-sentence. “Oh,” he finished.
Out of the woods around them flooded a small number of tiny, furry creatures. They were mostly humanoid, Kyle noted, other than the large eyes and apparent lack of a nose. Also the four arms. And Kyle didn’t remember humans with antennae. But other than that, mostly human. Well, they walked on two legs. Or floated. It hurt his eyes, to be honest. Basically, they weren’t forest or farm animals. His closest point of reference was human. It wasn’t very good but it was all he had.
“Hello,” said the nearest one in a high-pitched voice. Wardstein jumped back, arrow nocked.
“It talks. Anything that talks is dangerous.”
“Now, now Wardstein,” James said. He held up a forestalling hand and sketched a moderately elegant bow. “I am James, son of Paulus. Archduke James, Funkmaster James, Il Roche.” He nodded. “Greetings!”
“I am Tim-Tak,” the small creature said. “We are the Ro-Gan, protectors of this forest.”
James’ head snapped up. “We? Like…this is all of you?”
Tim-Tak nodded sadly. He motioned to the group of just over a dozen creatures. “Sadly it is so. We have fallen on hard times, of late. The goodwill of Georg has aided us, but still our numbers have dwindled.”
“I…see,” James said. He looked…weird. “A moment, Tak-Tim”
“What? Yes. Yes. That’s what I said.” James motioned the other two men closer. “Is it just me or is this not the most obvious trap ever?”
“Huh?” Sir Kyle said.
“Well I mean really. Tak-Tim? That’s the worst fake name ever.”
“They don’t look very threatening. And he said that this is all of ‘em,” Wardstein offered.
“Lies, best case. Worst case we wipe them off the face of the earth. Ever made anything extinct, Wardstein?”
The big man’s eyes lit up.
“Sirs?” Tim-Tak asked hesitantly.
James turned around and smiled broadly, giving an enthusiastic thumbs up. He turned back to his companions. “Spare no one.”
“Everything okay over there?” asked Tim-Tak. “In my experience, whenever heavily armed travellers break away from the formal introductions to whisper in a huddle, it usually means trouble.”
James looked to the Ro-Gan’s representative and frowned. “Tic Tac, I’m insulted! Now why would you assume that?”
“Well…” The creature hesitated. “—We uh, also kind of heard you say ‘spare no one’ a second ago?” Turning to his furry companions, he spoke something in a strange dialect: “Wooday oosooway…urrder.”
The men snuck glances at the dozen or so creatures, many of whom were nodding in the affirmative. Oddly though, their faces betrayed no emotion, which made it difficult for Kyle, who was studying them particularly closely and trying to get a read on some kind of tell. The only thing he knew for certain was that these strange, possibly hostile beings outnumbered them by a margin of four to one. Worse still, they occupied the high ground on their own turf, meaning this was a textbook ambush scenario.
Despite the odds, James fearlessly inched his way closer to Tim-Tak, closing the distance while holding his ‘everything’s cool’ face. Kyle knew that unless something miraculous happened, James was going to start claiming heads. Wardstein, incredibly, still had his three-hundred-pounder bow at full draw and was pointing it suspiciously from one forest dweller to the next. Their antennae moved rhythmically, like seaweed under calm waves, but the Baron still found it unsettling.
“Tell me, why is it you are travelling through our woods?” asked Tim-Tak.
“Your woods, huh?! Did you not hear me introduce myself as the Archdu—”
“–AHEM!” Kyle interrupted. “James, Wardstein, please, we don’t want any trouble! We have traveled a long way and have already been the cause of so much unnecessary death and destruction.”
As if on cue, a vulture flying overhead lost its grip on something and it dropped to the path. Gerard the Cook’s skull, now picked clean, splatted in a large pile of what appeared to be fresh bear scat.
“Whoa, check it out!” exclaimed Wardstein, releasing the tension on his bow and picking it up. He horked and spat in Gerard’s face and then began wiping the dung off using the fur of the Ro-Gan nearest to him. “This is going to look so badass when I make like, a necklace out of it or something! Or maybe a cup! James, check it out! Isnt’ it awesome!? Look! Lookit!”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “As I was saying, Tamagotchi—all we want is to pass unmolested through your woods so we can deliver this chest here to Georg the Generous.”
Still wanting to provoke a fight, James grinned and whispered under his breath at a Ro-Gan. “Yeah, you’d just love to try and molest us, wouldn’t you, you hairy pervert? You and your little plush toy buddies!” But the creature only stared back blankly.
“—We only know him as Georg the JERK! said Tim-Tak. On hearing this name, the other Ro-Gan, who clearly didn’t speak English as well as their representative, began to tremble and whimper.
“There was a time,” Tim-Tak continued, ” when Georg would hunt the forest—our home!—and take only sparingly. Eight to ten deer per year, pretty reliably. But ever since he began marketing his Georg Jerky to the public, there has been an unprecedented demand for it! Now he and his hunting party have been returning more and more, and because the deer population is so low, he has begun harvesting another meat source—-us!” Again he turned to his friends. “Georg orooday urrder Ro-Dan!”
“Wow,” said James sympathetically. “That’s a pretty horrific story, all right.” Remembering something, he moved a hand to his pocket and removed a bag of Georg Jerky he had received at Christmas and began to chew some. “Mmmmm—now that’s the stuff! Sorry, you were saying?”
Tim Tak cleared his throat.
“Uh. Yes. Occasionally when I encounter the peasants who live under Georg’s protection, they confide that he has gone mad! Encouraged by his success in the jerky business, he has become a terror not only to us, but to his own people. Rumor has it he had a role to play in the sudden death of his wife, Catherine the Goodheart, and that he has ordered himself a much younger bride from afar. Some say she is a practiced sorceress of some description; others, simply a kinky stripper who’s fond of wearing revealing black clothing and lots of whorish makeup.”
Wardstein, James and Kyle all looked at one another, simultaneously calling to mind the tempting ‘goth chick’ they had encountered on La Poutaine.
“Uh, I have a question?” said Wardstein. “You mentioned earlier that you guys were ‘protectors of the forest’, right?”
“Well, if I’m hearing you correctly, you seem to be doing a piss-poor job of it! First you let Georg and his men kill off all the wildlife, and now you’re telling me he’s whittling you guys down too? What exactly have you done to protect—anything?”
Tim-Tak swallowed. “Well, we—we’ve put up many signs and notices throughout the forest that list the negative consequences of disrupting a habitat such as ours.”
“And I take it your third and fourth arms there are good for holding spare nails and stuff?” James added.
Tim-Tak frowned. “Listen, I get your point, okay? Perhaps you imagine our village as some kind of industrious, tree-fort utopia?”
“Yup, pretty much what I was picturing,” said Wardstein.
“Yeah, well…the truth is, we pretty much just sleep in the dirt and eat bugs. We use our two main hands for foraging, but the the other two are almost exclusively used for self-pleasuring. We’ve got real problems.” Tim-Tak sighed and shook his head. “Frankly, we are a useless race who deserve to die off, but—”
“But what?” snapped James. “Look, you have been talking too long already, man. It’s gettin’ late.”
“But…if you could find it in your hearts to help us somehow, we would be eternally grateful. There. I’m done.”
“Great!” said James with a smile. “And no, we will not be helping you. Bye-bye now!”
“Archduke, what do you say?” said Sir Kyle. “Surely we could mention this to Georg when we arrive?”
“Well, if the information he’s given us is accurate, I’m glad to have received it when we did. Maybe you’re right, Kyle. I’m sure there’s something that can be done. Eh, Baron?”
Suddenly Gerard’s skull was in front of the Archduke’s face and Wardstein began manipulating its jaw. “Sounds good to me, Monsieur James! HON-HON-HON!!!”
Everyone present, including the Ro-Gan, then joined in the laughter.