The rhythm of the knocking was urgent, though with an odd hesitation. I opened the door. It was my nephew, Jonas. ... Again.
"Er, uncle," he said, clearly far more uncomfortable than could have been explained by the earlier accident. "The constable asked me to come fetch you."
"Well, it kind of started after Prostration. Simon --" my other nephew -- "came and found me. Us. He was worried, and so we followed Simon into the woods." Jonas fidgeted, and I noticed the bandages on his arm. "When we got to the scene, the mountain lion was dragging the body off into the woods, but broke off and attacked us. When we killed it, we realized it had torn his throat out. So we all ran back to town and got the constable, who took a good look at the scene and decided he wanted your help figuring it out."
"Alright." I grabbed my cloak from behind the door, along with a few weapons and woodsman's tools. Constable Noname* had called on my well-trained eyes before.
Jonas shifted. "You see, we're not sure it was the cougar that killed him."
"Well, yeah. Simon did see him chasing that stranger away from the house. Maybe that's the guy who killed dad."
"... WHAT? My brother's dead?!"
Jonas cringed. We ran to the crime scene in silence.
A Forest Clearing
The clearing stank -- of blood, of vomit, of the booze on my brother Steven's dead lips. Frail Simon, pale and sweating, was sitting against a tree; Jonas walked over to comfort him. Constable Noname was guarding the corpse, but it was already too late; the grass around it was uselessly stomped down.
Off to one side, a cougar lay dead, its fangs bloody, the shaft of an arrow protruding from the side of its head. One of the Lindorm family knives lay, also bloody, next to Steven's body. The cougar seemed to have a few matching stab wounds, fumbled and shallow.
Zack and Seth, two shifty teenagers from town, were milling quietly around the edges of the scene. And wait a second -- Seth's face jogged my memory. Wasn't this the same clearing ...?
Jonas sat on his hands on the bare wooden chair, hair blowing in the light breeze through the abbot's open window. The abbot stood motionless, a scowl tightening his thin lips. I paced, completely at a loss.
"And what did you learn from this?" I finally asked Jonas.
He couldn't meet my eyes. "Not to shoot before being certain of my target, uncle."
I sighed. "Very well." I nodded at the abbot and walked out of the office.
Outside, in the patient room, Simon was putting the finishing touches on Seth's binding. The arrow had already been removed from his buttocks and the herbal poultice applied; Seth was now wincing rather than holding back curses of pain.
"Alright, boy, I will deal with you later," the abbot said over his shoulder as he came hustling out. He headed for the new patient's bed. "And how are you, young Harford?"
"He's much better, Your Grace," Simon piped up. "The wound wasn't serious, and I know my brother is ever so sorry --"
"Hrmph." The abbot leaned in toward Seth. "I am glad to hear you're recovering. Perhaps now we can talk about what you were doing out in a clearing in the woods with the Haskell girl?" Seth went white-faced.
"Ah," Simon cut back in. "Your Grace, perhaps I had better explain. I fear this is my fault."
The abbot turned his scowl toward my nephew, who lowered his head and continued contritely. "I'm certain their meeting was coincidence, because it was I who sent Lucy into the woods. I thought to save myself the work of today's herb gathering by asking her to go for me."
It was a masterful lie. It almost even fooled me. But when the abbot covered his face and shook his head in exasperation, I saw Simon shoot Seth a meaningful glance.
"Oh, Simon," the abbot said. "While I must say that your honesty -- however belated -- is appreciated, you must know better than to shirk your duties so. I shall expect two days' worth of fresh herbs tomorrow, on top of all those uncollected today."
Simon bowed. "Of course. Thank you for your mercy, Your Grace."
A Forest Clearing
Noname walked up to me. "Greg."
"The lads here have quite a story," he said. "It all fits together, but there's a few loose ends I just don't understand."
I nodded and knelt down next to Steven. Aside from the mauled throat -- a single, gaping cut, lacerated with tooth gouges all around -- the whole front of his body was marked with tiny scratches, scabbed over. His shirt was stained damp across the chest -- with water, not blood. And thick sap was smeared over his eyes.**
"Simon might be hiding something. He's been a bit odd. But on the other hand, it's probably just shock. The poor lad's been inconsolable all evening. He even heaved when we got back here and saw the body."
I'd guessed that it was him who vomited. Years ago, one of Steven's beatings went too far. The healers had done their best, but the broken bones had set badly and the internal damage had never quite recovered. Simon was a delicate lad, who we'd apprenticed to the healers at the monastery when we realized he no longer had the strength for hunting.
"Jonas' arm wound is a cougar bite, right enough. That's his arrow in its head. And all of them agree it broke off dragging Steve to attack them."
"And what do you read of the tracks?"
"I can't tell, Greg. The whole place is a mess. Steve obviously died over there --" and he pointed down a straight trail of bloody, flattened grass leading from Steven's head back to the center of the clearing -- "but you can tell that by the blood."
"Tell me what they said."
"Simon admitted he skipped out on Prostration -- he wanted to check in on his sister, what with Steve hitting the bottle so early today." Noname shrugged apologetically, but I waved it off -- Steven's drinking was only a secret these days to the extent that people pretended not to notice. "He says he had almost gotten to the house when he saw Steve burst out from the door and chase a stranger into the woods, screaming bloody murder. If Marie was home, and I bet she was, we could confirm or deny that easily."
"Go on." I pulled down Steve's shirt from his chest. Behind the damp patch, his skin was flush with frostburn -- obviously the result of some forbidden magic. It looked grave, but by my judgment it didn't seem deep enough to kill a man.
"Simon tried to follow them, but couldn't run fast enough and lost them in the woods. Now," Noname said, trying to lighten the mood, "no matter what the truth is, that part I believe."
"Heh. Er, sorry." He looked away. "Anyway, Simon staggered to town and ran into Jonas and some friends leaving Prostration. They all agree from here. He told them what he saw and asked them to help track down his father. They ventured into the woods, searched for a bit, came across this scene, and got attacked by the cougar. Once they discovered that the body was your brother, all four ran back to get me."
"And what of the sap and the frostbite?"
"They've no idea, Greg. Young Zack suggested it might be that sorceror the Arms of Priory have been tracking through the area -- Dallion Maliceblade, was it? We can see if anyone saw him near the Lindorm house, or perhaps you might pick up his trace by the footprints."
I stood up and walked over to the tree Simon had vomited on. His upheaval was thin, mostly stomach acid, with a sprinkling of damp herbs. I traced a slow circle past the outskirts of the clearing, looking at the footprints arriving and leaving the area; there were far too many to build a clear timeline in my head, but I did notice that one incoming pair was unusually deep. I made a note of the footprint that that heavily laden boot had pressed into a damp patch of dirt.
I made a point to walk by my nephews' two friends on my way over to the cougar. The heavily laden boot was the same size as Seth's feet. And I glimpsed a weighted bag incompletely hidden at Zack's belt. Curious, I examined the cougar's skull, finding the welt left behind from a crushing blow; and, oddly, it appeared that Jonas had suffered such a hit as well. My brother's body, however, had no such mark.
Steven had been a raging and violent drunkard, but also a well-coordinated one, and a bull of a man. None of these whelps could have stood up to him in a fair fight, and he hadn't been taken down from behind. I re-examined the scratches across his body, and a picture began to form in my mind.
The execution of it had been blindingly stupid -- how could Noname have fallen for their story? -- but I had to give the lads some credit.
"Constable," I said, "I've almost got this figured out. But could I have you go check the tracks around the cougar one last time? I need to know which direction it charged at the boys."
"Uh?" Noname said. "Certainly." He walked away to the cat's body.
I took a deep breath and approached the tree Simon was leaning against. My nephews both looked up at me. I crouched next to them and fixed them with a serious stare.
"Simon," I said, and grabbed his wrist, squeezing one of the old wounds on his arm until he flinched.
"Aaaah ... ow. Yes, uncle?" he said, face curling up. I relaxed my grip.
"Answer my question quickly and honestly." I gave him my coldest stare, and continued, barely above a whisper: "This wasn't an accident, was it?"
"Aah," he stalled, and his pale face flushed bright red. "Uncle ... er. It may not have happened exactly as I told the constable, but we don't know how Dad died." Even as he finished the lie, his tone dropped into defeat.
I let Simon go, disappointed, turned to Jonas grimly, and asked him the same question.
He barely hesistated, deep sorrow creasing his young face. "No, uncle."
"Jonas!" Simon said, shocked, then quickly flinched and clammed up.
Steven's insistent pounding on the door began even before I had removed my hunting leathers. "Come in," I muttered, and the door blasted open, gusting the scent of hard liquor into the still air of my cabin.
"Worthless sumbitch!" Steven screamed, flinging his half-empty bottle into the fire underneath my smoking racks. Glass exploded, and an alcohol-fueled roar of flames leaped up to sear the meat.
"Steven!" I shouted, leaping at him and grabbing his shoulders. "Get ahold of yourself."
"He made us a laughingstock!" Steven roared, grabbing my arms and trying to wrestle away. "They'll laugh at me. AT ME!"
I dragged him to a chair. "Sit down. Calm down."
"Worthless brats," he mumbled. "Worthless. 'M raising a cripple and a dunce." Steven looked up through glassy eyes. "You shouldn't hafta put up with 'im. I'll fix him. I will."
"Jonas is a good hunter," I responded, checking the meat in the smokers. Sometimes overenthusiastic, I kept to myself. "And a good boy." Taking care of his little brother. Taking care of the boy you left a wreck.
"I'll make 'im a good hunter!" Steven muttered. "When I'm done with him, ain't nobody will laugh at us again."
"Quiet down, Steven." I gritted my teeth. "Let the boys be."
"Oh, now you gonna tell me how to raise my kids?" He lurched out of the chair, and in a surprisingly fluid motion swiped from the sideboard a half-full bottle of wine that I'd been saving for the night's meal. He pointed it at me accusingly. "You ain't even man enough to knock up a wench! Such a limp-wrist I hadda take two to keep the family average up."
I surged to my feet and loomed over him threateningly. "Steven. You are in. My. House. You will NOT address me that way. I will not say so again."
He was saved by an insistent knock at the door. I whirled and stomped over to it. My brother snorted at my back, plopped back into his chair, and started chugging the wine.
I opened the door to be confronted with Simon -- wheezing and flushed, obviously having sprinted out to my house from the monastery at the fastest pace he was capable of sustaining. "Yes?" I asked.
"Uncle Greg," he gasped out, "are you --" and his voice broke off as his eyes flicked past my form.
Alone? I silently finished his sentence for him. And his eyes, wide in absolute terror, provided the answer.
"I, ah," he stammered, brain locking up. I quietly angled the door shut before Steven could see his son, and that seemed to bring Simon's focus back. He looked up at me pleadingly.
"What did you want?" I asked quietly.
"I -- that is --" Simon started. "The abbot just wanted to thank you for coming out to the monastery this afternoon," he blurted out, and gave me an awkward bow. "I'd better go gather herbs before Prostration."
I sighed silently and nodded. "Bye," he said, and backed away a few steps before whirling around and breaking into a sprint.
A Forest Clearing
"To the east," Constable Noname said, drawing my focus back to the present. He narrowed his eyes and looked suspiciously at my nephews. "The cougar charged at them eastward. And the body's north of the clearing."
I stood back up. "Then that's the last piece of the puzzle in place, Constable, and I am ready to make my report."
Simon stared at me in fear; Jonas in resignation. To one side, Seth and Zack's eyes got wide, and they huddled together in quick whispered conversation.
"It happened exactly as the boys said," I proclaimed. "I recommend we put out an alert on the wanted man."
You should have seen the looks on their faces.
"Oh," the constable said. He turned to my nephews. "Then we should get back to town and call in a body wagon. Boys, I'm sorry for what happened to your dad."
"And might I remind you," I added, "that the abbot's prescribed punishment for willfully skipping Prostration is a week of public lashings." I looked pointedly at Simon, who nodded, catching the meaning of my glare.
Another knock on the door. This was becoming a routine.
I turned up the lantern and pulled back the latch. It was Simon, looking miserably worn down, and just plain miserable. I raised an eyebrow and stared at him.
"Uncle Greg," he said, "first of all, I'm sorry about your brother. And I wanted to come here ..." he looked down in shame. "You covered for me, even after I lied to you, to your face. That was much better than I deserved. So at the very least, I owe you the truth. Ask me any question you want about the whole thing, and I'll answer honestly, and you can do as you see fit."
I ushered him inside and closed the door behind us. "No questions," I said softly. "Just some advice. Don't leave town. Don't make waves. This looks fishy enough as it is."
He took a deep breath. "Yes, Uncle."***
"And don't you ever lie to me again."
"You have my most solemn promise. Again, I'm so sorry."
"About Steven?" I said, shrugging. "I owed him the respect of blood ... but that doesn't mean I had to like him."
Simon looked up, meeting my gaze, and nodded in relief.
"... No questions?" he finally asked. I shrugged.
"Then you do know everything," Simon said in a small voice.
"Enough," I responded.
"Like ... you couldn't have missed the frost burns on the body. That was me."
Saying that to the abbot would have gotten him lashed to a cross and burned at the stake. But I just nodded.
"That's not how he died," Simon said. "If it matters."
"You slit his throat," I said. "Then tried to drag him away -- alone. By his feet, I might add. You were interrupted by Jonas and the others returning. Then you ran and hid when the cougar ambushed the four of you."
Simon's eyes went wide. But it had all been there in the tracks and in the evidence.
"You killed him during Prostration. That was noble of you, sending them away so you could take all the blame. But they had already decided to help you, hadn't they?"
"We -- yes. We were arguing about what to do with him. Then the bells rang. We had no time."
"You came to blows over it."
"Sort of," Simon said, obviously grateful to be clearing his conscience. "Zack and I were for killing him, Jonas and Seth for something less drastic. Jonas drew his bow on Zack. Then I panicked and tried to kill dad with the ice. When everyone else saw the magic, they freaked out completely, and that's when Zack tackled me. I can't blame them."
"Why'd they leave you alone with Steven?"
"I promised I would just keep watch to make sure he didn't wake up. They believed me. I can be an awful good liar."
I cleared my throat, and Simon looked down guiltily. "Which one of you set up the trap to knock out your father as he ran into the woods?"
"Trap?" Simon looked surprised. "Seth was alone when he went to our house. I'd asked him to make sure dad didn't do anything bad to mom or sis before Prostration. He taunted dad, and outpaced him just enough to reach the woods and clock him with a pulled-back tree branch."
I sat down and leaned back into the chair. "So I assume your original plan was to keep him in town and drinking instead of going home and getting violent, and ... then what? Poison?"
"Sleeping herbs in his drink. I originally just asked them to help me incapacitate him for a day, so he wouldn't take out his anger on us until he'd had some time to calm down. Though, ah ... there was some debate. Zack was for conking him with a sap, which he demonstrated with great effectiveness on Jonas."
"So you met at the clearing to finalize your plan, and Seth surprised you by showing up with the body." I closed my eyes, trying to remember the pine sap's texture. "And the sap in his eyes was Seth's idea, before you all assembled?"
"Yes, in case he woke up prematurely. But luring him out and ambushing him changed the equation. I knew dad wouldn't forgive that. He'd kill someone."
"Uncle, again, I'm sorry for getting you caught up in any of this. Our family's seen enough tragedy. I didn't want to cause any more of it than could possibly be avoided."
"Then get on home. Your mother and sister need you."
Simon thanked me and left. But I had a sinking feeling that wouldn't be the last I'd see of my nephews that night.****
Except for the conversations between NPCs, all events took place pretty much as described in the first session of the D&D game my group started over the weekend. (The expository conversation at the end between Simon and Greg didn't happen, but relates genuinely roleplayed events.)
It was a fantastic and memorable game, especially for a first session -- stuffed to the brim with in-character conversation (and argument), dramatic tension, scheming, the previously described awkward cover-up of a poorly planned patricide, and the premature departure of the town the GM had expected to use for another four sessions. ;-) And all this with four 0-level peasants! If you've only ever gotten to play D&D with a bunch of magic-item-collecting hack-and-slashers, this is the sort of epic gaming tale you're missing out on.
* Apologies. He was just "The Constable" all game session.
** I can't believe that nobody in our group remembered that we'd done this.
*** Despite Simon's assurances, everyone ended up leaving town that night: we belatedly realized that Simon would unavoidably be exposed as a sorceror during the prescribed floggings, and there was no non-suspicious way of avoiding the punishment. Fleeing would tell everyone we were guilty of a sorcerous murder, too, but at least that would get us a head start. So, figuring we might as well go whole hog, Zack and Seth broke into the general store on our way out of town and cleaned the place out. Meaning we're now collectively wanted for witchcraft, murder, AND grand theft. What a way to start a campaign!
**** We later discovered the whole episode also triggered Simon's younger sister's sorcerous powers. So we dragged Greg out of bed at half past 1 AM to beg him to take mom and sis and flee for the woods. Again ... What a way to start a campaign!