The Guards Themselves
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
(Lit: "Who will guard the guards themselves?")
Their guide was a tracker named Lewyson, a real salt-of-the-earth type with a bloodhound's phlegmatic face and the lanky build of a scarecrow. He went without affectation, unshaven and clothed in faded patchwork, and used his words like a miser, a thick rustic patois only adding to his overall inscrutability. Geoffrey admired the man's stoicism, less so his slovenly appearance.
He, in contrast, sported smooth cheeks and tidy hair and was donned in an immaculate suit of light armor that marked him an officer of the Royal Watch of Valterra. Sat atop his rouncey, back straight, chest out and jaw set, he almost seemed some living statue. He looked quite serious, but then it was a serious journey he was making. He had traveled for many days along with a handful of other officers to replace several who had died recently in the remote town of Elderoak. Before word of his transfer had reached him a week ago, Geoffrey could not think of ever having heard of the place. Still, where the Watch decreed, he went.
Regarding the deaths of the patrolfolk there, he and the rest knew little. They had been murdered, that much was certain, but how and by whom was a mystery and the fodder of much grisly hearsay. Concocting tales of gory and extravagant ends was a common pastime in the barracks of the Watch and he had probably heard half a hundred descriptions of how the officers' bodies had been discovered by now. The truth would inevitably pale in comparison to the fireside stories of his fellows, but that it was such a secret did make one wonder all the same.
Pondering the possibilities and unconsciously scanning the scenery, Geoffrey glimpsed the fluttering of wings from out of the corner of his eye. He watched as a bald-faced bird, a common barn owl, descended lazily from the air to perch on the low-hanging bough of a nearby tree. It blended into the surrounding red and gold leaves of early autumn with surprising ease, save for its pale face and chest. The owl stared his way with large, black eyes and let out an unsettling shreee! that caused a shudder to run up his spine. A moment later, it dove for something in front of the riders which Geoffrey surmised to be a rodent of some sort, perhaps a mouse or squirrel. Its sudden appearance caused one of the other officers' horses to rear up in fright before being reined back in. The travelers watched as it took flight once more, no doubt to feast on its apprehended prey.
As if stirring from a dream, Geoffrey noticed the deepening shadows on the road and realized that dusk was falling. Already rough and treacherous with myriad drops, twists and inclines, darkness would turn the dirt trail full deadly. Around him, some of the others voiced concerns about the danger of continuing on at night and wondered if it might not be preferable to stop and make camp. But Lewyson just shook his head.
"S'jus' o'er yonner," he croaked, pointing ahead with a long, callused finger.
Up ahead, the new transfers saw the glow of sunset emanating from the top of a steep hill. As they crested, it caught their eyes with its fading brilliance, as did a row of torches that led down into rolling valley, wherein the quaint little town of Elderoak sat ensconced. It spread out alongside a thin river, its slate-roofed buildings and cobbled streets testaments of civilization amidst what was otherwise darkening wilderness. They rode in single file behind their gangling guide down the narrow access road, through a gatehouse carved out of a large monolith and across a handsomely-crafted stone bridge lined with yet more torches. In the distance, they could see the ancient tree from which the town took its name extending out monstrously from the foot of the nearby mountains, as magnificent and sacrosanct as the old legends claimed. Ambling up the paved central avenue, many of the officers impressionably admired the place that would be their home for the foreseeable future and expressed their relief on having arrived at last.
As the sun continued to sink towards the horizon, Geoffrey and the others observed candles flickering to life inside the huts and cottages of the locals. The singular promptness with which this communal act occurred struck some of them a bit queer. So, too, did the little figures of stick, straw and cloth and the gourds of diverse shape and size with wicked and fearsome faces carved into them lit up by still more candles within. They saw them everywhere, in front of houses and shops and in the public square, sitting like ghoulish tributes to pagan gods. There were blurry, skittish outlines of people in the windows and a pointed lack of anyone on the streets, despite the early hour and pleasantly cool weather. The new arrivals exchanged concerned glances as a wave of unease passed between them.
"Damn eerie," a graduate officer named Aycker chanced to speak. "Like for some kind of dark rite or somethin'."
"A rite against the dark, I should think," Geoffrey replied. Aycker looked over his shoulder and noted Geoffrey's stony expression and the navy blue cloak embroidered with a golden trim of fleurs-de-lis that marked him as his superior.
"Sir?" he asked, almost apologetically.
"These people have just had several murders befall them," Geoffrey continued, as if to a small child. "What's worse, the victims are the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. Perhaps it is rather superstitious, but is it not also natural that they should respond so?"
"W-well, sure, I suppose it is," Aycker fumbled, "but why all the torches and candles?"
Geoffrey almost failed to suppress a sigh. Did this wet-behind-the-ears rookie really need an explanation for everything? "Light brings familiarity. Familiarity brings comfort. They pray the fires will keep whom- or whatever is responsible for these despicable crimes at bay. It's a pity, really."
Curious, Aycker lined up his horse alongside Geoffrey's. "What's a pity?"
"These people commit the torchbearer's folly. The torchbearer thinks light repels. He’s wrong; light attracts. It may be that our murderer, be they man, woman or beast, is only going to be drawn here all the more. Fortunately, we are here now to help defend this town."
"So was the last batch," a wild-haired Northman named Randolf grunted from behind them. "And look at what happened to them."
Aycker looked to Geoffrey for a response, but he said nothing and the riding party soon fell back into silence. Neither Lewyson nor his steed seemed daunted as they made for their destination, which was reassurance enough for most of the officers. And such were the charms of the town otherwise that their dire thoughts did not linger overlong.
The 'stable boy' outside the Oaken Shield Inn was an ogre of a man with a milky eye who took off with their horses almost in a huff. What they found inside was quite a change in tone from what they had seen thus far. Contrary to expectations, it was alive with ribald tales, boisterous hollers and slurred songs of the local off-duty officers and even a few civilian patrons. When they entered, the inn went quiet as the local patrolfolk ceased their revelry and took notice of the outsiders, quickly identifying them as the new recruits and beginning to size them up. An awkward, almost palpable tension hung in the air thick with the smell of smoke and sweat. The guide Lewyson apparently felt it not a bit as he walked past his followers and up to the bar to order himself a pint.
A man with stringy red hair and a rusted, badly dented cuirass stumbled over to the group, mug in hand. He raised it as if perhaps to strike before bellowing, "I say let the new blood cough up fer a round!"
The locals laughed thunderously and raised their own mugs in agreement, then proceeded to welcome the newcomers with hearty backslaps and good-natured ribbing. It wasn't long before someone got the bright idea to start a drinking game, while others enjoyed themselves with initiating the transfers with impromptu hazing rituals fit for the schoolyard. To the average person, it all looked perfectly jovial, but a sad gleam in someone's eye, a forced smile or laugh hinted at the stories most of the officers dared not tell. Some of them toasted their fallen friends openly and sang songs in their honor, but the rest seemed content to let the dead lie.
Geoffrey stood apart, silently taking in the carousal of his new comrades-in-arms with cool detachment. He did not partake in any of it, despite the enticements and jeers of those around him. Word of his priggishness was probably already circulating among the other officers, but as a man of the law, it was his firm belief that he must stand as an example and comport himself with a level of self-control the average citizen lacked, including the abstention of alcohol and vulgar behavior. Frankly, he found the display of drunken excess repugnant. The Watch, however, seemed overall less judgmental, even encouraging. Saints, after all, were seldom known to take up sword and shield to risk their lives in defense of some backwater shithole. If a man wanted to blow off steam after-hours with a few pints of ale, a tavern wench and a bit of merry-making, the Watch was happy to look the other way. Though disappointed others did not share his views, Geoffrey supposed he could grin and bear it for a night. Or at least until the Captain appeared, which he hoped would be very shortly.