Mist caressed the moors. It stroked the bruise-black heather, set gentle dewdrops on countless twisted stems. It kissed the still faces of stagnant pools, concealed shallow, submerged skulls. It stroked every dip and dell, spilled wet fingers into the shadowed crevasses of glacial monoliths. It groped, invasive, into fast trenches dug by human hands.
"Shite's cold" said a man, hunching his ranger's cloak against the creeping mist. Icy dew dripped from the flat bill of his helm, touched his red nose. A dinged gunspring lay in his lap. He squatted in a dugout off the trench, pressed near a round, meager stove.
"Here, Seg" said another. He picked a steaming copper pot off the stove, proffered it with mittened hands.
"Blimey, Newcastle" said Seg, trying it. "D'you strain this through your socks?"
"It's the water, mate. Drained off something awful" said Newcastle.
Seg stared into the cloudy tea, grimaced, took another mouthful. Somewhere nearby, a bugle cut the dull air. Three, short notes. Seg peered out of the dugout, over the rough edge of the trench. Stalks of heather were silhouetted against the low, grey sky. He squinted, frowned.
"What d'you reckon that was?" said Seg.
"Dunno. Might be the patrol to Dun Derthe getting back."
Seg made a grim sort of grunt, put the tea down. "Don't envy those lads. Reports were a bloody nightmare."
Newcastle wiped a drop of snot with his woolen wrist, snorted. "Didn't read 'em. What was the matter?"
There was a short clank. Seg had opened the breach of his gunspring, was squinting at the mechanism. "The folk had quit burnin' their dead" he said, idly twisting the catch. "Tied 'em to stakes to keep the ragwretches out, like guard dogs." He squinted down the sights, adjusted them. "Stench was terrible. People were loosing their minds."
A grey mouse had scurried into the dugout. A broken trail of mist swirled behind her. She peered out from under a deep hood, clutched a pistol gunspring in pink paws. "Hey! Get wary, lads. The patrol's back with company." She scampered off, cloak flapping.
Outside the trench, a ruckus had gone up. Shouts cut through the dead, wet air, lifted from neighboring fortifications. Boots thumped on oaken planks, slapped into mud. The distinct click and slither of priming gunsprings whispered all about.
To the East, not far off, another commotion was growing: A thundering of dirty, clawed feet; a high, massed cry of crooked voices; a terrible rhythm of drums stretched from human hides.
Newcastle's eye bugged. He lunged for his weapon. "In the daytime?" he said, ducking out of the dugout. Seg followed.
They emerged, heads just above the crawling mist. About them, hooded silhouettes rose, nestled weapons on lips of trenches. Seg did the same, tucked his elbows into the moist and mossy soil, cradled his weapon, steady.
Past the gunspring's sights, dark things shifted in the mist. A line of thin and crooked figures writhed over the backdrop of low hills, indistinct. Seg thumbed the primer. The weapon's springs went taut.
"Hold steady!" called a Sergeant, two trenches behind.
The shapes in the mist began to resolve, drew ever closer. Spindly horns showed over leering masks carved from wood and pelvises. Distinct, fell voices could be heard over the mass, calling for flesh and murder.
"Rangers, pick targets!" said the Sergeant. Seg squinted, slowed his breathing.
Beside Seg, Newcastle gasped, pointed. A shape broke from the mist, larger than the others. It loped on long, muscled thews wrapped in raw hides, waved a half sawmill blade above meter-long horns. Upon each of those spikes of bone was skewered an eyeless, skinned head.
"Well, slap me thrice and hand me to my mum" mumbled Seg. He pulled his aim to the monster.
"Free volley!" called the Sergeant.
There was a massed, overlapping crack of steel. Ballistic needles cut wavering lines through the murk. Seg's weapon snapped and whirred five times, emptied. Twisted figures jerked and fell mid-run, spun into the heather. The mill blade-waving fiend screamed, enraged, kept its pace.
"Ready arms!" said the Sergeant.
A slither of rustling blades filled the trenches. Seg dropped the gunspring, drew a stout and heavy sidesword.
"Good luck, mate" said Newcastle, elbowing his comrade.
"Same to you" said Seg, eyes locked on the giant wretch's matte pits of eyes. The thing bared its jagged rows of teeth, met his gaze. Seg bent at the knees, ready to spring.
Powell's boots crunched with every step, crushed frozen stems and musty fungus-caps. She clutched a navy-blue ranger's cloak tight with red fingers. A scabbard poked neath the cloth, wobbled as she walked. Great puffs of breath floated behind her, dissipated over the stark and chilly moorland.
The ranger stopped, tilted her hooded head to survey the undulating, rocky plain. Great, low waves of mist rolled from the east, disappeared in the yellow burn of a low, Western sun. Not a structure could be seen, save for the carcass of an ancient tower on some faraway hill.
"Ah, stuff me" said Powell, dismay crinkling her frost-nipped face. "I'd give my left foot for a roof and a cuppa." She kicked at a mound of toadstools, kept walking.
Some time later, the sun had nearly set. Powell's boots were obscured by mist, made opaque by the light's low angle. A red moon was already visible, dull against bright clouds.
With a huff, the ranger knelt by a rare spinny of squat shrubs, began stripping one for kindling. Dry twigs crackled, snapped like popping fingers. Somewhere nearby, something else rustled.
Powell shot upright. "Who's there?" she said, spewing steam.
"Oi, pardon me" said the rustling, not far behind.
The ranger spun about, stared at a hunched, little figure bundled under a hood and heavy furs. It carried a stained bundle over one shoulder, looked down at the soil. "Didn't mean to startle you" it said, voice broken, weak: An old woman's.
"Oh" said Powell, slowly releasing her sword hilt.
"I'm Gretle. Live just over the hill, the old tower."
"Kirst Powell, of Charholm; Ward-scout, second class" said Powell.
"You look awful cold, Dear. Come and warm up, aye? Have a bit of tea" said Gretle.
Powell hesitated, looked at the ruin-topped hill. "Well, if you don't mind" she said, stifling shivers.
The old Gretle turned, gestured with a rabbit-fur mitt.
Powell followed to the ruins. A wrecked half-cylinder of stone rose from the hilltop, crumbled and eaten by lichen and mistletoe. A thin ribbon of smoke curled from a low, pile-stone hut built in its center. Gretle disappeared through it's knot-whorled door, called out.
"Leave your sword outside, Dear. It shan't fit."
Buckles clinked. Powell shivered as she lifted the covered longsword from neath her cloak. She set it beside the door, ducked inside.
"Mind your head" said the little, hunched woman. The hut was smoky, cluttered, hung with countless plants, skins, and ropes of herbs. A cluster of oozing candle butts, stuck to a low table, lit the place. "Sit" said Gretle, poking the embers of a clay fireplace.
"You're alone, here?" asked Powell, curling her legs at the table. She looked to a grey wolf's skin, pegged to the wall by its empty eyes. She sniffed, caught a mite of rendered flesh in the smoky air.
"Aye, I manage" said Gretle, setting down a clay mug. Powell noted her thick, stubby-nailed fingers, stained with green. "Are you a cunning-woman?" she asked, taking the mug. It smelled of mint and sage.
"Oh, no" said Gretle, rubbing her nose beneath her concealing hood. She sat opposite Powell, eyes glimmering in her shawl. "I've ways, but no real art."
She looked at Powell, tilted her head. "Never mind me. What's a Dear like you doing on the winter moors?"
"I'm a Ranger" said Powell, tugging the mantle of her cloak. A crest was embroidered there in dark thread; a fir cone set on a shield.
A wide smile gleamed under Gretle's shawl. "And Ranger girls wander the moors alone, with naught but a sword and a mouthful of curses?"
"No. I got lost. We were looking for trollholes, and a storm came up" said Powell. She held the tea, clutched the warmth. "Don't you know of the Ward Rangers?"
"Of course. 'Fast is the shield against night'" recited the old voice.
"So goes the motto" nodded the Ranger.
"Wise woodsfolk and soldiers, keeping trolls, and älves, and ragwretches at bay."
Powell grinned, wry. "Admittedly, I'm not such a wise one, yet. Got lost in a little flurry" she smiled, looked serious. "My thanks for bringing me in, Master Gretle. I wish I might repay you."
"Oh, but you might, yet" said Gretle, eyes gleaming, large, under the dirty shawl.
"You said it yourself, dear. 'My left foot for a roof and a cuppa.'"
There was silence for a moment, save for the fire crackling behind Gretle. Powell's eyes bugged, fixed on the large, black-gummed teeth grinning in the dark shawl.
A log popped, split in the fire. Gretle leapt, short claws grasping. Her hood and shawl fell away, revealing the bat-ears and blunt, fat-nosed face of a young troll. The Ranger lashed out, kicked the table into the lunging fairy-creature.
Powell rose, scrambled from the trollhole. Claws grasped at her departing boot heels. She dashed out into the dark and the cold, whipped the sword from where it lay. The scabbard flew off, landed amidst the ruins.
From the hut charged Gretle, ears pulled back, black eyes reflecting red spots of moon. She circled the Ranger, hissed at the bared steel. She lunged, roaring, far faster than her stubby legs belied.
Steel flashed in the crimson moonlight. The troll's roar ceased, cut by a wet spatter and a hiss. With a scream, the creature bolted, trailing smoke, steam, and hideous curses.
Panting, Powell looked down: A wide ear lay on the heather, thawed the frozen sod with a trickle of smoking, black gore.
Northeast of Firlund, alongside the yawning sea, stretch a range of vast and otherworldly fens. Few civilized folk abide on these cold and evil plains, for they are awash with the mist of the Otherworld. They are the domain of all manor of fairy and monster. They are the Moors So Sere, and they are no home to Humanity.
If left alone, a slow and predatory wave would subsume the good realm of the Firls. Every hill would be a trollhole. Every mistletree a leering älf's perch. Every cradle a ragman's feed trough.
A hardy and singular force keeps the Other at bay: The Ward Rangers. They are the cunning step of the hunter; the burning iron bolt. They are Humanity's shield against night.