Brown husks of leaves drifted on the autumn road. Sticky branches shivered above, loosed what cladding they yet possessed to spiral in the bitter wind. Not far over the squat, umber hills, a raven croaked. Down the lane, a clapping of horseshoes swelled.
A rider in grey came along. He rode sedate and boredly, tucked up into his fur collars for the cold. His mount, a pudgy roan, crunched unconcernedly over the leaves, ears low. They sauntered with slack reins.
The breeze kicked up. Leaves rasped. A faint yell followed, muddied by the wind. The rider startled. His roan perked her ears, huffed. The reins stiffened. "Gee up" mumbled the rider, eyes suddenly bright. He squeezed his boots to the beast. They set off at a canter.
Seconds later came another yell, high and afeard. Other voices, too, jeering. A rush of three ravens startled up ahead, where the road went deep into a brown grove. Rider and horse passed under those bows, broke into a gallop.
They rode for a minute or more before the shouting's source, now quiet for awhile, showed. Ahead, in the mottled grey shade of the copse, hunched two figures in leathers over a fallen, bloodied third. One, a ginger woman, was tugging at the fallen's boots. Her fellow, a scabby man, was working at the other end with a knife. Seeing the rider, they quit their desecration, turned.
"Ho there," said the rider, pulling furs from his mouth.
"Ho yerself," said the woman. She wore her hair drawn back tight. At her hairline, a few flecks of blood showed bright on the scalp, fresh.
"What's become of him?" pointed the rider. His steed nickered, unsteady at the red which pooled midst the leaves.
"Ragwretches, from the bush," said the man, behind her. He put down his knife, covertly held the hand behind his back.
The rider frowned. "Ragmen, at this time of year?"
"Ye. Dreadful large ones," said the ginger
"They clocked your friend here and scarpered, then?"
"You've guessed it."
"And left the two of you unscathed?"
The scabby man nodded. "Miracle, it was." He stepped a mite closer.
The rider leaned in his saddle, peered round him. His brows raised, crinkled. "Clocked him with a pistol gunspring, at that." He gestured to a metal point protruding from the back of the dead man's skull. "Rare seen a wretch with a pistol."
"Miracle of miracles," said Scabby. "He sacrificed himself to save us."
"So, you're stealing your fallen comrade's boots," said the rider. "And, what, his gold teeth?"
"See, it might look like that, but–"
"You two are cutters, yes?" the rider interrupted.
"Aye," smiled the scabby cutter, showing rotten teeth. "How'd ye guess?" He stepped closer. The roan twitched her ears.
"Then I'll tell you," said the rider, smiling. "That I am a commissioner for T and B." He opened his coat, showed the insignia on his lapel. The cutter's eyes went wide.
"So you'd best not use that pistol you're hiding behind your fat ass, and…" He swung about, glared at the ginger, who'd been creeping up behind. She grinned, sheepish. "Tell your little minge here to reconsider knifing me, lest you meet a team of real cutters on a hit."
Both backed off. The scabby cutter went pale. The ginger reddened, blotchily. "M'apologies, Commissioner," she mumbled, surreptitiously tucked a knife into her boot.
"Likewise," said her fellow. He tucked the pistol into his belt, looked to the corpse. "You're not gonna, ah…"
The Commissioner squinted, pointed to the corpse. "What was his standing?"
"Ain't had any."
The commissioner shrugged. "In that case, don't make a habit out of it." He nudged the roan, started off.
"Enjoy the boots."
A key rattled in the lock. Some muffled giggling sounded through the walnut paneled door. The bolt turned. Hinges swung, and the giggling came through in a flurry of snow and winter's-night air.
It was a red-nosed pair, wrapped up in coats and swathed in giddy vodka fumes. The first, a scarred, long-nosed man, grinned, wobbled slightly. The second, the giggling's curly-headed source, hung on his shoulder. She was small, expensively made up, and better dressed than her scuffed-leather companion.
"I must say," she said, ceasing her giggle to frown dramatically at the parlor interior; all leather armchairs, shelves of curio, and dark wood. "You live better than I'd expect."
"Ah, well," drawled Dacre, fingering the buttons of his coat.
The young woman let him go, wandered to the brick hearth. "A new townhouse," she said, warming her hands. "And staff to keep your fire, at that."
"N' good taste in lunch*, I hope."
"Dinner, Dacre," giggled she, rolling her eyes. "And we mainly drank. You cutters have such odd slang."
"Ex-cutter, and a lucky one." Dacre insisted. He tossed his coat and scarf to a chair, moved to loop an arm round his companion. She slipped coyly free, moved to examine the books and oddities which cluttered the room's surfaces. Dacre followed close behind.
"Goodness, you do own an excess of skulls. How gruesome."
"Aw, Silve. 'S only five."
Silve tapped the silver teeth of one blackened skull. "Who was this?"
"Some dead chap."
Dacre received a frown. "Rather goes without saying, doesn't it? Given you own his skull?"
"Fine. M'enemy," Dacre said, tucking his chin on Silve's shoulder.
"Why'd you kill him?"
The man shrugged. "Didn't. Enemy, b'still my partner. Got his head lopped by an eidolon, so I kept it."
"Oh," said Silve, shirking. "Why would you do that?"
"Seemed like a good idea, a' the time." **
Silve tisked, moved from the skulls. Dacre wobbled, unsupported.
"What about these?" said the woman, indicating a glass dome containing dozens of blue coins.
"Agadese ducats. Call it m' rainy day fund."
"Where'd you find them?" Silve peered at the coins, at the runic denominations on their faces.
"Some hole inna mountain. Inside statues." None too gracefully, Dacre peeled the coat from her shoulders.
"What kind of statues?" said Silve, pushing the coat at him.
"Living ones," he tossed it away.
"Hmf," said Silve. She moved to a side table, leaned on the wide arm on the chair beside. "What's this?" she said, pointing to a mossy glass cylinder which occupied the table. Something moved inside.
"My friend," said Dacre, joining her there.
"Oh," brightened Silve, kneeling to look at the glass. "A pet?"
"A mince toad." At that, Silve recoiled from the glass, the water-eyed amphibian within. She frowned. "Ah."
"Ain't nothing to scoff a'. Little bastard's more faithful than most." He looked grim. "'N longer-lived." “Have you no friends but toads?” she grinned.
Dacre looked sour, arms folded. “Like I said, longer-lived.” “Don’t tell me all your friends are dead?” consoled Silve, cleaving to his side.
Dacre shirked from her. “S’what I implied, init?” His tone was abruptly cold.
“What of the cutters you earned your fortune with?”
“S’ one man’s fortune,” Dacre mumbled. “For there weren’t none left to share it with.”
“Don’t,” said Dacre, turning his lip. “Got nothin’ to do with you.” He slumped into the armchair, kicked his hobnailed boots over the side.
Awkward, Silve peered at him, made a show of twirling one brown ringlet. Dacre, his coquetry vanished, paid little heed, chin tipped to chest. Silve raised an eyebrow, sauntered to the hearth. Firelight flickered on the drunken sheen of her eyes as they slid over the cluttered mantelpiece.
“Sword grip,” she mused, touching a broken hilt. “Jar of pretty white arrows." She touched a point, delicately. "And…" she smirked, plucking up a battered wooden thing. "Er, what do you call this?"
Dacre's head snapped up. "A helmet," he insisted. "M'first." "But it's–" "Helmet," he interrupted, loudly. "Just a bucket with eye holes," giggled Silve. Dacre reddened, glared at her. A network of pale scares stood out on his worn cheeks. He stood. "Sorry," mumbled Silve, eyes wide. With a terse jerk, the cutter took his bucket from her limp hands, replaced it on the mantel. He scooped up her discarded coat, proffered it. "Y'should go." "But–" "Can't be laughin' at m' past." Dacre "Dacre, I want–" "Get." He shoved her towards the door. "Want to know more about it," blurted Silve. Dacre settled, blinked. "Y'do?" "Yes. I shouldn't've laughed. It's just…" She worried the coat. "So extraordinary, your life. I like you for it. I want to hear about…" She gestured round the parlor, to the collected oddities. "All of it." Dacre's face softened. "Didn't think you reckoned it tha' way," he said, passed a hand through his hair. "I can stay?" "Aye. M'sorry I snapped." He looked sheepish. "Guess cutterings'a bit silly, sometimes. Gotta be that way." Stiffly, he took up on a nearby sofa, gestured for Silve to join. She did, and, hesitantly, leaned into his shoulder. "Now," said the once-cutter, gesturing to the collected marvels of his venturesome times. "What d'you want to know?"
Cutters are a folk of peculiar taste. A caste whose proclivities, influenced by a culture of labor unrivaled in peril and horror, have grown primal and queer.
They do not begin this way. Novice cutters, untested, desire much the same as simple soldiers. Food, drink, good beds; company and gold to share and afford them with. And of these novices, many enough never grow weirder in their wants, for after even one bleak venture, the weak and the timid are alike culled by fear and mortality. Those who do live grow stranger by each venture.
With every delve into the dark and the forbidden, a cutter may come to desire and fetishize the unusual. As folk exposed to the extreme and the traumatic are wont, they may seek distraction and sensation either superior to or in sublimation of their fell experiences. To some, violence becomes normalcy. Either as a pastime, a solution, or both. Casual criminality, brazen squatting or trespass, and predation of junior cutters are everyday activities. Other cutters acquire a taste for numbing substances. Laudanum, strong absinthes, and coquelicot, namely, are habitual favorites. Enough of these sorts end their careers not by venturing's dangers, but by the addictions acquired in an attempt to forget them. These behaviors, while common, are not yet among the oddest cutters learn to exhibit.
A fetishization of particular elements of gear numbers among the venturing folk’s chiefest obsessions. Arms, armor, and specialized equipment are marks of a cutter’s success, of the gold earned and burned to obtain them. Among such equipment, a superstitious desire is especially present for three distinct items: Boots, backpacks, and helmets. These are staples of the cutter’s trade. Boots, for long marches in the wild and the black; and for cathartically stomping one's foes. Packs, to safely ferry gear into and loot out of a venturing locale. And helms, colloquially known as “buckets,”*** for which cutters hold superstitious reverence. Cutters will readily bicker, tussle, even kill, if given enough mad impetus, over such icons of their trade. Many choose additional accoutrements for which to obsess. Some, obsessed with cleanliness both physical and mortal, crave soap and gray salt. Others, terrified at the prospect of encountering the unknown, hoard bestiaries and books of lore. Lots, conditioned by poverty and romanticisation of wealth, carry a store of gold at all times; one which they will never spend, only clutch for strange security. The queer predilections of cutters, though uncountable in their variety, are in the end joined by a few pervading traits: By obsession over material gain, the behavioral consequence of a trade defined by stealing wealth for greedy solicitors; and by an eerie tendency for gallows humor, a jovial manifestation of defences formed to resist the black effect of often-hopeless work upon the mind. A product of camaraderie, of the self-reinforcing fellowship, built of a communal rejection of mortality, without which the venturing life would be impossible. A guardian of the mind, without which a cutter, retired or alone, is naught but an oddity: A collection of hoarded curios and memories best forgot.
While playtesting some cuttering scenarios, it occured to me to consider the actions and desires of player characters and extrapolate it into an in-world subculture. By this lens, what is a venturing sort, but a lot of awful habits, collected oddities, and a mad disregard for death? This article was made possible by Incunabuli's generous supporters on Patreon. To join them and read articles available only to supporters, support Incunabuli on Patreon.
* To cutters, who often spend protracted periods of time in odd hours or subterranean depths, will describe any meal of the day as "lunch." If two meals are had in a day, the second is known as supper.
** Cutters are renowned for their ability to acquire packs full of useless items for later hoarding.
*** These are sometimes actual buckets. The cooper's trade is one valuable amongst novice cutters, for they are capable of producing a brand of inexpensive personal protection called "barrel armor." Such armor makes its headpieces if literal wooden pails.