Of Sleeping Dolls, Old Houses, and Runaway Soldiers

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by The Mood is Write, May 30, 2015.

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    • "Magic is Out-- Science is In!"
      The headlines shouted it everywhere in the advent of the steam engine twenty-five years ago.

      Magic became too expensive and unreliable to be counted on, the world moved on in spite of this. Guns replaced swords in all but ceremonial use, and heavy metal armor is a thing of the past-- it can't stand up to gunpowder, anyway.

      The laces and frills of the past age are being replaced by stripes and tighter garb that allow far easier movement in both the sexes-- women are growing in number in the workplace as the world moves forward and forces begin to clash in the world-- it's outright rebellion as peasants, sponsored by the Hild kingdom to the south, lash out against their landlords, while Hildi soldiers march on Ruva to capture its lands.

      But away from the combat for now, at the edge of Ruva territory and locked in a dusty, cobwebbed sample of the previous era, an old home lies abandoned. Red velvet cushions adorn polished wood furniture. Elaborately-patterned cloth is glued to the walls (though peeling as age rots the glue). Massive candelabras hang from the ceiling from heavy ropes, waiting to be lowered and lit after so many years.

      The closets are lined with frills and lace, with dresses that cover every inch and more. The cabinets are lined with priceless porcelain plates, each hand-painted and gilded by artisans half a world away.

      All of this rests under a thick blanket of dust, and is chained in place by equally dusty cobwebs.

      Whoever once lived in this place is gone, their belongings left to the ravages of light and age. Who now will come to this place, and why? Is it antique-hunters, looking for quick cash? Is it a criminal on the run from the law, seeking refuge? It could be anyone, for any reason.

      The lands the manor are on are Ruvan. The Hildi people's nation is to the south.

      This is a decent basis for the house, but it needs some simplification.
    • "I'm Mervin, wife is Tea, older girl is Hesty, younger is Nick. My boy's Junior." - Giant Farmer, the one with the limp and one foot bigger than the other.
    #1 The Mood is Write, May 30, 2015
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2016
  1. Reference Post

    Initial Images & Thoughts (open)
    But! To the matter at hand. Your story's premise is one of those rare ones that had images floating in my head even before I finished reading it. I had this vision of an early Regency era mansion with vast, untended grounds, the gardens thick with weeds and the orchards twisted with age. Sitting upon a hill with various outlying structures around it (woodshed, pump house, carriage house... all just as abandoned), one could see for miles around from its cupola. Far from any known road or village, it makes little sense to "modern" sensibilities as to why the estate is so isolated and forgotten. I saw an age very much like the mid to late 1800s, with blackpowder rifles and elegant clockworks, where lamp oil still comes from hunted whales and belief in magic is relegated to tales for children and the foolish. Sword wielding cavalries are still part of the world's armies, but are quickly proving themselves and their tactics outdated. The land is criss-crossed by locomotives and canals. Practical applications for electricity are just coming into their own. Not steampunk, by any means, but actual period technology.

    For a character, I was inspired by the very backdrop you proposed: a Ruvan solider. More accurately, a deserter who has been in the infantry for a while and can see that he's on the losing side; the Hlldian forces simply outnumber the Ruvan armies by too great a ratio for him to think they can possibly win in the long run. Outmatched both in numbers and in technology, this soldier decides to flee into the countryside before the next large battle begins. He's survived several battles before, so it's not cowardliness. It's just common sense. And he's not the only one who's deserted either! There are others out there. Too many of them, the greater the chances of being caught. So he's avoiding his fellow deserters, the Ruvan military who would have him shot for desertion, and the Hildan scouts. It's not like he ever wanted to be a soldier anyway! He was a poacher from a small town, one who got caught and was given the choice: having a hand cut off or join the ranks. Just as well that he's out of it, he'll tell himself. And what better place to rest than some forgotten mansion in the middle of nowhere? Just for a night, of course. One night, and then he'll be on his way to... to... Well, maybe his sister will take him back in.

    Tolliver Wrye's description (open)

    Short hair, auburn brown and tousled
    Green-gray eyes
    Slim build, but wiry
    broken nose but a boyish face with freckles
    slightly weathered skin
    clean shaven
    looks around thirty or so
    voice is light baritone with lilting accent, like mild Welsh
    #2 Justric, May 30, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2015
  2. The path through the forests at night was treacherous. At all sides, the sounds of men suffering, though the fighting for the day had ended-- they were likely dying, or deserters like he was, re-captured by the army to do a dance on the end of a rope once they were dragged back, as an example of cowardice and its rewards.

    There had been five men hung yesterday morning. There would be more at the coming sunrise-- especially with reports that Hild had doubled its men sometime during the previous day. Officers and sadists alike hunted through the thick Ruvan forests, seeking out those who shirked their sworn duty of dying for their country.

    And yet, by some miracle, a lone soldier found himself suddenly in a wide, overgrown clearing-- no, yard. A yard that encompassed a gentle hill, around which were several stone and wood buildings.

    There was a wood-house, a stable, a smithy, a garden house, and several other buildings on the grounds, all abandoned. Roofs sagged, and shadows clung heavily in the limited light of the moon, and though the air was clean, a faint, sweet, sticky scent clung to it like light perfume-- there one moment and gone the next.

    The breeze lazily wound down from the hill, where a large manor rested. Dark windows were lit by the moon, reflecting its shape hazily from the uneven, cracked glass. Part of the roof was caved in, and through the gap, the soldier could see the inside of the roof.

    Thick greenery clung to the house-- vines and moss, working to reclaim the land through nature's slow march. A young sapling grew just under one window, untrimmed and not yet strong enough to break through the wall and window behind.

    The path leading to the house was paved in brick, and wound lazily in a circle around the front of the house. It was hard to see until the soldier was nearly on top of it, but it was there-- a nearly-hidden way, the bricks worn by hooves and wheels alike. The uneven sod over it made walking over it difficult, especially as dew clung to the soldier's soles.

    The sounds of captured men with the soldier's same goal-- escape-- were all behind him now. They were nearly silent, but remained a quiet, muted reminder of what awaited behind him-- and that he had managed to outrun the chasers.

    The wind set the trees around to rustling, and the manor door, barely on one hinge, swayed and creaked, as though beaconing the war-worn man to take shelter within its walls.

    At least the sounds of suffering were behind him now, and almost silent. All he could hear was himself and the wind.
    #3 The Mood is Write, May 30, 2015
    Last edited: May 31, 2015
  3. He wanted to swear. Deus, but Tolliver wanted to swear! He wanted to call down every curse and vexation he could down upon the head of every Captain, Major, Colonel, and General in every army there ever was, and when he had exhausted a soldier’s extent of damnations, he would get as creative as only a sergeant in the Ruvan army could be. But for now, he simply ran. There was not a lick of energy he wanted to dedicate to anything but running away from the massacre that was behind him. Even looking back over his shoulder was too chancy by far, and so Tolliver kept his focus dead ahead as he barreled headlong along the path.

    Branches whipped at his thin frame. Burs stuck to his woolen trousers of butternut brown. His hands he kept up in front of his face as much as possible to roughly push his way past, for while he was not overly tall all it would take would be a tree branch hanging just low enough to knock his skull against to slow him up. Or worse. He’d seen what ‘worse’ could be for a captured deserter and he wanted no part of it in the least. Better by far to bounce off an occasion tree trunk or trip over an unseen rock in the dark than to allow for any chance to be caught by the provosts. The now ex-sergeant could only hope that the men who lay with their guts in their hands and screaming for their mothers would help delay any pursuit. Between mentally wishing will upon his commanding officers and desperately seeking to outdistance any pursuers, Tolliver did spare a thought for the soldiers whose deaths were buying him time. ‘Deus lift you up, you poor bastards. I get myself out of this, I’ll have a drink for each and every one of you.’

    Tolliver hadn’t been completely careless. His grey shako was lost, true, but he had retained the rest of his uniform. The chestnut coat with its brass buttons and black trim, his haversack and cartridge box, his musket and sword-bayonet… the lot of it, he kept, right down to the tin mug with the regimental crest on it. A pair of officer’s revolvers had been snatched up and tucked into his belt for good measure. Having those might be harder to explain were he to be brought before the provost marshal but not damning. Were he to throw away his uniform and weapons as so many deserters had in the past in an attempt to hide, it would mean instant death. If he held onto them until he was safe, the shrewd sergeant argued with himself, he could always plead that he had gotten separated from his unit and lost in the forest. The downside was that if any Hildi were still out in the woods, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a man in the uniform of the enemy.

    ‘I just need to make sure it doesn’t come to that.’

    The sounds of the wounded and dying had faded behind him long before he reached the clearing. He didn’t doubt for a moment that their screams would follow him into sleep for years to come, however. The whole thing had been a massacre. He had pleaded with both the Lieutenant and the Captain that taking the Light Company into the forest to flush out any Hildi skirmishers would foolish. Not that they listened to him, of course. What would a sergeant of some ten years know of warfare compared to young men born to nobility and who had purchased their commissions just a year before? There was little satisfaction in being proven right, however. Not when the trap was so neatly sprung upon the Light Company of the 33rd, a mix of hidden cannon and camouflaged snipers tearing his friends and comrades apart so easily. When the Hidli hussars had come up from behind to cut off the retreating Ruvan infantry from the road…

    He was not a coward. Tolliver told himself that over and over again as he ran. He’d simply had enough, more than enough than any sane man should have to bear. Ten years of blood and piss and shit in all weathers? Shit and piss mixed with blood? The taste and reek of gunpowder never leaving his mouth? It wasn’t as though he had ever wanted to be a soldier to begin with! Ten years ago, he had been seventeen and caught for poaching, the judge offering him a choice between serving the King or losing his right hand. Damn magistrate thought he had been offering young Tolliver Wrye a mercy. The Ruvan army was losing anyway, even of the officers were all reluctant to admit it, so what did it matter if he ran? It wasn’t as though he had been the only one, after all.

    The remains of the manor house and its grounds caught him by surprise. He hadn’t known anything like this was out here, and he was sure that his superiors hadn’t either. The half moon in the sky overhead gave enough detail to see that this place would have been the perfect General Headquarters despite its decrepit condition. It had an excellent command of the surrounding area, and while many of the exterior buildings were half collapsed they could easily have been propped up long enough for temporary use. If either side found out this place was here, the scouts were sure to get a flogging.

    Tolliver slowed the further he ventured onto the grounds, his boots skittering along the wrecked cobblestones up to the house. It and its environs must have been abandoned decades ago, at the least! But there was no sign as to the cause. Who could have built such a magnificent structure and all the land around it and then simply… left? Someone should have inherited it, shouldn’t they? Wasn’t that how these things worked among the wealthy and powerful? This place obviously had cost someone a fortune, so why let it go to the weeds and the wild instead of getting some use out of the investment? It made no sense! Granted, he only had a few Ruvan Marks to his name, but Tolliver thought he knew enough about money to know better than to throw it away like this. And why, in Deus’ Holy Name, was the whole of the place so far from… well… anywhere??

    Stubborn curiosity aside, Tolliver had to admit that whatever the reasons might be, he didn’t truly care. It was shelter. The house looked huge enough that he should be able to find someplace inside to hide away from any possible searchers even if they entered it as well. The outlaying buildings were too exposed, so the main house it would be. Besides, a casual bit of looting could prove useful if anything portable had been left behind! Up the creaking steps of the grand porch and towards the wind-banged door he crept, musket thrown over his shoulder and sword-bayonet in hand… just in case.

    “Hallo the house,” he muttered softly as he made his way into the black of the interior. He had lucifer matches in his haversack, if only he could find a lantern or bit of candle…
    #4 Justric, May 31, 2015
    Last edited: May 31, 2015
  4. The house gave no answer to his call, save the creak of his own feet on its floorboards as his weight strained the wood under his feet.

    The vestibule inside was dark, and covered with thick dust interrupted by ocassional animal tracks. A few sconces lined the short vestibule, each of them made of brass long-ago turned green as the air turned them from beautiful near-gold pieces to something that looked like it came from the sea. Each was fitted with a slender, foot-long taper candle, each covered in dust and surrounded by glass bowls covered in thin cracks.

    A door on each side led elsewhere, and then the hallway continued to a beautiful stairway that spiraled lazily upward. Opposite it in the same room, another stairway's rail could be seen spiraling lazily downward along the same curve.

    Beyond the stairs was a ballroom with a massive window that extended from floor to ceiling, interrupted only by a trio of glass doors that stood in place, looking out at the sky beyond.

    To either side of the stairway stood a single door, and a hallway that led away. Down each hall, several doors were hugged by their frames, or hung open, or rested on the ground.

    A chill wind ill-suited to the sticky-hot season blew through the house, carrying the sweet smell of rot, the damp scent of mildew, and another scent foreign to the sergeant's nose as his every step into the house set off a creak. There was give to the floor, and the dust did little to relieve the noise.

    It was hard to see more than silhouettes beyond the vestibule. Without the moon, navigating the dark house would have been impossible.
  5. “Thank Deus for small favors,” he muttered to himself as he crept along. No answer. And it was without any guilt for theft that Tolliver reached up and one by one removed the tapers for his own use; the army had left its mark of discipline and order upon him, however, and without thinking he carefully replaced the globes upon the now empty sconces. He debated whether or not he should try to somehow close and barricade the door behind him. Doing so might put off anyone who might follow. But in a house this size, there would be no doubt other doors in similar states of disrepair that someone might come through, and even if not it would be a simple matter for someone to bust through a window. Far better just to leave things be and pray that his dew-damp boots did not leave too much of a trail upon the warped floor and rotted carpets.

    Looking further into the house, Tolliver shook his head despairingly. “Who needs this much space to live?” he muttered enviously. Damn but it was unfair! He and his family had had to scrape by, twelve to a two-room cottage with a scraggily couple of fields and a pair of goats, and he’d travelled about in life enough to know that his family wasn’t as bad off as many! No wonder the southerners were rebelling if this was how their gentry had lived! Squinting through the shadows with his green-grey eyes, Tommy could easily see half of his old village living in this place. On the upside, a place this large was bound to have something of value still lying about, some little piece of treasure that no one would miss if it happened to find its way into his haversack or pocket. Now was not the time to search, however. He had been right earlier in thinking that this place was like a maze with all of the doors and passageways that split off from the main hall. Better to wait until it was light to take full stock of the place.

    Tolliver crept carefully over towards the grand staircase that led upwards, thinking that the heights would work to his advantage. Even if the roof had collapsed, it was a nice enough night for sleeping beneath the stars, and the walls that remained would do well enough to keep the wind off of him. At the first step, he paused to fish out his box of lucifers and so light one of the tapers. With one hand carefully held before the dancing flame, he glanced about again as he made his way upwards ever so slowly, each step groaning in protest as he went along.

    “Won’t have to worry about anyone creeping up on me,” he muttered dryly. “I’ll damn well hear them coming before they make the first landing! Deus’ Blood, this place give me the shivers!”
  6. The second floor was as grand as the first, and lined with more sconces with long tapers. Another stairway led up along the same lazy spiral, and the floor plan was similar to the floor below, save in place of a ballroom, a balcony looked down on the room below, and instead of a doorway to the outdoors on the other side was an open room, lined with busts and hanging framed portraits, the subjects hidden behind dust and partly eaten by moths. Only two portraits, at the far end, were in any condition to retain recognizable subjects-- one, a woman with a small child standing on her lap-- a little girl with a wide smile and almost supernatural curls. The woman had dark hair and a sparkling smile, dulled only by dust and age. The two sat on a white-painted iron-wrought fence in a garden of roses as a gardener watched from behind, a smile on his creased and leathery face.

    The second painting was a young girl who looked like the woman, but with incredible curls tied behind her head with a bowed ribbon. She wore colors muted by the dust, but her smile was as wide as the toddling child in the image beside. She was without her mother, and stood just before a close door, with her hand on the polished, gold-colored handle as, though a gap, a large, gaily-decorated cake was visible. The walls were the same as those down one of the side-halls from the ground floor.

    Where the halls were downstairs, they also were upstairs, though the far end of the side to his left as he looked toward the portraits was partly collapsed. The other hallway was entirely collapsed. The mostly-uncollapsed hallway still allowed access to its farthest door, which remained in its frame. A few mice squeaked in protest as they spotted the man, then scurried away, into the rubble of the collapsed hallway.

    On the distant door, a small sign hung that read "Lise". It was wood, with the word burnt into it and surrounde by similarly-burnt flowers. There was flaking paint along its face in variant thicknesses-- like whoever applied it was far from a professional. The sign was hung only four feet from the floor below.

    The other few doorways in that hall had either no door, an open and broken door, or no door in sight at all.
  7. Tolliver explored the second level more carefully than he had the first, using the flickering flame of his candle to scout out any possible holes in the floor before it was too late. For all of the creaking and grinding of the planks, the surface beneath his boots felt sound enough to tread. None of the open rooms he came across suited his fancy, although he was enamored by the huge paintings and sculptures in the one chamber. Moisture and mould had claimed the faces that were supposed to have looked out from their frames throughout the ages, proving to the peasant born Tolliver that riches could not even buy that sort of immortality. The marble busts that lined the walls resembled nothing so much as rank after rank of decapitated ghosts. Blank white eyes stared out unseeing from the cool faces without giving any clue as to their originator’s thoughts or personality; at least with paintings, Tolliver thought, you had a better idea of what sort of person you were dealing with. Stone? Stone was just dead, no matter how pleasing the expression carved upon it.

    Impulsively, he turned each bust around so that it would stare at its neighbor, grumbling, “There you go, mates. If you needs must look at someone, look at each other.”

    The larger paintings at the far end caught his attention. The young girl had a pretty smile. Tolliver was always a fool for a pretty smile, and more foolish still for a pair of sparkling eyes, and she had both! Some remnant of gallantry in his hardened heart spurred the man to pull an only slightly soiled kerchief from his haversack and lightly wipe away the dust from the second canvas. “And there you go, too, lass,” he muttered in a bit of embarrassment at his own actions. “Pretty as a picture, which is a damned good thing seeing as how that’s what you are.”

    Whatever happened to her, he briefly wondered. No doubt she grew up, married some noble lord, moved away, had children of her own… Tolliver had a flight of fancy wondering how some ancient grandmother in crepe and window’s weeds might weep with joy to be reunited with a portrait of her youth returned to her. With her children’s children gathered around her, she would tell them all tales of her own childhood so long and far ago as the memories came pouring back through her waves of senility. A legacy would be left. Those grandchildren would learn where they had come from and all for the gift of a painting returned…

    He was angry suddenly, angry at what he himself did not have and never would have. So this painting would remain his little secret until some other desperate sod stumbled upon the house. “Sleep, pretty,” he told the painting in a parting huff. “Nothing out there worth seeing anyway.”

    The rest of his explorations proved fruitless and frustrating. By the size of the structure, Tolliver knew there had to be a third floor and an attic beyond that somewhere, but the collapsed hallway stymied him. His original plan to get up as high as possible was shot to pieces with his discovery of the collapsed debris. There was probably a servants’ stairway somewhere around the back of the house, probably towards the kitchens, but it was getting too late to backtrack. He was tired from both the fight and from running. Moreover, he was getting hungry! The couple of hardtack biscuits in his bag weren’t much, but they were better than nothing, and he didn’t relish the idea of eating on his feet.

    Back in the main hallway of the second floor, he glanced about through the shadows cast by his candle as he judged what might be best. The other rooms didn’t look the least bit secure, whereas that final room had a door that obviously could be kept closed. Since it was closed now, there was probably little chance of any stray animals sheltering in there, too, and while Tolliver was a man who liked a little company in his bed, a rabid raccoon was not his idea of a bedmate! So that final room it was.

    Approaching it again, he looked at the crude sign upon it. ‘Lise.’ Tolliver shook his head in disgust. These people were so rich that they had a room for just one person! The former poacher was from a place where the entire family shared the bed, and the bigger the family the bigger the bed! The prison cells had housed twenty or thirty people each. As for the army? That was the most closest thing he’d ever had to privacy in his life, at least when out in the field; five men to a tent! Far better than the barracks where a hundred men slept side by side on their thin straw pallets! Even the generals had their aides and vassals and batboys living in small rooms connected to their suites, he had heard. So the idea of having one room dedicated to just one person

    “Well, tonight, this here is my room!” he stated to the uncaring world, and he plucked the sign off from the door to cast it aside. “And Deus bugger the poor bastard that tries to take it from me!”

    Jaw clenched and temper hot, he grabbed the doorknob to push his way inside.
  8. A large scratch became visible on the door only as it swung open at Tolliver's push with a deafening creak in the silence, and revealed a room where the girl from the portrait may have lived at one point.

    The bed, large for someone with such a young name. A veil of colored, sheer cloth muffled the shapes of plush animals and dolls on the bed-- more toys than pillows. The blanket, saved from dust by the cover, was shockingly not moth-eaten, and massively thick. It matched the draped cloth that protected from insects and decorated the room. Small, shining glass stones were attached to the drape, and they glinted in the candle-light through even that ever-present deep dust.

    Thick cobwebs covered the ceiling-- collapsed at one side to show a storage place full of chests held up by a few thick, heavy rafters. None looked ready to fall.

    More toys were scattered throughout the floor. A wooden rocking horse, blocks arranged in the name "LISETTE", a deflated ball, and marbles barely visible through the dust occupied a corner with a round, woven rug. The corner had waist-high pair of shelves with even more toys-- including cloth dolls, some flimsy-seeming tin horses connected to a wagon with legs hovering over the shelf and small wires connecting their legs to the underside of the wagon.

    A portrait of the woman from the portrait before with a strange man watched over the room from its perch across from the bed. Both smiled fondly down from the high cieling. The painter failed to capture the same life as the painter from the gallery outside, but to a child, it was likely the image was reassuring on dark nights.

    Beyond bed and toys and even a large wooden wardrobe, a sitting area was set up with chairs both small and large, all thick and plush, with polished wood partly cracked and dark cushions that sagged sadly. Seated on a chair that faced the door, a pale doll with chin-length hair sat, chained by unusually thick cobwebs, waiting silently for an owner that would never return. Her hair and dress were white, and dust rested on her matching eyelashes, protecting her warm-colored eyes from the thick dust. Every shift in the flame made those eyes seem a different color, and it was hard to place the exact hue.

    Beside her, a small pearl necklace rested on the bed, the perfect size for a child's neck.

    A breeze blew past Tolliver, unnaturally chill and briefly electrifying.
  9. The slight gust caused him to shiver along the back of his neck. ‘Just a breeze,’ he rationalized to himself. ‘Ceiling’s collapsed. Opening the door just pulled some air down from up there, is all. Nothing to it.’ Had there been more light to see by, perhaps the sergeant would have noticed that not a single speck of dust had been disturbed by that unexpected breeze…

    Careful step by careful step, Tolliver eased himself into the room, his eyes roving about to take in all that he could discern by the tiny flame of the taper. The scratch in the door, he dismissed out of hand. It was just one more mar among thousands within the abandoned house, a thing of no more concern than the rotted rugs and mould-spotted wallpaper. So it remained of no concern to him. He had other, far more important priorities to see to, such as safety, food, and rest. For all that everything was thick with a dry sprinkling of grey powder, this room looked to be his best chance to enjoy all three. That the dust was loose and flaky was a good sign, for it meant that the room was still sound against rain and other moisture; it also helped reassure him that no one else had been this way in quite sometime, not even animals. Not a single paw print lay within the dust.

    The bed, he avoided. There was no telling what breed of insects might have infested it, and Tolliver had a horrible image in his head of him laying down upon it only for the material to disintegrate and leave him on a bed of sharp springs. The string of pearls that sat there, out of place from the rest of the room, was tempting. Tolliver held off for now. It would still be there in a few minutes anyway.

    Gingerly, he closed the door behind him and walked further into the room until he came to the sitting area with its chairs and doll. Tolliver leaned his musket carefully against the wall, just within reach, and eased himself into one of the larger vacant chairs near the doll. The whole of it creaked beneath his weight, but it held. The doll was a pretty enough toy, he thought, not that he knew much about dolls of any kind. He’d heard once how wigmakers would often use human hair for dolls, and looking at it now in the candlelight, he wouldn’t doubt it! He did like the eyes, though. Tolliver wasn’t sure if it was just a trick of the light or if it had something to do with how the eyes were made. Either way, it seemed to give the little thing a bit of life. If there was anything this decrepit old house needed, it was life!

    A few drips of wax were poured from the taper onto the wood of the one of the other chairs, and before it cooled Tolliver carefully stuck the end of the taper into it so it would remain upright on its own. His hands free, he reached into his haversack to fetch out his meager meal: three pieces of hardtack wrapped in waxed paper and his canteen, half full of water.

    “Well now,” he sighed happily to the little doll. “Look at this feast we have before us, eh? A proper little tea party, it is. Sorry there’s not china cups, pretty, but we’ll make do, eh? Don’t worry! Old Tolliver’s not the sort to spit in the water. You want some? No? You sure? Ah, well, don’t hurt to ask, now does it?” Feeling whimsical, he broke a small corner off of one biscuit and carefully reached over to set it next to the doll’s dangling hand. “There you are! Soldier’s cake. Hard on the teeth, but it’ll fill the belly. Not as much as a good steak, mind you, but you make do with what you have til better comes along, I says.”

    Tolliver ate two of the hard squares, his teeth crunching through them as though they were made of wood, and he was happy for that half-filled canteen to wash them down! He hated to think of trying to eat hard tack dry! It was far from ideal, but he forced the jocularity upon himself to escape the scenes of slaughter in the forest that would remain with him for quite some time. Easier to play at being relaxed and cheerful than to admit even to himself the terror of being caught. Granted the way the war had been going, the real terror was that not only that might get caught, but that they might very well send him back onto the ranks to face his death there instead of being hung! He pushed that from his mind and tried to relax further. The floor would be a good enough place to sleep, he decided quietly, wrapped up in his jacket with his haversack for a pillow. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d done so.

    As he sat munching, the pearl necklace caught his eye again. Tolliver mulled it over in his head that there would be such things for children. Jewelry for babies, what a thought that was, and babies that had their own rooms! His eyes darted back to the doll. It looked well made… no cracks or anything that he could see, and its dress and tiny shoes were all in good condition, just dusty was all. It could fetch a fair penny, he bet. Between that and the necklace together? That might get him a room at some decent inn some night, plus a decent dinner! It just took a little luck, a little skill, and a sergeant’s knack for knowing how to work a bargain.

    Setting the canteen down upon the floor, he leaned over to drag the pearls from off the sheet. Fingering them for a moment, Tolliver smiled as another wave of whimsey rolled through his exhausted brain. He rose then, approached the doll, and leaned over to drape the necklace about its delicate shoulders. The shine of the pearls clashed against the grime of its dress, but it looked good. Tolliver settled back then, sighing.

    “Well, pretty,” he yawned as he leaned back into the chair. “Maybe at least one of us’ll get a good home before the week is out.”

    Tolliver’s eyes were heavier than he had realized, and between one idle thought and the next the soldier fell asleep in the chair before he could even consider moving himself to the floor as he had planned.
  10. When Tolliver woke, it was still dark, and he didn't feel rested. Something woke him, but had stopped before he was fully conscious.

    The candle was a burned out, cold puddle of wax, and in the dark, he could see the blurry, pale silhouette of the doll still in her seat, and several other foreign shapes. It was hard to discern whether the moonlight was illuminating the things he had seen earlier, or if somehow, something had moved as the silver-blue moon edged across the sky.

    The doll's face was hidden from the light by her hair as she sat, and for a time, all was silent.

    As Tolliver's eyes adjusted, the room seemed somehow colder than before. There were shadows in places where there shouldn't have been.

    The border between the carpetted sitting area and the hardwood floor of the rest of the bedroom was interrupted by deep scratches, and the sound of breathing was audible, perfectly timed to the rise and fall of Tolliver's chest, though it didn't sound like his.

    It was hard to remember if the scratches from the floor were there before, and hard to tell if the shadowed lump on the bed was the pillows and stuffed animals, or was it simply more shadows left by the gauzy curtain?
  11. He hadn't been dreaming. Tolliver was thankful for that, for he was fairly certainly he knew what it was he would have dreamed of, and it wasn’t pleasant. It never was. War took its toll upon a man’s soul over the years, and many of the scars that soldiers bore weren't visible to the naked eye. Better still to close his eyes and hope for restful oblivion for a few hours, or even just a few minutes, than to delve back into those nightmares again. There was always the chance that the dreams might be pleasant, he knew. Not all of his memories were horrible, and it helped to make those few sweet spots in his life to shine all the prettier. But even those idylls were tinged with a sadness that he did not like to dwell upon.

    When waking, however, he was disorientated enough to wonder whether he was truly awake or not. The room had an unearthly feel to it. The moon that shone through the window did not seem to be the correct color or in the correct position in the sky. How much time had passed?

    But it was not into the silver-blue light that he turned his eyes. It was to the darker corners and shadows. A decade of living a soldier’s life had honed his instincts, for many a night on picket duty or while on a raid he had felt as though the darkness could be tangible, alive. There was a reason for those primordial fears of the dark. Tolliver had tasted them in his time, and he knew that in that room at that moment, the darkness was more alive than it had ever been before. These shadows were in all the wrong places, From the corner of his eye, he could see that the door had remained closed, and no other prints marred the carpet of dust besides his own. But the scratches… Had they been there before? He couldn't recall. If they had been, though, then why did they look so fresh? The sounds were wrong, too. It was as though he had cotton in his ears, cotton that still somehow let the sound of that heavy breathing though with crystal clarity to work its terror down from the back of his skull and along his spine.

    Only the fleeing sergeant had gained a great many instincts over the past ten years, most of them skewing his immediate reactions more towards fight than flight, despite his recent desertion. His rifle was still close at hand, but he knew it was still unloaded. It would take too long to draw and affix the bayonet-sword to the muzzle, too. His knife was too short by far for such a lunge, and without knowing what sort of man or animal it might be that was lurking about the bed, there was no way he was going to attempt a tackle. That left one option. All of this went through his mind in but the flicker of an eyelid, and his hand was sliding towards one of the revolvers at his waste before he even really finished debating his choices.

    Tolliver spared a short glance at the doll, the side of it restoring his earlier whimsey and banishing some of the fear that had prickled his skin and brought out a slight sweat upon his brow despite the chill of the room.

    “Not to worry, pretty,” he murmured gallantly through his fear. “I’ve been in worse. I think.”

    His hand had scarcely touched the walnut halves of the revolver’s grip when he moved with practiced reflexes to draw and fire it into the ill-shaped shadows upon the bed. Three shots, spaced out across the area of the bed’s width, one after the other. The room filled with the acrid smoke of sulfur and charcoal as the double-action of the hammer slammed-slammed-SLAMMED upon the percussion caps to send the bullets flying. The crack of the small explosions snapped in his ears despite the muted sounds of the bedchamber. Before the third shot had left the cylinder, Tolliver was rising rapidly to his feet and drawing the sword-bayonet with his off-hand. Jaw clenched tight and eyes wild in anger against his own fear, he spat to one side as he rose and growled a half-remembered prayer that his father used to say at night.

    “Ghoulies and ghosties,
    and long-legged beasties,
    And all that go bump in the night…
    #12 Justric, Jun 5, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2015
  12. The sound of breathing matched perfectly with Tolliver's, and it was his own voice that spoke when the breathing paused, like he was hearing it from outside his body in the deep, soft silence. Was it him, or some spook that spoke beside his ear? The shadows on the doll's face shifted as the man stood.

    The cocking of the gun was deafening in the muffled room, and the three shots left Tolliver's ears ringing. The bayonet in his hand felt like a leaden thing, heavier than it should have been, and his motions felt too slow. In front of him, feathers flew up into the air within the bed's curtain, shockingly slow, like the whole world slowed down just for those feathers from the bed to rise, and then slowly fall within their prison.

    If he looked about, he would see that, rather than the bed, it was a shadow in an upper corner of the room-- the collapsed corner, where the contents of the attic were visible. Boxes, chests, drawers, and more perched precariously on the inclined floor, as a shadow, deeper than the darkness about it, wove slowly between them, like heavy tar flowing. It separated, then rejoined, and then slipped through a crack, to disappear into the darkness of the play corner.

    A voice came from beside Tolliver's ear. It made sounds that seemed like words, but also seemed like wind through cracks, or dried leaves blown over stone.

    "Door. Open. Door is open." It said slowly as a cold breeze teased at Tolliver's body and tightened about his throat before it moved on-- leaving nothing disturbed in its wake.
    • Love Love x 1
  13. The shadows were moving, shifting about the room of their own accord with no source that made any logical sense, and the smooth grip of the revolver felt slick in Tolliver’s hand as he swallowed nervously. The muzzle of the pistol wavered back and forth across the room as he hesitate with indecision over where to fire next. At the shadows again? Behind him, by the window, where the only source of light remained to cast the ambiguous silhouettes? Sweat began to poor down his forehead as he realized that flight might have served better than fight in this case.

    Tolliver did not believe in ghosts or monsters or demons. He’d seen too much death to think that there could be anything worse than one man’s cruelty inflicted upon another, and there was no room for god anymore; the blaspheming of Deus’ Holy Name was more a matter of course than it was any sort of faith. Only those things he could see and touch were real to the soldier, because he’d never encountered anything that a finely honed sword or a well placed bullet couldn’t deal with. As a child, he had believed. Oh, yes, there had been monsters beneath the bed and wild animals in the cornfields and werewolves in the forest. The steam by his house had the ghost of a pretty girl who would drown children so she could have them for her playmates in death. Between his overactive imagination and the warnings of his parents to keep him in line, Tolliver had believed! But that had been ages ago, nearly twenty years at least, and Tolliver had forgotten.

    That voice made him remember. Only it was far, far more real than a child’s fantasies.

    His hands flew to his throat to fight what it was that so gripped him. To his increased horror, there was nothing to grab! It was his own fingers that touched his neck, scratching and scrambling to pry that freezing, unrelenting vise about his windpipe. Whatever it was that choked him, it was both invisible and intangible. Tolliver’s eyes bulged as he fought to inhale just the smallest amount of air.

    “You daft lummox!” he gurgled in unreasoning defiance through his terror. “The door’s shut fast, can’t you see?!”

    Just as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, and Tolliver dropped to the carpet like a marionette with its strings cut. The hard edge of the doll’s chair caught his temple as he fell. He felt flesh part and blood flow even as his head rang with nausea from the impact, the revolver and short sword falling from his limp fingers. Consciousness threatened to flee; the intensity of the panic those shadows had inspired in him and the blow that rocked his sense were nearly too much for his mind to keep operating without shutting down. The child’s room swiveled and swirled about him dizzily.

    “Bugger this for a lark,” he muttered. Forcing himself up to his knees, Tolliver fought back the bile in this throat. But he rose up too quickly, and nearly fainted against. Slumping back down to the floor, eyes fluttering, he ended up with sitting with his back to the doll’s chair and his head resting upon the very edge of the seat. His head lolled forward and to the side a little as he lost his battle with himself and passed out.
  14. When Tolliver woke, his canteen was next to his head, and his hand rested on it. It was morning, and though the sun was on the other side of the house, its grey light slowly diffused the shadows from he night. The room seemed softer, lighter, and less heavy than when last Tolliver was conscious.

    On her perch, unmoved from where he last saw her, the doll stared at him with her bright, warm-colored eyes that at this moment, at this angle, looked a deep red-violet. His blood from cracking his head on her chair was on the sole of one tiny white shoe, but she was otherwise unchanged. In the dimness of the morning, her still expression seemed almost concerned.

    If he looked around the room, he would find it undisturbed, save the feathers of the bed scattered within the curtain, and the bullet holes that caused the feathers to be loosed from their confines.

    As morning advanced, and more light entered the house, the hazy grey of an overcast morning became the slightly brighter grey of an overcast morning after sunrise. All was quiet, and all was still-- and more importantly, the shadows were in their proper places, as though last night he'd visited a dream world rather than experienced any of the strangeness of moving shadows and choking winds, or whispered words hidden in a creaking house.
    #15 The Mood is Write, Jun 7, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2015
  15. Groaning, Tolliver righted himself enough to sit with his back against the bed and his legs splayed out in front of him. Without even thinking, he raised the canteen and took a careful sip to wet a too dry mouth. The pain in his head throbbed! Using the heel of his free palm, he gingerly pressed against the laceration and winced at the pain touching it caused. Tolliver hated head wounds; they bled forever, even when it wasn’t all that serious, and even as he pulled his hand away he could feel the crusts of dried vitae flaking away. Another sip of water from his wooden canteen, then Tolliver looked about the room.

    What had happened? It had been so strange the night before! He was not a man to easily doubt his own senses, and Tolliver was sure that something had happened! Even when drunk, and he didn’t have a drop of liquor on him to begin with, he would never have fired off a weapon without good reason. Yet the pillows showed fresh holes in their casings, and the room still faintly stank of blackpowder. His sword and the first of his two revolvers lay upon the carpet where he had dropped them. He had been a well trained soldier, and for the most part a disciplined one. No one who knew Tolliver Wrye would have ever said he was a man likely to attack figments of his imagination!

    While he didn’t know what had happened, he did know that there was no way he was spending another night in that damned house! With another groan, he defiantly rose up to his feet and collected his belongings. His eyes were drawn once more up to the chests above him. There might other things up in the attic as well, and now that light spilled its hard reality down where darkness had dwelt before, he felt more confident about seeing to what treasures he might find. But first?

    His pale eyes went back to the doll once more. “Taking you with me, pretty,” he announced. “You’re a bit big for my haversack, but I’ll find something for you. See about getting you a better home than this and a bit of coin for my purse, eh?” He jerked his head in the direction of the attic. “Watch my back, pretty.”

    The ancient wood dresser made for an impromptu stepping stone, the weathered cabinetry creaking and threatening to give way as he levered himself up to the ceiling joists.

    “Going to pick this shit hole clean with what ever we can carry,” he continued telling the doll as he worked. “We’ll check it all out top to bottom, quick as a hare and silent as mouse, and be gone before noon. We need to put as much distance between here and ourselves as we can.”

    Tolliver stopped, frowning. He looked back at the doll with its violet-red eyes, the glass of them practically glowing in the morning light. “Gonna need a name for you, pretty. You’ll probably think old Tolliver a queer sort, but if you’re going to be traveling together, you need a problem name.” He levered the first of the trunks open. “You think of one? You let me know, eh?”
  16. As the light illuminated the room, it also lit the doll's eyes, brightening them to truer red, and as he moved about, they changed hue from different angles. Whatever the true color was, it remained difficult to guess, though they never turned blue, green, or yellow. Her motionless body remained still as he climbed into the attic.

    Despite the creaks of protest, the dresser supported Tolliver's weight as he pulled himself up into that under-roof storage area, where chests, dressers, crates, and boxes lined every foot of space, save a narrow walkway that extended from one end to the other, ending with a jammed door roughly above the hallway. Tolliver's every step made a dreadful creak, and the air was crisp. The now-former soldier could see his breath fog the air in front of him as he searched for goodies left behind-- and it didn't take long to find them in the surprisingly well-sealed attic.

    Like the room below, the dust laid in a thick, fluffy blanket, and cobwebs lined every corner. Under Tolliver's weight, the dust compacted into flaking cakes of grey.

    The first chest of drawers he opened was stuffed with paper-wrapped dresses of various sizes-- both for adults and children. The cloth was brilliantly colored, and the lace was bright white and so fine it had to have been crochetted with a sewing needle. Rested on top of the dresser was a music box that contained jewelry ranging from simple to ornate and ancient-- including an amulet that looked older than the house, made of gold, rubies, and encrusted with diamonds. The chain was thick, and he entire neckpiece was heavy.

    In a chest near to the dresser, he found wedding memorabilia, including a necklace made from hundreds of beautiful white pearls, woven to look like lace, with two clasps at the back, one roughly an inch and a half above the other. Another chest found an infant's clothing, and a beautifully-bound leather book with "Lisette Violet Oliver" embossed into it in gold with extravagant scrollwork. The book contained tiny black footprints, details such as length and weight, a small painting of the child, a lock of hair, a single tooth sewn into place, and more ridiculous things saved only by those wealthy enough and enamored enough with their infants to save such things, such as a writing of "LiSE" in handwriting terrible enough to be a child's.

    In other boxes and crates, there were holiday decorates, an old military uniform, and artifacts from long-before the house was built-- including a bronze suit of armor, streaked and blue-green, and very bulky-looking. There were old, rolled up paintings, men's clothes (some in Tolliver's size), and even a few dozen thumb-sized ingots of gold.

    All objects of value, simply abandoned to the ravages of age.

    The rest of the house was similarly abandoned, and apparently never looted. There was a painter's studio, filled with long-dried inks and unfinished works, ruined by dust and sunlight. There was a solar where moths ate away at the furniture and carpet, and the morning sunlight warmed the room and glinted in he beveled windows. Pots with long-dead plants, not watered in ages, bordered the windows and lined the walls, making an interior garden-- likely for rainy or cold days' comfort.

    Another room was a study, where a large desk sat beside a smaller desk, and books lined every wall. A book with faded pages rested beside a dried out crystal bottle of ink, and an ivory and gold fountain pen rested between the pages, decorated with dark, ebony scrollwork placed by inhumanly delicate fingers.

    The last room in the upper floor that he could enter was a master bedroom. It was filled with objects of comfort, objects of wealth, and various priceless objects that were once staples to a wealthy woman's hygiene-- a silver set of brush, comb, and hand mirror, crystal jars with powder or dried crusts at the bottom, and even a stick of rouge in a golden tube, long dried into a solid tipped with discoloration.

    All of the clothes in the master bedroom were for men, and each outfit was moth-eaten and half-decayed, though showed signs of former quality-- each was tailored to perfectly accentuate a narrow waist, and edged at the sleeves and collar with fine lace in geometric patterns.

    Everywhere on that upper floor that Tolliver looked were signs of not only wealth, but oppulence, and the downstairs was no different.

    Silver dinnerware, priceless porcelain dishes, and... a meal still spread out, though badly molded and rotten. There may have been bites missing, but it was hard to tell. The meal was relatively small, with some dishes on the table where only two places were set out. A few toys were scattered near the table, none so nicely preserved as those in the upstairs bedroom, and all left laying as though dropped haphazardly, as though telling a story that just barely elluded Tolliver.

    At one point while he was downstairs, a sound came from above. It was a sharp slam, followed by a slow, vibrating scrape that set the man's hair on end.
    • Love Love x 1
  17. It was with a learned eye that Tolliver set to work. The gowns and clothing were exquisite, but there were too many and they were far too bulky all together. The music box with its jewelry, however, was a proper treasure! It was quickly stowed into his haversack, as were the pearls. The men’s clothing was a find, too. A century or more out of date they may have been, but a simple pair of trousers and a plain shirt never got out of fashion. He tossed some down to the bed as he rummaged about some more. The uniform puzzled him. It had to be old, for despite all of his time in the army he could not make heads nor tails of what nation is might belong to or what rank the officer had held! It did lead him to hope that there might be a sword of some quality about, a hope that after he had searched the rest of the available portions of the manor was quashed. The gold, however, was the first thing that gave Tolliver cause to think more.

    ‘Who abandons gold?!’ It made no sense to him at all! Granted, the ingots were small, perhaps easily forgotten by someone who probably had gold woven into their damn smallclothes! But just one of those small bars could easily afford Tolliver the best room at any inn across Ruva! To have a score and more of them? Into the haversack they went to join the jewelry!

    The study gave him pause again. It was the books, more books in one place than he had ever seen in his life! He could read a little. You couldn’t be a sergeant and not know how to read in the Ruvan Army as there were always dockets to sign and you best know what it was you were signing for! More importantly, a sergeant had to be able to read the rules and regulations; otherwise, how could you find the loopholes? But to read for leisure? To actually own books? He’d never imagined the like. It was less greed and more envy that motivated his swiping the open book and lavish pen to stash them away into the bulging bag.

    In the lady’s chamber, he absconded with all of the silver toiletries, a matched set being a prized collection! The jars he left alone. Crystal and glass, while valuable, was too fragile and would clink too much no matter how well he wrapped it.

    After that, he began to slow down. There was just… too much. Every room he went into, there were forgotten treasures that had simply been abandoned to whatever fate might find them, and while he would be a richer man for swiping the whole of the lot, he had no way to carry it all! The vast chasm between rich and poor spread out before Tolliver as the sad fact dawned upon him - no matter how much he took out of that house, he would never, ever be as rich as the former owners had been. Nor would he ever be! He tried to picture himself owning such a place, perhaps even coming back to claim this place! Tolliver trie to imagine having servants at every hand, a score of dogs in the kennel, a fine coach and a small herd of horses, having a wife… a child… a daughter that he could lavish with toys and a special doll whose eyes were never one color nor another…

    In the dining room, he sat down, defeated. Greed was not so much sated as it was replaced by maudlin humor. A black despair settled over the deserter as he took in the sight of the unfinished meal, half rotted and half petrified upon the fine china dishes. The silverware, too, was worth more than he would ever have earned in a year as a non-commissioned officer, but he simply did not have the means to carry it all. The sole concession was to grab what looked like a silver carving knife, the tarnish thick upon it as it stuck out of rock hard joint of meat. His haversack barely held the riches he had come across, while in his hands the beautiful doll in its finely stitched white dress gazed back at him. Tolliver reached up as though to brush a lock of hair away from its face.

    “What happened here, pretty?” he wondered in a murmur, “Where did lovely little Lisette go to leave all of this behind, eh? Why'd she leave you of all things?”

    No sooner had he uttered those words when he heard the crash and felt the tremors. Tolliver looked up at ceiling overhead in alarm as he quickly rose. The terrors from the previous night were back, dancing up and down his spine like needles made of the coldest ice. His fantasies of owning this very house, even in depressed musings, vanished.

    “Right, we’re done here, pretty,” he announced hastily to the doll. There was more of the house to be searched, he was sure. The kitchens, the basement, the servants’ stairs in back that he knew had to be there but hadn’t found… But he was damned if he was ever going to step foot in this place again! Tolliver slung the musket over his shoulder by its strap, then gathered the doll protectively in one arm like a baby while his other hand drew the second of the revolvers. Quickly he made his way towards the front hallway as the ghastly sounds from above became increasingly louder and closer.

    “Out there, pretty? Out there, there’s sunshine there is,” he promised nervously under his breath. Was he promising himself or the doll? “There’s sunshine and clean air and the open road, and the pair of us’ll leave those army bastards and this cursed house behind us, we will. We’ll find us an inn, I’ll get me some proper food and clothes, find you some little darling to love you, and we’ll both be happier because we’ll forget today ever happened, yeah?”
    #18 Justric, Jun 7, 2015
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2015
  18. Just as his foot touched the doorway, the sounds... stopped. The air around Tolliver turned cold, and he could see his breath, even as the summer sun made ripples off the rooftops of the outer buildings. The cold air closed around his neck, and paralyzed him, and something breathed on the back of his tight neck.

    "Free... dom..." The whisper was all at once like nothing more than wind rustling dry leaves, excitement, hunger... "Open... door..." It breathed against his back, and Tolliver couldn' turn, couldn't move.

    A soft whimper came from nearby, and all disappated-- the choking wind, the frigid air, the voice-- all were gone without a trace, leaving only hollow sunlight and blindingly green grass and blue sky. In the far distance, beyond the forest, he could barely make out explosions in the far distance, and he could hear the tiny pops of cannons.
  19. His eyes bulged. Tolliver hovered over the doorstep, how boot held trembling in the air before he could take that final step to the outside. He had tarried inside, looting, long enough for the cool dew of the morning to be burned off by the oppressive warmth of the afternoon, and just watching the heat waves rise made him thirsty. But instead, the temperature was as cold to him as a general’s mercy. While he hadn’t heard the thing come down the stairs, he knew it was right behind him. His arms and spine goose-fleshed at the feel of that freezing wind as surrounded and choked him. Even if the cold and hellish gusts had not paralyzed him, his own fear would have kept the sergeant in place.

    Once more there were words, whispered mutterings that raked down his nerves like iron nails on slate. Tolliver shivered again.

    Then it was all gone, banished from his presence by the sound of that smallest sound.

    Tolliver still did not lower his foot. Whatever had held him had either retreated or relented for whatever reason, freeing him to move once more of his own accord. It was indecision that held him in check now. He could hear the muffled roars of cannon from the other side of the forest, and he knew that the battle had commenced once again between the Ruvans and the Hildi. It would not be long before there would be troops within the trees again, if they weren’t there already. There would be skirmishers and snipers looking for easy targets, light cavalry to flush them out, and scouts from both sides to probe the enemy’s lines for weaknesses. They would find the house, soon, and Tolliver with it if he didn’t get a move on.

    But he was no longer sure that he should go. Whatever that… thing… was the had been right behind him, the same un-namable horror that had come upon him the night before, had mentioned doors and freedom. Had Tolliver opened a door for something? He had never before in his life encountered pure and unadulterated evil, only the meager cruelties and sins of his fellow humans. Yet now he was as certain as any child frightened of monsters within the closet or beneath the bed that some unseen nightmare was going to follow him out into the world should finish placing that last step over the doorway and onto the porch proper.

    He liked his lips, nervous. ‘Don’t turn around!’ Tolliver’s childhood pleaded in wisdom. ‘If you turn around, you’ll see it, and that’ll make it more real! Don’t turn around!’

    Finally, the sergeant made a decision. “Right,” he croaked out in a hoarse whisper, “Listen here, whatever you are. I don’t care if you’re the Devil Himself, come straight from Deus’ Hells, but I ain’t having any part of this. So I’ll make you a bargain, eh?” Tolliver swallowed his fear again. “You want out? Fine by me. I’m escaping one thing, you another, so we’ll both go our separate ways and say no more about it, eh?”

    Still with his foot hovering, trembling, Tolliver gave a quick lift with his chin in the direction he had come from the night before. “You see all that smoke coming over the tree line? That’s death, it is. Thousands of daft buggers dying for nothing, and bunch of bastards driving them into it. They’ll be coming this way. You looking for souls or men dying or fear so pure it smells like piss and shit? You go that way. Me? I got my own plans. So do you, I’m thinking. And neither of us needs the other hanging about to muck it up. So I’m taking myself and Pretty here off the other way, and we’ll quit each other for good.”

    Tolliver paused for a moment to see if there was any response.

    It was only for a moment though. A heartbeat after his final word, the deserter was off like shot. Through the door, across the porch, down the stairs, and into the blistering heat of the summer sun he ran, and not once did he look back at the ancient house. Straight into the forest he took himself and the doll. The shade of the forest took the harsh sunlight off of his back even if the temperature change was not all that great a difference. The air was thick and humid beneath the trees. Gnats and mosquitoes buzzed, whining about his ears even as he ran on. Tolliver managed to stumble across a deer track, unused and unknown by humans, and followed it along in the hopes of finding a stream or pond soon. Moreover, he followed it hoping he would never see that damned house ever again.

    “Men might call me mad, Pretty,” he gasped as he hurdled low branches. “And I wouldn’t be the first soldier to go that way, deserter or no. Deus’ Breath, I’m even talking to dolls! But it would be a damn sight greater madness to stay anywhere near that house, Pretty.”

    Tollover managed to wrestle up a grin through his heightened fear. “Least you’re not talking back to me!”
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