Middle Men - Part III
Wherein the headless knight is chastised for losing his head
Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom was wandering around with his head in his hands.
Literally, he had just been decapitated in battle. Figuratively, he wasn’t all that sad. Just confused. Certainly, when one’s head was lopped off by a sword, one was supposed to die, right? One was not supposed to continue wandering around the battlefield looking for one’s regiment for fear of being reprimanded as a deserter.
But that was where Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom found himself. One might think a soldier with the title of “Sir” would be a knight of some rank and repute. But such was not the case with Sir Adelbrand. He was a knight, sure, but Storkbottom was what future generations might refer to as a “shithole.” A real backwater. And within Storkbottom, he was at the bottom of the org chart.
Which is probably why they sent him to this battle. Storkbottom didn’t have any interest in geopolitical affairs, and geopolitical affairs didn’t have any interest in Storkbottom. Nevertheless, each fiefdom owed its levy to The King. Storkbottom didn’t have any money with which to pay it. So they sent Sir Adelbrand.
The colonel of his regiment was a real hothead. He was always cursing Adelbrand for not polishing his brooches bright enough, or not properly creasing his cape so that everyone’s capes would look neat and orderly during the cavalry charge. He earlier in the day threatened to send Adelbrand to the brig for wearing an unauthorized type of helmet visor, even though there was clearly no place to buy a new helmet visor in the middle of a battle. (It turned out the colonel actually had a kickback deal going on with the blacksmith who made that particular type of visor, hence the helmet visor policy, which earned both him and the blacksmith a minor fortune. But Adelbrand didn’t know that, and he thought the policy was stupid, which it was.)
Ultimately, because Adelbrand’s visor was out of regulations, the colonel ordered him to remove his helmet before the battle. A regiment couldn’t go into battle without matching helmet visors! This contributed in no small way to him losing his head.
Now he was wandering with his head — helmetless — in his hands, looking for someone who could point him in the general direction of his regiment. The battle was over and the soldiers, as soldiers are wont to do, were getting drunk. They were not all that shocked by Adelbrand’s headless apparition. They had seen stranger things in the midst of battle. And anyway they were all pretty wasted by that point and probably thought it was some kind of parlor trick.
“Excuse me, sergeant, do you know where I might find Colonel Deerbone’s regiment?” Adelbrand would ask.
“Don’t get ahead of yerself! Sit down and have ye a drink!” a sergeant would reply, to much laughter from his comrades.
“Prithee, I am in search of Colonel Deerbone’s regiment. I seem to have become separated from them in the midst of battle,” he would ask another.
“Separated from headquarters, eh?” the soldier would reply. “Looks to me like ye ‘ve got a goode head on yer shoulders. I’m sure if ye put yer mind to it, stay calm, and don’t lose yer head, ye ’ll find ‘em in no time!”
So the soldiers were not of much assistance, although they did provide him a few drinks, which seemed to help a bit. We shall not get into how exactly he drank them, but needless to say, it worked.
The whole walk, Adelbrand couldn’t think of anything except how angry Colonel Deerbone would be when he saw that he’d been decapitated. He could hear him cursing and screaming already. “Adelbrand, ye filthy no good son of a she-wolf! I gave thee a direct order not to get thy head chopped off, and here ye are lolly-gagging around juggling that fat stupid grape of yers like a daggum court jester. To the brig, now!”
The regiment had strict rules about getting decapitated in battle. He was due for a hefty ass chewing.
Back at Life Departure Solutions, Incorporated, Senior Ferryman Gastgedal sat at his desk sipping coffee and reading a book. He was not happy with the new management that had taken over the recently-vacated role of Death, and he was determined to do as little work as possible.
It’s not that he was lazy. Far from it. It’s that there was a certain Balance to the universe that had to be maintained. You killed too many people, or not enough, and it threw the Balance all out of whack. Death understood this. The new Board of Directors of Life Departure Solutions, Inc. did not.
For the past few weeks, the Board had been issuing way too many work orders for souls. A trained ferryman could sense that the Balance was awry. Gastgedal could sense it. Barring a dramatic change in this policy, the only reasonable solution was to stop doing his job. By slacking off, Gastgedal was simply doing his part to maintain the Balance. That’s right, he was the only one focused on the bigger picture, he thought to himself as he took another sip of coffee.
His manager approached his desk. Gastgedal didn’t even pretend to be working.
“Gast, we’ve got a problem,” his manager said. “The Battle of Scrubhaven.”
Gastgedal looked up from his book for a moment and stared blankly into space, then shook his head. “Doesn’t sound familiar,” he said.
“You were supposed to work on it the other day,” said his manager. “You know, big battle, lots of stabbing deaths. I put the work order on your desk.”
“Oh, well in that case, it’s probably in there.” Gastgedal pointed to the trash can. His manager, annoyed, got down on one knee and rummaged through the bin. After some swearing and disgusted looks as he attempted to avoid the other strange objects in Gastgedal’s trash, he pulled out a stack of papers and slammed them on Gastgedal’s desk.
“Look,” said the manager, pointing to a list of names. “There’s hundreds of souls you were supposed to ferry, and you didn’t ferry a single one of them.”
“Just doing my part to maintain the Balance,” Gastgedal said nonchalantly.
“Gast, this was a battle,” his manager said. “You know how crazy things get if we don’t have a ferryman there to deal with it. Now, because you didn’t do your job, we’ve got guys walking around with spears sticking out of their friggin’ necks. One guy doesn’t even have a head! You know we can’t have that. Even Death wouldn’t allow it.”
He was right, strange things tended to happen in battle if a ferryman wasn’t there. In normal circumstances, when someone’s Time ran out they would die. Whether a ferryman was there or not didn’t much matter. But the chaos of battle had a tendency to warp Time in unpredictable ways. People died who were supposed to live, or, even worse, the other way around.
“Luckily, there’s only a handful of exceptions you have to deal with,” his manager continued. “37 of them to be exact. You need to get down there and set this right.”
Gastgedal’s main gripe was with killing people before their Time was up, which unfortunately had become standard operating procedure recently at Life Departure Solutions, Inc. Presumably, a number of people at the Battle of Scrubhaven had continued living well after their Time was up. That being the case, taking their souls wouldn’t necessarily violate Gastgedal’s strict ethical standards.
“Spears sticking out of their necks, eh? I guess you’re right,” said Gastgedal. “Fine. I’ll take care of it.”
Gastgedal grabbed the stack of papers, took a big glug of coffee, then disappeared.
Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom, as predicted, was in deep shit. When Colonel Deerbone saw that he’d been decapitated — despite the colonel’s explicit orders to the contrary — he’d assigned him to pit duty: cleaning out the hole in the ground that the regiment used as a field latrine.
Luckily, the whole being headless thing actually came in handy in this case. Adelbrand posted his head on a high point well outside the trench, where the fumes weren’t quite as noxious. His body, sans nostrils, then climbed down into the regimental toilet and got to work.
After a few headless days, he was learning how to control his body from a distance. As long as he could see himself, he could make his limbs move in roughly the ways he wanted. On day one he could barely convince his body to walk in a straight line unless he was holding his head approximately where it would have been had it not been chopped off. Now he could make his body mix and burn this slit trench slurry while his head relaxed and soaked in a breeze that smelled only mildly of human shit. Looking down at his body from atop the hill he felt like a higher power, observing and controlling this strange, headless figure from a third-person perspective.
Now that he was back at the regiment, he realized why nobody seemed all that surprised about his condition. A lot of other soldiers were also grievously wounded. By all accounts they should have been dead, too, and yet they were going about their business as usual. One captain had a large sword slash across his torso, from shoulder to hip. A handful of soldiers were missing limbs and/or had swords stuck in their torsos, but seemed to be getting on just fine. Another guy was just a pair of legs. Even Colonel Deerbone himself had been shot by half a dozen arrows, all of which he pulled out of his body and chastised for causing him such an inconvenience.
Adelbrand could sense some strange magic afoot. Nevertheless, despite pit duty and his present bodily condition, he was happy to be alive.
When Gastgedal reappeared he was in a military field camp.
There were 37 names on his list. At a quick look around it was easy to tell who those 37 were. A soldier who appeared to have been trampled by a hundred horses running at a gallop — his skull and half his body parts were crushed and covered in hoof prints — walked out of his tent. He froze when he saw Gastgedal. Then he turned to run. Gastgedal had work to do, so he decided to skip the pleasantries. With a wave of his hand, the soldier’s body dropped dead. His soul, still running, rose up and disappeared into the Next Place.
Gastgedal ticked a name off his list. 36 to go.
Adelbrand’s head, from its crow’s nest perched above the shit pit, heard a commotion coming from the camp. Unable to turn itself around of its own volition, it told its body to come up out of there to see what was going on.
By the time Gastgedal was halfway through his list, the camp was in a minor uproar. People were dropping dead left and right, with no warning signs other than the fact that they had been suffering from a variety of severe battle wounds with seemingly no side effects.
Only those whose Time was up could sense the ferryman. To the others it seemed as if some mysterious, magical force was moving through the camp, taking their lives one by one. The commotion made Gastgedal’s job slightly more difficult, but he had dealt with worse. There was that one time an entire pirate ship had been swallowed by a whale, and he had to go inside the whale to ferry the pirates’ souls. The inside of a whale was not at all what they said it was like in the stories. He had to squeeze through its digestive system covered in stomach acid and ambergris.
Two names left now, and the riot had largely petered out. Most of the soldiers had fled to the woods nearby with whatever plunder they could get their hands on. A few were still looting the food stores and regimental coffers looking for scraps. A bunch of stuff was on fire.
Now that things had calmed down and his job was almost finished, Gastgedal helped himself to a pint of ale, which he drank while he searched for the final souls on his list.
To his left, he saw a headless knight come running up from somewhere below, clumsily juggling his head in his hands, stumbling and zig-zagging like an oversized toddler that has recently learned to walk and has decided to test the limits of its newfound skill.
Gastgedal checked his list. “Ah, you must be Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom,” he said to the headless man. Of all the souls Gastgedal had ferried that day, Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom was the only one that didn’t seem afraid. Confused, maybe, but not afraid. Gastgedal pinched his nose. “Good gods, what is that smell?”
Adelbrand, head in hands, looked down at his legs, which were still covered in slit trench slurry up to the knees.
“Right then,” said Gastgedal. “This won’t hurt a bit.” But a thought struck him just as he raised his hand. This headless knight looked vaguely familiar, he thought. In fact, if he didn’t know any better, he’d say he looked like…himself!
“Oye, Adelbrand, ye spineless coward, get back to swabbing my latrine!” Colonel Deerbone had burst out of nowhere and found that Adelbrand was not carrying out his assigned duty like a disciplined decapitated soldier. Adelbrand snapped to attention and made an awkward attempt at a salute, first saluting the empty space above his shoulders, then catching himself and saluting the head that he held against his hip, then going back and forth between the two, hoping that Colonel Deerbone would acknowledge one of them as the correct way for a headless soldier to salute. There wasn’t much saluting precedent for this type of situation, so he wasn’t sure which was correct, or even if it was addressed in the regulations. The strange fellow he was talking to was clearly no member of Colonel Deerbone’s regiment, not with the way he was dressed. “And who’s this dandy then? Ye found a pal to help with the swabbing?”
“Colonel Deerbone, sir! Apologies, I shall return to my duties posthaste!”
“Colonel Deerbone?” Gastgedal said, addressing the colonel as he reviewed his clipboard.
“That’s Colonel Deerbone, sir, to you, maggot!” the colonel barked.
“Right then,” Gastgedal said. “Colonel Deerbone, sir, I’m glad I found you. You’re the last one on my list.”
“List? What list? I’m the only one who keeps lists around here!” He lunged to grab the list from Gastgedal’s hand, and was surprised to find his own hand had passed right through it.
Gastgedal was annoyed and ready to get out of this place. Back in his dimension it was lunch time. He waved his hand and Colonel Deerbone dropped dead. His soul rose up out of his body. It yelled something about insubordination and Gastgedal’s uniform being out of regulations as it faded into oblivion.
Gastgedal turned back to the headless knight, who was watching with detached curiosity as the colonel’s soul disappeared.
“Say there, good knight. Any last words?” he asked. First, Adelbrand’s shoulders turned to face Gastgedal, but his head was still in his hands facing the other direction. Then his shoulders turned back and he tried to hold his head facing in the right direction. It took some fumbling before he was able to get both head and body facing towards his inquisitor, and he ended up holding his head awkwardly out in front of himself in both hands with his arms extended. He couldn’t think of what to say, and just kind of shrugged.
Gastgedal checked his list one more time. Storkbottom, he thought. Wasn’t she from Storkbottom? He had to ask, just to make sure.
“Say, Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom, what would happen to be your mother’s name,” Gastgedal continued his line of inquiry.
“Why, my mother is none other than the fair and humble Lady Boudea of Storkbottom,” said Adelbrand. Gastgedal spit out his ale.
No. That couldn’t be. It was highly unlikely. But. Not impossible. It wasn’t unprecedented, by any means. The Old Gods used to sire children with mortal women all the time. But it had fallen out of vogue and was certainly non-standard, especially for a ferryman.
He decided he couldn’t reap this man’s soul until he knew for sure. It wouldn’t be very fatherly to take the soul of one’s own son. He pulled out a paper from under his clipboard and started writing. Adelbrand stood there quietly until he was finished. When Gastgedal was done writing, he signed on the bottom and handed the paper to Adelbrand.
“Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom, I am granting you a waiver,” Gastgedal said. He continued before Adelbrand could interject. “Keep this paper on you at all times. If someone who looks like me comes around trying to reap your soul, show them this waiver.
“Until then, take care of yourself, Sir Adelbrand of Storkbottom. I’ll be in touch.”
Then he disappeared. Sir Adelbrand was left standing in the camp, which by this point had mostly burned down. Colonel Deerbone was dead, and there was no chance he was about to go back to cleaning the latrine. So he did what anyone else would do in this situation: he picked up his head and went to the tavern.
To be continued…
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