Iman took his hand from his hilt and filled his lungs until bursting. “The attacker,” he said, exhaling slowly and taking his seat, “what was it?”
     Batterolf was already shaking his head. “Don’t know,” he said. “We never saw it. It was…it must have been…,” his eyes rolled up as he hazarded a guess, “…it had to be midnight or later, the middle of the night, much too dark to see.”
     Iman nodded. “Tracks?”
     Batterolf stared at him for a time, as if the question had made no sense, then gave a nod. “Yeah,” he said, “if you want to call them that.”
     “So they were odd?” Iman asked. “Your men said they were odd.”
     Batterolf turned his gaze to the thistle-strewn cloak. “What’d your man say?” When Iman shrugged and opened his mouth to say he didn’t know, the lieutenant cut him off. “That’s right,” he said, still staring at Jaysh, “you haven’t had time.”
     Iman folded his arms, but decided to let the comment slide. It had been made without spite and sounded nothing like the raging idiot from moments ago. The man who sat across from him now had an almost wistful look, the look of a religious fanatic waiting for a sign, or maybe it was just fear.
     In any case, judging by the way he was staring at Jaysh, it had something to do with the woodsman. And since Iman didn’t think the raging idiot knew Jaysh—and certainly didn’t recognize him with the cloak and hood—he thought the fascination had something to do with the horrible thing the two of them had seen.
     Clearing his throat, Batterolf said, “I’ve been stationed out here for the whole of my military career. Held surveillance of the Blades, led recon into the Shun, patrols along the Harriun. I’ve seen every league this place has to offer and committed most of it to memory. So when I say I’ve seen what crawls and creeps around here, that’s exactly what I mean. I’ve seen it all. Prints. Droppings. Deer. Coyotes. Vermin…,” he paused to shake his head, “…What I saw out there the other night was something else.”
     Iman waited, then said, “What’d they look like?”
     Batterolf’s eyes lost focus and he appeared to be staring through the woodsman and the grain bags and far into the hills.
     “Like hands.”
     Iman gave a start. “Hands?
     “Big hands,” Batterolf said, holding up his own and spreading them wide enough for a halfling battle-axe to fit between the palms.
    Iman blinked. “That is big,” he said, wondering if the lieutenant were yanking his chain. “What about the feet?”
     Eyes in the distance, Batterolf said, “There were no feet, or at least no footprints. Just the hand prints. That, and the place where the grass was smashed down.”
     “Smashed down?” Iman said, face brightening. “Like a circle?”
     “No,” Batterolf said, taking a breath. “It was a trail, like the grass was pressed down by…,” he trailed off, popping his knuckles, “…it wasn’t like an animal pushing through the brush. It was more like something had rolled through the prairie, like an oil cask or…or something heavy.”
     Iman made a face. “Something heavy,” he said, trying not to lose his temper. “Heavy and round,” he added, remembering Jaysh’s report about the dreaded cow-killer and how it failed to leave its tracks. He was growing tired of reports where the laws of physics were not duly followed.
     Somewhat testily, he said, “What of the men it attacked, did they see it?”
     Batterolf stared at the horizon a little longer, then slowly turned to face him. “Privates Dael and Private Briggins,” he said. “They didn’t have much to say.”
     Iman narrowed his eyes. Private Dael? Private Briggins? He didn’t remember those names, not even vaguely, and that was odd since he’d spent the better part of the afternoon interviewing (and playing cubes with) the five men involved in the incident.
     “Dael and Briggins,” he said, “did I speak them?”
     Batterolf shook his head. “Briggins died in the infirmary shortly after the attack and Dael…,” he broke into a stare, “…it took Private Dael.”  
     Iman glanced at the western quadrant. “Oh,” he said, speaking softly.
     Staring at the ground now, Batterolf said, “The other’s, the ones you interviewed, they think Dael’s with the royal healer at Castle Arn, Captain Tane’s orders.” Still staring at the growing shadows, he said, “But Dael might have been the lucky one. Briggins was in no shape before he died. He’d gone mad as a hat and just sat around jabbering like a squirrel, jumping if you spoke to him, screaming if you touched him…,” he shook his head, “…not that anyone would.”
     Frowning, Iman said, “Would what…Would touch him?
     Batterolf lifted his gaze and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “he looked like something pink and skinless and ready for the cook pot.”
     Iman’s mouth fell open and, at first, he thought he hadn’t heard correctly, that maybe the crackling fire had interrupted the lieutenant’s speech. The longer he stood, though, with his mouth gaping and his eyes searching, the more he realized he had heard correctly. 
     The lieutenant said, “That’s how he was when we found him. No weapon, no clothes, just a raw thing slumped in the grass, red and white and smelling of—” he stopped and gave his head a little shake. “I don’t know what he smelled like, to tell the truth, but when we first got there, when we saw him in the grass, we thought he was the attacker, the way he looked, the way he smelled…,” his finger joints were all popped, but still he squeezed them, “…if one of the men hadn’t heard him mumbling and realized it was him, we might have skewered him on the spot.”
     Possibly out of respect for the emotion he saw etched in the other man’s face, not to mention seeping through his fists, Iman gave Batterolf a moment to recover before saying, “But he was jabbering?” And when the other man nodded, Iman said, in a casual tone of voice, “What about?”
     Batterolf stopped daydreaming and turned to face him, giving the investigating captain a long hard look. “Bout the old ones,” he said, “and the Mad Man’s Pass.” He paused, appeared to be sizing the captain up, then added, “But you can’t put stock in anything he said.”
     “Why’s that?”
     “Cause he wasn’t right,” Batterolf said. “He wasn’t right in his mind. He couldn’t be. You should have seen him. He was missing his hair, parts of his face, he was leaking fluid all over and refusing his blankets, acting like they burned when we tried to put them over him. So he just lay there losing his fluids and blubbering on and on about old ones and how they’d come through the pass and jumped him and Dael, but…,” he winced and looked away, “…but you had to see him. He couldn’t have been right, not the way he looked.”
     Iman shrugged. “So if it isn’t an old one,” he said, tapping his finger on the table, “what is it?”
     “I don’t know,” Batterolf shot back. “There’re rumors and talk and some people have their ideas, but it’s like I said before, we didn’t—”
     “Give me your best guess.”
     Batterolf shuffled his feet, clearly uncomfortable with what he considered to be poor soldiering. But in the end, the part of this man that had committed the Western Sway to memory did have an opinion. Straightening his back, he said, “Some say it’s an ugling. And I guess it could be. Wouldn’t be the first time one of them came up from the Bottoms and went after our men.”
     Iman glanced east, as if trying to see the misted rim of the Bottoms. What the lieutenant was saying held merit, but Iman was still skeptical. To say that sometimes things creep out of the Bottoms was to say that sometimes meteors fell out of the sky and it wasn’t like the populace of the kingdom was neck-deep in either.
      “Have we ever had an ugling this far west?” Iman asked.
     Batterolf stared for a moment, then curled his upper lip. “Have we ever had the Leresh dry up? Or the Mela turn black?”
     Well, that was true, Iman thought, offering a conciliatory nod, but while were on the subject of impossible events…
     “Hey, let me play Sira’s Advocate for a moment,” he said, “because I know when I get back to the royal council, they will.” Lips pursed, thinking hard about the question, he said, “When you say it’s madness for Briggins to spout off about old ones coming back, why is that exactly? I mean, I know I’m just an incompetent captain who doesn’t know beans about protocol, but didn’t the old ones use to live here?”
     Batterolf looked incensed. “Yeah,” he roared, “about fifty generations ago.”
     Iman raised his eyebrows and hummed a curious little hum. He remembered spending time in elementary school as a boy—Owndiah knew his parents hadn’t wanted him around—but he was usually seated in the aisle and whispering to the other students, so learning tended to be something other children did.
     But in those few instances where he’d managed to keep his mouth shut and his ears open, he did recall hearing something about the old ones leaving their homeland. All but the golden one, that was. That yellow half-breed had stayed behind in its southern lair even when its brethren fled the kingdom.
     Although, according to the latest reports from the gold-extractions teams, the golden one’s descendant might have finally joined the others. It hadn’t been spotted in over a moon cycle and Iman was actually going there in the morning to look for clues.
     He did not, however, share this with the lieutenant as the man was launching into yet another passionate lecture and did not appear the least bit interested in Iman’s thoughts or opinions.
     “Arn freed us,” Batterolf was saying, tapping the green battleaxe on his shoulder plate at the mention of their founder. “Arn drove the pale fiends through the pass and into the Dead Lands,” he said, tapping the battleaxe once more. “Do you even know who Arn is?” he asked, giving the axe one last tap.
     Iman felt a little insulted by this question and thought the lieutenant would have been hard pressed to find a man in this kingdom who wasn’t familiar with the legends of the Great Warrior, that hulking mountain of muscle who’d left his home in the Hinter to seek his fame and fortune here in the Drugana.
     Iman knew this because ever man here had once been a little boy, and ever little boys had wanted to be the Great Warrior, grabbing up whatever was handy and pretending to drive the old ones west. For Iman, his imaginary axe had been one of his father’s collectibles from off the trophy room wall and he’d used it to drive the family cats out of the house and into the vacant lot next door. As he recalled, it had been great fun until his mother discovered his mistreatment of her cats and sought to drive him from the house.
     As the memory of his mother’s livid face faded from his mind, Iman said, “What’s your point?”
     “My point,” Batterolf said, “is that Arn—” fingers to the battleaxe “—is the man you need to thank every time you wake up in the morning and nothing’s trying to claw its way into your home and chew you to pieces.” Jamming a finger to the west, he said, “He drove them out, and out they’ve stayed, and I can say that with confidence because those of us out here at the Post have made sure of it. After the last of the wars, when the other outposts were either torn down or downsized, why do you think king and council left Westpost standing?” He shook his head for effect. “Why not close it like Northpost and Southpost, or withdraw all but a handful of men like Eastpost?”
     Between them, something popped in the fire and sent tiny sparks streaking through the night. Batterolf said, “Is there anything else…Captain?
     Iman thought there was, but it would have to wait. From the corner of his eye, he could see the cloak and its cat-thing departing for the corrals.