Battle-Banners of Lesser West Podunk by Clinton J. Boomer

Chapter One: Blood and Giggles

Old Wishtwister Shadibriri was having himself another truly lovely day.

It was a morning of smoke and screams and sweat and sobs, a morning of the dead and the damned and the doomed and the dying, a morning echoing with the clash of steel on wet-painted wood and the shrieks of tattooed flesh torn to ribbons by betrayers’-blades. The woods were filled with young men chasing after hot, red glory; with old men weeping over festering, ancient grudges and ugly new wounds; and with fresh-made corpses growing fly-blown in the damp heat of a hazy summer dawn.

It was a morning filled, in short, with delight, reward … and opportunity.

As he strode down the muddy, bloody and night-soiled path between the warring camps, steam rising ’round his priestly-garbed glamer, the ageless demon called the Wishtwister began to fairly skip and sang out jubilantly with the little girl who pranced beside him:

“One and two! Black and blue!”
“Three and four! Gone to war!”
“Five and six! Bones and sticks!”
“Seven! Seven! Gone to heaven!”
“Eight! Eight! Burn the gate!”
“Nine and ten, and ten-and-ten! ‘Round and ’round and ’round again!”

“HAI!”

With a shriek, both of them spun in place and jumped once. Then the girl gleefully dropped a glass vial over her shoulder. It landed in the middle of the trail with a dull plop.

The pair stopped and stooped for a moment to consider the tiny prize: a crystalline, bluish hue suffused through the liquid within caught the sunlight, dim like a candle. The Wishtwister idly calculated its value at somewhere equal to the pay of nine years’ honest, back-breaking labor by any single member of the little girl’s family – perhaps, in fact, the very age of the child herself.

Shadibriri had not yet asked how old she was. Or her name, for that matter.

His little assistant looked to him. “What’s inside it, Bishop, sir?”

“Eh? Oh. Magic.”

The Wishtwister’s attention was drawn then, for an instant, by another bit of mischief: some hundred yards back up the road, a wounded young man of perhaps fifteen summers staggered from the tree line toward a similar prize sparkling in the shifting shadows, only to be cut down a mere hair’s-breadth from his salvation by arrow-fire from some unseen sniper.

The demon chuckled.
“What magic?”

“Hmm-what? There? Distilled inside, a potion of aiding, for the shrugging off of wounds! It will make a man brave, and his arm strong; his fear will shrink to a tiny thing, far in the distance, and his pain will be forgotten. Even a fellow sunk deep upon his deathbed might spring to his feet with a drop of this, and fight like a bear in heat with it sparkling on his tongue.”

“A medicine, Bishop?”

“Oh, no, no-no. It is a compulsion of the mind only, and quite temporary – lasting merest moments.”

The girl nodded, and reached unbidden into the clanking leather-bound satchel which hung from the Wishtwister’s arm. She pulled forth another vial.

“And in this one?”

“Whiskey, mixed with a kiss of cherry-juice. Very similar stuff, though vastly cheaper.”

She tugged forth another from the seemingly endless contents of the bag, and he smiled with delighted pleasure at her rude presumption. This little lass was a wicked girl, careless and curious and more than a little selfish — as children so often are.

“And this?”

“That? Ah, poison – and most dreadfully painful.”

The girl gasped, and then a sly smile spread across her face.

The Wishtwister did not bother to hide his grin at her reaction. This girl was cruel, and as capricious as he. “Ah, indeed! My thoughts exactly, and such fun! But before we set it down for someone to find, let us walk another few paces, shall we? Oh, for-a … One and two, black and blue!”

“Three and four! Gone to war!”

And away the kindred spirits danced.

Their merry, nonsense song carried far before them along the path as the two wove further into the woods, wracked as it was with other, more brutal sounds this morrow – of struggle, and suffering, and sorrow.

Yes, it was a deeply fine day to be walking to and fro on the earth.

(featured in  Wayfinder, Vol. 7)

 Battle-Banners of Lesser West Podunk continues in Part 2