I N T H E I R F A R V E N T U R E S T A Y
Written on December 29, 2020 (♑)
Content Warning: There is passing mention of a massacre and the story is rife with the threat of violence against children. There also may or may not be a spooky ghost.
Author's Notes: Written for Sirou. Based on the same continuity as Coins, A Disorderly House, and Pilgrimage. Title taken from the Coventry Carol, as this is a very 'massacre of the innocents' holiday piece. The vaccas seeds are a reference to an in-game mini-quest involving a brewery.
When Gaffgarion had been a boy, he had joined the war with an eye to serving his country. When he had been a young man, he persisted in the war with an eye to winning glory. When he finally hit those years past all pretensions of youth, the war was enough of a constant that he carried on with it, but he did so with an eye towards self-interest.
As such, when the Touten came upon the remnants of some poor civilian encampment one early winter, he did not concern himself particularly as to whether those slaughtered had been Ivalicians set to the sword by Ordallia or Ordallians set to the sword by Ivalice. They might well be Zelmonians set to the sword by both of them, for all he knew. Things got dreadfully confusing in the contested strip just past Zarghidas. What he concerned himself with was ensuring that these poor victims of atrocity were relieved of those earthly possessions for which they had no use and that they were given the funeral by fire to keep them from bringing on some miasma to sicken his men.
He was a decided skeptic about religion and the supernatural, but he certainly did not begrudge his men some prayers over fallen women and children if it improved morale. If some soldiers wished to be superstitious about the restless dead, he did not begrudge them that either, although he raised his eyebrows more at once to see them sticking iron pins to their tent pegs or tracing Ajora’s icon in the campfire ashes. It was a rather hopeless undertaking—he thought—to try to ward off ghosts when your profession was killing people.
However, when he noticed after a few slow moving days that their rations seemed to consistently come up shorter than they were counted the night before, Gaffgarion decided to take his men’s apprehensions more seriously. Snow had refused to fall consistently in these late days of December, but he awakened one morning to find a set of very tiny footprints tracking across the morning slush: something too big to be a rabbit and too small to be a man. When he found the remnants of an archaic bit of hardtack half gnawed through, he deduced it to be neither the work of mice or worms.
Gaffgarion decided that some manner of ghost was following them from the site of the massacre, and he thereafter became determined to exorcise it.
He determined that the ghost in question was quite a bit more interested in gourmandizing than in revenge, and therefore decided he should bait his binding circle with something particularly appetizing. One of Gaffgarion’s chief luxuries he allowed himself on the march had been nuts: filberts and vaccas seeds and whatever else they hawked in Zeltennia during the late autumn. He thought them a practical indulgence. The difficulty of opening them encouraged moderation; they kept well; they let him know his teeth were still in order.
In full view of as many of the Touten as he could, he set out a bowl in the midst of the mud and grass. And then, very deliberately, he cracked open a dozen articles from his own horde, and put the collected nutmeat inside of it.
Gaffgarion sat at some distance that evening to watch the bowl, propping himself within the shadow of a great tree. He was glad to observe that his men had taken the hint that they should be punished ruthlessly for interfering with it. The local wildlife was not always quite so accommodating and occasionally needed to be shoed away from the bait. At least one squirrel took a rock to the side of its face. The trap was not a particularly elaborate one, but he reckoned this to not be a particularly cunning spirit.
It was a little after the midnight hour when Gaffgarion saw a small silhouette approaching the nuts, and he waited long enough for it to have begun to nibble one. After that, he merely strode forward with a steady confidence, ran when the little shadow began to run, and within a few moments found himself with a small, dirty child scooped up and shivering in his arms.
The boy had the good manners to neither struggle or bite him as Gaffgarion certainly would have done were he a child in his predicament. For all he wasn’t quite sure that he liked a boy whose instinct was to go rigid and still when picked up, he took the time to retrieve the bowl and hand him another nut. He thereafter carried the little ghost to some corner of the camp where men were still tending a fire and gave him a looking over.
The child was thin and had clearly been thin even before circumstances had led him to compete with the weevils for the Touten’s biscuits. He was dirty blond, which suited the dirtiness of the rest of him, and his dark eyes seemed very wide in the firelight. One of the men nearby moved close as if to inquire about him, and Gaffgarion waved him off.
Gaffgarion thought that there were an awful lot of things that might happen soon, and he did not necessarily want anyone around to witness them. He let the boy keep on at the nuts after both had been set down, and considered what should be done with him. He thought for a moment as to what a tiny thing a human child was—like some intermediary stage between sprite and a goblin—and he imagined for a moment how well the little hands picking through the bowl might do holding a rag or tying armour-laces. He worried for a moment he was getting soft and sentimental.
“Do you have any place where you belong to?” he finally said. “You certainly don’t belong in the midst of my men, stealing their hard won provisions.”
The boy looked up at him, frightened and clearly confused. Gaffgarion told himself that if he answered in Ordallian, he would doubtlessly have to kill him—kill him or else leave him to die in the new falling snow to answer for his own squeamishness. Even Fovoham's operations weren’t liable to take in that breed of orphan, no matter how innocent they might be of their country’s crimes.
“What’s your name, lad?” Gaffgarion asked directly.
The boy looked at him very intently, evidently sensing that a lot rode on his answer.
“Rad,” he chirped quietly.
A certain type of man would have told himself that the child was merely parroting the last word he said—and parroting it with a thick Ordallian accent that transformed the first letter. Gaffgarion, however, decided to take it as a sign that the boy understood him, that his name was Rad, and that he and his conveniently tiny fingers would not be too terribly out of place among his fellow Ivalicians.
When the nuts were gone, he still wasn’t decided on the matter. When young Rad—or whatever his name was to be—followed after him, however, he decided it would be just as well to introduce the camp to his little page sooner rather than later. It was nearly the new year, and they could do with a change of things.