The Cloaksman

Summer-strolling through the woods, a mile or two from home,
I found a ring around a tree of grisly Cloaksman-bones;
Splintered, snapped and brittle all, they'd known the slicing-squeeze,
And all the meat which clung to them he'd taken off for greed.

I looked around a little and saw the feasting cloak,
Newly fed and freakish-clean and hanging from an oak,
Not a sign of recent red adorned the thirsty threads,
Not one fold withholding blades of ancient woodland dead.

Footstep sounds on twig-strewn ground a little way behind.
I turned and saw the one the stories say you're sure to find,
The girl in the green dress who seems, to sight, about sixteen,
But as the stories warned, of course, she's nothing like she seems.

Bound to the fate of a mate who could do naught but eat,
Newly fed on the cruelly dead to pretend to be complete;
He leaves his wife to hide 'midst lives the like he once let go,
A parody of necessity; this is how their scheme goes.

'Take it if you want it.' the youthful voice did say.
'We have a hundred more at home, they are my mother's trade.
This one's getting old, its warm and strong but the dye has waned,
You might as well take it sir, I think the sky brings rain.'

'Liar.' I replied. 'I know this cloak and I know you,
As I know the starving curse you seek to bind me to;
Whoever takes upon their shoulders the cloak of your strange mate,
Shall take up his foul burden, his unendurable fate.'

She shot a scornful look to me and laughed, she was resigned,
I guessed this lie and more had failed far too many times.
She turned about and strode away at an angered pace,
But then she turned back round to me with fury 'bout her face.

'What tale is it that you so smugly think you've come to know?
In what glib way do you believe our grisly story goes?'
Need I say the wiser course would be to scorn discourse
With such a witch, and yet here stood one half a mystery's source.

I told the Cloaksman's tragic story best I thought I knew it;
How he, from all, was chosen for the cloak and wore and used it
To smite his homeland's foes who were a plague of vulgar bandits,
The cloak took all their flesh and every blade to land upon it.

But the price to don the cloak and loose the squeezing slice
Was to be reduced in an unimaginable trice
To a starveling husk, little more than bones beneath the cloth,
Much life one gave to liven up the cloak they could not doff.

Except at such a time as such I chanced upon that day,
With the curse sent off to sleep by flesh took from the slain;
At such a time the bearer can, if such they do desire,
For a day, or more ,or less, from plight perhaps retire.

'It was an army.' Proclaimed the Cloaksman's lady.
'Come north to our wintry wood to purge it utterly.
Whispers of the witless had cast all my kind as monsters,
All the reason needed for the fools who came to burn.

'The Cloaksman, as you call him, was once a poor conscript,
One of thousands in this host, faceless, graceless, nondescript.'
She sighed and closed her eyes a trice, chasing memories,
When she spoke aloud once more I'm not sure t'was to me.

'His was the lead of a hundred from villages around
The flagging stretch of river leading down to Linven town.
An Elder's son, it fell to him to bring his hundred north,
To kill or starve or freeze to death for such a stupid cause.

'The stores they bore did not exceed the leagues they'd need to walk,
And after them, through snow and cold, grim death began to stalk.
Beldon, that is his name, buried seven of his boyhood friends,
Then he and his agreed at once, their war was at its end.

'But such were the strange spells of northern Naradee,
The realm these woods once held; that once Beldon's men were no enemies,
The eyes of Akhrir spied him, and he gave the task to me
To ask each one for aid, to seek out allies through their dreams.

'None but him would come, and that in truth it's hard to blame them for.
What difference the side they should fight and freeze and perish for?
But Beldon knew us in his heart the second he beheld us,
When we woke from his dream he was then truly one of us.

'He slipped off from his men as they slipped back where they belonged,
And walked the path I laid for him through dreams and whispered songs,
With tune-spun fire round his bones, he passed with ease through snow
Towards the frozen walls of where his fate bade him to go.'

She stopped her story for a trice and blinked to swat at tears,
All but snarling at the cloak that hung lazily near.
‘Soon enough he came for me, and I waited for him;
Young souls in warm dreams whilst the world grew cold and grim.

‘We were wed the very hour he passed, at last, through the door
Of Thonehand Keep, which lingers in these warmer woods no more.
He was taken from me on the dawn of the next day,
Chosen for the cloak, taken in dismay that it might live to slay.

‘He was barely more than a walking statue thereafter,
Feeding greedy threads more than six-hundred invaders.
Even in those moments he could doff the cloak and be free,
His flesh seemed not to fit, he could not be what once he’d been.

‘Well… on the last day of the war, the Lord of all my people
Summoned all his own to Thonehand, he packed the castle full,
Then cast the spell of wandering, another land to find,
But left my love, his chosen, fallen sacrifice behind.’

And here she smiled and fell silent, a jarring sight to see,
Until I heard the crunch of mud and twigs behind me,
And starting with a sudden fright I turned, but saw once more
The visage of the very girl I’d spoken with before.

‘Of course I could always be lying.’ Said a voice from behind,
And I turned back round, this time a golden-haired male to find
With a teenager’s form and face which truly did not fit,
With a persistent yet near-imperceptible wrong to it.

‘It’s curious how flesh will tarry for a story.’
Said the girl’s voice from the new youth’s throat as he sat before me.
‘How dull a life is yours that stumbling onto Cloaksman-bones
Drives you on for sport instead of driving you back home?’

Sense, though late, came to my brain and thereafter to my legs,
I made to flee this haunted wood afore I wound up dead;
I ran with all the manic haste that lunacy can give
And bore the scrapes of thorns and twigs; such fuss they don’t forgive.

I cannot guess how long I ran, nor where I chanced to come,
But sure enough I tripped and fell, my breath and limbs undone,
And then at once I felt a hand which clasped my shoulder tight,
And though it hid beneath green cloth, I felt its deathless blight.

‘It’s never wise to flee before this feasting cloak of mine,
Not it, nor I now hunger, we have no thought to dine,
But it can hear the blood you’ve spurred, and I can smell your skin,
Best to not be tasty now, lest you pass within.’

I felt the cloak wrap round my wrist and hand and hold them tight,
But for the moment just the cloth, no blades emerged to bite;
A hidden figure knelt beside me, the cloak about it pooled,
I made out nothing save the grin of an unearthly ghoul.

‘Perhaps I told you true enough the root of my long life,
Or perhaps I was not here and truly twas my wife;
But I shall tell you this, my friend, and I promise I speak true,
I found it best to use my curse, not try to run it through.

‘Persistence yields ancient ways in long forgotten places,
Ancient magics of bygone and long forgotten races,
Means to mimic well enough my beating heart and soul,
Means to drive back from my bones the wretched Thonehand cold.

‘And when the ill is rendered well, what is there left to rue?
Yet as I’m still bound to this cloak, what else is there to do?
You cannot fathom just what fun there’s been for me for years,
Nor simply ken how many mortal morsels wish me near.’

He scarcely needed speak such truths to such a one as me,
For I do not exist of course, a figment for the stories;
Those stories that I told you of, which cause the flesh to tarry,
Let me mark you, now I’ll find you when the time comes next to feed.

But first, more fun; I have something which I think you’ll like,
A tale of justice done upon a villain and his snipes,
Some petty Lord from who knows where; a “robber-knight” time names him,
He was a hedge-tyrant, a worthless fool, and I tamed him.

Lurking in a threadbare manor from some half-forgotten land,
With only seven tiny villages to hand;
O’er all of these, beside his band, he made himself a Lord of sorts,
I made of him, his band, his hall and all of it my sport.

For every cow or sow they stole, I squeezed a limb clean off;
For farmers slain or daughters ta’en then all one’s flesh I’d doff.
I hid no more from such foul fools than here I hide from you,
The rustling slide of my approach their shaking skins soon knew.

After five had fallen, they tried to take me down together,
Murdering a herbalist and bidding me avenge her.
As one they struck with sword and maul and mace and spear and brand,
But how long could I last ere now if these I could not stand?

Their master was a little wiser, I forget his name,
But oh how vivid are his screams within my bloodless brain.
He tried to flee when he beheld his men all squeezed to bursting,
Yet sated for food but not for hate, I saved for him far worse things.

When the time is meet perhaps I’ll tell you what was done
With my cloak around your wrist before you think to try to run,
But now I think I’ve said enough to pass this piece of day,
Let us both go 'bout our deeds, until we meet again.

Dramatic Narration. (I swear I'm wearing trousers.)