Note: This story was written in creative consultation with Higuchimon, and exists as part of our "Order of the Outcasts" shared universe.
It was the pain on his face that woke him up.
Gilag gave a spasmodic jerk, and the crow that had been perched on his brow squawked in surprise and flapped off to find easier prey.
He wouldn't have any trouble finding it. The field was strewn with bodies, none of them moving - not even Gilag's. He closed his eyes and let himself fall still again. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious, but it was long enough that his many wounds had eased off to a dull ache. He might have gone on sleeping peacefully until he slipped out of existence altogether, but the sharp pricking of the crow's feet on his face had jolted him back to consciousness again. Now he was aware that his wounds were aching, enough to keep him from drifting off again. Besides, now he knew there were crows. If he dozed off, they would come back and peck his eyes out, possibly while he was still alive. He wasn't really inclined to let that happen.
It took several tries, but he managed to roll himself over so he could use his uninjured arm to lever himself into a sitting position. Standing was harder. One of his legs was wounded so badly that it wouldn't support his weight. He ended up using his sword as a makeshift cane, which allowed him to at least stand. He wasn't sure he wanted to attempt walking just yet.
That much effort left him breathless, and he took a moment to review his situation. He was standing in the middle of a rough patch of grass and rocks, surrounded on three sides by forest and on the fourth by a scree of boulders and gravel leading up to a steep mountain face. The ground was strewn with bodies. Most of them were people he knew.
Gilag was, or perhaps had been, a soldier in a rich man's private army. He and his fellows had been dispatched to this barren place to root out a tribe of bandits who had been lurking in the area, attacking and looting the merchants who crossed the mountain passes. Unfortunately, Gilag's master had severely underestimated the number of bandits they'd been dealing with. His men had fought bravely, but they'd been overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The bodies of the bandits that lay strewn on the ground were vastly outnumbered by the bodies of dead soldiers. Gilag wondered if somehow he had been the only one left alive. If he wasn't, he was surely one of very few. He started to take a count, realized that would only depress him further, and stopped.
I need help, he decided. His injuries were serious. The wound on his leg was the most dramatic, but he was worried about one on his arm, too, which was already showing signs of going septic. How long had he been lying there, anyway?
He looted the bodies of his fallen comrades and was able to pull together enough material to make bandages for the worst of his wounds, and to add a bit of food to his pack and some water to his canteen. There wasn't much point in taking anything else. He knew he had to get to a human habitation before he died of his injuries, and he wasn't even completely sure he could manage that. The nearest village was about five miles away, by the most direct route, and a bit more if he took the road. He didn't know if he could make it that far, but he had to make the effort.
It took every bit of his strength, but he managed to drag himself into the forest. There, he was able to find a stick that was longer and sturdier than his sword, better suited to maneuvering his bulk over the uneven terrain, but even with that aid, it was difficult going. He had to stop several times to catch his breath, and each time, it took him longer to muster the strength to keep going. Despite his best attempts at bandaging, the gash in his thigh still bled, though sluggishly now. He was running out of blood to spare.
Finally, he gave up. He simply didn't have the energy to go any further. He sat down at the base of an ancient tree, where moss made a soft cushion. It felt cool and comforting against his burning wounds. Gilag closed his eyes and sighed. This really wasn't so bad. All right, he was going to die. He'd always known, more or less, that there was a chance it could happen any time he walked out onto the battlefield, so it was almost a relief to know his time was here and he could get it over with. He wasn't going to die on a battlefield full of blood and decaying bodies and hungry crows. He was going to slip away in this cool, green, quiet place. If he had to die, there were worse ways to go.
He wondered if anyone would miss him, or come looking for him. Probably not, he decided. Anyone who had left the battlefield alive would have reported that he had been among the casualties. As for people missing him, well... he had no family to speak of, and not really very many close friends, only his comrades among the fighting men. They had relied on him to hit things. He was very good at that, but they would probably find another like him sooner or later. Assuming, of course, that there were any of them left. For all he knew, they might all be dead already.
By degrees, he became aware that he wasn't alone. A pair of eyes was watching him from the shrubbery nearby. Gilag blinked, trying to stop his vision from going double. He must have gotten a gong on the head at some point. Eventually, he realized he was looking at a raccoon-dog - a tanuki, as some people called them. Well, that was interesting. He didn't think he'd ever seen one so close up before.
How do you like that. New experiences right up to the end...
"Hey, there, little guy," he said. "It's okay. I won't hurt you."
The tanuki padded closer. Gilag rummaged in his pouch and took out a few strips of jerky.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. "You might as well take it. No use in me eating it. It'd just go to waste."
The tanuki took the jerky in its clever little paws and began to eat. Gilag smiled. He hoped it would stick around. It would be nice not to die alone.
"That's good, huh?" he said, watching the animal eat. "Well, help yourself. Plenty where that came from."
The tanuki looked at him briefly before going back to eating. It seemed to like the sound of his voice. Encouraged, Gilag kept talking. He talked about his life, how he had started out as a mere farmer's boy and grew up to become a soldier. It wasn't something he had set out to do - it was something that had happened to him. He'd always been large for his age, and as he got older, he began to discover that he could lift and haul with ease weights that usually took two or even three adults to move. He'd been sent off to learn to fight, and he'd learned it with relative ease. He didn't mind being a warrior, really. At lot of the time he even enjoyed it. He liked being useful and it was nice to be good at something. It was just that he got tired of just being the man who was there to hit things until he stopped moving.
"Nobody ever asks me what I think of anything," he told the sympathetic tanuki. "Everybody thinks I'm big and dumb. And okay, maybe I am big and dumb, but I still have opinions. Nobody ever says 'Hey, Gilag, what color should we paint this room?' or 'Hey, Gilag, what should we make for dinner?' It's always, 'Gilag, move this rock' and 'Gilag, beat up that bad guy.' I think about stuff too! I have feelings too..."
He was rambling. It was getting harder and harder to concentrate. His eyes kept slipping shut of their own accord, and he felt cold, even though it was high summer. He wanted to shiver, but he was too tired, too tired to do anything. He had never been so tired in his life - his immense strength had never failed him before, and that alone was enough to frighten him.
"You don't have to stay, you know," he told the tanuki. "You don't have to watch if you don't want to. I wouldn't want to watch, if I were you. I don't want to watch." In a softer voice, he said, "I don't want to die."
And it was true. It wasn't just the dying that bothered him, but because it was such a pointless death. He'd never really done anything, he'd never really mattered to anyone, and now he was dying alone in the woods with only a raccoon-dog for company, all because some rich man had been too stupid to figure out how many men the job needed and had been too proud to ask for help. If he died, there would be a huge to-do for miles around, and yet when Gilag died, no one was really going to notice, or remember him when he was gone. He hated it. He'd spent his whole life hitting the things people told him to hit. Now he wanted more than anything to go rampaging around, knocking things over and plowing them down, to force someone to notice him, and he didn't have the strength.
This is just not fair.
He became aware that the tanuki had climbed onto his chest. He could feel the pressure of its bony little feet and smell the woodsy musk of its fur. He managed to open his eyes and saw that it was peering intently into his face.
"You're a good human, da pon," it said.
Great, he thought. I'm delirious. I'm dreaming a tanuki is talking to me. I wanted so bad for someone to be here that I'm imagining an animal talks...
"I can save you," it said, "but it will come at a price. You'll have to make a promise, da pon."
He managed a grunt to show that he was listening. Why not? There was no one here to see him having an imaginary conversation with an animal. He could pretend for a little while.
"You have to promise to protect the forest," the tanuki continued. "The forest will give you life if you promise to devote your life to it in exchange."
Gilag's head slumped sideways. The tanuki slapped his cheek with a paw.
"Say it!" it said sharply. "Say you promise!"
With an immense effort, Gilag got a breath in and let it slip out again.
"I... promise," he wheezed, and then he blacked out.
When Gilag woke up, it was with sunlight shining on his face. He was lying on something soft that smelled sweetly of herbs. He didn't seem to be in any pain. He tried moving first his bad arm, and then his wounded leg. Both of them moved easily.
"Am I dead?" he muttered.
"Nope!" said a cheerful voice near his ear. "You're all better now, da pon!"
Gilag sat up. He was still in the forest, but now he was lying in what seemed to be a little hut made of sticks and moss, lying on a bed of leaves. Someone had removed his armor and piled it in the corner of the hut. Sunlight was slanting down through the trees in a way that suggested it was early afternoon.
"How long was I out? And what happened?" he asked.
He looked around to see who he was talking to, and found that the tanuki was sitting next to him, it arms folded across its chest in an oddly humanlike fashion. Gilag jumped.
"You're real!" he exclaimed.
"Of course I'm real, da pon! My name is Ponta. I'm a tanuki," it said. "And your name is Gilag, yes? You slept all night and all day and all night again, and now it's the day after that. Are you hungry?"
Gilag realized that he was, in fact, absolutely famished.
"Yes," he said.
The tanuki - Ponta - hurried away, and came back seconds later dragging a mat of woven grasses. It was loaded down with fruits, nuts, various edible plants, and a few mushrooms Gilag recognized as non-poisonous. He wasted no time in beginning to systematically devour them. Some of the fruits were a bit bruised, and the leaves on some of the vegetables were a bit wilted. Gilag didn't think that sort of thing happened in the afterlife, so he supposed he wasn't dead after all. Ponta watched him eat with an air of approval, the very image of a doctor enjoying watching his patient's recovery.
"You need to get your strength back, da pon," he said. "Healing you was hard work. You were almost gone."
"Mrph," said Gilag with his mouth full.
Ponta nodded as if he'd said something important. "Do you remember your promise?"
Gilag started to answer, realized he couldn't with his mouth full, and swallowed. "Kinda?"
"You promised to guard the forest," said Ponta solemnly. "Don't worry. I'll teach you how, da pon. You'll become a druid, and learn how to use the powers of nature. Very important magic, da pon!"
"Magic, huh?" Gilag repeated. "I could do magic?"
Ponta nodded. "Have to. You promised."
Gilag pondered this. He had never considered the possibility of learning magic before. No one had ever suggested that he could, but Ponta was obviously a magical creature, so if anyone would know, he would. And guarding the forest did sound like a job with some prestige to it. He thought of how he'd felt when he was dying, how badly he had wanted to do something, anything, that mattered.
"Druid, huh," he said, trying the word out. "Does it involve people trying to kill me."
Ponta shook his head. "Not usually."
Gilag grinned. "Good. Where do I start?"