Gertrude knelt in the blood-mixed mud, and ran her knife along the stitches that bound the battle-mage's hood to the tabard the man had worn over his padded chainmail. She crumpled the small piece of cloth in her grimy fist; no doubt making it even dirtier than the bloody, burnt hood already was.
Beneath the smudges of soot and blood, the original, luminously gleamong crimson shone throigh. The color of Erodan, the city they had given their lives to defend; by striking down what Barteon had seen as a threat to his authority.
She rose to her feet, and pushed the hood into her pocket as she followed Arcorias to the Sanctum's proud white spire.
That battlemage was only the first in a long line. When she and Melvin were pursued down the steep stairs in the winding dungeons, they fought back against the five-to-one odds, scorched and frozen by the battlemage; but slowly picking off the frightened, determined, all-too-noble soldiers in their red livery.
It came with heavy tolls on both of them. Both bled sluggishly from rents in their armor, Melvin had frostbite on his fingers and Gertrude's eyebrows were singed.
They stopped at the foot of the stairs, breathing heavily, the pain slowly leeching back into their tired bodies as the adrenaline of battle receded.
Two battlemages had fallen. She took both their hoods, and stuffed them into the same pouch she kept the other. Melvin cast a strange look her way, but she ignored him.
When Gertrude reached the Mountain Monastery, she had five hoods. One was a single battlemage, a scout she had run across in the wilderness. He had barely had time for one startled glance before she had lashed out with a swordblade he had no hope of deflecting.
It bit deep into his neck and into his shoulder and chest, blade grating on bones until it slid to a stop just shy of his sternum.
A horrible gurgle of a dying scream choked off by blood that fountained into his lung, lept from his ruined throat. Gertrude stumbled back, her numb fingers releasing the pommel and leaving the sword buried in the terrible wound in his chest.
His mouth worked, trying to whisper something through blood-flecked lips. His face looked impossibly young, little more than a boy still mastering the arcane arts; not ready to be out of his mother's house.
Gertrude's stomach revolted and she emptied what was left of her meager supper on the ground. It surged violently, over and over, spasming painfully, even when nothing came out. She wanted to cry for this boy, this stranger even younger than herself.
It was the first time she took a hood with the sole purpose of remembering the man who had worn it; and his face haunted her dreams for months.
Killing began to come easier and easier, and it frightened Gertrude. She wondered if she was beginning to turn into a heartless monster, her soul black with blood; a woman people frightened children into compliance with.
After the attack on the Monastery she hid in the cellars, staring wide-eyed at the four new hoods she had collected, her hands shaking.
Why did she take these grim trophies, relics of souls that no longer walked the world? Men-- good men, men with families, wives and children, mothers and fathers. Someone's friend, laughing at off-color jokes, praying the same litanies that she knew.
The thought brought tears bubbling to the surface, but she dabbed them away as quickly as they came, fighting against the quiet sobs that jerked her chest.
The door swung open. "Gertrude? Gertrude-- oh."
Kim had come looking for her. Gertrude didn't even bother to edge out of the pale autumn light that stemmed from a window set high in the wall, knowing from the soft 'oh' that he had already seen her.
He hovered for a moment, clearly dithering over whether he should go to her or leave her be.
"I'm sorry," he muttered timidly. "I- Well, I'll go."
"Are you frightened of me?" she asked bitterly as he turned back to the door. She had thought that she could talk to Kim at least, of all people. She sent the red cloths scattering over the dusty floor like old autumn leaves before a winterwind.
Kim hesistated before he answered, but long enough Gertrude felt it was an eternity, and she dropped her head in shame.
"No, I'm not," he said, and she didn't know whether to believe him or not.
Gertrude heaved herself to her feet and shook her head. She didn't even try to hide the red blothes on her face that betrayed that she'd been crying.
"Let me wash my face," she said, trying valiantly to keep her voice steady. "I'll- I don't know what came over me."
Gertrude's hands shook as she hooked the bucket onto the rope, and sent it spinning down into the waters below. A full second ticked by before she heard the splash echo up from below. The windlass creaked as she turned it over and over on itself, drawing the bucket out of the deep pit of stone and water.
Smaller hands laid over hers, and Kim helped her pull the bucket up. Maybe a small gesture, but it soothed Gertrude's restless soul, at least for a few moments.
So much death on her hands. She had slain Angels to free Narathzul, and coldly killed the battlemages that Barteon had sent after them. Again, she had taken the hoods, more or less on autopilot, adding four to the five that she had claimed after Cahbaet. Eighteen hoods, all of which she carried with her.
In Erothin she only claimed two more hoods. Twenty, all told.
In the days after Narathzul assumed the Middlerealm throne, Kim found her with the hoods again, sitting in the courtyard with her back against a tree.
"It's over," she said, her eyes half-lidded. "No more collecting hoods. No more slaying the loyal soldiers of Nehrim."
She let the hood flow from her fingers, and flop onto the bright leaves. "I don't know what to do with all of these."
Kim bent and picked up the hood, running bow-calloused fingers over the fine silk. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.
"Why did you take them?" he finally asked.
She shrugged, a limp and watery motion. "To remember the men I've killed. I think. I don't know."
Kim thought for a moment. "Make a memorial," he suggested. "Or... I don't know. I'm not good at such things."
Gertrude nodded absently. "A memorial. Maybe. I'll think about it. Thank you, my friend."