It’s never easy to make a life changing decision. To the stubborn, it eventually takes extreme circumstances to force it on you. Such was my decision to travel North and East out of Lonn. My deep seated hatred was now all consuming, but something I was absolutely unwilling to die for.
It started with the sheriff. He was cleaning up the town with deadly force. He was doing his best to impress the nobles by cracking down on every possible divergence from the law. I’ve never seen so many petty and not-so-petty criminals jailed. Women and children were readily prosecuted alongside the hardened career criminals. Those who didn’t fit into jails were then pressed into forced labor under unbearable conditions.
There were executions: some deserving, some not. My associates were dwindling and those who remained were cowering in fear, yet utterly unwilling to leave behind the niche they had carved for themselves. The roads were watched. Known establishments were regularly patrolled. The town was small enough that you couldn’t move anyone or anything without stirring up dust.
It was as if a coin had been flipped by fate, telling me that the end was near. I finally decided to leave when my fence, Feddy, was stabbed in the chest. An overzealous guard broke his meaty wrists while forcing them into irons. Feddy wailed, striking out against the guard, and was immediately run through. I watched at a distance, as he flailed on the ground, gasping and sputtering insults, as crimson spewed from his mouth. The guards dispassionately looked on while he shuddered and eventually went limp. After dragging him to the outskirts of town, they pulled him into a charred pit of other remains and lit him on fire. Feddy was the last person I respected in this life and I really didn’t respect him all that much. He was simply more reliable than the rest. Seeing his life end so unceremoniously made me realize that the more time I spent here, the less time I’d spend alive.
It was then and there, under the glare of the sun and scrutiny of many, that I cautiously picked up my few possessions stashed throughout the town and pressed them into an oil cloth. I then spent a small fortune in gold to have Tess, an unscrupulous local scribe, to forge some impeccable craftsman guild paperwork. I only chose a cover I knew well enough to quickly lie through: journeyman locksmithing.
In actuality, it was almost legitimate. Though I had never undergone official guild training, I was far better than others who were of my same skills. My primary intent was to try my hand at Willowford. There were enough pilgrims to blend in and I could easily display my wares to land a job. Who knows, I could sell duplicate keys at nearly six times the price of the lock themselves. Willowford had great potential; there was money to be made being a craftsman. I had spent so much time tooling and retooling equipment while working on the barges moving up and down the Sabine that I had become something of a professional.
I stood at the head of the road, staring into the forest at the edge of town. The oil treated sack with all the possessions I dared leave town with was roped to my back. It contained a mere trace of what I had started with in Lonn. And, by leaving Lonn, I hoped to be leaving all of this ancient history behind me.
I waited at the roadside for a cluster of travelers to move by, pretending as if to prepare for the road ahead. I wasn’t keen on sharing the road, but also wasn’t willing to meet a band of brigands utterly alone. The hills and forests were dense with bandits who would just as soon kill you as look at you. They were little better than the roving boars of Carson Flats, but had far less meat on them.
I quietly shuffled near the back of the pack. It was difficult to not get involved in the social glad-handing of the trip. Men would take turns talking; each spoke in turn, moving through the band like an organized procession of introductions. I made no effort to interject. I felt as much an outcast as ever, but looking from one to the next, they were dressed similarly to what I wore, if not somewhat poorer condition.
Each was a man of the land not casting their eyes from one to the next, comparing each other’s garments and possessions as I had done. Some spoke of horses, but each agreed that saving the horses for work was more important than used for travel. It was unusual to feel so much in common, yet be expected to be shunned if there was ever a glimmer of suspicion of what I was. What you say could be taken completely at face value. More so, people were more likely to believe you in this setting. It didn’t impact them if you were who you said or not and people loved a good story. This was the thought that put me at ease.
As we traveled, the numbers were dwindling as each man respectively moved into the trees toward their outlying farms. In some cases, the roads were little more than game trails moving through the woods. Because the majority of the menagerie had traveled only as quickly as they needed to and had left the road earlier in the trip, they had slowed us enough that it would be dark before we reached town. The shadows were stretching out long behind us at this point and only three of us remained and we were increasingly aware of the night looming ahead.
With so little people traveling it was hard to remain close without engaging in some conversation. I sparked off some chatter with Dawson about where he was going. His farm was up ahead, high on the saddle of valley to the South of the mountain range. The other who was with us, Michael, wore different garb and had a small workman’s hammer slung to his side. Michael was traveling to Willowford proper; his accent was a rich baroque from what seemed like a native of the Cobham riverside.
Michael spoke thickly, “The rest of the others slow’d us some. We still ‘ave a few good leagues ahead of us.”
I nodded, not knowing anything about the distance. I hadn’t planned much at all before leaving which was uncharacteristic of what I would normally do. I really didn’t care, though. I planned to get there when I got there, nothing more. During the dialog between Michael and Dawson, we ran across the corpse of a sheep. Its throat had been torn out and Dawson immediately said, “Wolves! We ‘aven’t seen wolves since the war! Someone needs ta know about this!”
The fawning over the sheep was incredible. It took some time for me to recognize less as a dead animal instead of a lost livelihood. One sheep could mean life and death for some of these shepherds. It was then that I realized that my lifestyle, as despicable as it had been, was almost living in the lap of luxury when these poor sods could lose everything in a moment; just how this sheep had lost its life to a wolf.
To these men, I could have been that wolf. Swindling a few coins would be a devastating blow. The thought hurt my heart a bit. Perhaps that was why all of my days of thievery were done with the rich and moderately wealthy in mind.
My ears twitched, hearing something that I didn’t rightly recognize until I stopped and shushed my companions. “There’s something in those trees.” I pointed to the North and West. “Let’s pick up the pace.” We stepped quickly down the path, my compatriots now warily quiet and uncertain. Fear fluttered at the edges of my consciousness. I felt like this a lot, but usually felt that I could reason with whatever may lay on the other side. This time, I was unsure.
Dawson spoke, “My ‘ouse is just up the way. Wait. I ‘ear it too!” He was pointing when he suddenly ducked, like he tripped on something. I flagged them to the side of the road and crouched. Since I seemed to know how to act defensively, they followed my lead without question.
If it was an animal, which was likely, or even if it was a bandit lying in wait my first thought was to charge it to take away its advantage of surprise. An animal would be flushed out and run away, and we might be on top of any brigands before they could properly ready themselves.
“Here’s my plan. Take out any weapons you have. Let’s run at the sound and see if we can frighten it off. You’ve got to yell your loudest when you’re running.” I spoke with a low whisper, gesturing in the direction of the sounds. I hadn’t heard it that time, but both were nervously glancing in that direction now.
“One, two, three!”
We burst from our huddled positions and ran in the direction of the noise. A large black wolf burst from cover and moved away from us then took up a menacing position again, facing us. It stood a stone’s throw from our position and continued to growl and snarl at us from a distance.
I hefted a few stones and threw them at the animal to keep it at a distance. Michael spoke up, “I ‘aven’t seen wolves as large ‘ere! Watchers would drag wolf corpses back to town years ago, but nothing this size. Nothing!”
“Why isn’t it leaving?” I mused.
There was a black flash, then a thrashing to our sides, Dawson had been toppled by a wolf and was clutching at his neck, beads of blood were forming between his fingers as he was holding his blood back. Michael and myself were dumbfounded. I turned to try and pry the humongous black wolf off of our compatriot, while Dawson took his knife with his free hand and stabbed the back of the beast. Michael was as white as a sheet as he heard the other wolf begin to close. I tried to strike at the wolf again and took Dawson’s blade from the side of the wolf and stabbed at it again. I noticed that Dawson’s face was ghostly pale and his grip slackened and the blood flowed readily from his neck.
“No… “ I let out a panicked whisper just as I was slammed from the side by the wolf we had chased off. It snipped at my neck leave a gash and a number of punctures behind. Blood started to flow and I was in no position to fight off two wolves.
Michael, at a distance was yelling, “Run! Run man, run!”
I was dizzy, but found my feet and pushed off over the ground as quickly as I could. I heard the wolves thrashing through the grass behind me. I made it to the road, leaving a bloodied trail behind me.
“Michael, we can’t run away from them, they’ll eat us alive. We need to stand and fight!” I said with a pinched voice. I caught sight of him nodding, the color had returned to his face, but fear was written all over it, too. Yet, he steeled himself, sweat beading at his forehead.
Both wolves, likely smelling blood, closed on me. Michael moved in and dashed his hammer on the head of the wolf that attacked Dawson. It was a gristly sight, blood frothing around its jaws as the impact of the hammer instantly swelled part of the beast’s face, closing up one eye. He yelped and swung its head around, trying to shake off the blow.
I continued to dance with the first creature. The second bite went true for the throat again and I could feel its jaws crushing the wind out of me. Michael gasped as he saw what happened, but he persisted. I could feel life seeping from me, but managed to cling to consciousness just long enough to weasel the blade between the beasts ribs. Its eyes were wild as the blade stuck deep. Blackness rolled over me and I felt brief weightlessness as I crumbled to the ground with the flailing wolf landing on top of me then rolling off.
In partial consciousness, I recognized the sounds of battle, but couldn’t bring myself around to do anything about it. Then, it was quiet and I waited for the bladed teeth of the wolf to finish the job.
“You… man.” A blooded hand shook me. The peacefulness subsided, replaced with pain and the persistent tackiness of drying blood covering every inch of me.
“Michael?” I breathed.
“I swore I lost ya, boy!” He whispered heatedly. “We need to get off this road.”
“Dawson?” I spoke weakly.
“He’s gone, boy. We need to get a watchman out here. We’ll be dead meat on this road soon enough.” Michael was lying next to me, looking at the moonlight pressing through the trees. I chanced a look around. The wolves were down, one with a crushed skull and the other still bore the blade that landed its killing blow. Michael himself was well bloodied, too, wearing a number of punctures from the encounter. It was a wonder that either of us were alive. I was curious, how I looked after all of this, but I dare say I would be horrified. I never was too fond of the sight of my own blood.
He propped himself up and lent me a hand. We acted as each other’s crutch as we braced each other as we limped down the road.
We hobbled through the woods for hours, just waiting for the next attack, but none came. It was just us two ragged corpses walking to town. I was haunted by the fact that Dawson, whose family was just around the corner, still lay in that field. It isn’t often that you find people who would be willing to stand by you in life threatening circumstances. It was one of those moments where I was proud of those companions I was with.
We heard the rushing of a stream. Michael spoke excitedly, “We’re almost there, by Imoedae, we’ve just about made it.” I glanced around, it was usually at those moments were something would come to finish the job, but nothing stirred in the trees around us. We waded through the water and pressed on. I dared not drink the water as I didn’t think I could have gotten up again. We stopped by a house at the outskirts of town that tried to care for our wounds. Michael was bandaged, but they flinched as they looked at my wounds and said they were unable to do anything for me. The farmer readily offered a handcart to carry me to town in. Both Michael and he manned the cart and pressed forward speaking of visiting “Ironsides” with our tale.
He rapped on the door a number of times. There was stirring in the house, something sounding akin to an angry bear rattling around in armor moved toward the door. The door swung open to a bright lantern bathing us in light.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He boomed with a voice that echoed through his barreled chest.
The farmer spoke quickly, he was paranoid about this man, but took some enjoyment in being able to rouse him at such an early hour. “These men were accost’ by wolves! Big black ones. It took Dawsonwho lives up the way.” He said, gesturing back down the road. Everyone knew each other here, the thought was a little disconcerting.
“Dawson? Hummm…” He scratched at himself, still shaking off sleep.
Michael spoke quickly, “My man here,” he pointed to me, “took a battering and he needs some attention.”
“Jim. My name’s Jim.” My voice rasped with the words.
“Well, Jim, my name is Maurice. Let’s take a look at ye.” The big man peered over my wounds and stood back, “I dare not try else I make it worse. I might have something, though.”
Maurice’s large frame briefly filled the door again and he returned bearing a little blood red vial.
“Drink. A little something from the war.” He popped the cork and unceremoniously dumped it into my mouth. There was a sudden heat and delirium, but I felt immensely better.
I nodded vigorously, the heat from the potion was slowly building and it made me feel almost giddy.
“Take him to the inn, I’ll come to talk to you there.” He spoke somberly and disappeared back into his home.
I gingerly slid from the handcart and I thanked the farmer adding, “I can use my feet from here.” Michael and I walked to the inn in our bloody tatters. Thankfully my possessions were still strapped to me during this whole ordeal.
The inn was a warm and inviting. A cherubic woman stood behind the counter with a fearful look on her face when we walked through the door.
“What ‘appened to ye?” She said excitedly. Her eyes were darting to the door expecting more.
“We were attacked by wolves.” I said matter-of-factly. With a slight pause and watching the customer gaping at our state, I said as nonchalantly as I could, “Could I get an ale?”
I limped to the counter and took a seat. Michael remained silent, but moved to sit next to me at the counter.
“Wolves!? I canna remember the last I heard of wolves.” She looked more intently as the two of us. “I swore ya was a vision of the days of the war. More than a few bloodied lads walked through that door just that way.”
“They took Dawson. He was attacked from behind. They would have had a feast of all of us if Michael here hadn’t struck true with his hammer.” I nodded in his direction and he gave a pained half-smile. The cherubic woman placed the ale at my hands. I reached up to grab the ale to toast Michael, but she laid a firm but gentle hand on my wrist while she spoke directly, “That’ll be 2 copper.”
I didn’t react outwardly, but I was impressed. This was a business and this woman had it well in hand. Handouts, there were not, even for the beaten souls who show up on her doorstep. The days of the war likely numbed her to running a business instead of running a hospice.
I nimbly opened my sack of goods and chased down a few loose copper that had sloughed to the bottom. I slapped them on the counter and nodded politely, “My lady.”
Without a moment’s hesitation she spoke again, “It’s a shame to hear about Dawson. Salt of the earth, he was. It’s good to see that ye survived then, lads. It’s a bad omen to have wolves so close to town.” She looked up, “You sure you don’t need me to look at that?” She looked up and down the two of us, gashed and soaked with blood.
It was only moments before the life breathed back into the Inn. There were a few rowdy patrons near the lower fireplace, calling out and cheering on the woman who was serving them. Her face was flushed, but it seemed to be more about the heat from the fire and from her duties more than the jeering and groping that she was enduring. She seemed to beam as she moved from table to table.
“I’m Justine, by the way.” She leaned forward as if to formally introduce herself showing ample cleavage, but then she put a cloth to the counter in front of her and wiped over the well used counter. “Either of you in town for long?”
Michael shook his head, “No, Miss Justine, just a delivery.”
She looked to me; I fumbled with some words around my ale. I really hadn’t practiced a dialog here. One of the preparations when moving into a new place was to establish a story and stick to it. It took practice and I hadn’t even tried. “I came looking for work. I’m a craftsman.” I started the dialog loosely, knowing it could change from here.
“There’s work to be had, lad, if that’s what yer ‘ere for,” She said slightly distracted while she glanced around at the outlying tables.
“Could my friend and I get something to eat? Is there a place I could stay, Justine?” She was instantly attentive. “We ‘ave a beef and vegetable stew with fresh bread, if that’s what you’re interested in?” I nodded. “And one for my friend, too.” She raised an eyebrow, “Very good.” Michael simpered, but didn’t decline.
“You saved my life, friend,” I spoke honestly, noting his dismay.
“If I ‘adn’t run off like that, we might well ‘ave fared better,” his initial flight had put everything in jeopardy, but he did stand with me at the end. That’s what mattered.
The feeling of heat from the elixir that Maurice gave me was subsiding and was slowly being replaced by the ale’s numbness.
“Think no more of it, Michael,” through the numbness I nodded slightly, “You are a hero.”
Nodding must have opened up some of the wounds again and new traces of blood ran down from my neck. Justine’s eyes widened again at the fresh blood. “Goodness, son! We need to do something about that!” She looked again at the wounds as if for the first time.
“Jillette! Clear a space for these men here!” The serving woman who was making a fair bit of silver for herself, immediately set about shooing the men from the table nearest the fire and enlisting a few of them to move tables to the edges of the room.
“Ye said y’re looking for a place to sleep, dear? We do have private rooms at the cost of a couple gold, but the common room here is just a couple silver.” She said, the sight of fresh blood seemed to make her a bit more accommodating.
“Here in the common room is fine and here’s the cost of the meal when it is ready for us.” I rifled again through the bag I had at hand and produced 3 silver to cover the costs of everything. She looked at the coins, noting that they were from dramatically different locations.
“Are ya well travelled, then?” She said with raised eyebrows.
“Not so much. I worked with sailors and barge captains travelling to and from Cobham. They get coin from all over.” I lied.
She nodded considering it and then pocketed the coin.
“Jilly, dear, can you get some rags and hot water?” The serving girl had only barely completed her last task before then moving on to the next. She seemed well in hand for it, though. Likely had worked here for a very long time and made more than a decent living at it, besides.
I was handed a thick felted wool blanket, which apparently had come from the local mill, and Justine directed were we could set up.
Jillette spoke as she got close with the bucket, rags and water. “I overheard that you were attacked by wolves?” her eyes were wide as she looked the pair of us over.
I nodded, “Just outside of town.”
She rinsed the rags and carefully worked and gingerly worked around the wounds. There were sharp pricks, but most of the edge was worn off with the potent ale Justine had given me earlier. She had a lot of charm, Jillette did, a wide smile and a certain winsomeness that made her a great fit for her job. She seemed imperturbable.
A rumbling approached the door and the sound of grinding metal and Maurice burst into the room bringing the smell of horses in with him.
“Where are the lads?” He spoke to Justine, but walked right to us without waiting for a reply.
“So you say Dawson is dead? Can you tell me where the wolves attacked?” He was voice was low, but his air around him was electrified with his intensity.
Michael spoke first, “We’re just before th’ saddle, mere moments before Dawson’s turnoff when we heard ‘em. The beast’s bodies’re in th’ road there.”
I looked up, “I saw Dawson go limp, but I don’t know if he was dead. He looked dead.”
Maurice stood, “I’m goin’ out there.”
“Be safe and,” I paused to take a breath, “please find Dawson. His wife deserves to know.”
He nodded curtly, it was reminiscent of a military salute. He turned on his heel and with that, the Inn felt vacant again. The eerie quiet that followed his exit needed to be filled quickly, but everyone retreated to their respective thoughts leaving me to my own painful thoughts for the moment.
It was my biggest regret. Leaving Dawson behind was gut-wrenching, and honestly, it had not fazed me before when I was living by the idea that the quickest runner was the one most likely to survive. Perhaps it was the fact that we were people trying to carve a niche for ourselves in a world that acted like it didn’t need us.
I was envious of Dawson: a family, property to call his own, but he, like everyone else, lost a hefty slice of what he made to the ruling class who didn’t seem to care about his condition and wouldn’t bat an eye at his demise. It hurt to think of because he could have been me. It would have been better if it was me who fell, since his widow will have nothing to assuage the pain of loss but the misery of starvation. I saw it time and time again as a kid wandering the streets of Cobham. The war took everything out of us and little came in to replace what was lost. It seemed that only the richer part of the world was on the up and up now-a-days. The rest of us were still crawling around in the dirt trying to find those portions of ourselves that we lost.
Jillette and I spoke at length about the town. She covered all of the basics about who’s who and where all of the different services are available; she was particularly emphatic about where the healers were in town. She was such a spritely character and her temperament was contagious. I found myself often smiling at her through the pain as she worked the reddening, waterlogged rags around all the while pressing her full bosoms together at moments. It could have been avoided by it was likely that this activity had become second nature or perhaps it was simply the cut of the blouse. I couldn’t have asked to be kept by better hands, regardless of how little expertise she had with tending to the wounds.
Michael seemed only a little interested, but he had decided to settle in and write in a tattered notepad with a grease pen. I asked him about it briefly, as not to distract him too much. Justine brought the stew and bread and dropped it off on a table nearby.
“I’ll be at the counter if you need anything else. We’ll be closing the cupboards soon, but there will still be some cheese and dried meats available for 2 copper a bit.” She said this to us, but her voice was raised in order to broadcast it to everyone closeby.
“This is my journal, I recount my daily events as best as I can remember.” He was matter of fact about it, he must have explained this a hundred times before.
“That’s something I should consider. There’d be a lot to write about today.” I grimaced and winced. Jillette apologized again.
“Th’ back room is gonna quiet down faster than ‘ere. That raucous bunch right there”, she rolled her eyes toward the group of upstarts that she was tending to earlier, “They’ll go on for another hour ‘er so.”
She paused for a moment, as if considering what to say next. What she said next was almost an apology. “They tip well, they do. But they’re a group to avoid here. You might ‘ave better luck on the work site. Adam there is the Mason Guildmaster’s son. If you can get ‘im to introduce ya, it’d be in your favor to ‘ave someone ya know. I might be good to chum up to him if ye can stomach it.”
“I appreciate you looking out for me. I will take your advice when I’m up for the challenge.” And I clasped her bloodstained hand. I wasn’t sure how much of that was wolf blood, and how much was my own. The thought left me with a pit in the stomach.
We moved to the other room, which was already set up with bedding and markedly more quiet then the main room. Jillette bid her farewells as Michael and I took up spots closest to the fire. The thick felted wool closed in around me and the crackling comfort of the fire lulled me into a dreamless sleep.