We had been walking for nearly three hours when the sun finally came up. Rat was in the pack asleep again.
I recalled our exit from Bridgeton. We had scarcely finished packing when Butterby knocked at the door, his face as white as a sheet.
“Is everything alright?”
“I’m afraid we have to leave… now.” I had said trying to keep the fear out of my voice. I was cursing myself for a lack of grace in dealing with the man, but I was so panicked that I could not even stop to apologize. I did, however, manage to give him one of the two scales in my purse before we left.
Thinking back on it, I hoped that the man did not think poorly of me. After all, I had been very impressed with the management of his inn.
“Oh well.” I sighed.
“You say something?” Rat mumbled from my pack.
“No, sorry, I’ll be quieter.”
“I’d rather you tell me why you were so rushed to leave. What could you have possibly dreamt that could convince you of the necessity of this?”
I closed my eyes as I walked, praying again to The Unnamed that what I had seen in my dream was just that, a dream.
“I saw Stumpton in flames, and the townspeople were… dead.” I finally managed to answer.
* * *
The journey home seemed to take forever, and I convinced myself repeatedly that I was just imagining things.
I thought of Jonathan laughing at me for being so paranoid. In my musings, Henny was livid with me for imagining her naked… and so I decided I would leave that part out of my explanation to her. Will Kayne make me out to be a hero? No, but I’ll make Jonathan proud for doing my task so quickly.
I had just managed to convince myself of my silliness when I crested the small hill a mile north of Stumpton, bringing the quaint, little village into view.
A charred pile of ruins marked where it had stood. Carrion birds flew in wide circles above.
Rat quietly cursed when he saw, over my shoulder, what had at one time been my home.
I ran the rest of the way into town; my legs burning as I finally entered the square. My nightmare was made reality for me.
Burnt corpses were everywhere. Many of them, I noticed, had their limbs plucked from their bodies and cast about. The smell of wet ash had suffused with the air, and it was difficult even to breathe for the reek of decaying flesh was everywhere. Such was the stuff of legends: most, I realized, were legends about trolls.
I then ran to the alley I had seen Henny in my dream. Naught but the wreckage of the surrounding buildings and some torn, soiled fabric greeted me. I screamed, frantically throwing aside charred timbers. I was rewarded only with scraped knuckles and dirty fingers. I sank to my knees in despair, paused for a moment, and hoped that my fruitless search was a good sign. I pushed matted hair from my face, streaking myself with soot in the process. I suddenly felt I had forgotten something. Something important.
“Jonathan.” I cried as I jumped to my feet and ran home, tears fogging my vision. I stumbled once, sending Rat hurtling across the road. He managed to catch himself.
“I’m sorry!” I croaked, choking on tears as I ran on alone.
I collapsed a few feet away from Jonathan’s house. What remained of the little stone building had caved in when the place burnt down, scattering stone in every direction. The forge still stood, but the timbers in Jonathan’s roof had damaged it when they fell.
After a short eternity, I stood, walking into the wreckage. A skeleton sat amongst the ashes. I knelt to get a closer look at the bones, and noticed from the edge of my vision a black space. Turning my head to the right, I saw the iron doors into the cellar flung open. My heart fluttered. Taking to my feet again, I walked to the small, dark portal, and looked in.
“Hello?” I did not want to hope anybody was alive, but needing some relief from the day’s discoveries, I found myself praying it was so. Regardless, I pulled my blade from its scabbard, just in case the cellar had become something else’s home. Getting on my hands and knees, I slowly crawled down into the shallow opening that even Jonathan had to duck to enter.
The cellar was as dark and dirty as I remembered it. I had not been down there for several years as my size had made it an inconvenience for both of us. Jonathan’s winter stores were here. Sealed clay jars sat on shelves against the walls, and various dried roots and herbs hung from hooks in the planks of the ceiling.
There were footprints in the dirt floor. I could not tell if they were Jonathan’s or even if they all belonged to the same man, but it was certainly a man that had made them. No animal could make a track like that, and I doubted a troll could get down here without destroying the ceiling.
Glad, at least, that the winter stores had gone unnoticed; I crawled back out of the cellar. As my head broke ground level I felt a sudden pain in my skull accompanied with the sound of a stick cracking.
“Ow!” I rubbed at my sore scalp, and stood up to face who had hit me from behind.
“Rickter!” Jonathan dropped a broken bit of plank, and ran over. I fell to my knees, buried my face into the shirted chest of the only father I had ever known and wept.
* * *
Rat showed up a few moments after I had found Jonathan. I got to my feet again, and wiped the tears from my face.
“The well still stands, Rickter. Go clean up; your face is nearly black.” Jonathan motioned behind him. Rat walked the rest of the way to us from the road as I walked around piles of rubble to the small well that used to be in the back of the shop.
“Hello. I assume you’re the one Rickter refers to as Jonathan?” I heard from the two behind me as I washed the soot, dirt and tears from my face.
“Why yes, and you are?”
“My name is Rat. Rickter and I were sent to deliver the message of the initial attack to Bridgeton together.”
I turned to see Jonathan reach down and shake my small friend’s hand.
“As selfish as it sounds. I’m glad he wasn’t here. Would’ve, no doubt, done some fool thing like try and fight them.” Jonathan rolled his eyes and then continued. “Thank you for keeping your eye on him; he’s all I have now.”
“Actually, if not for him, not only would the message not have gotten through, but I’d be dead, too. Traveling with Rickter has been a comfort, despite the circumstances.”
I saw Jonathan nod to Rat. I looked at the both of them and asked, “Well, what do we do now?”
“We still have several hours of light to work with. I think we should head into ‘town’ and deal with our fallen friends.” Jonathan suggested.
“While you two are out, I’ll stay here and try to find something for us to eat for dinner tonight.” Rat nodded.
Jonathan took the short bow he used for hunting from his shoulder and handed it and his quiver of arrows to Rat. “There’s a well over there.” Jonathan pointed past me towards what had once been the shop and continued. “And there are herbs, dried goods and a small pot to use for stew in the cellar behind me.”
Jonathan’s short bow was enormous in Rat’s small hands, but he nodded agreeably and walked between us and into the woods behind Jonathan’s ruined home.
“Shall we?” Jonathan then said to me gesturing towards the road.
“If we must.” I said with a sigh.
“’Tis only proper.” He said, and with that, the two of us walked to town.
The town’s graveyard sat behind the small temple on the south side of the square. Jonathan was not an extremely religious man, but he had insisted that until I was grown I attended services there.
Strangely enough, the church had fared much better than the rest of the town’s major structures. The doors had been kicked in and the pews within had been burnt but the granite walls and the old ironoak timbers had characteristically refused to light.
I spent the rest of the day digging holes and then filling them as Jonathan would appear with a salvaged wheelbarrow full of the corpses he’d found. We tallied the names of those we recognized and we buried the families together, but several graves were covered over with neither a name nor any idea of their previous connections in town.
It had been dark for an hour or two when Jonathan finally said he could find no more. I turned towards the graveyard, and tried to remember the prayer for the dead I had been taught as a child by the old priest. After a moment, I raised my hands, still gritty with the soil I buried them in and began to pray.
“Thank you for the gift of their lives, O Great Unnamed One. We now return them to you. Give them wings and allow them to guard us all as we continue on the path without their guidance and friendship… ” I lowered my hands and thought for a moment I was finished, but the smell of grave dirt and decay filled my senses, and the taste of bile in my mouth grew until I was forced to spit. The pointlessness of the deaths personified by the fresh mounds before me, drove me into a rage. I balled my fists, and addressed the entity responsible for doling out The Unnamed’s divine justice. “Makull, angeli of justice, be merciless in your vengeance on those who slaughtered the innocents gathered here.”
“Let’s go home.” Jonathan echoed my thoughts as we turned to go home.
As we did so, we jumped in shock to see what stood behind us. Covered in soot and congealed blood, her hair matted in clumps against her head, Henny stood there, wide-eyed and naked. Raising her hand, she pointed at me and mumbled.
I strode over, pulling my cloak from my shoulders to cover her bare shoulders, but as I approached, she screamed and ran off.
Jonathan and I bolted after her. She did not make it easy on us, running into the remains of the church. As we rounded the corner into the church, a crusty chunk of burnt wood flew through the open portal and crashed into my face. I felt the warmth of blood on my lip as I ducked back around the corner. More wreckage sailed through the door. Jonathan started for the rear of the church as I poked my head around the corner. As she was trying to lift the end of a burnt pew, I swung through the door towards her. She picked up the hunk of pew and threw it at me.
I jumped out of the way of the hurtled debris, and Jonathan ran up and wrapped his arms around her middle. She twisted in his arms, elbowing him in the nose and he dropped her, just as I got to them.I grabbed at her, but my hand glanced off her filthy shoulder.
Reflexively, I grasped at her again, securing her arm. She flung herself at me, wildly kicking and punching me. Jonathan then wrapped his arms around her, pinning her arms at her side and we pinned her to the ground. Jonathan held her down and I loosened the knot at my throat. We then bound her into the cloak I had worn in order to keep her from flailing her arms in our faces and escaping again. As it was, Jonathan sported a bloody nose and a black eye and I, a fat lip, when we finally stood and left with her to return to the shop. Her eyes went blank with resignation to her fate as I picked her up.
I carried her trembling form back to Jonathan’s ‘home,’ and when, as we were getting closer, the smell of food reached our noses, she finally started to become more aware of herself again.
When we arrived, Rat had the stew done and had even managed to find some old clay bowls in the cellar.
I placed Henny next to Jonathan on the ground and dug my bedroll from my pack. Covering her with that, I took back the scratchy wool cloak we had bound her in. We watched, half expecting her to run off again, but her hunger won out and, after eating, she quickly fell asleep. Jonathan carried her into the cellar to get her out of the chill night breeze.
The sight of her standing in a graveyard, naming me a monster framed itself in my mind, and I thought of the men I had slain in the days previous. Is this guilt my punishment? Have the families and friends of those I’ve killed prayed for such a thing against me as well?
I stayed awake for several hours, keeping watch and meditating until, sometime after midnight, Jonathan got up and spelled me. Sleep was only fractionally more restful as I tossed and turned, occasionally drowsing to sleep only to dream of Henny pointing at me. She righteously judged my actions as that of a monster, and the rotting corpses of the many men I had recently slaughtered joined in her condemnation of me.
The following morning came too soon. We added water to the previous night’s dinner and ate it again for breakfast.
“Well, there’s no reason to stay here any longer.” Jonathan mused aloud, mirroring the thought of those quietly eating around him.
“Where do we go from here?” Henny nervously voiced.
“Bridgeton is close.” Rat offered.
“I have an uncle there.” Henny spoke to her stew.
After refilling my bowl a fourth time, I sat down next to her to eat my breakfast, but she stood and walked away, choosing instead to sit by Rat. The look on her face was that of distrust. I found I could not blame her.
Instead, I finished my bowl again, and walked into the nearby woods. I made my way to Jonathan’s tree. He’ll need that stuff to start over there. I hope he won’t be forced to compete with his friend there.
I was again contemplating retrieve what lay inside, when an unexpected voice startled me.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Uhh… I was going to get your stuff out of the tree. I figured you…” I turned as I spoke intending to address Jonathan but seeing Mikel instead.
He looked a little dirty, but besides being a little unkempt, he appeared otherwise unharmed.
“Mikel! You’re alive!” I took a step towards him, but he leapt back drawing his knife.
“Yes, and I intend to stay that way. Where are the rest of your ‘friends,’Rickter?” Mikel eyed me warily.
“Mikel? Jonathan and Henny are at the ruins of the shop.” I tried again to step towards him.
His knife arched in front of me, narrowly missing my chest. “Stay back. Too much has happened for me to trust one such as you just yet.”
I walked around him, intending to lead him back the way I came.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What’s it look like I’m doing, silly? I’m heading to Jonathan’s.”
“Where you’ll tell all your troll buddies to eat me, no doubt. I don’t think so.” He hurled himself at me; I could do nothing but stare at him as his blade bit me in the side.
“Why… Why didn’t you defend yourself?” He yelled as he stepped back, leaving his knife in my chest.
I stood there, shocked as much by the pain of having been stabbed as the pain of his lack of faith in me. “It’s just me, Mikel. I’m not…”
Mikel’s face paled as realization of his mistake engulfed him. “I- I’m sorry, Rickter!” A tear glinted from his face as he stepped towards me and withdrew his knife.
I lost my breath as I saw the blood pour from the wound. All went black.
* * *
My head ached when I finally came to. I was still in the woods. Jonathan was speaking to Mikel in a low, threatening voice as I looked around. Rat was kneeling at my side. I went to sit up, finding immediately that the damage had not yet healed.
Rat placed his hands on my chest, “Stay down, Rickter, even a half-troll can die from too little blood. Just relax until it heals a bit more.”
I rested my head back on the ground. Henny was walking about wearing some clothes she had apparently found. She looked at me worriedly. I began to wish she would make up her mind about how she felt about me. So what? You’re the only one capable of having conflicting emotions?
I chewed the inside of my lip in response to the pointed thought.
I stayed lying down for several hours, waiting for the wound to heal. By the time it was safe to stand, the color of the sky and the chill in the air said it was nearly evening again.
“It’s a good thing you heal so fast, m’boy. Any normal man would probably have been laid up for weeks with a stabbing like that, if he was lucky enough to live through it, that is.” Rat said as he prepared a second night’s dinner.
“Had I been a normal man, I wouldn’t have been stabbed in the first place.”
“That’s hindsight, Rickter.” Jonathan spoke up. “Tis said to only appear to be the order of things. The men who attacked nearly a week ago might have cut off your arm had you been a normal man. Moreover, I doubt a normal man would have done so well in the battles that followed. Rat told me what happened when you were walking to Bridgeton. Three experienced killers are more than enough for an ordinary man.”
I cringed as he reminded me of what he regarded as prowess. I knew it to be merely more of the traits of a fiend. “Just… stop. I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Mikel walked over as we sat down to eat. “I’m sorry, Rickter. I- I thought.”
“I know what you thought. I’ve thought the same things for days now, okay. Can we just eat? I’m fine, okay?” Mikel nodded as he stood and walked away.
Henny looked at me as if she was going to say something, but thought better of it and continued eating.
“Are we leaving tomorrow?” I asked several minutes later, wanting to break the silence.
“Yes, I believe that would be wise.” Jonathan agreed.
“Did you get the ingots from the tree?” I asked.
“Yes, as well as some money I’d forgotten I had in there. It seems we’ll have enough at least for a start when we get there.” Jonathan replied. He then tipped his head back and finished off the meaty broth in the bottom of his bowl. He then looked to Zenur and tipped his head in gratitude. “Thanks for the stew, Rat.”
Lacking my usual appetite, I stopped eating after my third bowl. “That was good stew, Rat. What did you make it with?”
“I shot a few rabbits today. Turned out they were too skinny to eat plain, but they made a suitable stew, I guess.”
“Suitable?” Jonathan asked raising an eyebrow comically. “We’ll dine like kings all the way to Bridgeton if you’re cooking.”
I rolled my eyes and looked up at the sky. It was cold and windy, but the clouds had been swept from the sky.
Without the light from the village, the stars seemed less like individual points of light, but more like a dark blanket dusted throughout with the shimmering dust of a thousand diamonds