Time for “Speculative Story Saturday” here at Marcher Lord Press! I have to admit, since it was my turn (Kerry) it was all I could do not to insert an alien, robot, or distressed spaceman into the mix. But I resisted!
Here’s hoping I did an okay job, minus my typical crutches.
♦ ♦ ♦
The thief. They always forget the thief.
The trees of Dank Wood surrounded us. The smell of earth and rot. The archer, Barzillai, my longtime friend and sojourner, was ten paces ahead. Leading. Scouting. His night-adapted eyes intently searching for whatever evil may befall us. The half-giant, half-something, named Cludge was also just ahead and on my right. There was no grace in his footfalls, however, no finesse. Every twig within reach of his ponderous mauls were snapped. Every branch molested or pulled back.
And behind them both, walked the thief. Forgotten. Silent. A whisper in transit.
I smiled and drew my hood up over my brow. I had no dreams. I saw no destiny. I lived for the moment, for that was all that mattered. And it is because those others didn’t, because they lived mostly in the future, that they missed things. Important things.
Bright eyes peered out at us from nearly every direction. Most were harmless, small scampering creatures. But not all, I feared. Certainly not all.
Barzillai paused at a place where a fallen tree formed a waist-high barrier to our path. It was an easily surmountable obstruction, but that isn’t why he stopped. He stooped and studied the bulk of the tree for a few moments. Ran two fingers along its surface. Then he motioned me ahead.
Cludge paused as well, his head swaying slowly this way and that. As if noticing every bright animal eye, as if sharing something with them. Some sense…
“Fireflies!” he said then. “Cludge loves fireflies!”
I frowned, and crouched with the archer. “What have you there?” I whispered.
Barzillai’s face was grim. “A scratch.” He pointed at a light tear in the tree’s trunk. It wasn’t just a single break, though, it was three. Telltale lines. Large grasping claws.
I nodded. “A wolf-man,” I said. “Yes. I’ve noticed his spore too.”
Barzillai smoothed the tree’s surface again, leaned in as if to smell it. To sense the timing. “I think it is ahead,” he said. “I think we’ve been following it, yet—”
“They never travel alone,” I said. “Always in packs. Always an alpha and trailing betas.”
Cludge staggered toward us. Crunch, crunch, thud, and crunch. “Cludge is scared. Doesn’t like this place. The smell. The dark.”
Barzillai forced a smile. Raised up so he could touch the giant’s elbow. “As big as you are? You shouldn’t be afraid of anything.”
In reality, I knew the giant wasn’t afraid. No more than he was a bad swimmer. No more than he was the lumbering behemoth he appeared to be. Even his weight was deceptive. I realized when I helped him out of the stream. How, while he feigned terror, he lifted free like a child. Was somehow lighter than his size.
The only thing that kept me from slipping a blade into him right then was my thieves’ instinct. Though Cludge was a fraud, he was not a danger. Not to us. Not Barzillai and me, anyway.
I notice the empty quiver on Barzillai’s back. Our famed archer, declawed by a river’s rush. “And we may need your arms, Cludge,” I said. “We may need them desperately.” I thought of the rest of our party, now separated. The many things I’d noticed about them. The little tests I’d performed. The results.
Wasn’t it the thief who recognized? Who on the tree saw Abelard and Barzillai’s Savior for who He really was? Who sensed, and somehow found paradise? Indeed.
Never forget the thief.
Barzillai’s words seemed to comfort Cludge, because he gave a simple nod and showed us his shadowed fists. Shook them.
“But let’s try to stay quiet, okay?” I said.
Cludge nodded again, and for the next hour, he was as quiet as a shambling giant could be. More twigs averted his feet, it seemed. More distractions missed his gaze.
The woods got especially quiet then and Barzillai looked Cludge’s direction. He crouched and raised a hand where the giant could clearly see it. Could mimic his stance.
There was a mass of bramble before us. Again, almost forgotten, I moved up to join the others. Hunkered low to the ground. Barzillai raised a finger and pointed to his ear. Mostly for Cludge’s benefit, because I’d already heard what he heard. A distinct rustling sound ahead. The noise of a long intake of breath. A predator on the trail.
Thankfully, we were downwind.
I felt my long blade where it nestled in my cloak. Never a burden. Never failing. Almost forgotten until needed. Until necessary.
I hadn’t missed the significance of the repeated attacks. How every step we took in our journey was met with a more powerful adversary. The shadow boy, the spider…the river. All smelled of an insistent prodding. Like a leviathan circling a stranded sailor.
I admired the persistence certainly, but it would be nice to get ahead this one time. To avert the disaster before it hit us.
Barzillai drew his short blade. He gently moved a section of the brush aside and peered through. His jaw clenched and he shook his head slowly. I could sense Cludge wanting to speak. But somehow he held his tongue. I crept forward and looked through the hole that Barzillai still held open.
In a clearing probably a dozen paces ahead was a large dark shadow. It walked on two feet, but it was no man. It was completely naked. Shallow fur coated its back, chest, face and stomach. On its head, waist and four limbs, though, the hair thickened and bristled out considerably. In the dim light, the exact color of the pelt was hard to determine, but my assumptions painted it in shades of grey. The creature—our wolf-man—was bent to the ground, with his forelimbs touching it lightly and his dog-like nose buried in the forest’s carpet. He was intent. Hunting. He would grow completely silent, and then reposition slightly and snort again.
Barzillai bent close to my ear. “Should we just go around?”
Cludge mimed pounding a fist into his hand. An expected response. Willful violence.
“I think we should go around.” Barzillai pointed left, to the west. “More that way.” Again, his living in the future. The need to press on. Move ahead.
I shook my head. “Not until we know—”
There was the sound of more movement and we all leaned forward to look. The wolf-man turned to the east, and held his nose high in the air, sniffing heavily. He let out a clipped bark then and another wolf-man joined him from the gloom. This one was darker and larger than the first. They spent many moments sniffing each other about the head and shoulders. Then they drew back, and the first began to speak in clipped tones.
“There is human stench throughout this wood,” he said. “It angers.”
The darker one dips his head. “Agreed. They should be driven to the ports in fear. “
“And they soon will be, my brother. That is the Archmage’s promise.”
These were two of the trailing wolves, I realized. The betas. Again, I was grateful we weren’t detected.
“Have you found anything to assist prime Ral? His search?”
“No. But we are only to report. Surround. Not attack.”
A low growl from the grey one. “And the mage is certain? Certain they have split up?”
“He has forced it. His target has only the priest left to protect her. Not enough. Not against the Fanged Shield. Not against us.” A pause. “And there’s more. A secret.”
“A token. A bridle on her powers.”
Grey cocks his head. “And the Archmage has this?”
Grey’s lips drew back, exposing long fangs. “We have been tricked before,” he said. “Taken advantage of.”
“We follow Ral. That is all. Ral will not forsake. He is prime.”
Another growl. “And yet—”
In the distance, we heard a soulful bellow. A hollow shriek made of both man and darkness.
“Ral,” the dark wolf-man said. “And he has found her.”
“Excellent,” the other said. “We must go.”
As one they crept into the forest beyond us, heading roughly northwest. Barzillai held up his hand and we all remained silent for many moments. Waiting for the creatures to get far away. Barzillai’s face was cut with lines of worry, though. More so than the face of the giant, which instead looked thoughtful. Almost pensive.
“They are after Tekla?” Barzillai asked.
“So it appears.”
“Cludge will crush—”
I put a hand in the giant’s face. “We need to think this through. Not be rash.”
“What is there to think about?” Barzillai said. “The rest of our team is about to be ambushed. We need to help them.”
“Yes. Crush wolves!”
“Don’t let your feelings get in the way,” I said.
“Yes, Cludge.” Barzillai looks at the ground. “We need to think.”
“I was talking about you,” I said.
“Feelings?” He shook his head. “I…We need to get back the team. The mission.”
I nod. “Yes. The mission. That’s what I’m thinking about. Are you?”
A look of puzzlement. “But we should hurry or—”
“This could be the distraction we need. If the Archmage is set on the girl, then his attention is distracted. We will be able to slip into the fortress unseen.”
“But Abelard is—”
“Is quite powerful. Able. A greater distraction.”
“Cludge not leave Tekla!”
I hissed him to silence. “Let me finish. We need a diversion. This diversion. If the girl has a history with Archmage and the Landgrave, then that’s all the better. You might call it a God-send.”
Cludge swung a hand which I easily grabbed, turned—and twisting behind his back—brought to my advantage. He let out a grunt of surprise and pain. I held him, restrained him, a few moments. Enough that he knew he was beaten. Then I released him.
Barzillai pointed a finger at me. “You knew.”
I straightened, dusted my cloak. “I know lots of things,” I said. “Because I watch. I listen. It is part of the profession.”
Barzillai’s gaze didn’t waver. “You knew of this prior entanglement. That’s why you recommended her. Why you wanted her along.”
I shrugged. Her past was part of it, of course, along with the obvious test for Barzillai. A test he failed. Always an entanglement, the future. Trying to live in it. Romance! “That is all beside the point,” I said. “It is the past. What is important is what we do now. How we use this advantage.”
“We will rescue them,” he said. “We have to.”
I tried to hide my disdain. It was difficult. “There could be dozens of wolves.”
Cludge nodded his agreement. “The bridle.” he said then. “What is Tekla’s bridle?”
Barzillai smiled. “Whatever it is, Raibert can steal it.”
I frowned, tightened my cloak around me. “Ever steal from a wolf-man?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Probably isn’t easy…no pockets…no pouch…”
“And lots of anger.” I said, forcing a smile. “Plus, they rarely wash. Their fur is usually greasy.”
He nodded. “That’s bad. I guess we better get to them before they have it then.”
I let out a sigh. “If we must.”
He nodded once at each of us and then turned for the woods. “Let’s go.”
I waited for them both to move forward before I followed. I returned to my silence, to my own personal darkness. My focus on the present. The forest sounds and smells. The eyes of watchful nocturnes.
I couldn’t help but feel, though, that before our quest ended, it would be the thief who made the difference. Who saw the one thing that everyone else missed. Who made the right decision, regardless of how hard.
Never forget the thief.