by Michael Kingswood
A twig snapped beneath Ben’s boot and he froze in place, peering about and listening closely for signs that the unwelcome noise had alerted someone to his presence.
The pine forest around him had thinned. Where just a few dozen paces back the trees had been dense enough that he could have easily hidden from someone only a few yards away, here the trees were smaller, the trunks thinner and more widely spaced until ten or fifteen yards ahead they ceased entirely, the woods giving way to a grass-covered meadow where a lone cabin, hewn from fallen logs, stood.
Or, had stood.
Now, the breeze brought the scent of charred wood to his nose from that direction, along with another, more rank, odor that filled him with dread. The front of the cabin was blackened, the door fallen off its hinges and the lintel sagging beneath the weight of the thatched roof as the entire wall seemed to long to collapse.
A fly buzzed around his head, the only other sound besides that of his own heart and the rustling of the tree branches from that same breeze.
It was the middle of the day, and the warmth of the oncoming summer felt all the more oppressive beneath his breastplate and leathers. His shirt beneath his armor was matted to his skin, but his tongue was dry, stuck to the top of his mouth.
He should have filled his water skin from the creek he’d passed a mile back, but he had thought he could re-provision at Lewan’s home, as he had so many times before.
He thought of his bow, and the quiver of arrows he wore strapped to his back. But he kept the bow unstrung for travel, and by the time he would be able to ready it for use, anyone who was lurking out there could be upon him. So instead, he waited, listening and watching, with his right hand resting on the grip of his longsword.
He was just about to start forward again when suddenly a new sound, higher pitched and seeming to be coming from within the cabin, reached his ears.
A child. A child sobbing with fear and pain.
Biting back a curse, Ben surged forward.
He had to duck beneath the lintel to get within, then he immediately found Lewan.
He was on his back a pace inside the doorway, rent by three savage wounds in his chest, belly, and shoulder. They were not smooth, like would have come from a sword or axe, but jagged, as if whatever had struck him down had ripped at him.
It appeared Lewan had been caught unawares, because he wore only his roughly-tanned leggings and a homespun shirt, ruined now from the tears and blood. Ben knew he had a set of leathers and an old breastplate in storage here, from when Lewan had also served as one of the Jarl’s rangers; had he had time he certainly would have donned them.
Ben looked down at his old comrade, his long, brown, double-braided beard lying limply atop what remained of his chest and his eyes wide in a final expression of rage and terror, and said a quick prayer for his soul. Then Ben forced his eyes away.
The child’s crying had stopped; Ben had made a lot of noise coming inside. But there were only so many places to hide.
The interior was dim, despite the holes in the front wall and sagging roof that admitted the mid-day sun, and stank of blood and char and fear. What furnishings Lewan and Hilde had were upturned, their belongings strewn about. Whoever had done this had looted the place thoroughly; even Lewan’s sword was gone from his hand.
Worse, Ben saw no sign of Hilde at all.
Hope flared up within him for a second as he considered that maybe she hadn’t been here, that she had escaped this horror somehow. But just as quickly, Ben cast that thought away. It was too much to hope for.
A shift in the rubble in the back left corner of the cabin’s single room drew Ben’s attention and, moving carefully to avoid stepping on Lewan’s body, he stepped over to where their eating table, upturned and leaning against a tumbled cabinet and a mound of strewn rags and bits of clothing, lay.
The rags shifted, and Ben heard a sniff from behind the table. Grasping it by a leg, Ben dragged it aside and looked behind.
Little Andros lay there, partially covered in one of Lewan’s shirts and his right leg wedged beneath the fallen cabinet, his grey eyes wide with fear that gave way to recognition and then a smidgeon of hope when he saw Ben standing over him.
“Uncle Ben?” the boy said, and Ben’s heart wrenched within him.
Lewan had not truly been his brother; nor had Hilde been his sister. But they had all three known each other most of their lives, and before it became clear that Hilde’s heart leapt only for Lewan, Ben had fancied her.
And when he was being completely honest with himself, he admitted that one reason he still had not married was that he pined for her still. But he would never dream to impose on his friend, ruin Lewan’s family. So he had left it unsaid. And now…
Sniffing, Ben forced the twisting of his heart down deep. He could grieve later; Andros needed him now.
Squatting down next to the boy, Ben nodded. “It is me, Andros,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
The boy certainly looked quite the worse for wear. His shirt was torn in two places and soot smudged his cheeks. His eyes were red from crying, and his black hair was unkempt.
Ben’s real concern, though, was for his leg, and Andros confirmed that fear by saying, “My leg hurts. I can’t move it.”
The cabinet was solid, heavy. Made from the pinewood of the surrounding forrest, probably by Lewan’s own hands, it had once housed the cups, plates, bowls, and utensils that now lay strewn across the unstained planks that made up the cabin’s floor. It would take a bit of effort to lift it so Andros could pull free, but it should be doable.
Ben maneuvered himself around and squatted to work his fingers beneath the cabinet’s edge, then looked Andros in the eye. “This will hurt, I think. When I lift you’ll need to push yourself out of the way. Can you do it?”
Andros bit his lip, but he nodded.
Ben heaved, and the cabinet lifted off Andros’ leg. The boy hissed through his teeth, but pushed himself with his palms and free foot. A moment later he was clear, and Ben let the cabinet fall back to the floor.
Andros was sobbing again. It was difficult to see in the dim light, but the boy’s leg looked like it was resting at a weird angle. Now that the weight of the cabinet was off it, the blood was probably flowing more freely and the boy could feel the obvious break more plainly.
Ben needed to get him outside to be sure, though.
He stepped over and offered Andros his hands. “Come. Let’s get you outside.”
The boy wiped his nose on the back of his hand and nodded, then took Ben’s hands in his own. Ben pulled him up and a moment later, Andros was standing, weight fully on his uninjured leg as he leaned against Ben’s side for support.
His breath caught in his throat then, and Ben realized he had seen the body.
“Da,” Andros said, his voice breaking as fresh sobs came forth. But now he was not crying just for himself.
Surely he must have known what happened to his Da, but maybe he had held out some hope that he was mistaken.
Ben guided the boy outside, being careful to block his view of his father’s corpse as much as he could as they went. It was not sufficient, but it was the only mercy he knew to give right that moment.
Outside, he guided Andros to the corner of the cabin, away from the stink and death inside, and helped him slide down to sit on the ground, his back resting against the logs of his home and his injured leg stretched out in front of him.
It had only been a few minutes inside, but the sunlight seemed less bright, like a portion of the shadows from inside the cabin had come with them.
Ben shook his head. Imagination, and grief that he could not fully give voice to yet, were playing tricks on him.
He needed to focus. Help the boy. Find his mother.
Ben squatted down in front of Andros and looked him over. Aside from the leg, he seemed whole. Take away the way his wide eyes darted from one place to another, never settling down in one place for more than a heartbeat, and the haunted expression on his face, and he could have been a lad who had just injured himself falling out of a tree.
Take away that. Good luck with it.
“Your leg’s broken. I’ll need to make a splint,” Ben said, and Andros’ eyes stopped flitting about, coming to rest on his face. Ben leaned forward. “Where is your mother?”
Andros swallowed. Hard. Then he shook his head. “They took her.”
“Who? Who did this?”
“They…” The boy shuddered. He closed his eyes for a long moment, breathing quickly. Ben was about to ask again when he spoke, slowly, distantly, with his eyes still closed. “I don’t know what they were. They came at dinner time. Broke in the door. Da tried to fight them, but…” His voice broke and he trailed off for a second. Then he opened his eyes again and spoke more steadily than Ben would have given him credit for, considering what he’d been through. “Ma told me to hide. I was going for the bed, but the cabinet fell on me. I heard Da scream, saw them grab Ma… I passed out. Woke up, and you came.”
“You said you didn’t know what they were. Not who.”
Andros shook his head. “Weren’t people.”
Ben drew back from the boy a bit, looking at him carefully.
He must have seen the doubt on Ben’s face because Andros’ lips compressed and his gaze sharpened as he refocused on Ben. “They had grey skin. Big pointy ears. Long arms. Big black eyes. Teeth.” He shuddered again.
That made no sense. What he was describing was something out of stories; the big scary that would come get you if you didn’t do as your mother told you. Not something real.
Ben frowned, considering the boy. People’s minds had been known to crack if they’d gone through something horrible. He had seen it happen once, and now he was beginning to wonder whether Andros wasn’t far more injured than he appeared, but in a way that could not be healed.
He was putting fanciful faces onto the men who had attacked his family, that much was certain. Ben just hoped it was only a temporary refuge from reality, and not permanent.
“You don’t believe me.” The boy spoke matter of factly, but his eyes were accusing.
Ben shook his head. “Of course I believe you,” he lied. Straightening a bit he looked around.
All remained still and quiet, except for the buzzing flies that were beginning to congregate more heavily around the cabin.
“Did you see which way they went?”
Andros shrugged dissolutely. “Heard Ma screaming before I passed out. Came from that direction.” He pointed off to his right.
Ben followed the boy’s finger with his gaze and frowned. The meadow continued for a few hundred yards in that direction, then faded into forest again, the pines quickly obscuring sight as they grew more thickly than in the section of woods Ben had come through earlier, and the ground began rising more steeply as the rolling hills where Lewan set up his homestead became the Frostfang Mountains, several miles distant.
He looked up at the few clouds in the sky. It had been overcast earlier this morning, and there had been rain last night. That was probably why the cabin hadn’t burned completely, and thank God it hadn’t or Andros would have suffered a truly horrible end.
But the ground may have been softened enough that the raiders had left tracks.
He needed to see to Lewan’s body and get Andros to town, where the healers could see to him. But if he could find the raiders’ trail…
“I’m going to have a look,” he said, straightening his legs fully. “Will you be alright for a few minutes?” The boy stirred, and Ben looked back to see him looking afright and opening his mouth to object. Ben added quickly, “I won’t go far, and will be back before you know it.” He put on a determined smile that he hoped was comforting. “I’m not leaving you.”
Andros’ lips quivered, but after a second he nodded.
Ben returned the nod, then hurried in the direction the boy had pointed.
He was right, there was a trail.
The grass was beaten down in several spots on the way across the meadow, and there were depressions in the soil beneath that had to be footprints, leading straight toward the woods.
Ben moved quickly, easily following the signs, but paused as he reached the first overhanging boughs of the pine trees. The grass quickly faded out, replaced by fallen needles and smaller bushes in the dimmer light beneath the forest canopy. On a patch of bare earth near the first of the tree trunks, he found another track, this one plain and obvious.
But this was not the track of a booted man. If was long and thin, with three toes, the center one longer and thicker than the outer two.
A chill went up Ben’s spine, and he reached for the grip of his sword.
His mouth was already dry from the heat, but he felt it wither all the more as he began to suspect Andros’ mind hadn’t cracked after all.
He stopped, peering about and listening, scenting.
This far from the cabin the smell of char and death was gone, and there was only odor of dropped pine needles on the air. The tree branches above continued to sway in the breeze.
But there was something else, a subtle creaking noise from further back in the woods and uphill a ways.
Swallowing, Ben drew his sword and advanced, careful to avoid any offending twigs.
He found Hilde a hundred paces further up.
She was hanging spread eagle by her wrists, which were tied to separate boughs from two different nearby trees. Her back was to him as he approached. She was stripped to the waist, and her head drooped forward, her blonde hair falling loosely. She swung slowly back and forth, creating the creaking noise Ben had heard earlier.
“Hilde?” he said, softly, as he approached.
It was a vain hope that she still might live, but he hoped anyway. Until he rounded where she was hanging and saw the front of her.
“My God,” he said.
Her chest was ripped open between her breasts. They had taken her heart.
And from the rictus of terror and pain on her face, she had been alive and awake when they’d done it.
Ben turned away, tasting bile as his stomach heaved. He pressed the fist of his left hand to his mouth to hold back throwing up, and for a moment the world swam around him.
It settled after a few moments, and when he took notice of the rest of the area, his blood went to ice.
An outcrop of rocks, half again as tall as he was and covered in moss and lichen, stood opposite where Hilde hung. A crack in their center lead into the darkness of a narrow cave. The trees seemed to ring to the crack, and there were strange glyphs, all circles and sharp angles, carved into the trunks, and into the rocks.
In the center of the ring, in front of the crack, was the stump where a great tree, twice as thick as the other pines nearby, had once stood. About knee-high, it was blackened on top, as though used for many burnings.
It was smeared in blood, and little chunks of meat.
Ben didn’t need to ask what kind of meat.
There was a sense of unclean power about the place, and Ben shivered uncontrollably.
What was this place? And how had whomever used it come to be here without Lewan knowing about it?
Lewan had been a ranger like Ben, until he took an arrow to the knee. But he loved the woods so he had made his home here, and made his living as a hunter and trapper, trading the skins he took in town for items he and Hilde could not make themselves.
He knew these woods like he knew himself. He would never have settled near such a place, or allowed such a place to be made near where his family lived.
The implications of that thought struck Ben to his core. This was new, recently done. Which meant everyone else living in the valley under the Jarl’s protection could be in danger as well.
Ben sheathed his sword and turned away from the crack, to Hilde. He took his knife from its sheath on his right hip, and moved to Hilde’s side. He put his arm around her waist and cut first her right hand and then her left free.
Her body slid stiffly down onto him, and he lowered her gently to the ground. Then he took a moment and just looked at her face.
He had known her since he was a boy. She had brightened his life, and the lives of everyone around her. If she hadn’t chosen his friend and comrade…
He put his knife away, reached out, and ran his fingers along her chin line, and realized tears were flowing down his cheeks.
“Oh, Hilde,” he said, and the grief that he could not show before in front of Andros sprang up through his chest, and he hung his head, sobbing for his friend, and for his love that could have been.
A sound that wasn’t a sound swept past him, and Ben jerked, his eyes snapping around to look at the crack in the rocks.
It felt like he was staring into the eyes of an enemy, but there was nothing to be seen there. All the same…
He rose, his hand going back to his sword hilt, and waited.
A sense of presence, of malice, seemed to grow all around him. He looked left and right from the corners of his eyes and saw nothing, but it seemed there must be creatures coming up on all sides.
He swallowed, and bared a couple inches of steel.
The malicious presence faded, and the sound that was not a sound echoed through the scene of atrocity again. Then it was gone completely.
Ben released his weapon, and it slid all the way home again with a soft thunk of steel contacting wood. Moving quickly, he took a moment to tie the scraps of Hilde’s blouse up to cover her breasts and the horrible wound in her chest. Then he picked her up and put his back to the crack, moving as quickly as he could to get away from that place.
* * * * *
Ben did not begrudge Andros his tears when the boy saw his mother’s body. But he did not have time to join him in his grief or offer him comfort.
Whoever it was that had taken over that section of the woods, whoever had accosted Lewan and his family the night before, had left a remnant of some sort. Ben would bet good money those people….creatures…whatever…would be back. And he and the boy needed to be far gone from here when they came.
But he couldn’t just leave Lewan and Hilde to the scavengers, so he got to work.
Lewan kept a work shed at the edge of the woods behind his cabin, and Ben was relieved to see it hadn’t been looted the way the cabin had been.
Relieved, and puzzled.
But he could ponder the whys later. For now, he ladeled himself out some water from the cask Lewan always kept there and picked out a spade that Lewan had hung on the wall.
The digging was difficult, because the soil adjacent to the cabin was rocky, and he made slow progress. By the time he had a hole deep enough for Lewan and Hilde’s resting place the sun was a quarter of the way from its zenith to the horizon, and his back and shoulders felt rubbery with exertion.
After he lowered the bodies into the hole, he took a few minutes to make a splint and a crude crutch from felled branches, then set about making Andros’ leg as good as he could make it.
The boy winced as Ben helped him up onto his foot and crutch. Ben watched him hobble his way over to the grave site and did an inward assessment, then grimaced himself.
It was going to be a long, awkward, and uncomfortable walk back to town for the boy. But he couldn’t think of a better solution, with what was available.
He joined Andros next to the grave and looked down at the two bodies. They still had some of the post-death stiffness, but their limbs had loosened enough that he had been able to maneuver them into a semblance, at least, of an embrace. They could enter eternity together, the way they had faced life.
Ben and the boy stood in silence for a time, Andros sniffing back more tears.
Unsure what to say, what if anything could help, finally Ben said, “They were my good friends. I will miss them.” Then he gave the boy’s shoulder a squeeze and said, “I’m sorry.”
Andros placed his hand atop Ben’s for a second and gave it a squeeze, then looked up at him and nodded.
Ben returned the nod, then set to filling in the grave.
After he was done, he filled his water skin from the cask in Lewan’s shed, and the two of them set out for town.
Ben cast his eyes skyward as they walked into the pine forest, retracing his steps from earlier in the day.
They probably only had four or five hours until full dark, at most. It was five miles to town, through the forest and down into the valley before reaching the river that flowed past the town walls.
If it was just him, Ben could have made the journey with a couple hours to go, at least. With Andros along, injured as he was… He wouldn’t give odds of them beating the darkness.
“I know it’s difficult, but we need to hurry, Andros,” he said. “If the creatures from last night are still around, we don’t want to be caught out after dark.”
The boy looked at him, and Ben could tell he noted that Ben had not called them people. Well, after that setup by the rocks, he was no longer so sure.
Andros nodded understanding, and he did put forward an effort, crutching along at a much quicker pace than Ben would have given him credit for. But he still could only go so quickly even on level terrain. And that was impossible to find out in the wild.
Still, while they made better progress than Ben had feared they would, he began to grow anxious as time wore on and they still seemed to, comparatively, crawl.
He told himself there was no reason for his concern. The raid had been fast, and deadly, and those who perpetrated it must assume their deeds would have been discovered. To come back to the same location would be insanity.
That didn’t stop the nagging feeling of dread in the back of his mind. That presence back in the rocks…
“Where did you find Ma?” Andros asked. It was the first thing he had said since they set out, some time ago.
Ben looked sidelong at him, and saw the boy struggling over a root that penetrated the earth in front of him. Ben thought to help him, but he managed over it. All the same, he could tell the effort had pained Andros, and he was beginning to look as though he was tiring.
How much longer could he keep up this pace, through the pain of his leg and the crushing grief that had to be eating at him?
As long as he has to said a soft voice in Ben’s head. True enough.
Andros looked back at him, an eyebrow rising expectantly, and Ben brought his thoughts back to the boy’s question.
He cleared his throat as he considered how much to tell him about that gruesome place. Finally, he said, “Near an outcropping of rocks a ways up the hill on the other side of the meadow. The one with the deep crack leading into a cave?”
Andros frowned, then shook his head. “There’s no cave there. The crack ends after a couple feet.” He continued crutching along down the slope, silent now except for the sounds of his breathing and those of his foot and crutch disturbing the blanket of needles on the ground.
Ben stopped, watching him go on, and felt that crawling dread grow deeper.
There most definitely had been a cave at the end of that crack. There was no mistaking it. And that menacing presence had looked out at him from within.
But Andros had grown up in that cabin, played in the woods all around his house. He would know that place, and if he said there was no cave there…
What in God’s name was going on?
Ben hurried to catch up to the boy, who had already put twenty feet between them while he was pondering. They needed to get out of these woods before nightfall. The certainty of that pulled at Ben’s soul like the lead on a hunting dog.
“Push on, Andros,” he said by way of encouragement. “We should be to the stream soon. We can rest for a few minutes there, but we need to keep up the pace.”
* * * * *
Where the stream flowed, the forest parted. It was only a small parting, twenty or thirty feet at most, but after the last hour or so tramping beneath the forest canopy, to see the blue sky and the brightness of direct—or near enough—sunlight made Ben’s spirits lift considerably.
The stream was only four or five feet across, but it ran swiftly through a little gulley that it had carved over countless years, creating eddies big and small as it swirled past moss-covered rocks on its way down to the valley below, where if Ben’s memory served it joined with a minor tributary that then ran into the Greenflow, which flowed straight past town.
The sound of insects, always present through the woods but louder now as waterborne creatures added their buzzing to that of the flies that had seemed to follow him and Andros from the cabin, combined with that of the flowing water, gave Ben a feeling of peace that was accentuated by the scent of freshwater and the of undergrowth that fed on it.
Almost, he could forget the horror of what had occurred, a bit more than a mile to their backs.
Ben took a moment to help Andros get seated on a small boulder that sat on the edge of the stream, and rest his injured leg on a smaller rock nearby. He gave the boy his water skin, and Andros drank deeply.
Handing it back, Andros said, “I’m hungry.”
Ben’s stomach growled in agreement with the boy’s words, and he cursed himself for not taking the time to more thoroughly inventory the remaining contents of the cabin. It had been looted, but surely there must have been some food, even a loaf of bread, left behind.
But he hadn’t looked, and so he had only the basic rations he always carried, as part of his ranger kit.
“I’ve got some jerky,” he said, and reached into the pouch that he kept at the small of his back, where he kept his rations. He pulled out a small handful of the dried meat and passed it over to the boy, who accepted it eagerly.
Ben began gnawing on some of the jerky himself, and washed it down with a pull from his water skin.
The skin was halfway depleted, and they had a long way to go still. He turned away from Andros and bent over to fill it, but stopped when the boy spoke.
“What will become of me, when we get to town?”
Ben looked back at Andros and saw that he was looking at him with eyes that could see no hope in his future.
“Don’t worry. Your father served Jarl Henri well, and the Jarl remembers that. He’ll make sure the healers take good care of you.”
Andros nodded, but he didn’t look reassured. Swallowing, he said, “I mean…” He paused, and drew a breath. “Where will I live?”
Ben frowned. He hadn’t thought of that. He’d been more focused on the immediate tasks at hand. He considered for a moment, then shrugged. “There are many families who would be honored to take you in. The Jarl will make sure you – ”
“Can I live with you, Uncle Ben?”
Andros was looking at him with an open expression that showed a hope that he dared not actually embrace, and Ben had no idea how to respond for a moment.
Then he shook his head. “I don’t have a wife to help take care of you, Andros. I – ”
“I don’t care. I want to.”
Ben could see that Andros meant that, but he couldn’t understand why. Yes, he had been friends with Lewan, and he had known Andros for the boy’s entire life. But others had –
He stopped himself in mid-thought. Actually, no. Others had not had the same experience with Andros. Living out away from others as they had, Lewan and his family only rarely had visitors. Ben made it a point to stop through every time he had the high elevation patrol duty, but he had no idea how many of the other rangers did the same.
Yes, it was their duty to check in on all of the Jarl’s people, but there were isolated homesteads all throughout the hill lands surrounding the valley. In reality it would be nearly impossible for a patrolling ranger to check in on everyone with any regularity.
But Ben had always stopped by Lewan’s place. Andros probably felt like he actually was an uncle. Or near enough to it.
Ben frowned, but found he had no argument against the earnest expression, and need, on the boy’s face.
“Tell you what,” he said, finally. “Let’s worry about getting you to the healers and healthy for now. We can talk about what comes after later, ok?”
Andros held his gaze for a long moment, then he nodded, looking down toward the water flowing past his perch.
Ben could tell his answer wasn’t at all satisfactory, but it was all he had to give right then.
He turned away from the boy and unstoppered his water skin, then bent over and lowered it into the stream to fill it.
A sound that was not a sound swept over him, and Ben stiffened.
Losing his grip on the water skin, he straightened and spun to face back the way they had come, his right hand coming to rest on the hilt of his sword.
He peered back through the trees, toward the cabin, though it was lost from view at this distance. The lengthening shadows beneath the forest’s canopy suddenly seemed sinister, threatening.
Andros had noticed Ben’s change in demeanor, and he straightened on his rock, his eyes widening.
“Andros,” Ben said. “You said the attackers came at dinner. Was it full night?”
The boy considered for a couple heartbeats, then he shook his head. “No. It was more twilight.”
Ben cursed inwardly. He was about to tell Andros it was time to go when another wave of sound that was not a sound struck him. But this time, there was a voice carried with it.
He could not hear the voice, but the words emblazoned themselves into his mind nonetheless.
Give us the boy.
Ben drew his sword and advanced two steps. The weapon was made for use with one hand, but the hilt was sized so that he could grip it with both hands if he had need to strengthen his swing.
He did so now, bringing the blade up to a high vertical guard, with his weight divided equally between his feet.
Ben moved his gaze to the left, then right, the left again, scanning the forest in front of him for movement. There was nothing. But as before, in the grove where he’d found Hilde, he sensed a presence, growing by the moment.
“Uncle Ben?” Andros’ voice squeaked, pitching upward in fright.
“Show yourself!” Ben roared.
Still nothing accept for that ominous sense of presence. Of malice.
“Uncle Ben, what’s wrong?”
Ben’s mind raced back to the tales he’d heard as a child. The tales Andros’ description of the previous night’s attackers had brought back to his memory. Of the dark spirits and devils who waited to prey on the unwary, or the greedy, or the wicked.
The wicked seemed to be anyone who didn’t do what their mothers told them, back in the stories of his youth. And he had scoffed at them then.
He wasn’t scoffing anymore.
What had the stories said about those creatures? Their weaknesses?
He flashed to a singular fact, and he grasped onto it like a drowning man to a log.
They could not pass over flowing water.
“Andros. Go to the other side of the stream.”
“Do it now!”
Behind him, Ben heard Andros get up onto his crutch and struggle across the flowing water. Ben remained still, watching and listening to the woods ahead, feeling the presence back there, growing steadily.
The sound of a tumble came from behind him, and Andros let out a cry of chagrin and pain.
Ben glanced back, and saw the boy sprawled out on the far side of the stream where he had fallen.
The sound that was not a sound swept past again, and Ben felt amusement within it, and the assurance that they could not escape the presence’s grasp, whatever it was.
Well. He would damn sure try.
Sheathing his sword, Ben turned and hurried back to the stream. He hopped from stone to stone across the flow, noticing with chagrin as he went that his water skin was no longer where he had dropped it; the current had swept it downstream.
He got to Andros’ side and helped the boy to his foot, and his crutch.
“Are you alright?”
Andros nodded, but his eyes were frightened.
Ben didn’t give him any time to ask questions. “Come. We’ve got to move.”
* * * * *
The shadows were much longer now, the sky when visible through breaks in the trees turning to the pink-orange of sunset.
They were running out of time, and though they had made progress, Ben knew it wasn’t enough.
He had changed tactics, choosing to follow the stream down its course to the Greenflow, rather than take the direct route through the remainder of the woods and then across the prairie lands to the bridge spanning the river just downstream of town. It added more distance to their journey, but he had reasoned if the creatures were continuing their pursuit—and he had no reason to think they were not—being near to the water might be of some aid if he and Andros had to evade them again.
Now, he was beginning to think that had been a mistake.
It was hard to estimate how far they had come in the time since crossing the stream. Two miles? Three? But their progress had slowed considerably; Andros was tiring, and finding it harder and harder to maneuver his crutch as the shadows deepened, hiding pits in the earth and tangling roots.
They were not going to make it to town before nightfall, that was certain. But if –
Andros let out a yelp and stumbled, losing grip on his crutch as he overbalanced. The yelp turned into a cry of pain when he struck the ground, his injured leg taking the brunt of the impact.
Ben rushed to his side and squatted down.
“I can’t go any farther, Uncle Ben,” Andros said.
Exhaustion was written all over the boy’s face. And not just from the physical effort. The grief and fear of the last day had worked its foul arts on him as well, and Ben saw he was well and truly spent.
But they had to keep going.
“We can’t stop here, Andros. It’s not safe.”
Andros shook his head, tears welling up in his eyes. “I can’t.”
Ben sighed and looked over his shoulder back the way they came. It was getting more difficult to see any great distance, from the loss of the light. It was nearing twilight, when the creatures had attacked yesterday, and Ben had no doubt they would be coming shortly.
Unless they truly had been stymied by the stream. But Ben would not give odds on that. For one thing, the stream did not run forever. Go far enough up into the hills and they would find its source, and skirt it.
For another, how high would that resistance stretch? Would a fallen log across the stream’s gully allow the creatures passage?
For that matter, would the bridge over the Greenflow?
Regardless, he and Andros could not remain here. Even if the creatures had to go all the way to the stream’s source, they would be coming. He had gained time, but not an eternity.
He looked back down at Andros and nodded. “I’ll carry you then.”
Andros looked to object, but Ben didn’t give him time. Grasping the boy under the armpits, Ben straightened and lifted, pulling the boy up until his head was even with Ben’s shoulder. Andros grunted from pain again as Ben shifted him around so that he could more effectively support the boy’s weight. Then he wrapped his arms around Ben’s neck and shoulders.
“This will not be comfortable,” Ben said, but there was no help for it, so he set out.
The boy didn’t weigh all that much, maybe forty pounds, but it wasn’t long before that weight began to wear at Ben’s arms and back.
Not that he wasn’t used to exertion. But between digging the grave, moving the bodies, and now carrying Andros through the deepening shadows of the waning day, Ben’s arms soon began quivering, his back aching from the strain of the day.
How much longer could he keep this up?
Suck it up, ranger, said that quiet voice in Ben’s mind, echoes of his father and of the men who trained him when he first joined the Jarl’s service. Echoes of Lewan, who encouraged him to not quit when the training got hardest.
Resolute, Ben focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Ahead, it looked like the forest was thinning, and the ground began to rise. The stream, grown more broad now as it flowed downhill, bent to the right, away from that elevated place. Ben thought to continue with the stream, but there was something about that rise that triggered his memory. He had not been this way in some time, but wasn’t there a rise at the edge of the woods along the bank of the Greenflow?
Perhaps they’d come farther than Ben thought.
He headed toward the rising land and thinning trees, allowing himself to indulge in a bit of hopeful thinking.
The going got more tough as the upward slope increased, but as the trees became more sparse he saw more patches of sky. The reddish-orange was fading, turning to the grey-blue of twilight. The very first, brightest stars of the night were just becoming visible.
Something tickled in the back of Ben’s mind, disturbing his brief stint of enthusiasm. Something…
The hairs on his arms rose as he realized what he was feeling. The same presence as at the grove, and the stream. He stopped, looking left and right, then behind himself.
The world was a dim half-light, the shadows grown deep and menacing as the last of the day’s light drained away. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew without doubt they were coming.
And just then, the sound that was not a sound echoed, and Ben’s blood went to ice.
He turned a full circle, and could just barely make out the stream, now far off to his right. He thought to head in that direction.
But something passed between the trees over there.
The sound came again, noiseless and menacing, and containing a grim, resolute, and implacable malice.
“Uncle Ben,” Andros said, into his ear. “There’s something out there.”
The boy was right. All around, back a ways in the woods but coming closer, shadows flitted from trunk to trunk, somehow clearly visible despite the growing gloom, as though they were more purely black than the mere lack of light caused by the setting sun.
They were everywhere. Except further up the rise.
Ben swallowed, forcing his growing dread down deep. “Hold on tight,” he said, then turned and ran up the hill.
He could not go anywhere near as fast as normal with his burden, but Ben felt the growing certainty that even if he were able to, he could not outrun the presence that he now felt plainly, giving chase to them.
Ben’s heart pounded in his ears, and his breath came in heaves. His legs burned, and his back screamed for him to lose the weight of his burden.
He ignored it, drawing on all the miseries of his ranger training, and pushed on.
They emerged from the woods near the top of the rise, and Ben for a moment felt a flash of hope. But then he reached the top, and drew up short.
This was the rise on the bank of the Greenflow; Ben could see the river below, and downstream to his left, maybe a mile distant, the torches of the Jarl’s watchmen atop the palisade wall that ringed the town. But he had forgotten about the nearly sheer drop from the rise’s top to the water, some thirty feet below.
There was no way to go forward, here.
Looking to the right, he could just spy where the stream he had been following merged with the Greenflow, a couple hundred yards away and below where they now stood.
Damn his stupidity. He should have stayed with the stream. If he had, they could be –
Andros sucked in a breath, more liked gasped, in Ben’s ear. Ben turned around, and despair threatened to overwhelm him.
They were there, down in the woods and ringing his position at the top of the rise. Shadowy figures, blacker than black and emanating that malicious presence that he had felt before. But now, closer on, there was a scent about them, sickly-sweet like a body that had just begun to rot but had not completely succumbed to decay yet.
They stood there, still and watching, and Ben felt his skin crawl under their gaze.
There was a rock not far away. He bent over and set Andros down on the bare stone, freeing his arms, then took a step toward the creatures, whatever they were, and drew his blade.
“Well?” Ben said, trying to make his tone confident and fearless and not sure how well he succeeded. “Let’s get to this. Face me, you devils!”
There was a stirring among the group of shadows, and then movement from directly in front of Ben and down slope, just within the trees. One of the creatures, a bit taller than the others, moved out into the open, and Ben’s guts went to water.
It was just as Andros had described. Tall and lanky, rippled in muscle, with arms that stretched to just past its knees and large pointed ears that could have been horns, they rose so far on its head. Its chin was sharp and pointed, jutting out like a spear tip from the rest of its face, which was angular and chiseled. Its eyes were large, oval, and completely black, and it had a tuft of black hair atop its head. It was naked, but it needed no clothing because it was completely sexless, as far as Ben could see.
It carried a sword in its right hand. The last of the waning light seemed to flash off the blade as the creature…devil…whatever…gave it a swing, and Ben knew it was Lewan’s sword the thing was wielding.
“Devil,” the creature said, and it used an actual voice instead of the strange voice that was not that spoke to Ben’s mind before at the stream. “Such an unimaginative term.”
It moved closer, and Ben raised his sword to a high guard, moving to place himself more fully between the creature and Andros.
The creature raised its free hand, palm out toward Ben in a placating gesture. “Peace, ranger,” it said. “We have no quarrel with you. We just want the boy.”
The thing’s voice was smooth but gravelly, like slime running across a carpenter’s sanding stone. Hearing it turned Ben’s stomach, and he tasted bile for a second.
He swallowed, hard. “Why? He’s an innocent.”
The creature shrugged. “His father made a pact with us.” Its brow furrowed in a freakish imitation of amusement. “A matter of the heart that he wanted resolved in his favor. And resolve it we did,” a black, wormlike tongue flicking across its lips, “for a price.” The thing drew a breath. “Two nights ago he tried to renege. As a result, everything he had is forfeit. His soul, but that was forfeit already. His wife.” The thing’s eyes, though pupil-less, nevertheless clearly shifted from Ben to regard Andros. “His son.”
The thing shrugged again, not responding.
“Then why did you not take Andros last night?”
“An oversight. We thought he was dead, and thus lost to us. We cannot claim a soul that is not already pledged to us unless it is taken in,” the corners of its mouth turned ever so slightly upwards, “a certain way.”
Ben flashed back to the scene of Hilde’s death. Her heart taken out, and chopped to bits on the burned stump. His sword lowered from its guard, unbidden, as the import of the thing’s words struck him to the very core of his being. Horror that he had never conceived of before, the existential dread of eternal suffering without release, welled up within him.
The thing was saying that Hilde – ?
“Your gesture at the grave site was fitting,” the thing said. “They are together for all eternity.” Its smile broadened. “With us.”
“Oh God,” Ben said, not realizing he was actually speaking until the words left his mouth.
“God has nothing to do with it.” The mockery in the thing’s voice was plain. “Stand aside, ranger, and let us claim our prize. No need for you to suffer as well.”
Ben only thought he had felt grief before, at the cabin and at the place of atrocity. But even then, he had harbored some solace that though his friend and his love might have passed from this mortal realm, they lived on in the next life, in bliss eternal. If what this thing was saying was true…
“No!” he snarled, the horror and grief fusing into fury at what the twisted thing that had done to his friends. “No, you shall not have him.”
The thing looked at Ben for a short while, then again made another of its shrugs. “We could, perhaps, agree to a trade.”
Its eyes pierced through to Ben’s soul, and he knew exactly what the thing meant. “Me for him, is that what you’re saying?”
“A fair deal, wouldn’t you say?”
The thing looked away from him for a second, toward Andros, and its expression softened, somehow. “She would have chosen you, you know, had we not intervened. You were always first in her heart.”
It was like a dagger in the chest. Ben found himself taking a half-step backwards and dropping his guard completely, the thing’s words struck him so hard. “What do you say?”
The things moved forward, maintaining the distance between them. “I know all her secrets, now. She often thought of you, even while lying with your friend.”
Ben’s shoulders slumped. He had dreamed of being with Hilde so many times in the past, and though he had forced himself to put those desires aside for the sake of his friendship with Lewan, part of him dreamed of her still. Or had, until today. And now, to hear that she had felt the same…
He shook his head in denial.
“She no longer wishes to be with him,” the thing said, and it moved closer, though Ben hardly noticed in his shock. Its tone was smoother now, like oil running down silk. “I will let you have her, the way you always wanted. And the boy will go free, to live his life in peace. Just…give yourself over.”
It reached for him with its free hand, the one that had made the gesture of peace a moment ago.
It was so tempting. Visions of fantasies that he had kept close to his heart for so long swept through Ben’s mind. Dancing with Hilde in the tall grass. Tickling her and kissing her. Lying with her, and making a family. All the things that could have been, and that he had longed for.
If not for this foul creature in front of him.
The temptation was strong, but it collapsed before the reality of what the thing was, and what it was really offering. What it had already done to his friends, and what it would gleefully do to him, if he let it.
“No!” he snarled again, and he swung upward with his sword.
It took the thing’s arm at the wrist, and its hand went flying off into the growing night.
The devil recoiled, howling in surprise, and Ben surged forward. A backswing took the devil across its throat.
Black blood welled up from the cut, and the thing, apparently still shocked at the turn of events, raised the stump of its hand to press, futilely, against the wound.
Ben kicked it in the chest, and the thing fell backward onto the ground. Lewan’s sword fell from its grasp as the devil’s body slid half a dozen feet down the slope.
It spasmed for a second, then went still.
Well. That was easier than Ben thought it would be.
He moved backwards to his original spot, and flicked the black blood from his blade.
None of the other devils had moved.
“Well?” Ben called out, “Who’s next? I haven’t got all night.”
Still they remained where they were, unmoving.
Overhead, all of the night’s stars were now plainly visible. The last blue-white remnants of the day’s light glimmered from the western horizon, but night had completely taken hold on the land. The moon had not yet risen, but Ben’s eyes had adjusted naturally to the growing darkness, and the light of the stars was enough that he could see, dimly.
Ahead of him, and down slope, the fallen devil’s body twitched, and then it sat upright. It ran its good hand across its throat, and then it rose. It hunted about in the grass of the slope for a moment, then rose and held up the hand that Ben had hewn off. Pressing it to the stump of its arm, it paused for a moment, then spread its arms wide, the fingers of both hands flexing clearly and without difficulty.
Ben watched all this, a growing numbness spreading through his body as the true enormity of his situation struck home.
The devil snarled, and Ben knew he could not win against it. Not with steel.
It advanced, and its gaze promised unimaginable torments that would surely be his. Forever.
Ben cast about, but everywhere he looked were more of the devils, moving forward now in time with their leader.
There was no escape. No way out of the trap he had run himself and Andros into.
Slamming his sword home into its scabbard, he turned his back on the devils and sprinted toward Andros, who still sat atop his rock with an expression of utter horror on his face.
Ben didn’t stop, but scooped the boy up into his arms.
And leapt off the edge of the rise.
The bottom fell out of Ben’s stomach, and Andros screamed in his ear. Wind whipped past his head as he fell.
He looked down, and saw the starlight glimmering off the flowing water of the Greenflow, rushing to meet them.
At the last minute, Ben rolled his body and hugged Andros tight against him.
He hit the water with his back, and the breath rushed out of his lungs. The frigid cold of the water closed around him, and he had to restrain himself from inhaling, lest he drown.
It flashed through his head that if he had not been wearing his breastplate, the impact would have hurt like what the devil above had planned for him.
Then he struck the bottom, and he stopped being glad for that hunk of steel.
He pushed himself upward and kicked for all he was worth, his lungs burning.
Ben broke the surface, and he heard Andros gasp in a breath. He only had a second to take in his own bit of air, and then Ben sank beneath the waters again.
He released Andros, allowing the boy to float, and groped about for his knife. He needed to get his boots and his breastplate off, before it was too late.
There. The knife was free.
Moving by feel, Ben sawed at the ties on his right boot, then his left, and he kicked the heavy implements loose.
Again his feet struck the bottom, his toes oozing into the river’s mud, and he pushed himself upward. The weight of his breastplate dragged at him, but he managed to kick and pull himself to the surface a second time.
He heard thrashing from off to his left, and Andros’ voice calling something in a panicked tone. Then he was under again, having only time for another gasping breath.
Ben found the three straps that held his breastplate to his body on his left side, and began working them with his knife.
The first parted, and he moved on to the second, but he was beginning to lose focus. His lungs burned, and his body cried out in panic for him to take a breath, and no matter that it was only water surrounding him.
He forced the urge down, but he knew it would not be long before he would be unable to continue doing so.
He redoubled his efforts, moving the knife by feel in the blackness of the water.
The second strap parted.
He must surely take a breath now, or he would die.
The illogical thought burned through Ben’s mind, and he could not force it away.
The strap. Had to get the…
It parted, and the breastplate loosened. He shrugged his way out, losing the knife in the process. But it didn’t matter.
He had to get to the surface. Now.
He kicked upward. It was taking forever…
Ben broke the surface, and he let out his breath in an explosive exhalation, then heaved in a huge lungful of blessed air. Then a second.
Ah, it never felt so good, just to breathe.
But after a few seconds of bliss, the situation recalled to his mind, and he cast about in the darkness as the river’s current bore him downstream.
“Andros!” he called, concern for the boy driving his earlier relief from him.
Downstream a ways, and off to the left, he heard a thrashing, then a coughing. Then, weakly, “Uncle Ben!”
He sounded weak. His broken leg had to be making it difficult to stay afloat, even if he hadn’t already exerted himself past his normal limit of endurance.
“Andros!” Ben called. “Swim to me!”
He couldn’t tell if the boy heard him, but it didn’t matter. Ben crawled toward him, the boy’s noises getting louder as he neared him.
Finally, he caught sight of the boy, just a few feet ahead.
“I’m here,” Ben called, and Andros twisted around in the water, his face dipping under.
Ben reached out and grabbed hold of him, pulling him close and bearing his face clear of the choking fluid.
The boy clutched at him, and Ben almost found himself dragged under in the process. He freed his arms, and treaded water, though it was difficult with the boy’s added weight on him.
“Are you alright?”
Andros shook his head, and began sobbing.
Ben couldn’t blame him.
He turned to look behind them, and saw the rise they had jumped from. It was just a shadow set against other shadows in the night, and the river’s current had already swept them a few hundred yards away. But he thought he saw another shadow, deeper than the blackest night, standing motionless atop the rise.
He felt the devil’s gaze following them, and whatever relief he had felt in their escape fled, replaced by that existential fear he had discovered up on the rise.
Then the shadow slipped down the slope, out of sight.
They would not give up, just because he and Andros had slipped through their fingers again. They would follow, and though they could not directly cross water to get to him and the boy, they would find a way.
Probably the bridge; it crossed a good fifteen feet above the flowing water.
He didn’t have a whole lot of time to come up with another plan.
“What are we going to do?” the boy said into his ear, and Ben honestly didn’t have an answer.
But then he noticed that they were beginning to speed up, and he heard a low rushing sound from ahead, and he grimaced. He’d forgotten about the rapids above the city.
They were short, and not particularly difficult to navigate in a canoe. In the middle of the day.
But at night, without a boat…
He looked forward, and could see white foam a few hundred yards ahead.
He couldn’t go to the left bank; the devils would be there. There was no way he could make the right bank before the rapids.
“Hold on to me,” he said, kicking his feet up to the surface so he was floating on his back. “Don’t let go, and keep your feet pointing downstream.”
Andros seemed confused, but then he looked downstream and also saw the approaching rapids.
And then they were shooting through. The current jostled them, threatening to rip them apart from each other, then sucking them down a chute between unseen boulders.
He hit an eddy, and thought the worst of it was done, but then his momentum carried them through to the other side, and the current grabbed them again.
At some point, Ben got spun around, and he struck a rock on his right side.
He cried out as pain stabbed through his body, and he felt a rib give.
Then they were through, and he was panting, a mixture of pained groan and need for air driving his breaths. Andros floated next to him, sobbing again, but apparently no more injured than he already was.
Ben tried to move his arm and winced as his ribs protested the motion.
But the lights of the torches on the town’s wall were drawing nearer. They needed to get to the bank before they were swept past the town, to the bridge and beyond.
Once thing was certain: their only chance of survival was inside those walls.
“Hold on tight,” he said, and began crawling toward the right-hand bank.
Every movement was a lecture in pain, but slowly, seemingly inch by inch, he continued until finally, when it seemed the distance would never close, he felt mud beneath his toes and fingertips.
Relief swept over him, and he clawed his way halfway out of the water. There he collapsed, face down in the mud, completely spent.
He wanted to just sleep, but that would only lead to their deaths. And worse than death.
So after a few minutes, Ben pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then turned to sit on his rump. He did a quick inventory, and winced even more than he had been from the pain in his ribs.
His bow and quiver were gone. His armor was gone, and his knife. His rations and water skin were gone, and his firestarting gear. He had no boots.
But he had his sword. For all the good that would do against these devils.
He racked his brain, thinking back to all the stories he’d heard about them in his youth, and from the priests in the Temple. He had never concerned himself very much with what the priests had to say before. Yes, he believed in God—what fool didn’t?—but he’d always figured God had His own concerns and didn’t need Ben bothering Him with his.
Seemed a bit of a foolish way to play it, in light of today’s events.
Devils couldn’t pass over moving water. He thought he could reliably infer that limitation was true; he strongly suspected they would have caught him and Andros soon after their first interaction at the stream otherwise.
What else limited them?
An angel could best them, but that didn’t do Ben a whole lot of good. He didn’t know any angels.
They could not pass…
Ben jerked upright, and he looked at the town’s palisade wall, just a couple hundred yards back from the river and downstream the same distance from where they sat, and to the place where, if it were light out, he could see the spire of the Temple’s steeple, the tallest point in the town, even taller than the Jarl’s palace, rising toward the sky as if trying to reach heaven itself.
They could not pass onto sanctified ground.
And a priest, or man of great faith even if not anointed, could exorcise them.
Ben grinned, feeling victory in his grasp. They just needed to get to the Temple, and the devils couldn’t touch them.
He reached over and shook Andros, rousing him from where he had been dozing.
“Andros, we’re almost there.”
The boy looked up at him, blinking as if confused.
Ben gestured toward the palisade wall. “Town’s right there. We just need to get to the temple, and we’ll be safe.”
Andros sat up, grunting in pain as he jarred his injured leg. But he didn’t move to rise any further.
“Uncle Ben,” He trailed off, looking at his feet, and the river water just past them. “My Da and Ma. It said – ”
Ben cut him off, grasping his shoulder and turning it so the boy would look directly into his eyes. “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “Those devils serve the Father of Lies. You cannot believe anything they say. Ever.” He said it as forcefully as he could short of shouting, but even as he did so, inwardly he knew he was lying to the boy.
Devils may be liars, but they had no need to lie if the truth could serve their designs. And much as he hated to think on it, Ben strongly suspected the devil had been speaking truth on that rise.
Not that it mattered. And not that Andros needed to believe it, anyway.
The boy just looked at him for a long moment. Then he nodded.
Ben got to his feet then bent over to help Andros get to his. As he rose, his splint fell to the ground, the wood forming its spine having broken at some point in the river.
Ben looked down at the tangle of cloth and broken wood, then shrugged. “We’ll get you a new one in the town.” Turning around he squatted down in front of the boy. “Get on my back. It will hurt, but it won’t take long to get there, now.”
The boy hesitated, then slipped his arms around Ben’s neck. Ben looped his left arm beneath his left thigh and straightened, picking him up piggy-back, except that he let the broken leg dangle behind.
Andros hissed as the leg jangled, but he did not cry out.
Ben found he admired the lad his tolerance. His ribs had screamed like a stuck pig when he’d lifted the boy, and it was all he could do not to drop him. But Andros bore it with a lot more resilience than Ben felt, right then. Or maybe he was just so drained from the day that he didn’t really notice the pain so much.
He got going, and quickly found himself wincing as well. Besides his rib, his left ankle felt wrong, aching as though he had turned it.
And of course, he was barefoot, and he was not used to that. Even the soft grass of the prairie land here held brambles and rocks and pits… Very quickly, his feet were seas of aches and pains.
But it didn’t matter. They were almost there.
In only took a few minutes to get to the nearest corner of the palisade wall, where Ben knew there was a guard station. And sure enough, as they drew near he saw a helmeted head peering out from over the wall.
“Hello the wall,” Ben called when he thought he probably would be within the circle of light cast by the various torches spaced around the wall.
The head moved, and a moment later poked out a crenellation. Ben couldn’t recognize his face in the gloom, but he recognized the voice.
“Who goes there?” A second passed, then, “Is that you, Ben?”
“Aye, Toram. It’s me, with Lewan’s son. Need you to open the gate for us.”
Toram shook his head. “Can’t do it, Ben, you know that. Jarl’s law: gates will remain closed from sundown to sunup.”
Ben ground his teeth. “I know the bloody law. But this is a matter of life or death. We need to get to the Temple and we need the priests. Now!”
Toram pulled back inside the crenellation, and Ben heard the rumblings of a conversation. He thought he heard something about the Captain.
“Yes,” Ben called up. “Call the Captain.” More quietly, he said, “Get someone with a brain involved,” to himself.
“Just a minute, Andros,” Ben said as Toram stuck his head back out.
“Give me a few minutes, Ben. Need to get approval.”
“Uncle Ben! The bridge!”
Ben looked downstream where, maybe a quarter of a mile past the far corner of the palisade wall, the bridge spanned the river. Watchmen manned stations on both sides, and lit lanterns every night, so the bridge was always visible from the town.
Ben couldn’t see much in the way of detail, but there were shadows moving swiftly across the bridge.
And from the watch station on this side of the river, two men emerged, running for all they were worth away from their post and toward the town.
The shadows gave chase, and Ben imagined he could hear the screams of the men as the devils ran them down.
“Dammit! Toram, the bridge is overrun. Open the gate now!”
Ben looked back toward the bridge, computing distances and time in his head, and came to a bad conclusion.
Even if the guardsmen got started opening the gate right this second, they wouldn’t have it open in time for Ben and Andros to get inside before the devils got to them, or best case they wouldn’t be able to make it to the Temple in time.
And even if they did, that would leave the devils to rage havoc inside the town. Ben and Andros might be safe in sanctified ground, but what about everyone else?
This wasn’t going to work.
He cast around, working hard to fight off onsetting despair. Worst case, could he get back to the river and evade them there?
But to what end? They couldn’t stay in the water forever, and there were no other sanctified places…
Ben spun around, looking back upstream and inland. He could just make out mounds a few hundred yards away.
The burial grounds. The priests said blessings on them every week.
“Throw me a torch!”
“What?” Toram was getting repetitive.
“Throw me a damn torch!”
A second passed, then a flaming brand came falling toward them. Ben missed catching it, and it landed in the grass at his feet. But he was able to squat down and grab it easy enough, though damn did his rib hate him for it.
“We’re going to the burial grounds,” Ben called up to Toram. “Get the priests, and send them to us!”
“I don’t understand – ”
“Send the damn priests!”
Then Ben had his back to the palisade wall, and he was running.
More like hobbling, between his feet, his ankle, and his rib. But he was moving. Fast as he could. And he didn’t need to get very far. Just two hundred yards.
He felt the devils’ presence behind them, heard the sound that was not a sound, and it carried a tinge of victory as it echoed.
Ben didn’t think about it. He just ran as best he could.
And he prayed. For the first time in a long time, first time he could think of at all, if he was honest with himself. And this seemed the right time to be.
He prayed in halting words, between gasping breaths. For the strength to get there. For God to make the devils’ steps stumble. For the will to, if all else failed, give Andros a merciful end, to save him from the torments the devils had planned.
The burial grounds were a series of mounds and tombs, surrounded by a simple wooden fence. There was a single entrance, on the side facing the town. It was always open, so there shouldn’t be any issues getting in.
They just had to get there.
The presence was stronger now, eager, and closing in.
He heard real sounds of footfalls and rasping breathing from behind.
He didn’t look back.
Twenty yards, and he could see the outline of the fence, and the entrance ahead.
“Andros, when we get there, you’re going to jump off my back and get clear. Ok?”
Ben glanced to the right, and saw one of the devils, paralleling him. To the left, and the same.
He wasn’t going to make it.
The devils on either side turned and began veering toward him, like predators closing on prey.
Ben launched himself forward, diving ahead like he was going to fly through the entrance, or at least slide through it. “Andros!” he shouted as he went.
He felt the boy kick off his back, then the devil crashed into him from his right side.
Ben struck the ground and rolled onto his back, losing hold on his torch. The devil was on top of him, its lips drawing back to reveal long, razor-like teeth.
Ben punched the devil in the face with his left hand, and it recoiled. Some of its weight left him, and Ben pushed himself out from under the thing.
Or tried to. It recovered quickly, bearing down and plunging its claws into the meat of Ben’s chest.
He heard himself screaming as six points of fire ignited in him, one for each of the devil’s fingers. He flailed about, and his right hand came down on something hard. And warm.
He brought it up and over, and stuck the fire into the devil’s face.
It screamed, rearing backward and off of him completely, and Ben pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the fresh agony in his chest on top of all the others.
The other devil, the one from his left side, backed off as Ben waved the brand in its direction.
But there were more coming. Dozens. And Ben clearly saw the leader in their midst.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Andros was within the burial grounds, and had pushed himself over near to one of the mounds a few feet inside the entrance.
The devil Ben had singed came back at him, and Ben dropped back down to the ground, beneath the devil’s swiping claws.
He rolled on his side twice, ignoring the screams from his ribs, then came up onto one knee, on the inside of the burial ground entrance.
He wanted to scream in triumph, but what if his memory was wrong? What if the sanctified land thing was not true?
The group of devils scraped at the dirt outside the fence, but stopped their advance. They parted as their leader came forward.
Ben rose as the devil approached and backed up, so he would be out of reach of Lewan’s sword, which the devil held in his hands again. Then he grinned and spreads his hands out wide, as though showing off the burial grounds for them.
Because, well, he was.
“Sanctified land,” Ben said, and couldn’t hold back a smug tone as he said it.
“That means nothing,” said the devil.
“Then why do you not enter?”
It did not reply, but Ben thought he could hear it grinding its teeth. If it could have seen behind itself, it would have ground them harder, because Ben saw activity around the gatehouse.
“It makes no difference,” the devil said. “You can’t stay in there forever.”
Ben shrugged. Looking to his left, he saw a post driven into the ground with a sconce meant to hold torches. He stuck his torch into the sconce and said, “I’ve got no place to be.” Then he took a few steps over to where Andros sat with his back to the mound and sat down next to him.
“But I’ve been remembering a thing or two about you lot,” Ben said as he got situated. “You can’t stay here forever, can you? Once you’re summoned, the doorway closes after a few days, and,” he snapped his fingers, “back to the Pit with you.”
The devil just glowered at him.
“Unless a priest exorcises you first. Speaking of which,” he gestured toward the town, where the gate was now open and a troop of men was hurrying forward, toward the burial grounds, “here they come now.”
The devil looked behind itself, as did its fellows. Ben could tell the rank and file were becoming uncomfortable now. They bounced back and forth on their feet, and it looked like the only thing keeping them from running was their leader’s presence.
It turned baleful eyes back on Ben. “This isn’t over, human. There is always some fool who wants to make a deal, and summons us. Next time that happens, we will remember you.” He shifted his gaze to Andros, re-emphasizing the threat. “Both of you.”
Ben shrugged again. “When that happens, I’ll look forward to seeing you again. But for now, if you don’t want to go back to roasting sooner than absolutely necessary, you’ll get out of my sight.” He paused, the added, “Now.”
The devil looked at Ben for a long few heartbeats, then turned its gaze back toward the men advancing from the town. They were approaching quickly, and Ben could see, in addition to half a dozen of the Jarl’s guardsmen, a quartet of men in the white and gold raiment of the priesthood.
The devil considered for a bit, and Ben almost thought it had decided to stay and make a fight of it, to test the priests’ faith maybe. But finally it turned its back on Ben and sped off to the right, into the prairie land away from the river, and the town. Its underlings followed, and just like that they were gone.
Ben let out a long sigh and slumped back against the mound.
“You did it, Uncle Ben,” Andros said, his tone excited, disbelieving.
“Course…I did…” Ben tried to make it sound lighthearted, but he found he barely had the strength to speak.
The exertions of the day, the pain of his wounds—now that he could afford to listen to it—and the general stress of the entire encounter left him completely drained, and the world began to fade around him.
“Uncle Ben?” he hard, faintly, and he thought he felt someone shake him.
Then he saw a face, standing over him, in white and gold, and he recognized the High Priest.
“Father,” Ben said. “Really…glad…to see you…”
Then he drifted off.
* * * * *
When he woke, sunlight was streaming in the window of the room he was staying in, filling the chamber with brightness such that Ben had never thought he would see again.
It was a small room, maybe ten feet on a side, and built from grey stone bricks. So it was inside the Temple.
Ben’s bed dominated the room, a four-poster affair with the kind of deep feather mattress and finely-woven sheets that he had heard about in stories but never experienced. It felt like heaven, even considering the aches and pains that spanned the entire breadth and width of his body.
There was a wash basin in the corner at the foot of his bed, and a bookcase of all things on the wall opposite. The door, a stout pine affair with a simple rising latch mechanism, stood closed next to the bookcase.
It was definitely a worthy place to stay, but he immediately wondered about Andros. Where was he in all this?
He went to get up, but found he could not. Not that he was restrained in any way. His body just refused to move. A dozen different protests flared from as many different locations at the first hint of exertion, and he slumped back into his bedding.
He must have been quite a bit more injured than he thought.
“Hello?” He called, and was gratified to find that, though his voice was hoarse, he could still talk well, and loudly.
A minute or so later, the door opened, and one of the church sisters, cloaked in white and gold like the priests, poked her head it. It was Luci, round-faced and pretty with little dimples in her cheeks. She had caused great consternation among the young men of the town when she chose the virgin’s path.
“You’re awake,” she said. “The Jarl and Father Durgan want to see you.”
“How long was I out?”
Ben pursed his lips. That was a long time to be sleeping, and he still felt exhausted. “What about Andros?”
Luci—Sister Luci—smiled gently. “He’s fine. He’s playing with the cat down in the garden.”
“Just a few minutes. Do you need anything while you wait?”
She came fully into the room and picked up a pitcher and cup from a container he couldn’t see at the foot of his bed. She poured him a cup and handed it over to him.
Slowly, he lifted it to his lips. Even that much movement hurt. But he did it.
True to Sister Luci’s word, a few minutes later, a strong knock came, and then his door swung open. The two top men of the town strode in.
Father Durgan, the High Priest, was not particularly tall, and he was rather round about the belly. But he had a powerful presence and a sharp wit, and no one could doubt his piety or charity. He wore the white and gold casually, but with a quiet dignity, and carried the shepherd’s crook of his station.
Jarl Henri was his opposite in almost every respect. A head taller than the other men in town, and powerfully built, with long flowing blond hair and a matching beard, he had a severe demeanor but was possibly the fairest man Ben had ever met. He wore well-cured brown leather leggings and a blue tabard with the golden necklace that marked him as Jarl, and a broadsword on his left hip.
“How do you feel, Ben?” Jarl Henri asked, and Ben tried to sit up.
He failed, and he flopped back onto the cushions, wincing. “Beg pardon, my Jarl,” he said. “Can’t seem to get up right now.”
The Jarl smiled faintly. “Understandable,” he said, and clapped Ben on the shoulder.
It hurt, but he decided not to let it show.
“Andros told us what happened,” Father Durgan said, looking grave. “I’ve heard of this sort of thing before, but not in quite some time, and never in these parts. You two were quite fortunate to come through as well as you did.”
“He is well?”
The priest made a little shrug. “On the mend. The healers think he will recover fully. Physically, anyway. Emotionally and spiritually? That remains to be seen.” He glanced at the Jarl, then said, “We’ve been keeping him—and you—on the Temple grounds, for obvious reasons. But he’s had many visitors. Once we place him in a new household – ”
“He’s staying with me,” Ben said.
The two men exchanged looks.
“I’m not sure that’s wise, Ben,” the Jarl said.
“He’s. Staying. With. Me.” Ben fixed the Jarl with a stern look that he before had only used on a trainee who was being foolish. He would never have dreamed to use it on the Jarl.
But Jarl or no, he was not going to decide this one.
The Jarl returned Ben’s stare for a long moment, then shrugged and looked over at the High Priest and spread his hands helplessly
Father Durgan chuckled in amusement. “I told you so, Henri.” He turned warm eyes on Ben. “In point of fact, the lad insisted on the same thing. It’s a big responsibility, you know. And with no wife to help you, it will be difficult.” His tone was perfectly warm and correct, but his eyes narrowed as he said that, as though probing to make sure Ben would, in fact, be the right choice.
“I know,” he said. He looked back at the Jarl. “Jarl Henri, it has been the honor of my life serving in your guards. But now I must ask you to release me from that service.”
The Jarl looked taken aback. So did the High Priest. They had seen his insistence on adopting Andros coming, but not this.
“Why?” the Jarl asked. No, demanded.
“It may not ever be safe to take the boy off of sanctified land. But he can’t stay cooped up in this little Temple forever.” He tried a smile at the High Priest, to soften his words. “Meaning no disrespect of course, your grace.” He paused, then continued. “Last year you spoke of the Nylop Monastery.”
The High Priest nodded.
“Two hundred acres of vineyards, tended fields, and pastureland. A community of five hundred on the grounds, and all of it sanctified land. The boy can have a good life, growing up there. And,” he gave a little shrug, “I find that I’m wanting to study my theology a bit more myself. I would appreciate it if you would write a letter of introduction for us.”
The High Priest and the Jarl traded looks, and Ben could tell they had no argument to counter his requests.
After a second, Father Durgan nodded. “I would be happy to.”
The Jarl looked a bit less eager, but he too nodded agreement. “I cannot question your reasoning. But we will miss you.”
“Now,” the High Priest. “We will leave you in peace. Rest and heal. When you are well, we can see about the arrangements.”
With that, they stood and left the room.
Ben watched them go and settled back into his cushions. His mind drifted back over the events of three days ago, and he felt again the wrenching grief of loss. He would probably never not feel it.
But then he looked forward, to this new chapter of his life, with Andros and with a world of new knowledge to obtain. He couldn’t help feeling eagerness for that new life, and a hope that balanced out that grief.
You can also visit Story Time with Michael Kingswood on