The Wolf’s Cry: Chapter Three

Another weekend, and more stories to edify and delight.  Writing can be hard work, but reading and creating are both great pleasures.  This is chapter three of “The Wolf’s Cry”, a story I began back in high school, when I was more nearly the age of the protagonist.

As usual, do not post as your own, and link the text:  don’t copy it to somewhere else.  Enjoy!

Continued from Chapter Two:

Jans awoke, as he had every morning for the past two months, with dirt on his clothes from sleeping on the floor and ale on his shirt from sleeping under the bar.  It was raining outside, for the first time since August, and the water dribbled in around the tree roots and the edges of the inn door.  It had rained all night, and so Barkis Scroop had not had anyone new come in the night before.  Only the regulars were there, Iago and Furn, the Marshal of the King’s Road.  Furn had lodgings elsewhere, and had left after a good hot supper.  Iago could be heard upstairs, singing to himself in baritone.  Scroop was dusting the candlesticks when Jans sat up.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?  We’ve been needing a nice healthy downpour like this.  Just in time, too—after the harvest.  Gives the proprietor a break, it does, because nobody’ll be out in this storm.  Time to get my cleaning done, too.  Now, my long-limbed lobster, would you pass me that bit of a broom there in the corner of the lobsting-house?  That’s good.  Thank you.”

When he had swept the dirt from the majority of the floor, Scroop replaced the old candles from last night with new ones which reached almost to the ceiling, and lit them from the oil lamp which burned by the door.  Then he blew out the lamp with a flourish and grin, trimmed and filled it, and relit the wick with the nearest of his tapers.

“Now that’s settled.  Come here, I want to show you something, Doctor.”  Scroop fetched out a wooden box from a closet beneath the south stairs, and lugged it to the middle of the floor, where the man was sitting.  “Now, here are my maps, all very incomplete, of course—a little hobby of mine.  I love to hear the stories of where everybody has been.  That’s why I became an innkeeper.  Folks from all over come in here, mostly gnomes, of course, but a few dwarves not too proud to duck a bit sometimes.  The Father has blessed all his children, and I feel mine is a blessing to share in hospitality.

“I’ve often dreamed of going to those places they talk about around the table.  But perhaps it’s not for me.  I’ve had my share of life here, in this forest.  It’s hard enough as a bachelor innkeeper to live day by day, and so this one thing is just a bit indulgence.  There’s a story in every map, you know.  Roads go from door to door, hallways from room to room, caverns from doom to doom they say.  Every one of these maps I draw myself.  Would you care to see them?”

“Yes, please, said the old man, rolling onto his stomach and propping his chin upon his elbows.  “That sounds like jolly good to me.”

So the gnome opened his precious box.  Within it, carefully rolled and meticulously sorted, were several dozen parchments of various sizes.  He took out three of these, laid them on the floor, and unrolled them.  The first showed mostly mountains, and the places from which two rivers flowed from beneath opposite sides of the same mighty peak.

“Now the one to the south is the Long River, which flows into the sea itself.  The other, here, is our river, the Old River to the north of the Durnsberg Mount.  All that lies between them is considered to be on the Durnsberg, because they make an island, flowing from the singe cavern spring.  In another box I have maps of all of the known mines and caverns east of the homeland, but their stories are less complete.  This map came to me by Job Mallard, a miner and adventurer who used to come in here often.  Cave-in, poor chap,” and the innkeeper touched his brow.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Did he have any others?”

“Oh, yes!  Quite a number, really.  Mountains and caverns and the like.  But the caverns need the mountains to place them properly, so they’re nearly all in the other box.  He had another though—ain’t she a beauty!  Here it is.  Quite the artist, he got the old Burning Mountain on this, in all her glory!  Here—it goes to the north, just there.

“That is Job’s masterpiece last work.  But what you want to see is lands down river.  This one is next—you see the forest here, and that mark is the inn, my inn, the Four Oaks.  On the south bank a little down from here is the town of Durn.  It’s the first city men built in the West, a long time ago.  They came from the mountain.  Maybe through the same Door you used.  The road runs down from here, parallel with the river, until it meets the south road in the toe of the Western Wood.  Let me get that map out for you.”

Scroop pulled another map out, and unrolled it carefully.  His guest watched intently as the gnome described its geography, pointing to landmarks with his solid finger.  “You see, I am a bit of a boffin for maps, and so I pay strict attention to detail.  See where the Old River bends away from the road, here?  This is the Waymeet hill, where the Durn road meets with the King’s Highway up from Long Ford.  If you go north, the Highway crosses over a famous bridge here, on the Old River.  East of Long Ford and the bridge, both streams run down into the Stonecutter’s Mere, that the lost giants cut as a marble quarry to supply their Academy.  Its ruins are east of the Burning Mountain across the Rioblanc.  As you see here, the Long River flows out of the Mere around a narrow island, named the Haven Isle, upon which stands the Spire of Thunders.  It is also a thing of giants.  Of the Five Lost Cities, only three remain to memory.  The Spire is counted one, the Academy directly to our north, and the broken metropolis of Altia, whose shattered turrets are visible even from Long Ford.  The roads used to converge there; as you see, they now give it a wide berth.  The only ones who live there are the lizards and birds, and the jackals that cry among her silenced streets.  The king is to the south, and many miles to the east is Lergnomen, the homeland of the gnomes.”

“Do you know what happened to the giants, I wonder,” the man asked.  His old back was stiff, so he stretched, catlike, and rolled over to a sitting position.  He was on eye level now with his host standing.  “Go on,” he said.

“The giants who lived here were a cruel, hard race.  The places where they lived are still avoided, if ever possible.  The road north of the bridge diverges again in the heart of the Western Wood, and one road turns northwest toward the Academy, and is not so often traveled beyond a certain select way-station, the Goat’s Cheese.  Its proprietor is one Cassius, a centaur.  Perhaps the last centaur.  The eastern track passes the hall of the Lords Febold, chiefs among the Viking men.  Their fief is from the Western Wood to the Long River, and then to the sea.  The ferrygnome who related this tale, Ichabod Pike, said that the current master of the hall, Febold Odin, has by rumor been cutting the edges of the forest back and burning the stumps to widen his holdings.  I do know he controls three seaports, and sets a mighty stiff tariff down there.”

“But what does that have to do with me?” asked the Jans.  “I mean, it’s all well and good, but if these maps are right, then it’s quite easily a solid month to get down there anyway.  I mean on foot, of course, or half that by horse.”

The innkeeper looked hurt.  “Of course my maps are right!  What are you saying—that a practiced draughtsman like myself wouldn’t get it to the proper proportions?  Yes, it’s a good fortnight’s ride for a man; in four fortnights a gnome on foot can make it.  These `months’, you called them—two fortnights?”

“Yes, roughly one cycle of the moon.  Our moon, at least.  You chaps seem to have it a bit different.”

“You actually go by that?  Here, the moon’s so shifty you can’t tell what’s what with it.  Day after day it grows, and shrinks, and grows—and then all of a sudden, what does anyone know but there it goes full early already and looking too white and everything.  And in the wrong end of the sky, too.  It shrinks for a day or so, and then it’s growing again and its proper color like not a night was missed!  Then it jumps banks again in a fortnight or so—can neither say when nor how long.  Yeah, it jumps banks like a swollen river.  Can’t be trusted when.  Almost like two differing moons, it is.  We call off nights a Lucy moon.  The rest of ’em are just Dioths.”

The door opened, and the rain water pooled against it on the steps down poured in across the floor.  Scroop made haste to secure his precious charts as his customer, wet feet and all, tracked mud dangerously close to them.  It was Furn, and he’d left the door standing open.  But it had stopped raining.

“Here,” said Scroop, bustling now behind the counter:  “What’ll it be?  Port-of-Night port, all around.  It’s on the house.”

* * * * *

The morning was cool, with a stiff breeze that ruffled our hair as we rode along down the winding road into the lower valley—it was quite narrow here,  nearly a canyon.  The sun was still behind the mountains ahead of us, to the east, but soon the valley turned south, and the smell of autumn wild flowers came up to us from lands much further down.  The river, always to our left, crashed and ricocheted off the rocks, grumbling and crying against the lumps and hard spots in her bed.  She had not slept as well as I.

Far overhead, something like a large bat, (but not a bat at all, really) churned its great warm leathery wings against the glowing sky.  I looked up at the sound of its cry—a haunting, desolate and yet joyful sound like a he-duck in far-away marshes, or a catamount on the rimrocks of a lost canyon.  The wind carried it, played with it, tossed the sound off the sides of mountains, spread it like a counterpane across the stillness of the valley.  My horse tossed her head—for one instant letting fly upon the wind great splashes of wonderful liquid, flaxen gold—and whickered in an answering pillow.  And between the counterpane on high and the pillow in its depths, the valley slumbered still.

I heard a whippoorwill sing his long and mournful tune high on the mountain, and then a robin’s hearty chirrup brought a formal end to the vale’s nocturne.  Every bird upon the mountains broke into song, a medlied morning melody of praise and thanksgiving when the warmth of Arbol parted the curtains of their arboreal chambers of rest.  The great beast, captain of the winds, sang with them, and his throat lent the master note to the valley’s great symphony of praise to the Master Musician, the right Master of their music.  Life was singing, and even the surly Old Mama River rejoiced in their jubilation.  I spurred the mare forward, pulling level with my father and his steward.

“Did you hear it?  Do you hear it?” I asked them.  My mare was all but dancing beneath me as we advanced down the trail.

“Ah, yes,” said the steward.  “A fair sized hextuped about the size of our horses but still young; altitude in the vicinity of forty fathoms above the river:  hunting for breakfast.  In the south they call them leoavia,” and his mouth shut like a trap.  My father grunted, and smiled at me.  But I had seen the other man’s cold, steely eyes, though for only a moment, and I knew that he heard the song.  And I knew that my father did not, and the thought was a knife to my heart, burning something within me and dampening my spirits.

About this time the valley made another turn, and with it, so did the road.  We were headed east again, and this time there was no mountain wall ahead of us, only the great golden sphere of the sun shining down over the tops of the forest where the valley of the Durnsberg fell away to the great spread of wheat fields newly harvested.  My father dismounted and, gazing out over the great land he governed from his mountain fastness, ran his fingers through his magnificent red hair and whistled.

“Will you look at that!”

At our feet, the waterfall tumbled down some twelve fathoms into a silver cauldron that churned and spun like a tub of laundry, then overflowed its rim and raced down a rocky washboard beneath the succulent willows.  When it again disappeared, a quarter of a league downstream, its sound returned to us as from a great distance, and league upon league of wheat fields stretched out beside the broad and gentle river.  Far off I saw the dark shadow of forested hills, and the sun rose warm and pure from its sylvan slumbers.  Everywhere the world rejoiced, from the pines above us to the firs and willows below, in the bounty of the summer morning.  I was loath to leave that holy place, but my father resumed the trail as soon as the horses were watered.

We picked our way delicately down a steep trail beside, and twice behind, the cataracts.  Lowland songbirds began to replace the chorus of the mountains, and the song became disjointed, as the choir went about their daily tasks.  In a shallow cave behind the last waterfall we stopped to have our first breakfast on the road, as the new sunlight burst apart within the falling liquid jewels of heaven-kissed crystal, and fell in shining and burning splinters across the floor, our faces, and the wall behind us.

Mother had provided well for us, with a full skin of new brown ale on each of our saddles, but they had to last two days.  Father could have appropriated food or drink anywhere along the way, but for the fact that he had promised Mother to eat only her own provisions.  He was given the largest portion of cheese, and the firm impress of a large pair of curved lips was visible thereon in the dancing light that came through the veil of water.  We each had a pound loaf of her good thick bread, and the others had their own portions of meat.  For her husband, Guldred had packed oven-blacked quail’s wings; to the steward, she gave a half of a leg of venison, neatly wrapped and salted.  I found I had another aleskin.

“Oh, well then.  I suppose I’ll be singing when you two go dry,” I said, to make the best of my embarrassment.  Father mumbled something in reply, but I wasn’t certain what.  I took another swig from the one I had breached, and lay back.  From the sound of things, Father was going to be stopping for food later today anyway—did I say he had oven-blacked wings?  Carbonized would be a more precise term.  The steward ate his salt venison slowly and deliberately, as we looked on in hunger.

The journey that day was mostly uneventful.  We refilled our water-skins and watered the horses at the pool beneath the falls, and splashed our faces in its refreshing bath.  As we left the river and moved out across the plain the day grew hotter.  It was the last great flourish on the part of summer before winter winds whipped down from the north.  But it was a mighty flourish.  Sweat poured down my neck and shoulders under my jerkin.  I tugged on the laces at my collar, fumbling the knot with too many thumbs.  I had already finished the water in my skin.  Urging my mare forward, I begged a swallow from the steward—but only a swallow.  I nearly choked on it as it was, and lay back across the mare’s rump.

Perspiration dripped in my eyes, and I sat up and rubbed them, blotting them carefully on the one dry corner of my shirt which I could reach.  This scratched them and stung worse, but it drew the sweat out, and with it my tears.  I blinked my sore, dry eyes, prompting the flow of another drop of sweat out of my eyebrows and into my eyes.  My head hurt.  My legs were hot.  I peeled out of my jerkin and draped it over me to block the sun, but the sweaty leather irritated my skin.  Finally I shoved it into a saddlebag.  The horse’s sweat and coarse hair didn’t really help much either.

I did sleep, though, and did not awaken for many hours.  At last, as my eyes had wearied of the endless glare of the too-bright sky, they had closed of their own accord and I, too, collapsed into a slumber of forgotten dreams.

Night came, and with it cool breezes and dew on my sun-chapped flesh.  I squirmed to a reassume a sitting position, and succeeded all too well—in falling off my horse.  This was quite a shock, and awakened me thoroughly and at once, and I yelled with surprise.  My father and the steward wheeled their mounts around, and helped me back into the saddle, but my tail bone was quite sore for some time afterwards.

We were in a rise above a small village—little more, really, than a few farmhouses with their barns and outbuildings, alongside a small inn and a mutual well-pump.  We rode down to the pump, and watered the horses at its tepid trough.  A girl was there in the moonlight, sitting on one corner of the trough in a dirty dress, with her tangled hair pulled back and tied with a torn bit of ribbon.  On her lap slept a sleek black kitten, with a milk-white spot upon its forehead that was the image of a dove in flight.  The cat stirred as we rode up, and watched us out of its clear green eyes.  But until she heard the groan of the pump handle and the spatter of water in the trough, its mistress did not even raise her eyes.

“Hullo,” the child said slowly.  Her dull green-gray eyes gazed from one strange face to another, and then back to the familiar cat.  “My father has a barn,” she said slowly.  Silver clouds scampered high overhead, timid mice fleeing the paws of the pearly, cat-faced moon.

This was music to our ears.  “Where?  How far?  Can you show us?” we all asked together. The child nodded up the road to a great stone building at the end of the lane, and I immediately had my doubts.  The beams sagged like an old crone’s cheeks, and the holes were the expanses from tooth to rotted tooth in the shriveled gums.  But I was too tired to argue, and we let her lead us round to the gale-torn door.  All sense of time and place dissipated on sleep’s grand oblivion as we entered the darkness.  I knew nothing from that time forth till morning.  The first thing that I knew was that I was laying in a puddle.  Rain poured down over me from the hole in the roof.  There was no sign but a dim grey light that the world yet held to any sun.

I sat up in the greyness.  Father was talking about reaching the Western Forest by the end of the fortnight.  I wasn’t sure where this was, but thought we might have been headed wrong to go east, and I said so.  Father looked at me twice, then laughed for all he was worth.

“What’s so funny, Father?” I demanded.

You—are the color of a cut-off piece of a roast ox, Bjorn,” and he laughed again.  “You’re cooked better than your mother’s birds, though there’s no great feat there.”

I saw nothing funny about this.  I was cold, and wet, and one-half naked, with a bad sunburn that made it hurt to move anything, and my clothes were stowed where I couldn’t get at them without crushing and twisting and stretching my sunburn into all manner of shapes—just to get up.  It really wasn’t funny at all.  But there was nothing that I could or that they would do about it.  And the rain was starting to feel good to my chapped skin.  Better than I would have expected, and coming down heavier by the moment.

The barn door slammed in the wind, and the child was there.  She told us in hushed tones that her father would be out soon, and that we had best be gone ere he made his entrance.  We were on our feet soon enough, then, and the little maiden assisted us in getting the horses fitted out for the journey.  It was a difficult task, with no lanterns, to do again what was undone by moonlight the night before.  The three beasts had been cramped in what had been only meant to be two stalls in the driest corner of this completely wet barn.  I smelled a cow in another stall, and by her voice was the child reminded that the milking still remained to be done.  We had tied the last straps, and she scuttled like a spider to the chore at hand.  I volunteered a hand as Father and the steward led the horses to the door.

“We cannot milk her here—it is her milking stall at the other end, where I stabled the horses.”  She took the halter, and led the balky old bossy to her proper place, the cow lowing all the way as they passed beneath the downpour.  I took down the one-legged stool and the great pail from their places on the musty shelf where she showed me, rinsing them off deliberately in the cleansing rain on my way to the stall.  Outside, my father waited impatiently.

“Father is coming—you must go now!” our hostess insisted.  I clasped her small hand firmly between my own.  Through the far door I saw a tall, lean figure approaching through the rain.

“Farewell, and thank you,” I said.  “may your hearth-fire be ever warm, dear…um—”

“Brünhild!” she said.

“Yes.  Brünhild…!”  I squeezed her hand again; then turning, ran out to my patient mare, and took the saddle.  Father wheeled his steed around.  We followed him across the rain-slicked square and out again onto the old highway past the town.

I could reach my water bottles without too much pain, and I held them both out, open, to be filled from on high.  It took a little while to fill them through their narrow mouths, but not so long as I might have thought.  As soon as the water in the first one lapped at my thumb, I brought them in eagerly, and before I could cap it, the other was full as well—as full as a new well in a season of heavy rains.  I capped it with a quick turn of my wrist, and raised the other to my hurting lips.  It was dry again in a matter of moments.  The other followed more slowly.  Then, refreshed, I let them fill again as I caught raindrops on my tongue like a small child.

All this time the mare was trudging on through the slough that our road had become.  Father and the steward were well ahead by this time.  I realized about this time with a shock that I could not see them.  The afternoon was getting on, and I had been rained on for quite a while.  After a time the storm slackened, however momentarily, and I saw the line of the woods in front of me.  A figure in oilskin was riding toward me on the road.  It was Father, come looking for me.  As he pulled even with me, the wind picked up once more, and another sheet of rain driven on before it struck us with full force.  It drowned our words, even shouting, and nearly drowned us.  But I saw enough of his gestures to understand that he wanted me to follow him back to where they had set up a camp in the eaves of the forest, and I was glad of it.  I was by this time positively cold inside my sunburn, and even that was no longer hot, merely sore and tender, burning each time an especially sharp drop of rain found its unerring way to my lobster-red chest.  As we entered the wood, Father pointed a little off the road to the left, and ahead.  I saw the welcome shine of firelight in the gloaming dusk, and we made for it.

The grim steward met us in a crooked thicket of trees in a shallow dell.  The tangled limbs overhead kept most of the rain out, and even now the littered floor was nearly dry.  Every once in a while a solitary drop fell into the fire and sizzled into a vagrant wisp of steam, and nothing more.  We retrieved our suppers of wet bread and cheese, and I decided to broach the other aleskin.

A thin stuff came out that looked like water in the firelight.  The flavor was peculiar—not at all alcoholic, but full of spices and boiled herbs and something juicy like meat.  I had it, then!  It was some of Mother’s cold broth—stock lifted from the pot just after the joint was drawn.  I knew of but one drink finer in those days—hot broth, that was—and so I slopped enough down the outside to wet the skin, and hung it on a pole beside the fire.

To Be Continued…

So, how’s the story so far?  Let me know in the comments below.

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