Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
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Rushing home, I found myself filled with worry. I'd given June a hug after she returned from comforting her mother and I think that's when it really hit me. We were actually in real danger.
I hope dad will be ok on watch.
Our house wasn't anything special, a little squat wooden thing with a stone chimney poking above the simple sloped roof and a single front facing window into the main room. Many similar houses lined the road as it stretched away from the village center where all the important buildings were. Opening the door directly into the main room, weaving around the wooden table set, I entered the cramped hall that linked the main room to the master bedroom and my own. With no siblings I got a room all to myself. It was just me and dad like always.
I quickly grabbed everything I'd need from my worn dresser. Two more shirts, a few pairs of underwear and my only other pair of woolen trousers. They looked a little threadbare but would have to do. Giving my room another quick glance I turned and left, snatching my brown cloak from where it hung behind the door. Making my way outside, practically the whole town were out and about after the Mayors announcement. I nodded to Finn and Brady carrying wood toward the east side of the village; little Maria skipping along behind Finn with her straw blonde pigtails swinging through the air.
"Hiya Ali!" Maria waved, pigtails bouncing merrily.
"Hi Maria." I smiled and waved back.
Walking over to Joe's place on the northern end of town, I knocked before entering into a room nearly identical to the one in my own home. June, Pieter and Joe sat at the table as Joe looked over four large worn leather backpacks. They looked up as I entered.
Joe spoke, "Good. Now you're all here I'll tell you the plan. We'll be up just before dawn tomorrow, get some travel clothes on and make our way to the village hall to get something to eat before we leave. Best get as much sleep as you can now. We've a hard few days ahead. June and Alison, you'll be sleeping in my spare room. Sorry Pieter you'll have to make do in front of the hearth here." Joe said and grabbed Pieter some blankets and a pillow. "Right then, I'll see you lot in the morning."
As Joe closed the door to his room I turned to June. "Well, let's leave Pieter to his rightful place on the floor and turn in."
June put her nose in the air and spoke haughtily, "Why of course Lady Alison", looking at Pieter she continued with a huff, "Peasant! I bid thee good night."
Miming grabbing a long dress and lifting the hem from the floor, she shuffled out of the main room into the spare bedroom. I couldn't help laughing at Pieter's offended expression before following June to the bedroom; he just made it too easy. Curling up on the bed next to my best friend, I fell asleep quickly despite my anxiousness about what tomorrow would bring.
The next day came swiftly.
"Rise and shine everyone. We're leaving in a few minutes so get dressed in travel clothes." Joe's voice yelled through the door; clearly, he didn't care much about waking the neighbors.
I yawned and June groaned, rolling away from me and taking the blankets with her. With an irritated sigh, I stumbled my way out of bed to put on a pair of trousers and a simple cream blouse. I was about to leave the room with June still cocooned in blankets so I decided to return the favor and steal them, ripping them away from her, throwing them into a corner as she yelped at the sudden cold. In the main room Pieter and Joe sat at the table waiting, our packs stacked neatly next to the door. Pieter looked a little stiff from sleeping on the floor and scowled at me as I entered. Giving him a half apologetic smile as greeting, I joined them at the table.
"June's just getting dressed, she'll be out in a minute." I made sure to speak loud enough that I was certain she would hear me.
Joe nodded and stood to buckle on his sword belt. "We want to be gone just before the sun comes up so we'd better leave June to catch up. Let's go." Joe likewise spoke loudly to be sure June would hear but without his customary smile. Clearly Jacksonville was still on his mind. Scooping up our packs and cloaks on the way out the door, we stepped into the predawn light. Damn it's freezing this early. I usually get up early, but not this early.
"You'll be warmer after eating and once we get on the road. Probably be too hot after walking a few hours." Joe noticed my shivers.
Banging sounded from behind us before we were more than twenty feet down the road. Looking back, June ran towards us pack over one shoulder with her cloak trailing behind.
"I'm coming! I'm coming."
Once inside the village hall June and I sat as Joe and Pieter went to get food from the kitchens. They must have a night shift running for the watchmen to get food as lanterns still burned in the kitchen, light spilling from the doorway. Joe returned placing bowls and a large pot of steaming oatmeal with apple slices in the center of the table. Pieter following his example with mugs and a pitcher of water before sitting.
"Eat up. We're leaving in a quarter-glass and mark my words you'll regret it if you don't eat heartily now. We won't be stopping until midday for lunch and a short rest. Then on 'till nightfall."
"Will we get to meet the duke?" asked Pieter.
"Probably. But I'll be doing the talking," replied Joe.
Eating quickly, we thanked the kitchen staff, which turned out to be none other than Mayor Thompson, before preparing to leave. He and Joe had a few quiet words and we each grabbed a wooden spear, these ones with sharpened points, from the back of the hall as we walked out the door. With the sun just barely breaking the horizon, it was still dark and cold enough that I pulled my cloak tighter around my shoulders. Reaching the western edge of the village we stopped to say our farewells to Brady and Franklin, a gangly young man and Finn's partner in crime.
"Morning." Brady nodded to us.
"Hi Brady. Franklin. Everything quiet so far?" Said Joe.
"Yeah everything's fine. Nothing out of the ordinary. Don't usually get trouble this close to the duke's place but then again, I would've thought the same all the way out to Jaksonsville. We'll need more wood the next few nights, might even have to chop down a few of the apple trees since I doubt anyone wants to go too far from the village right now. "
"We'll hurry. Wouldn't want to lose too many. Stay safe."
"You as well. Best of luck with the duke."
Patting Brady and Franklin on the back, Joe continued down the road with June, Pieter and I following closely behind.
"How long before we reach the city?" Pieter asked.
"At least four days. Likely closer to five unless we really push it."
"What do you think happened to Jaksonsville?" I asked Joe as we continued to walk.
"I doubt it's bandits, they wouldn't take the bodies. Maybe slavers though, but they'd have to be either bold or desperate to come this close to the duke's city. It could be something else, a beast of some kind. We haven't had anything like that happen in decades though. I hate to say it but I hope it's slavers. At least then some might still be alive when the duke's men catch up to the scum." Joe growled.
We walked awhile in silence, hurrying along the road toward to edge of the valley in front of us. Just as we began ascending the small slope out of the valley Joe stiffened ahead of me, placing place both hands on his spear.
"It's too quiet."
Now that he'd mentioned it I realized he was right. No birds tweeted. No owls hooted. Not even crickets chirped. I gripped my spear tighter as June, Pieter and I clustered behind Old Joe.The hair on the back of my neck prickled as we rushed to crest the rise out of the valley. Glancing backwards, the sun breached the horizon directly up the road on the other side of Glimmerdale. The trees projecting long, thin shadows along the ground, coupled with the relative darkness and lack of wind lent the air an oppressive weight.
I looked down upon the whole valley from where I stood. Sudden movement drew my eye in the orchards near town. No one picked apples this early. Perhaps the watchmen had started patrolling? I caught more flashes of movement, large shapes dashing among the trees. Closer to us this time.
"Joe. Someone's in the orchards." My voice betrayed my fear and anxiety. He was beside me instantly, deep brown eyes searching. Opening a pouch at his waist he withdrew a small polished horn, raising it to his lips.
A single howl split the silence, quickly joined by others until a chorus echoed through the valley. As the howls faded the trees nearest the village shook violently. Fear and adrenaline shot through me and my heart began battering at my ribs. Joes face was the far paler than usual as he replaced the horn at his waist, unblown. His eyes darted across the orchards once more. A sudden rush of movement behind me grabbed my attention and I turned just as Pieter brushed passed in a sprint towards the village, spear held tightly to his side.
"Pieter wait!" Joe grabbed at his cloak as he flew by, dragging him to a stop.
"We've got to go back! They need our help!"
"Wolves' don't attack villages unless they're starving! There's plenty of game around here. Something's not right!"
Behind Pieter, a couple hundred metres away, something bounded onto the road and started loping towards us.
"Helm watch over us." Joe prayed quietly even as June screamed.
Some kind of huge black wolf ran towards us on two legs like a man. It stood almost eight feet tall and closed the distance between us at an impossible speed. We'd never out run it. While I was focused on the wolfman another one had sprung from the roadside further behind it. "Form a line! Spears front!" Joe bellowed as he took charge, clearly coming to the same conclusion I had.
Scrambling close to Joe I emulated his stance, a half crouch with a two-handed grip on my spear pointing back down the road. Pieter stepped back towards us and took up the same stance on my right while June, a little slow to respond, did the same shakily on Joe's left. A distant scream filled the valley and my heart pounded with fear. This couldn't be happening! I must be having a nightmare. Creatures like that were talked about in fanciful stories and legends told by passing travelers with an air of fiction. Joe said they were real but that he'd never seen any real monsters. I broke out in a cold sweat as the first wolfman closed on us until I could truly see it in detail for the first time.
It was definitely a humanoid wolf. Pointed ears sat atop a sleek, muzzled head filled with fangs and amber eyes glowing like beacons. Powerful, toned muscles flowed under its thick black pelt giving the impression of great strength and agility. The wolfman didn't seem the least concerned about our spears, sprinting directly towards up at an impossible speed. Amusement seemed to dance in its eyes as it closed to the edge of our spears. Just before it would have impaled itself the wolfman crouched and leaped, sailing through the air above us. Turning mid-air to face us, it landed on all fours on the hard dirt of the road, skidding across the ground leaving large gouges marring roads surface at least three metres long. Faster than I thought him capable of, Joe spun and threw his spear. The wolfman danced almost effortlessly to the side, the spear missing by mere inches. With a 'shing' Joe drew his short sword and stepped forward, his face grim.
"Shit." He exclaimed at how easily his throw was evaded, his voice tinged with horrified disbelief.
"June, Ali, keep the other one away with your spears while we deal with this. Use your reach and keep your feet on the ground! Pieter give me a hand with this thing." Joe sounded steady, confident even; only his eyes betrayed his fear.
"O- Okay." I hated the quiver in my voice.
Pieter stepped back to help Joe while June and I resumed our stance against the other one.
This one was smaller, maybe only six and a half feet tall and not as broad. I heard Joe tell Pieter to keep his back to us before I focused intensely on the smaller one. Unlike the larger wolfman this one slowed as it neared, stopping a few feet away. He –for it was definitely a he- stood slightly hunched forward, drooling. Narrowing bright amber eyes, he licked his lips in a slow, deliberate manner; revealing a mouth full of razor sharp fangs. His fur was lighter, more of a muddy grey than the dark, almost black colour of the larger one. I heard June hyperventilating beside me and realized I was as well. A snarl sounded behind followed by a thud and coughing. The wolfman in front of us chose that moment to attack.
Dashing in towards June, she screamed and thrust her spear forward. With a swift sidestep he dodged her thrust while also moving away from me, around Junes other side. She tried to retract her spear but the wolfman threw itself at her, knocking her to the ground. I stabbed out, desperate to help June. My spear point glanced off his head as he lay on top of her and embedded itself in his shoulder instead. Scrambling backwards with a pained roar, he raked his claws down the sides of Junes torso as he withdrew. June's shriek was filled with palpable agony. The move backwards threatened to pull my spear from my hands. Joe's recent lesson fresh in my mind, I'd kept both feet fully grounded for my thrust and managed to pull it from the wound before it was ripped out of my grasp. Placing myself between June and the beast I gripped my spear white knuckled.
A roar of pain and fury sounded from my left where Pieter and Joe were dealing with the big one. A glance to the side showed Joe had the point of his short sword embedded in the larger wolfman's lower torso, but he never got a chance to retrieve it as an enormous clawed hand gripped his shoulder, dragging him closer. Joe struggled and tried to pull his blade sideways spilling his opponents' guts, but another hand closed around his own on the hilt of his sword, holding it in place. Bending down slightly the monster bit down on Joe's free arm as he raised it, trying in vain to push away the descending muzzle and he couldn't hold in a choked grunt of agony. Pieter rushed in, spear held forward only to be backhanded so hard his feet left the ground. He crashed into the roadside a few metres away, continuing to roll almost into the trees from the force of the blow. I needed to help Joe but I couldn't leave June. Making a snap decision, I reared backwards and threw my spear one handed at the larger wolfman. I didn't wait to see if I hit but snatched June's spear from where it lay on the ground.
By the time I returned my full attention to the smaller one in front of me he had recovered and was already rushing in, claws reaching for my throat. I braced myself in my half-crouched position at the last moment. Letting out a surprised yelp, blood ran from his muzzle as my spear-point entered his torso dead center. The force of his charge propelled me backward and off balance. Trying to pull my spear back proved impossible, the wolfman had followed the larger one's example, gripping my spear where it entered his body and even gravely injured, he was still too strong. His other arm clawed the air towards me furiously as he howled in pain and rage.
Abandoning my spear, I turned, dashing to where Pieter lay unmoving on the side of the road. Blood ran down his face and his jaw hung unnaturally off to one side, obviously badly broken. Panting from the fear and exertion, I searched franticly for his spear. It wasn't here! I couldn't find it. Glancing back to the road revealed I was out of time. The smaller wolfman was pulling the spear slowly from his chest whimpering while the big one stood directly in front of me, looking down into my eyes. I froze in fear, paralyzed as I tried desperately to think of something, anything I could do. He glanced down at the wooden spear sticking out from his thigh and pulled it out as I watched. Tossing the spear to the side. He continued to watch the gaping spear wound. I couldn't believe it; the wound began closing right before my eyes.
Apparently satisfied, he looked calmly back down at me. His glowing eyes snapped me out of it and I tried to jump backwards. Just as my feet left the ground he once again showed that impossible speed, gripping me by the head with his right hand and my upper arm with his left. Pulling me close I struggled desperately as he yanked my head to one side. Opening his muzzle wide, he bit down on my shoulder between my arm and neck. I screamed in agony as I felt teeth slice through my skin and into the muscle beneath. The nerves in my shoulder pulsed with liquid fire that dripped down my entire torso. Sudden tears blurred my vision and with a crunch of bone, everything went black.