Malkin’s Feast

The Festival of Remembrance had long been an end of season celebration, rewarding the work that goes into the Harvest and honoring the ancestors who first plowed the fields, but with the coming of Lord Krypt and his armies of walking dead, it has become known as the Carnival of the Damned.  Instead of thanking the spirits of their ancestors, partygoers began wearing masks, telling frightening tales, and performing ritual dances intended to keep the risen dead and their spirits at bay.

But the dead are not the only horrors in the world.

 

Favel stood and surveyed his audience, none had yet to see their tenth season Harvest and this was only his fourteenth, but all had heard stories of the ghosts that walk the barren fields during the three day long festival.  It would be no easy matter to scare them on this first night, but an old man in Ivory City had told him a tale while carried crops to sell for his father, and he was confident that his would be the story the entire village talked about during the Rains.  He had grown up in Kingston Corner, learning the farming trade from his father, but as the second brother he was always in the shadows, this would finally be his opportunity to shine.

“You’ve all heard the stories of Madine, Bonnington, and Lorimer,” at mention of that last name, a shiver ran through his assembled audience, they had all been told of the farmer who refused to burn his dead son, only to see him rise and turn on his family, “this night I will tell you of Malkin, the flesh eater!”

It was difficult for Favel to keep from smiling at the way they leaned forward in anticipation of his story, and beyond the ring of firelight, he could see others creeping closer.  He had successfully gained their attention, now he must keep it.

“There was once a village called Tole Row,” he began, his ominous tone pervading the night, “it was the home of the ancient mage Malkin.  They called him ancient because he lived longer than any man should.  Some believed that he must have elven blood in his veins; others believed that his magic kept him alive; the truth was far more frightening.”

“One time each year, Malkin would leave the village for three days.  The villagers of Tole Row found that on the first day of his absence, the birds would disappear from the sky,” a murmur ran through the children—many of the villagers had commented, forebodingly, that they had not seen a bird at all that day, “and that night,” he continued, raising his voice to drown their murmurs, “livestock would mysteriously disappear!”

“In the afternoon of the second day, the missing livestock would be found, their heads neatly severed and placed in the bough of a tree; their bodies left bloody and half-eaten below.  This vexed the villagers, as no creature they knew of possessed the skill to kill in such a way, yet mauled their prey.  And then that night, a black wolf would appear to one of the young, its eyes alight with fire and fog pouring from its gigantic, tooth laden maw.”  In the distance, a wolf howled, the children huddled together at the sound, and even some of the adults on the edge of the firelight began looking around nervously.  It was another fortunate occurrence for Favel, like the disappearance of the birds—his story seemed to be taking on a life of its own.

Pausing to let the howl die out, and hiding his grin behind a look of worry, Favel continued.  “On the morn of the third day, the village was covered in an unnatural fog.  Believing this wolf to be a curse brought upon them, the men of the village set off to hunt the beast, and by then they knew if they could not find and slay the black wolf, that night it would claim the one it came to the night before, and anyone who stayed with him.”

The sound of crackling fire and chattering teeth filled the air as the night began to grow cool.  “Even with their best hunters, the black wolf could not be found, and that night, the villager would be taken . . . all but the head, which was neatly severed and left facing the corner of the room.”

“But the tale does not end here.  You see, the villagers began to associate the black wolf with Malkin.  Some claiming that he had a wolf’s tail, others that he hid a great black mane of hair beneath his wizardly robes, but none possessed the bravery to confront the ancient mage.  As the decades past, the villagers kept away from him, and soon his was the only home left in Tole Row, but the killings did not stop, they spread,” Favel spread his arms to encompass the vicinity, letting his gaze move from house to house in the village.

“Finally, the King would have no more of these killings, when it once again came time for Malkin to leave, he sent two of best warriors to follow the old mage, but this did not stop the livestock from being taken or the black wolf from appearing.  The warriors did not return and on the third day, the head of the King’s son was found in the corner of his room.”  No one moved, no one breathed, as they waited for Favel to continue.

“Enraged, the King rode out to the abandoned village of Tole Row, kicked in the door to Malkin’s home, and there he found his two best warriors standing prone in opposite corners, and the ancient mage, his hood pulled back to reveal long black locks of hair, feasting on his son’s heart.  Malkin had defeated old age by consuming the flesh of the young, and today is the first day of Malkin’s Feast.”

Right on cue, Favel’s elder brother, dressed in long black robes and wearing a deaths head mask, ran into the area, screaming and brandishing a scythe.  The children bolted to their mother’s arms, and more than a few adults stepped quickly away, their terror apparent.  Terrified screams filled the night and many villagers rushed over to find out what had happened, but even as they arrived, the screams had begun to fade, only to be replaced by laughter.  Amid the fright he concocted, Favel couldn’t help but drop to his knees and guffaw at the hysterics into which he had sent the town.

Pulling off the wooden mask and dropping the scythe, Rushen sat next to him, his amusement easily matching that of his brother. 

As the initial shock faded, anger welled in many who had been scared, but in the spirit of the Carnival, some giggles began in the darkness surrounding the fire, and soon all those present were sharing in the brothers’ apparent delight.

On the opposite side of town, a cacophony of another type erupted as the hog, sheep, and goat pens were breached by a black, shadowy figure.

 

“Favel!”

The golden sun had barely broken the horizon and its crimson brother was busy igniting the morning sky when his father’s deep voice shattered a pleasant dream.

“Favel!  Wake now!”

Pushing himself up, feeling the lack of sleep in the back of his head, Favel rubbed his eyes and nose.  “Why?  What’s going on?”

“Isn’t it bad enough you terrorized a bunch of children, now you and your brother are taking this tale of yours too far!”

Favel felt himself being pulled out of his bed, he knew better than to try to fight his father’s strong grip, but he was tired and confused, so he struggled to push away.  “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t give me that, where are Jessop’s animals?”

“Huh?”  Favel was suspended six inches off the ground by his bicep, which brought him roughly face-to-face with his father.  “Leggo, you’re hurting my arm!”

“I’m gonna hurt more than that if you don’t tell me what happened to Jessop’s animals!”

After staring at the blank look on his son’s face for a moment, Boak decided that the young prankster was feigning ignorance to keep himself out of trouble.  “Fine, I’ll let old Jessop take a whack at ya,” he said, dropping Favel onto the floor and walking toward the door.  “Get dressed!”

 

Jessop Farnsworth lived on the far edge of Kingston Corner, away from the town’s square, away from the politicians, and away from its people.  Many of the older villagers affectionately referred to him as poor old Jessop; to the young he was either scary old Jessop or grumpy old Jessop. Whatever name they used, everyone pretty much left him alone, which is all that he asked of them.

At one time he was a leader in the community, an outspoken farmer who rallied the villagers to fight off the North Road Bandits, organized a rebuilding party after the Ashbrook place caught fire, and practically led the ousting of corrupt Sneel Vansickle from the office of mayor, but that was before his wife died while giving birth to his first son, since then he has withdrawn from everyone and everything, toiling through an endless cycle of rage and grief.

When Boak had first dragged his son up to Jessop’s barn and deposited him before the old man, he thought the mere sight of the man might scare the boy into talking—old Jessop’s skin was tanned and taught, like old leather stretched over corded muscle, his ragged beard grew at odd angles, and he had a kind of lonely mania about him that was most apparent in his eyes, but Favel remained silent.  He said nothing when old Jessop threatened to lash him with his belt and didn’t move when the old man picked up his bailing fork and threatened to let some blood out.

Boak was about to step in on his son’s behalf, when the call came from the fields.

“We found ‘em!”

Jessop led the way as he Boak, Favel, and the small group of spectators moved out into the fields.

Four men stood outside the woods, whispering conspiratorially to one another, the fifth, a hunter named Rawlings led them into the woods.  “I was trapping rabbits for the feast tonight,” he said as they moved through the underbrush, “I normally wouldn’t come over here but I saw the carrion birds circling, so I thought I’d check it out.”

“Carrion birds?  Are my animals dead boy?” Jessop said, turning a penetrating gaze on Favel.

“They are,” Rawlings interrupted, “but I doubt the boy there had anything to do with it.

At that moment, they pushed into the clearing, and the rotting stench hit them; all but Rawlings turned away, covering their nose and mouth.

“What the hell!” Jessop said, after taking a moment to recover.  The bodies of eleven animals lay under a tree, their bellies ripped open and their insides missing.

“It looks like a troll got to them,” Boak offered.  “I seen one get a horse once, ripped it open just like that.”  He looked down at Favel; he was quaking, his mouth working in a silent whisper.

“I’d agree with you,” Rawlings said, and pointed into the tree, “except for that.”

Boak followed the outstretched finger to the head of a pig set on a bough where two branches met.  The head of a goat sat above it, one eye torn out and hanging, likely the unfinished meal of one of the carrion birds—all eleven heads were up there.  Tearing his gaze away, he looked to his son who seemed transfixed by the scene, then to Rawlings.  “What could have done this?”

“Your son, that’s what,” Jessop said, reaching for the boy.

Stepping between them, Boak raised himself to his full height and stuck his chest out, “No way my Favel did this!”

“No, his story did this,” one of the four men who had been standing outside the wood said.

Boak turned to him, “What are you talking about Lathom, how could a story do this.”

“You heard his story, we all heard his story,” Lathom said, stretching his arms out, all those around him nodded in agreement.  “He summoned the ghost of that mage, that . . . Malcolm”

“Malkin,” Favel offered, not turning his gaze from the tree.

“I don’t think you ought to be saying that name out loud boy,” Lathom shouted, “your idiot mouth has caused enough trouble, you best hope no one dies because of it!”  The three men with him nodded in agreement, and a murmur rose from the gathered spectators.

“That’s enough of your superstitious nonsense, Lathom!” Boak nearly shouted, grabbing his son by the shoulder and shoving the smaller man aside.  “My son obviously had nothing to do with this.”  Pulling Favel behind him, Boak moved past the four men and through spectators, who parted at his approach.

“What about my animals?” the old man called from behind.

“Obviously, you have a troll problem, Jessop, I’d suggest you send a runner into the city to get some help from the king.”

 

Favel and Boak were back home before the trailing red sun crossed into midday.  Neither had spoken since they left old Jessop’s place behind, Boak broke the silence, his voice soft.  “Why don’t you go help your brother in the barn, I’ll be out a little later.”  With a nod, Favel started around the house, his feet leaving swirls of dust as he dragged them across the ground.

Boak moved across the porch and into the house.  Elsa stood in the common room, an iron kettle hanging over the open stone fire pit, cutting up vegetables and dropping them inside with a little splash.  Over the years she had managed to keep them all well fed out of that kettle, through times of famine and times aplenty; more than once Boak had joked that it was a magic kettle, to which she would only smile, shake her head, and pat his arm.  She was always calm, always rational, and at the moment he really needed that.

“Elsa . . .” he didn’t know how to begin.

She turned to look at him and saw the worry on his face.  It was a look she had seen many times before, but usually when the harvest was poor, this had been one of their best years.  “What is it?”

“I . . . I’m not sure?”

With dinner forgotten at the moment, she set down the knife and moved to him.  “Did something happen out at old Jessop’s?”

“You listened to Favel’s ghost story, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said taking his hand, “it was a good one.”

“But that’s all it was, right?” he asked, needing her reassurance.  “It was just a story, right?

“Of course it was just a story.  Why are you asking me this?”  She’d never seen anything unnerve her husband; he was always strong, always in control—fear began to creep into her mind.

Boak paused, his brow knitted as if deep in thought.

“What happened over there?”

He must have heard the tremor in her voice, his face lightened and the familiar mask of confidence returned to his face.  “Nothing.  Some of old Jessop’s animals were killed, probably just a wild animal.”

“What did it have to do with Favel’s story?” she asked, now she was seeking reassurance.

“Oh, Lathom was out there, and you know how he is,” Boak said, scowling.  “I can’t believe I let him get to me!”

“What superstitious nonsense is he spouting now?” Elsa asked, visibly relieved.

“Nothing.  He was trying to connect the slain animals to Favel’s story.  Idiot!”

Elsa smiled.  “Remember last year when he had everyone up in arms about the giant insects eating his crops at night.”

“Yeah,” Boak smiled back at her, “turned out to be the Dombkin boys using rusty scythes and whistling warnings back and forth to one another.”  He laughed, “Clever for them dimwits.”

She stood up on her toes and kissed him.  “I have to get these veggies in the pot otherwise I’m gonna have three hungry men and nothing to serve them.”

He held her for a moment and then turned back toward the door.  “Is little Lubert back from Ivory City, do you know?”

“I think so, why?” she asked, checking the water in the kettle.

He picked up a small pouch with some coins in it, “Rawlings thinks that it might have been a troll that killed them animals, I think it was more likely wolves, but we know old Jessop ain’t gonna pay to send a messenger to the city, and in case Rawlings is right, I want to get someone out here.”

 

“There heads were really up in the tree?” Rushen asked, leaning on his pitchfork, his eyes wide.  “This is great!”

“Great?!” Favel asked incredulously, “How is it great?  Lathom is gonna tell the whole town that I summoned Malkin!”

“But it’s just a story,” Rushen replied with a grin, “you wanted people to talk about it, well now, thanks to that superstitious moron, everyone is gonna be talking about it.  You’re gonna be famous.”

“Famous?  You think?”

“Oh yeah,” Rushen replied with a grin, “Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t get invited to tell your story in Ivory City next year.  Maybe even for the king.”

“No way?  You think?”  For the moment, Favel had forgotten his fears.

Rushen stepped up and clapped his younger brother on the shoulder, “No doubt about it.”  A look of pride crossed his features, “My brother the bard?”

“I ain’t no bard,” Favel said, his cheeks reddening.

“Sure you are, and you’re gonna be more famous than Alcom even,” he replied, moving back over to his pitchfork.  Favel stood there with a huge grin, his eyes glazed over, considering the possibilities.  “But before you get all famous,” Rushen said, interrupting the moment, “how about you help me move this hay to the loft?”

While he toiled in the barn, carrying hay on the end of his fork and pitching it into the loft, his arms burning from the exertion, in his mind, Favel stood in the corner of an inn, entertaining the enthralled throngs with his tale of Malkin, the flesh eater.

 

Favel was asleep shortly after falling onto the pallet that served as his bed, his body exhausted from the day’s toil, but his mind afire with aspiration.  He no longer imagined himself in a tavern, in his mind he had become a fixture in the king’s court, telling his tale to the royal family and the king’s much celebrated knights.  It was to these thoughts that he fell asleep, but there was nothing so happy in his dreams.

In his dream, he had just finished telling his tale and Rushen jumped out in his black robe and wooden mask when things began to go terribly wrong.  While most in the court screamed or cowered, a man leapt forward, drawing the flaming blade that marked him has one of the king’s Knights of the Starr, and quickly removed Rushen’s head from his body.  Severed neatly, it fell to the ground and rolled up to his feet, the mask falling away as the head came to rest.

Paralyzed, Favel wanted to push himself away, but he could only stare wide-eyed at the bloody stump below his brother’s slack chin.  He felt a scream welling in his stomach, but before it could find release, his brother’s eyes popped open and a horrible gurgling shriek exploded from his mouth.

 

The small home erupted with screams. 

Boak charged into his sons’ room, sickle in hand, convinced that he was going to find a black wolf mauling one of them, instead he found Favel sitting up, sobbing into his hands and Rushen standing over him, all but his head illuminated by the moonlight coming in through the high window.  “What the hells happened in here?” he said, much louder than he meant to; Elsa rushed past him and took Favel into her arms.

“He just woke up screaming,” Rushen said quickly stepping out of the light altogether, admonishing himself of any blame for waking his parents.

“It’s ok, Rushen,” Elsa said, while soothing her son, “with all of this talk of ghosts and mages and the Carnival, he probably just had a nightmare.”

Relief swept across Boak’s face, but it was quickly followed by annoyance.  He knew that he shouldn’t have allowed Favel to participate in the Carnival of the Damned, he had told Elsa as much, but she had insisted that the festival was meant for children and claimed that she had caught him rehearsing the story numerous times.  While he couldn’t be sure, he also suspected that she had a hand in making the robes and mask that Rushen had worn.  He wanted tell her that it was all her fault, but all he could manage was, “Don’t coddle the boy, he already cries too much,” as he turned and walked out of the room.

Her cold stare followed him out, but when she turned back to Favel, her features were soft and nurturing.  “Don’t worry about him; you know how he is when he doesn’t get enough sleep.”

Rushen laid back down on his pallet, stifling a yawn, “Maybe he’ll sleep in and we won’t have to listen to him yell about how we feed the cattle too much.”

Elsa smiled and started humming Blossom’s Song from Alcom’s Wonderland.

In moments, Rushen was asleep and Favel had stopped shaking, allowing his grip on his mother’s waste to loosen.  She looked down at him, “Do you want to talk about it.”

In his mind, he could still see Rushen’s head, blood gurgling from both the mouth and the bloody stump below his chin.  He shivered, but pushed away.  “N-no . . . its ok.  I just w-want to go b-back to sleep.”

She pulled him close and held him a moment longer.  “Are you sure.”

“Y-yes . . . I’m sure.”  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  “I’m ok now mom.”

“Ok.”  She was not convinced.  “If you need me come and get me, I’ll be awake for a bit yet.”

Favel managed a smile.  “I will.”

 

Two hours later, Favel lay there, still staring into the raftered ceiling, jumping at every sound.  He had not let his eyes close for longer than a blink since she left.  Rushen was snoring softly on his pallet, he had kicked the blankets off his feet and now his teeth chattered slightly.  The sound was beginning to grate on Favel’s already worn nerves.

Pushing his heavy blanket off, he rolled over onto his hands and knees and prepared to push himself to his feet, when he hard something scratch at the wall.  He froze, listening; another scratch sounded, this one further down, near the high window.  Favel pushed himself to his feet, drawn by the sound; he paused just long enough pull the blanket back over his shivering brother and moved toward the wall.

The scratching sound happened again, this time longer and louder.  Favel stepped back, almost into his brother’s pallet; he could feel his heart thumping in his chest, and a single bead of sweat rolled down his face.

“What are you doing?”

The sound of his brother’s voice caused Favel to jump backwards, crashing into the wall.  He spun around, seeing Rushen sitting up, his head illuminated by the light from the window.  “Nothing.  I heard something scratch at the wall.”

Rushen yawned, “It’s probably just one of the barn cats, I see them sleeping up on the roof sometimes in the mornings.”

A shadow engulfed Rushen’s head.  They both looked up at the window, but whatever had passed in front of it was gone. 

“Barn cat?” Favel asked, his voice quivering.

“Y-yeah,” Rushen responded, “jumping from the window ledge to the roof.”

Something thumped against the wall—Favel jumped back, Rushen stood up.  “That didn’t sound like a barn cat,” Favel offered, continuing to back away from the wall.

Rushen moved forward, climbing up onto the chest they had set below the window.

“What are you doing?” Favel asked, backing into the far wall.

“I want to see what it is,” his brother said, peering out the window.

“What if it’s the wolf?”

Rushen spun around, an incredulous look on his face.  “From your story?”

“Yeah.”  Favel’s lower lip began to tremble.

“Don’t be dumb,” he said, turning back to the window.  “See, there’s nothing out there?”

“I don’t wanna see.”

“Get up here,” Rushen said, louder than he meant to, “there’s nothing out there, and you’re not gonna be able to go back to sleep until you look for yourself.”  Favel didn’t move.  “If you don’t come up here, I’m gonna go get dad and he’ll make you go outside to see that there’s nothing there.”

Reluctantly, Favel moved forward; stepping up onto the chest, his brother helped him up.  The two boys peered out the high window; a great black wolf with smoldering red eyes stared back at them, fog issuing from its open mouth with each breath.

They both shrieked and fell backwards, thumping into strong arms, which easily wrapped around their chests and held them fast.  Terrified, they fought to get away, kicking and punching, a series of screams falling from their lips.

“What in the hells do you two think your doing.” Boak shouted over their screams, “Do you have any idea how early the suns rise?”  He dropped them, watching them skitter into the far corner, huddled together; Favel was sobbing, Rushen stared at the window.

Elsa moved toward them, but Boak grabbed her by the arm.  “Not this time, there’s enough coddling in this house.”

“Look at them, Boak, their terrified!” Elsa said, trying to pull away from him.

“They probably scared themselves by talking about that stupid tale; I told you Favel wasn’t old enough to participate in the Carnival.”  He thought he might regret the words once they were out, but they only bolstered him.

“Wolf.”

Boak turned to his son, Rushen was pointing at the window.  “What?”

“Th-there’s a w-w-wolf out there,” he managed, “a b-b-big b-black w-wolf!”

Releasing his wife Boak strode purposely to the window, shoved the chest out of the way with his foot, and peered out.  “There’s nothing out here.”

“There’s a w-wolf,” Rushen repeated, “a b-big black one.”

Boak took a deep breath.  “Let’s go, up you two, we’re going outside and I will show you that there is nothing there.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” Elsa said, her arms wrapped around her two boys.  “You will go bar the door and get your sword.”

“For a wolf out of a story; I will do no such thing!” Boak said, crossing his arms.

Elsa took a calming breath.  “Do you remember what we talked about earlier?  No wolf could reach that window, but something else could.”

Boak paused, “A troll?”

“Shhhhh . . . don’t you think their scared enough as it is,” she said, pulling their heads to her chest.

Rushen pushed away, “It w-wasn’t a troll mom, it w-was a wolf!  I’m sure of it.”

“I know dear, just sit her and stay calm, your father will bar the door and get his sword; it won’t get in.”  She nodded Boak toward the front of the house and pulled her boys closer.

Boak rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh, knowing that he would not get any sleep until he barred the door and retrieved his sword.  “Fine,” he growled, leaving the room and mumbling under his breath.

 

The next morning a thick fog covered the land, and out of it rode two of the king’s best knights.  As they moved past the outer homes toward the village square, runners went off ahead, announcing their arrival.  Half the village was packed into the square by the time they got there.

“I am Sir Tam Sylak,” the first said by way of introduction, “my companion is Sir Aric.  We understand that you have a troll problem.”  Tam sat astride his warhorse, it in polished leather barding, he wearing a chain tunic and leather leggings, a longsword sheathed at his side.  Aric walked next to a similarly barded warhorse, though he wore a metal breastplate and chain leggings, also carrying a sheathed longsword.  Each carried himself with confidence, but Tam was by far the more charismatic, easily grabbing the attention of the assembled villagers.

“Uh . . . that’s what we think,” Mayor Leavell said, stepping forward.

Tam turned to him, crossing his arms over his chest.  “The letter that the king received was quite a bit more certain.”

“Yeah, about that . . .” the mayor fumbled for words.

A man dressed in breeches and a simple tunic stepped in front of the mayor, “It’s not a troll, it’s a wolf.”

“That’s enough out of you, Lathom!” Mayor Leavell shouted.  “Get him out of here.”

“No!  He’s coming.  The heads, the fog; he’s coming!” Lathom shrieked as several men dragged him away.  A murmur arose from the surrounding villagers.

Aric and Tam exchanged a glance, “Is it possible that someone may have exaggerated a wild animal attack?”

Mayor Leavell stood there looking uncomfortable.  “One of the local boys told a tale at last nights festivities, and, well, after a few coincidences it has a few people worked up.”

Tam dropped his head into his hand; Aric patted his friend on the leg, they had bet on the outcome of this trip and it looked as if he was going to win.  “So, is this all just a story, or do you have a rogue wolf killing livestock?”

“Not unless that wolf pulled the heads off of thirteen heifers then consumed their innards,” a new voice interrupted.  The spectators separated and Rawlings stepped into the square with the two knights and the mayor.

Mayor Leavell stepped toward him, “That’s enough, Rawlings, you’ve caused enough trouble already with this letter or yours.”

“I didn’t send no letter,” Rawlings responded, standing up to his full height and pushing his chest out.  “I don’t need their like to bring down anything in these lands.”

“Ah, the local hunter,” Tam said sarcastically, looking to Aric, but loud enough for all to hear.

A look of confusion crossed Aric’s features, “If none of you sent the letter, then who did?”

“I did,” Boak said, stepping into the square.  Elsa followed him.

“And you are?” Tam asked, his frustration becoming apparent in his voice.

“Just a simple farmer,” Boak said.

“Tell them,” Elsa said from behind.

Boak turned to his wife, “I told you to stay out of this; you should be at home looking after Favel.”  Elsa put her hands on her hips and scowled at him.

“And this lovely woman is?” Tam asked, grinning.  He and Aric had expected to come out here and find something like this, but this was becoming comical.  Villagers often overreacted, especially at this time of year, but the king felt that there was no point in taking chances, it might be bandits or some other real threat, besides, the food in these villages was often tasty and plentiful.

“My wife, Elsa,” Boak said through a scowl.

Tam slid off his horse and walked toward the couple, Aric stayed where he was. 

Reaching past Boak, Tam took her hand and nodded, his full goatee framing a genial smile.  “Elsa?” she nodded to him.  “Why don’t you just tell us what’s going on here?”

Someone behind Aric whispered, “He is certainly charming.”

“I just hope he knows how to use that sword, cause Boak ain’t gonna put up with anyone charming his wife,” someone else whispered.

Aric turned, “Not to worry, he is very proficient at both,” he whispered back, enjoying the startled looks they wore.

Elsa stuttered a moment, but never looked away; Tam’s smile grew, he adored strong women, his wife had been a warrior before motherhood and would likely return to it when their son went off to the Moors for training.  “Go on,” he urged, squeezing her hand slightly.

Boak growled and stepped between them; Elsa grabbed him by the ear and pulled him down to her level.  “What do you think your doing?  He’s talking to me, he asked me a question and I fully intend to answer it.”  Without releasing his ear, she stepped around him.  “Last night our sons saw the troll, they didn’t know what it was, thank goodness, they were scared enough as it was.”

“Elsa,” Boak started.

“Not now,” she interrupted, pulling him lower, then turned back to Tam.  “These men get it into their heads that there is something fantastic happening, especially this time of year; curses, black magic, monsters—they create these elaborate conspiracies for events that have very simple explanations.  There is a troll, not an evil mage, not a great wolf, a troll, and I insist you kill it before it scares my children again.”

“Elsa!” Boak said louder.

“What?” she said, turning to look at him, obviously annoyed.

“Perhaps he would like you to release his ear,” Aric offered, a chorus of laughter erupted from the surrounding spectators.

“Oh!” she said, releasing him.  “I’m sorry, Boak.” 

He grunted, pulling himself up to his full height.

Tam somehow maintained a straight face.  “She is a very formidable woman,” he said to the larger farmer.

“You have no idea,” Boak growled back, turning a stern gaze toward the amused mass; they immediately quieted.

Tam turned to the hunter.  “Rawlings is it?”  He nodded.  “I would appreciate it if you would take us to see these dead heifers, Aric and I have fought our share of trolls over the years and we may be able to help you with this one.”

The hunter nodded, and started away from the town square.

Tam walked back over to his warhorse, grinning.  “I think we should take the horses, there may be a trail we can follow.”

“You don’t really think they have a troll?” Aric whispered.

Tam shook his head, “I’m not sure, but I don’t want that woman grabbing me by the ear, so we’ll go check it out.”

Aric laughed as he tugged on the reigns and started after the hunter.

 

Favel was still under his blanket in his pallet when his parents returned.  He could hear them arguing in the common room; his father was very upset.  “Do you think he’s mad at me?” he asked.

“He’s going to be if he finds you cowering under your blanket,” Rushen responded.  He was sitting on the chest in their room, and he had been trying to get Favel out of his pallet since his parents left, but the younger boy refused to move.

“I told you . . .” Favel started.

“Yeah, you think Malkin’s coming for you, I know,” Rushen interrupted.

Favel sat up, “You saw the wolf too, he’s coming for both of us.”

“It wasn’t a wolf!” Rushen said, standing, his hands balled into fists.  “It was a troll, mom said so, there’s no way a wolf could look into that window.”

“I know what I saw!”

“No you don’t!”

Boak stomped into the room, his face red and flush with anger.  “What’s going on in here?!  Why aren’t you two cleaning the stalls?!”

Rushen jumped back.  “Favel won’t get up; he thinks Malkin is coming to get him tonight.”

Boak reached down, grabbed Favel by his bicep, and lifted him up until he could look him in the eye.  “I told your mother you weren’t old enough to participate in the Carnival!  Do you think Malkin’s scary?”  The two were nose-to-nose, Favel’s eyes wide, his mouth hanging open in a low whine.  “I’ll give you scary.  If you are not out in the barn cleaning those stalls by the time I count to five, you’re gonna pray that Malkin comes for you!”

Rushen was out the door running for the barn.

“One . . . two,” he dropped Favel, “three . . .”  Favel scrambled out of the room.  Boak took a deep breath, balling his hands into fists, wondering when chaos had invaded his home.  All was well until he listened to Elsa and allowed Favel to tell that tale.

“Never again,” he swore to himself under his breath, knowing that she would eventually wear him down again.  He walked over to the window, shaking his head as he watched Favel disappear into the barn.  “Formidable!  He has no idea . . .”

 

They had been cleaning the stalls for the last five seasons, and never before had it taken all day, of course, never before had they fought to this extent—throwing buckets of water and balls of hay at one another, dumping piles of manure on clean hay, locking each other behind stall doors; it would only be a matter of time before they were rolling on the ground fighting, they both knew it, which is probably why it had taken so long.

As dusk approached, Elsa walked into the barn to call the boys to dinner and bring them some good news.  She smiled and started to speak, but there on the dirt floor next to the water trowel and under the many cobwebs that lined the rafters, were her two boys, beating the snot out of one another.  Rushen had managed to roll himself on top and was throwing punches at his younger brother’s face; Favel had his arms up, blocking as best he could while he kicked and bucked, trying to get away.

“Rushen!” Elsa shouted, grabbing him by the ear and lifting him almost off the ground.  Favel tried to kick him as she pulled him away, but only managed to nick his leg.  “Favel!”

“He started it!” they both shouted at the same time.

Elsa looked at them both, they were covered in dirt and grime, but Favel was definitely the worse off, his mouth and nose were bleeding and it looked as if his left eye were already swelling.  She bent down to Rushen, “You get cleaned up and then straight to your room!”

“But . . .”

“Don’t you dare but me!  Move.  Now!”

Rushen scowled at his brother and stalked out of the barn, his hands balled into fists.

Favel was still on the ground, Elsa walked over to him, dipped the edge of her apron in the trowel, bent down, and started dabbing at the blood on his face.  “Why were you two fighting?”  In the back of her mind she knew that this was showing favoritism, but Favel was two years younger, and she still thought of him as her baby.

“He . . . never mind, you don’t believe me either,” he said, looking away.

Elsa smiled down at him, “I know, you think you saw a wolf, but you didn’t,” she said, and pulled a rag out of one of the apron pockets, dipping it in the trowel.  “That window is very high, you would not have been able to see a wolf,” she said, while cleaning his face.  “Did you know that two knights arrived from Ivory City this morning,” she said, changing the subject.

“Real live knights?”

She smiled at the change in his demeanor.  “Yes, I talked to them, and they promised to kill the troll.”

“You talked to them?” his eyes were wide, his voice filled with wonder.

“Your father and I did,” she started cleaning his hands, “in fact, your father is going to see them now, and I would like you to go with him.”

“Can I really?”

She smiled, “Of course.”  She looked him up and down.  “You’re a mess, but I don’t suppose it will matter, your father is waiting for you down at North Road, hurry along now.”

He started out of the barn, turned back and hugged his mom, then was off, his feet kicking up dirt as he ran.

 

Boak was grumbling as he stood with his arms crossed next to the post that marked North Road.  She had done it to him again; it was her idea to take Favel with him to greet the knights on their return, “it will make him feel better about all of this,” she had said.  She had this way of making a point that left no room for argument, though that had never stopped him from trying.  As was usual though, she won in the end, and now he was here, waiting.

“Where is that boy,” he growled, dropping his hands to his side and clenching them into fists.  He was about to call for him, when he saw Favel race out of the barn, toward the road.  Elsa followed him out and waved; he didn’t want to wave back, he was angry, but he did anyhow, then grumbled to himself about it.

“Dad, dad, dad, are we really going to see Knights,” Favel asked as he ran.

Boak turned and started walking.  “We will if you hurry,” he grumbled; as angry as he wanted to be, the excitement on his son’s face and in his voice had a way of spoiling his bad mood.

The walk to the village square was not more than ten minutes and Favel yapped excitedly the whole way, so that by the time they arrived, the grumpy farmer was almost smiling.  A crowd of spectators had gathered, many of them were cheering, causing father and son to quicken their pace to a jog.

They arrived in time to see Tam draw his blade, which ignited as it exited its sheath—a pure golden flame ran from tip to hilt, dripping around his gauntlet and falling away into nothingness, which itself drew a series oohs and ahhs from the assembled crowd.  He then began to recount his tale, of how they investigated the dead heifers at the Eggleton place then followed Rawlings who discovered a trail that led into the forest and how they found the troll’s lair.  As he told of the battle between them and not one, but five trolls, he started swinging his blade around, thrusting, parrying, making a real show of it.

Aric stood in the back listening as Tam exaggerated everything from Rawlings prowess to the size of the trolls to the details of the battle.  He had heard his best friend exaggerate his deeds before, but never to this extent, and he was beginning to laugh at the absurdity of it, completely missing Tam’s cue to open the sack of troll heads and dump it into the square.

“And here are your trolls!” Tam said again, louder.

Fumbling with the leather tie, Aric finally managed to open the sack and dumped the heads out, all around Tam’s booted feet. 

As one, the villagers jumped back, many screaming; then slowly they leaned in to view the spoils of victory.  Boak and Favel had moved to the front while Tam was swinging his blade around, the boy had been captivated, hanging on the knight’s every word, and now he was staring hard at the heads.

“You see there boy, trolls,” Boak whispered, “nothing to fear here.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Favel said, staring at them.

Boak placed a large hand on his son’s shoulder.  “No guessing about it, you were thinking about a wolf, and when these nasty beasts walked by, you saw what you expected, but if you think about it now, there is no way a wolf could have reached up to that window.”

Favel thought about it, his brow knitted and face scrunched up; Boak knew everything would be alright when the boy visibly relaxed and smiled.

Sir Tam had started another story, which seemed to have everyone but Aric enthralled, that knight was munching a thick turkey leg and shaking his head.  Boak would eventually have to get Favel home for dinner, but for now the boy was happier than anytime he could remember.

 

They arrived back home well after dark, Elsa was sewing something and looked slightly annoyed when they entered, but smiled when she saw Favel run past, calling for his brother.  “I knew it would be a good idea for him to go,” she said.

Boak stepped up to her and embraced her in a big hug, lifting her off the ground.  “You’re not so formidable.”

While his parents laughed and hugged, Favel ran into the room he and his brother shared.

“Rushen, Rushen, you’ll never believe who I saw tonight!”  The room was dark, he stopped and grabbed the candle that sat on a table outside his parent’s room, almost causing it to go out as he stepped quickly into the room.

“Rushen,” he said, waiting for the flame to stop fluttering.  As the light from it strengthened he could see that his brother’s pallet was empty, then a noise in the corner drew his attention.  “Rushen?” he turned, shining the light, “Mom was right, it was a troll.”

The light of the candle fell across Rushen’s head, its bloody stump sitting on the floor, facing the corner.  Favel’s mouth fell open, his eyes wide in shock.

“No,” a raspy voice said.

Favel turned quickly, too quickly and the candle went out, but before the flame died, Favel saw a man sitting on the chest below the window, a mane of black hair flowing off his head and sharp, pointed teeth in his mouth.

“It wasn’t a troll.”