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 the dead, the festival had slowly transformed. Instead of thanking the spirits of their ancestors, party-goers began to wear masks to hide from cursed spirits. Where once they told tales full of hope and heroics, ghost stories filled of warnings and consequences took their place. Drunken dances were replaced by rituals intended to keep the risen dead at bay. In time it became known as the Carnival of the Damned.
But for all of this, the dark lord’s army of dead are not the only horrors in the world.
* * *
Favel stood and surveyed his audience; none of those seated on the ground before him had yet to see their tenth Harvest. He was not much older, this only being his fourteenth, but with his father’s help, he’d petitioned the elders and earned this chance to tell a tale. This being the first night of the Carnival, it would be no easy matter to get a scare, especially given that the smaller red sun had not yet dipped below the horizon leaving the land with a soft evening light, but he was confident. An old man in Ivory City had told him a tale while he carried crops to sell for his father, and he was sure that this would be the story that the entire village discussed during the Rains. Growing up in Kingston Corner, he learned the farming trade from his father, but as the second brother he was always in the shadows, this was finally his chance to shine.
Clapping his hands to draw the attention of the group, he began. “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 the boy to keep from grinning as he watched them lean forward. His opening got their attention and beyond them, others began to creep closer.
“There was once a village called Tole Row,” he began, keeping his voice low to provide an ominous tone, “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 had elven blood in his veins, others thought that it was the magic kept him alive, but the truth was far more frightening.”
“The village was cursed by a terrifying creature called the Ghost Wolf that haunted its people for three days of every year, just before the Rains. Everyone knew that the Ghost Wolf was coming when all the birds would suddenly disappear from the sky,” a murmur ran through the group; many of the villagers had commented that they had not seen any birds today. "That night,” he continued, raising his voice, “the Ghost Wolf could be spotted hunting on the borders of the village!”
“The next morning the heads of the things it killed that night would be found neatly severed and placed in the boughs of trees where they bleated, howled, and whinnied until burned. Nothing more of them was ever recovered; no blood; no bone; nothing. On that second night the people of Tole Row would barricade themselves inside their homes, knowing that the Ghost Wolf would hunt in the village streets, its eyes alight with fire and fog pouring from its gigantic, tooth laden maw.” In the distance a wolf howled; a group of children huddled together at the sound, while others looked around nervously. The howl was a fortunate occurrence, better than the way he added the missing birds to his story because it could not have been planned. Much like those of the great storytellers, his tale seemed to be taking on a life of its own.
Pausing to let the sound of the howl fade into the evening, Favel continued. “All night it hunted until it found its prey, a person from the village who was left with a burning mark on their right forearm. The next morning an unnatural fog lingered over the land, within which the people had to hunt the beast. You see, if they could find it during the day they could kill it, causing the fog to dissipate and the mark on the cursed villager to fade, but if they failed the fog would remain until the next morning and over the night it would claim its prey, no matter how vigilantly they were guarded.”
The sound of crackling fire and chattering teeth filled the air as the second sun disappeared and the night began to grow cool. “Even with their best hunters, the Ghost Wolf could rarely be found, and the morning after its prey was taken, the neatly severed head would be found in the bough of a nearby tree, where it would cry out in terror until it was burned.”
Several of the children hugged close to one another at the thought of being randomly hunted and killed.
“That is the curse of Tole Row. Now at first the villagers went to Malkin for help with the Ghost Wolf, but he refused and they began to believe that the beast belonged to him. Some claimed that the wolf was the reason for his long life, that it took the spirit of its prey for Malkin to use in his magic, stealing years from their lives to extend his own. Rumors then started that the wolf was Malkin, going so far as to say that he had a wolf’s tail or that he hid a great mane of hair beneath his wizardly robes. Many such things were said, but no one possessed the bravery to confront the ancient mage. As the decades past, the villagers grew more distant 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 and ordered Malkin to be banished. On the eve of the Ghost Wolf's arrival he sent two of his best warriors to carry out the task, but they did not return. On the second night of the curse, the king's son was marked by the Ghost Wolf and the unnatural fog fell over all his lands. An army was sent into the fog to find the beast and destroy it. Alas, they failed and the next morning, the head of the King’s son was found in the bough of one of the trees in the courtyard.” No one moved, no one breathed, as they waited for Favel to continue.
“Enraged and grieving, the King rode out to the abandoned village of Tole Row himself. He kicked in the door to Malkin’s home only to find his two best warriors standing prone in opposite corners, and the ancient mage with his hood pulled back to reveal a long mane of hair, feasting on his son’s heart. You see, 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 red deaths-head mask, ran into the area screaming and brandishing a scythe. Children bolted to their mother’s arms and more than a few adults stepped quickly away. Terrified screams filled the night and many villagers rushed over to find out what had happened. 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, his brother 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, 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 hog, sheep, and goat pens were breached by a 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?”
The older man strode into the room and stood over the pallet. “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 up off the pallet, he knew better than to try to fight his father’s strong grip. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t give me that, where are Jessop’s animals?”
“Huh?” Favel was pulled off the ground by his bicep, to be 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 back onto the pallet and striding towards the door. “Get dressed!”
* * *
Jessop Farnsworth lived on the edge of Kingston Corner, far from the town square, politicians, and other people. To many of the older villagers, he was affectionately referred as poor old Jessop, but among the young he was either scary old Jessop or grumpy old Jessop. Whatever name they used, everyone mostly left him alone, which was all that he asked of them.
Once a leader in the community, he was 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. In the intervening years he slowly withdrew from everyone and everything, spending his life toiling through an endless cycle of rage and grief.
Boak had once known the man well, and tried to be a good friend, but in the end even he recognized that solitude was the only friend Jessop wanted. While he knew that there was nothing to fear from Jessop, Favel didn't, so he expected that his son would admit what he had done as he dragged him out to the farm. The boy didn't. He felt sure that depositing him in front of the old man's barn would be enough. It wasn't. Finally, he was certain that the sight of Jessop would scare the boy into talking, but when they arrived Boak was the one who took a step back. Even though they were near the same age, Jessop's skin had browned and seemed to be pulled taught, like old leather stretched over bone and muscle, his ragged beard grew at odd angles, and his wide eyes gleamed with madness. Favel remained silent when old Jessop threatened to lash him and didn’t move when the old man picked up his bailing fork and threatened to let out some blood.
The father was moving to protect his son, when a 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? Did you kill my animals, boy?” Jessop said, turning a penetrating gaze on Favel.
“They’ve been killed,” Rawlings interrupted, “but I doubt the boy had anything to do with it.”
When the group pushed into the small clearing, the rotting stench hit them; all but Rawlings turned away.
“What the hell!” Jessop cried, covering his mouth and nose with a dirty rag. The bodies of eleven animals lay under a tree, their bellies ripped open and their insides missing.
“It looks like a troll got them,” Boak offered. “I seen one get a horse once, ripped it open just like that.” He looked down at Favel; he was quaking and his mouth worked in silent screams.
“I’d agree with you,” Rawlings said, and pointed towards a nearby tree, “except for that.”
Boak followed the outstretched finger to the head of a pig set in a bough. The head of a goat sat above it, one eye torn out and hanging. All eleven of the animal heads were up there. Tearing his gaze away, he looked to his son who seemed transfixed by the scene, and 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 of the clearing 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 argued, stretching his arms to encompass the group. “He summoned the ghost of that mage, that...Malcolm”
“Malkin,” Favel mumbled, 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 us enough trouble, you best hope no one dies because of it!” The three men with him nodded in agreement, and a murmur arose from the gathered spectators.
“That’s enough of your superstitious nonsense, Lathom!” Boak snapped, stepping in front of his boy and shoving the smaller man aside. “My son obviously had nothing to do with this.” Pulling Favel with 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 help from the king.”
* * *
Father and son were home before the trailing red sun crossed over to midday.
Neither had spoken since they left Jessop’s farm and it was Boak who finally broke the silence, his voice soft. “I should have believed you." He then added a little more firmly, "Why don’t you go help your brother in the barn, I’ll be out a little later.” With a quiet nod, the boy shuffled around the house, his feet leaving swirls of dust as he dragged them across the ground.
Watching his son for a moment, Boak climbed the stairs onto porch and into the house. Elsa stood in the common room, an iron kettle hanging over the fire pit; she was cutting up vegetables on the small side table and scraping them off the cutting board and into the pot. Since before the boys were born, back when her parents lived with them in the house, she managed to keep everyone under their roof well fed out of that kettle through times of famine and times of plenty. 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, usually when the harvest was poor, but this had been one of their best years. “What is it?”
“I...I’m not sure?”
With dinner forgotten for the moment, she set down the knife and moved to him. “Did something happen out at old Jessop’s?”
“You heard Favel’s ghost story, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a smile, 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 such hesitation in her husband.
Boak paused, his brow deeply furled.
She led him over to the table and eased him into a chair, moving hers to face him. “What happened over there?”
He'd heard the tremor of fear in her voice and shook away his hesitation, offering her a small smile. “Nothing. Some of Jessop’s animals were killed, probably just a wild animal.”
“What did it have to do with Favel’s story?” she asked, unwilling to accept the easy answer.
“Lathom was out there and you know how he is,” Boak replied with a scowl, “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!”
She 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 leaned over and kissed him. “I have to get these veggies in the pot otherwise I’m gonna have three hungry men and nothing for them to eat.”
In an odd moment of intimacy, he pulled her close in a hug, before standing and starting towards the door. “Is little Lubert back from Ivory City, do you know?” he asked, glancing back as she made her way to the small table.
“I think so, why?” she replied distractedly, 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 out at the farm, I think it was more likely wolves, but we know 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.”
* * *
“The heads were really up in the tree?” Rushen asked, leaning on his pitchfork, his eyes wide. “This is great!”
“Great?!” Favel asked, staring at him with his mouth open, “How is this 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, now thanks to that superstitious moron, everyone is gonna be talking about it. You’re gonna be famous.”
“Famous? You think?”
“Oh yeah! 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.”
“You're just messing with me now," he said turning away.
"Just wait, you'll see."
Favel hesitated, turning back. "You think?”
Rushen stepped over 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, his arms burning from the exertion of pitching hay through the open hatch and into the loft, Favel imagined entertaining enthralled throngs of people with his tale of Malkin, the Flesh Eater.
* * *
Favel was asleep shortly after falling onto his pallet, exhausted from the day’s toil. After listening to Rushen, his imagination took him to ever greater heights. He soon believed that he would go on to 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 his dreams were not so happy.
In them, he had just finished telling his tale and Rushen had jumped out in his black robe and wooden mask when things went horribly 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, and beheaded his brother. Severed neatly, Rushen's head fell to the ground and rolled up to his feet, the mask falling away as the head came to rest. Paralyzed with fear, Favel stared 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 ghost wolf mauling one of them. Instead he found Favel sitting up against the wall, sobbing into his hands. Rushen stood over him, all but his head illuminated by the moonlight coming in through the high window. “What the hell's happened in here?” he shouted, much louder than he meant. Elsa rushed past him and took Favel into her arms.
“He just woke up screaming,” Rushen said quickly stepping away from his brother's pallet.
“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, 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 several times. While he’d not asked, he suspected that she had a hand in making the robes and mask that Rushen had worn. As much as he wanted to lay the blame on her, he knew doing so would only start an argument that he would inevitably lose, one way or another. Instead, he turned and stalked out of the room, bellowing, “Don’t coddle the boy, he already cries too much."
Her cold stare followed him out of the room, 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 tomorrow 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 his brother was asleep and Favel had stopped shaking, his grip around her waist loosening. Looking down at him she asked quietly, “Do you want to talk about it.”
In his mind, Favel could still see his brother's head, blood gurgling from both the mouth and the bloody stump below his chin. He shivered, backing away from his mother a little. “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 okay now mom.”
She wasn’t convinced, but let him go and gave him some space. “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 still lay awake, staring at ceiling rafters and jumping at every sound. He had not closed his eyes for longer than a blink since his mother left the room he shared with his brother. Glancing over, he could make out the figure of Rushen, curled up and snoring softly on his pallet; he had kicked the blankets off his feet and 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 knees and started to push himself to his feet, when he heard something scratch at the wall. He froze, holding his breath as he listened; another scratch sounded, this one further down, near the high window. Favel pushed himself to his feet, drawn by the sound. After pausing long enough cover his brother's feet with the heavy blanket, he moved cautiously towards the wall and stopped abruptly as the scratching came again, this time longer and louder. Taking a step back, 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 away, losing his footing he crashed into the wall. When he turned, Rushen was sitting up, his head illuminated by the moons light from the window. “I heard something scratch at the wall,” he whispered into the room, not wanting to wake his parents again.
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 stuttered, standing up. “Maybe it jumped from the window ledge to the roof.”
Something thumped against the wall and both boys jumped back. “That didn’t sound like a barn cat,” Favel whispered, taking another step away from the wall.
Rushen moved forward, climbing up onto the chest they had set below the window. “What are you doing?” Favel hissed, 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 turned, an incredulous look on his face. “From your story?”
“Don’t be dumb,” he turned back to the window. “See, there’s nothing out there?”
“I don’t wanna see.”
“Get up here,” Rushen said, louder than he intended. Both boys glanced at the wall that separated their room from the one in which their parents slept; after waiting a moment, Rushen continued, keeping his voice low. “There’s nothing out there and you’re not gonna be able to get 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.”
Favel's eyes narrowed as he considered whether or not his brother was bluffing, and then reluctantly started moving to the window. Stepping up onto the chest, the two boys peered out the high window; an immense wolf with smoldering red eyes stared back at them, fog issuing from its open mouth with each breath. Terrified shrieks once again filled the small house as they both fell backwards trying to get away and found themselves caught in powerful arms. They fought to get away, kicking and punching at their attacker as a series of screams fell from their lips.
“What in the hells are you two doing?” Boak shouted over their screams, “Do you have any idea how early the suns rise?” He stepped back and dropped them on the floor, watching as they skittered into the far corner and huddled together where Favel sobbed into his hands and Rushen stared at the window with wide, terrified eyes.
Elsa entered the room and started towards them, but Boak grabbed her arm. “Not this time, there’s enough coddling in this house.”
“Look at them, they're terrified!” Elsa exclaimed, trying to pull away from her husband.
“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,” Rushen blurted.
Boak turned to his son, Rushen was pointing at the window. “What?”
“Th-there’s a w-w-wolf out there,” he stammered, “a b-b-big w-wolf!”
Releasing his wife Boak strode to the window, shoved the chest out of the way with his foot, and peered out. “There’s nothing out there.”
“There was a w-wolf,” Rushen repeated, “a b-big one.”
Boak took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Alright you two, get up, we’re going outside where I will show you that there's nothing there.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” Elsa declared, her arms wrapped around her two boys. “You will go bar the door and get your sword.”
“For a ghost wolf from a story; I will do no such thing!” Boak said, crossing his thick arms over his chest.
Elsa took a calming breath, and started again removing the challenge from her tone. “Do you remember what we talked about earlier? No wolf could reach that window, but something else could.”
An angry look crossed her features. “Don’t you think they're scared enough as it is?” She cradled their heads to her bosom.
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 here and stay calm. Your father will bar the door and get his sword; it won’t get in.” She turned to her husband and nodded toward the front of the house, while holding her boys close.
Boak rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh, knowing that he wouldn't 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; through it two of the King’s exalted Knights rode towards Kingston Corner. As they passed the outer farms and neared the village square, runners went ahead of them to announce their arrival. Half the village was packed into the fog strewn square by the time their horses pulled up to the waiting stables by the Mayor's manor.
Sliding off his majestic warhorse, wearing riding clothes under a tabard adorned with the King's symbol, the first Knight stepped forward. He placed his hands on his hips and in a commanding voice exclaimed, “I am Sir Tam Sylak.” After a pause he gestured to the other still on his horse, "This is my companion, Sir Aric. We understand that you have a troll problem.” For all his ebullience, most eyes were on Aric sitting astride his warhorse in its polished leather barding, wearing a gleaming metal breastplate and chain leggings.
Noting that the attention was not on him, Tam strode towards the assembled politicians standing on the raised dais in the square. "You did send a request for aid to the castle, did you not?"
“Uh...yes, I mean, we think it was a troll that killed Jessop's cattle,” Mayor Leavell said, taking barely a half step forward.
Tam crossed his arms over his chest. “The letter the King received was quite a bit more certain.”
“Yeah, about that...” the mayor fumbled for words.
A man dressed in patched breeches and a stained tunic disengaged from the crowd and walked towards the dais, “It’s not a troll, it’s a wolf.”
“That’s enough out of you, Lathom!” Mayor Leavell exclaimed, stepping towards him. "Your conspiracies are a plague upon this village." He pointed to a group of men nearby. "Get him out of here!"
As the group descended upon him, Lathom shouted, “No! He’s coming. The heads. The fog. He’s coming!” A low murmur arose from the surrounding villagers, while they watched him being dragged away.
Tam and Aric exchanged a glance, “Is it possible that someone exaggerated a wild animal attack?”
Mayor Leavell looked uncomfortable. “One of the local boys told a tale two nights ago during the Carnival, and, well, after a few coincidences it has some people worked up.”
Tam closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly; Aric reached down and patted his friend on the shoulder. They had bet on what they would find in Kingston Corner and Tam just lost. Without opening his eyes, he asked, “Is this all just a story or do you actually have 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 two hunters armed with bows and sheathed swords at their sides.
Mayor Leavell threw his hands up in an overly dramatic gesture. “That’s enough of this nonsense. Rawlings, you’ve caused enough trouble already with this letter or yours.”
“I didn’t send no letter,” Rawlings snarled, 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 sighed, glancing over at his companion, but loud enough for all to hear.
Aric ignored the sarcastic comment. “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, wondering how many more villagers it would take to get a straight answer.
“Just a simple farmer,” Boak said.
“Tell them,” Elsa urged from behind.
He 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, offering her a grin. Rarely did the villagers actually need their help when the King’s Knights were dispatched, but this particular assignment was becoming comical. Everyone in the court knew that commoners were prone to overreaction, especially at this time of year, but the King felt that having his Knights roaming the countryside was good for their reputation and the people’s confidence in them. Besides, it occasionally turned out to be bandits or other such threats, and the food in these villages was often tasty and plentiful.
“This is my wife, Elsa,” Boak said through a scowl. "She has many opinions."
Tam stepped over to the couple, Aric remained up on his warhorse. Reaching past her husband, he took the woman's hand and bowed his head, offering 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 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 replied quietly.
Leaning over on his mount, Aric murmured, “Not to worry, he is fairly proficient.”
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, knocking their hands apart; Elsa grabbed him by the ear and pulled him down to eye-level. “What do you think you're doing? The King's Knight is speaking to me, he asked me a question and I fully intend to answer it.” Without releasing his ear, she stepped around her husband. “Last night our sons saw the troll, but they didn’t know what it was, thankfully. They are frightened and rightfully so.”
“Elsa...” Boak started.
“Not now,” she interrupted, still holding onto him, then turned back to Tam. “These men get great conspiracies into their heads, especially at this time of year; curses, black magic, and monsters, they create elaborate tales for events that have very simple explanations. There is a troll," she glanced around, settling her gaze on those closest, before returning to Tam, "not an evil mage nor a ghost wolf, a troll, and I insist that 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.” In response, he grunted and pulled himself up to his full height.
Tam somehow managed to maintain 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 of people in the area; 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, knowing better than to turn away one of the King’s Knights, and started away from the town square. Striding over to his warhorse, Tam glanced up at his companion with a grin that did not quite reach his eyes. “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 curled up, fully under the blanket on his pallet when his parents returned. He could hear them arguing in the common room; it was obvious that his father was very upset. “Do you think he’s mad at me?” he asked, without removing the blanket.
“He’s going to be if he finds you cowering under your blanket,” Rushen replied, from the chest under the window where he was sitting. He'd been trying to coax Favel out of his pallet since his parents left that morning, but the younger boy refused to move.
“I told you...” Favel started.
“Yeah, I know; you think Malkin’s coming for you,” Rushen interrupted.
Favel sat up, “You saw the wolf too; he’s coming for both of us.”
“It wasn’t a wolf!” Rushen hissed, jumping up with his hands balled into fists. “It was a troll, mom said so; besides there’s no way a wolf could look into that window.”
“I know what I saw!”
“No you don’t!”
Boak threw the door open and stomped into the room, his face flushed red. “What’s going on in here?! Why aren’t you two cleaning the stalls?!”
Rushen leapt back towards the wall. “Favel won’t get up; he thinks Malkin is coming to get him tonight.”
Their father reached down and tore the blanket away, grabbing Favel by his bicep and lifting him until they were eye-to-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 and 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...” the boy scrambled out of the room. Boak took a deep breath and balled his hands into fists, wondering when all this chaos had invaded his home. He knew that he shouldn't have listened to Elsa and allowed his youngest to tell that tale at the Carnival. “Never again,” he swore to himself under his breath, knowing that no matter what he vowed to himself, that she would eventually wear him down and get her way. He walked over to the window and shook his head as Favel disappeared into the barn. “Formidable he called her! That Knight has no idea...”
* * *
The two boys had first been tasked with cleaning the stalls five seasons ago, and never before had it taken all day.
Favel screamed when a ball of hay flew past his face as he looked down from the loft, and immediately dumped a bucket of fodder down through the hatch. The words Rushen shouted back confirmed that he had been hit. This had all started with an argument over the whether it was a troll or the ghost wolf outside of their window, and devolved into throwing buckets of water at one another and dumping manure onto clean hay. It was only a matter of time before they were rolling on the ground fighting.
It didn’t take very long.
As the golden sun dropped towards the horizon, Elsa walked into the barn to call the boys to dinner and found them on the dirt floor next to the water trough. Rushen had rolled himself on top and was throwing punches at his younger brother’s face, while 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. The boy shouted out in pain as his brother kicked at him, landing a solid blow to the others shin. “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 let go of Rushen's ear and pushed him towards the door, “You get cleaned up and then go 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.
Elsa walked over to her youngest; after taking a moment to assess the damage, she dipped the edge of her apron in the trough 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 three years younger and she still thought of him as her baby.
“He...never mind, you don’t believe me either,” the boy replied, looking away.
"I know you think you saw a wolf," Elsa said, offering him a smile as she cleaned his face, "but you didn’t. That window is very high, you would not have been able to see a wolf." He winced when she touched the wet apron to the swelling. "Did you know that two knights arrived from Ivory City this morning?"
“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 went wide.
“Your father and I did,” not wanting to hurt him, she started cleaning his hands with the apron, “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 the edge of North Road, hurry along now.”
He started out of the barn, turned back and hugged his mom, and then was off, kicking up dirt as he ran.
* * *
Boak grumbled to himself as he stood with his arms crossed next to the post that marked the North Road. Elsa 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 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 Favel raced out of the barn and toward the road. Elsa followed him out and waved; he didn’t want to wave back, he was angry, but he did anyhow and then grumbled again.
“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 muttered. 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 for the whole journey; 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. That action first drew a series oohs and ahhs from the assembled crowd. After they quieted, he lowered his sword and began to recount the tale of how they investigated the dead heifers at the Eggleton place, and announced that it was Rawlings who had discovered a trail that led them into the forest and to a troll’s lair. Making a show of it by swinging his blade around, he explained how they vanquished not one, but five trolls.
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 companion and friend exaggerate his deeds before, but rarely to this extent, and it was an effort to keep from laughing at the absurdity of it. As such, he completely missed Tam’s cue to open the sack of troll heads and dump them 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 around Tam’s booted feet.
Several of the closest villagers jumped back, and many more screamed in terror; but all slowly leaned in to view the spoils of victory. Boak and Favel had managed to make their way to the front while Tam was swinging his blade around and the boy had been captivated, hanging on the knight’s every word. He stared hard at the heads rolling about on the ground.
“You see there boy, nothing but trolls,” Boak whispered.
“Yeah, I guess,” Favel replied, without looking away.
Boak placed a large hand on his son’s shoulder. “There is no guessing about it. You were expecting to see a wolf, and when these nasty beasts walked by, that is what you saw, 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 knit and mouth drawn in concentration; Boak knew that everything would be alright when the boy visibly relaxed and finally smiled.
The Knight had started another story, which seemed to have everyone but his companion Aric enthralled; that knight was busily munching a thick turkey leg and shaking his head. The leg of meat made Boak's mouth water; he would eventually have to get his son home for dinner, but for now the boy was happy.
* * *
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 and his eyes went wide.
“No,” a raspy voice said. The boy turned quickly; a man sat on the chest below the window, a mane of black hair flowing off his head. In the darkness Malkin whispered, “It wasn’t a troll.”