It’s that time of year when the leaves are falling and there’s a decided chill in the air. That chill may have influenced this adventure a bit. Hope you enjoy =)
A wind, scented with snow and sage from the fields surrounding the village, blows against your face. It chills your skin until a
smile feels brittle in your cheekbones. But you smile anyway, because if you don’t, you’re afraid you’ll give in to the sense of foreboding creeping up your neck and run.
Everyone knows running is the worst thing you can do in such a situation. Whether it’s a wolf or an ogre behind you, running simply encourages it to chase you, and then eat you when it catches you.
So you focus on the wind painting your cheeks with cold and take deep breaths of the winter. Those breaths coat your throat with the chill too and settle into your chest with a dull ache. It would hurt to run because of that ache. It’d turn from a chill in your throat to a burn, which tastes like copper. You know this from past experience.
No one walks in the street with you. All the doors and windows are closed, bolted tight against the world. That’s good. The villagers are doing exactly as you asked of them.
When they hired you, they couldn’t say exactly what plagues their village. All they know is something is stalking people; always at dusk there’s that sense of foreboding and some of the people report growls. From your experience, you guess it’s a wolf, an ogre or a man. There’re several wanted men supposed in the area. Their wanted fliers crinkle in your bag.
You continue down the road, your coat pulled tight across your shoulders as though you’re warding off the chill. Beneath your coat hide several daggers of varying size. You’d keep a bow or sword, but they’re harder to conceal and you want the threat to think you an easy target.
So you wander to the edge of town, humming low to lend a relaxed feel to everything, and head out toward the sage fields.
The hairs on your neck tickle with attention. Good. Whatever’s behind you is following you out of the village.
The road takes a sharp turn north after leaving the buildings. Directly in front of you rolls a field of solid sage coated in frosty snow. For a brief moment, you consider just wandering into the sage, letting the frost show your footprints, but any unsuspecting person would follow the road, so you turn with it and head north. The last rays of the sun extend skyward with a hazy hue of fresh snow just as you reach the trees on the northern hills.
Your skin still prickles with unease. This is where is gets dicey. The trees offer concealment with their shadows growing darker by the minute.
“You’re not the first, you know?” a deep male voice asks.
Where is he? You turn to the right, turning your ear up to hear better, trying to place his location.
“The first?” you ask.
“Hunter,” the man says.
You stifle a growl. The villagers lied to you. They promised they hadn’t hired anyone else to handle their problem. Since they had, of course the menace knows your purpose. It changes the whole dynamic of the hunt.
“Didn’t tell you that, did they?” the man guessed. “So helpful of them.”
A cry carries on the chill breeze. At first you think it a bird but then the cry’s joined by another and it dawns on you, something’s still in the village attacking the people there.
“Yes,” the man confirms. “I’m not alone. Just one cog in the wheel.” He chuckles again. You still can’t see him but he obviously can see your face to recognize the realization there. “So what’s it to be, Hunter?” he asks. “Are you going to capture me or run to the villager’s aid?”
It’s a good question. What do you do?
Capture the man?
Aid the Village?
Hunter-Capture the Man
The gloating tone of the man is not that of an underling. It’s the assured sound of someone who thinks he’s got everything figured out. So whoever’s in the village, if you’re right, is acting on his orders.
“Villagers definitely left out some details,” you say.
“They always do,” the man says. His voice has moved. It’s closer and more directly in front of you.
“I’m pretty sure they knew a man was the one haunting the town,” you keep talking, waiting for him to reveal himself. “In fact, I’m pretty sure they know who you are.”
That deep, confident chuckle answers you. “You might be right.”
There. A slight movement behind a large fir finally reveals his location.
You hug your coat tighter and slip a hand into the pocket under your left arm.
“It’s annoying,” you say. “They expect me to take care of their problem and yet, they can’t give me all the details.” You take several steps down the trail and wave one hand with your frustration. “What do they expect but failure from the hunters they hire?”
Again the man chuckles.
You take two quick steps and fling your hand out to the side. The knife leaves your fingers and a moment later there’s a satisfying thud as the hilt strikes the man’s head.
The chuckle gargles and then dies. The man stumbles against the fir, holds himself for a second, and collapses to the forest floor.
He’s a giant of a man. Before he turned to mush, he stood probably six foot six. A beard sprouts from his cheeks and chin to wash over his chest. His face is not one that graces your wanted fliers. So who is he?
“Guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” you tell his silent form. Rolling him over, you tie his hands behind his back and hobble his feet together so he can walk but not run. Then you settle in to wait until he comes to.
It doesn’t actually take that long before his eyes flutter and then deep green eyes are watching you from atop that impressive beard.
“Well played, Hunter,” he grumbles and winces. The knife probably left him with one very noticeable headache.
“Time to visit the village.” You haul him to his feet and have him walk in front of you back to the village.
It’s dark by now but the village is well lit with torches and lanterns. No longer are the doors and windows shut tight. In fact, everyone seems to be gathered in the central square, all clamoring to be heard at once.
Like a wave, they fall silent as soon as they notice you and the giant man.
“Your own boys!” a woman breaks the silence. “They took your own boys.”
The giant man grins. It reveals two broken teeth and a dark spot where one tooth is missing altogether.
“Who took his boys?” you ask, tired of being kept in the dark.
No one answers.
You single out a boy maybe ten years old. “Who took the boys?”
The boy swallows, glances at his mother and then back at you and apparently decides you look the scarier because he mutters. “Wolves. Wolves took Malcolm and Ethan.”
“How many?” you press.
The boy shrugs. “Three maybe.”
“All right,” you tell the villagers in general. “Back inside. Lock up doors again.”
“It doesn’t help. They went right through my door!” A man points to the building behind him. The front door hangs in shreds like the wolf’s claws found it no harder to slice through than cloth.
“Imagine how much easier they’d find this group of people in the open,” you say.
At this, the villagers mutter a bit and back away to hide in their homes.
After a moment, you’re left with the giant man in an empty village square. You still believe the man’s the leader. You’re not sure how that’s possible, but the wolves didn’t take his boys by accident.
He’s still grinning that manic grin.
Using the man, you might be able to lure the wolves back to the village and dispatch them.
Or, you might be able to force the man to take you to their den. Between the man and your tracking abilities, you might be able to find the lair. He won’t be cooperative either way, but you don’t see any other options.
Now that the village center stands empty, the giant man grins and holds his hands out with a questioning raise of his brow like you might release him.
“Ha,” you laugh. “The wolves didn’t take your boys by accident.” This is a statement, not a question, and the man doesn’t deign to respond other than to lower his hands again.
It’s your turn to grin and you push him to the center of the village square. Straight ahead the road runs out of the village and into the forest that hems it on the far side. That’s the way the wolves went. You have the man face that direction and tell him to sit.
When he’s lowered his considerable bulk, you hobble him there by placing bags over his hands and then tying his hands and feet all together.
“You move, I’ll shoot you,” you warn before turning to survey your options.
The general store sits, broad and low, to your right. Since it’s a single story building, the roof presents itself as a good vantage point in which to see the road. Across from it faces off the tavern, double story but with a balcony on the second floor. Also a good vantage point but more exposed.
“You’ll never catch them,” the man says.
“Who says I’m going to catch them?” you ask.
He straightens and, in the dark, his eyes glint as he leans toward you, perhaps trying to see your face better.
“You rightly called me a hunter,” you remind him.
He grunts but there’s a strangled quality to it. He truly cares about these wolves.
If you were just trying to rid the village of the beasts, you wouldn’t hesitate, but with the boys the wolves took, there’s an unspoken assumption that you’ll get the boys back.
Perhaps capturing the wolves will give you leverage to find the boys.
You spin on a heel and go to the door of the general store.
“Master Finn,” you call. He’s the general store owner and the man who contacted you in the first place.
After a brief pause, the door cracks open to show Master Finn’s broad nose and dark eyes.
“Got anything that might work as a cage?” you ask.
After a bit of explaining, you recruit three of the villagers to help you and they assist in turning the lawman’s box wagon into a sturdier cage to house three large wolves.
Then you send two of them to gather baskets of sage and the third you inquire about the availability of raw meat.
Once all is set, you perch yourself atop the general store roof with your bow. In the village square the big man still sits hobbled but you added a gag to the ensemble as well to prevent him giving the wolves orders.
Behind him on the side of the street, the box wagon rests with its back door wide open. You can’t see it from where you sit, but several large chunks of raw beef stain the floorboards of the wagon.
In the side streets your recruited villagers wait, out of sight and down wind.
Now all you have to do is wait. If your theory about the big man is correct, it shouldn’t take long for the wolves to come looking for him.
Your theory’s correct.
They’re silent shadows framing the street. Slinking from one building to the next with a fascinating, smooth grace you truly appreciate as a hunter. They’re wary, with good reason, but finally one creeps into the center of the square to sniff at the big man. With him sitting, the wolf’s head could rest on top of his own.
He struggles against his bonds and the wolf growls low, surprised.
But one of the others gives a soft huffing sound as it comes close to the wagon and sniffs inside.
It disappears into the dark box wagon.
The third wolf takes a step to follow but the lead one, the one by the big man, growls and backs away.
Time to push them.
In a single, smooth move, you rise and draw the bow. The string twangs softly in your ear with the release of the arrow.
Barely a moment later, the arrow thuds into the hind quarters of the wolf. You blunted the tip but the wolf jumps with a yelp and runs. It aims to go around the wagon but one of the villagers runs at it with a flaming torch of sage. The smoke coming off the torch billows into the wolf’s nose and it backs away, chuffing with distress.
You have to give the villager credit. Running at a wolf that size isn’t typically a person’s first instinct.
But the beast backs away, and finds another villager pushing it from the side.
It takes another several arrows and the villagers not backing down, but within five minutes, all three wolves have been pushed into the box wagon and the door bangs shut under the hand of Master Finn.
The broad nosed man grins and giggles. You suspect it’s because if he doesn’t, he might cry in sheer relief.
Everything quiets except for one harsh noise. The big man has canted onto his left side and is wiggling and half screaming in an attempt to get to the caged wolves.
The beasts respond with their own keening.
Now that you have them contained, you have to decide, do you offer the man a trade. The wolves and his life, and them to never return to the village, in exchange for the boys. Or do you threaten the wolves to get the man to give up the boy’s location?
Usually the less aggressive option appeals more to you but the man’s still keening on the ground, in obvious distress over his wolves, and his eyes seem sharpened with something just that side of insanity.
Master Finn stands at your shoulder watching as well. He fidgets from his left foot to his right and back. “He’s an awful liar,” he informs you after a moment.
“Wouldn’t trust a trade?” you ask.
Master Finn shakes his head.
“Then we’ll try something else.”
You walk to the box wagon and the giant man goes still, watching you with his chin resting on the ground. The position, since he’s still hobbled with hands and feet tied together, contorts his spine into a spiral, but this doesn’t seem to disturb him.
“Thing about this box wagon,” you say over your shoulder, “is it’s got barred windows.” You climb onto the wagon’s seat and slide the panel off the front window. It shifts to the side with a cringing wood on wood creak.
You brace your feet on the wagon and hold your bow out for the man to see.
A wolf barrels its body against the open window, rocking the wagon. Next you see teeth through the bars but none of this breaks the wagon and so you rock with the motion and continue talking to the man.
“You’ve got three chances with this,” you continue. “Tell me where the boys are.” The arrow rests against the string, and its broad tip is clearly visible to the man in the street.
He howls and rolls, almost slobbering now.
“Right then,” you say, “two chances left.” And you pull back the arrow.
It’s the first clear word from the man since you captured the wolves.
Holding the arrow ready, you pause, “boys?”
“They’re that way.” He points.
“We know that,” you continue to hold the arrow ready although the tension’s starting to ache in your shoulders. Soon you’ll start to shake.
“Follow the deer-trail-behind-the-mill,” words tumble from him. In great detail he outlines the trees and the small, dry creek bed the deer trail meets. He tells of the wolf den beside that creek bed and gives the distance, in exact time, to the den. He even layers on the smell of the snow sitting on the needles around the den and the must of wet earth when you crawl inside.
It could all be made up but you doubt it.
By now the bow rests against your leg and the arrow hangs from your fingers. “Put him in the jail,” you instruct Master Finn, “while I check out his directions.”
Later, while crawling into the den, you’re a bit amazed at how accurate the man’s description of the smell is. It wafts around you, earthy and damp. But then you’re distracted by the sight of two boys, maybe four and six, huddled in the tight confines of the wolves’ home.
You bring the boys home and stay in the village until a messenger fetches several lawmen from the closest city.
Then, with some relief, you watch the lawmen haul the giant and his wolves away while the villager’s payment for your services rests comfortably in your pocket.
Congratulations on your success!