The life of a peddler on the roads has never been easy. Lately, however, life is darkening everywhere. And with winter drawing down, Jantis Brand finds himself alone—aside from his trusty mule—and thin of purse, making one last trading run into Kremel, reputedly the darkest land of all. As the wolves begin to howl, closer and closer.
If he’s lucky, wolves will be the worst thing Jantis Brand has to face.
Howls In The Trees
Another eerie howl arose in the gloomy woods behind him.
Closer than the last, of course.
It was answered from even nearer at hand, from somewhere on the far side of the deep valley Brand knew flanked the road on his right hand. His sword hand.
The wolves were bad this year.
The wolves were bad every year.
“The wolves,” Jantis Brand growled under his breath, eyeing the gloomy trees leaning over the muddy road he and his pack beast were walking alone, “are bad and getting worse.”
Old Trusty flicked an ear at that. The old mule didn’t like growls, no matter which throat they came from.
“On, Trustivus,” Brand told it, trying to sound as firm and comforting as he knew how. “Not much farther now. On.”
He eyed the darkening sky as he spoke—clouds like dirty gray tattered banners shredded by long ghost-talons stretched clear across the cold heavens in an untidily forbidding tapestry—and hoped he’d make the Black Stag before nightfall.
It was a hope as cold and thin as the chill wind rising at his back. They were plodding, he and his mule; they were both cold and hungry and tired.
Tired beyond tired. Tired out.
And no wonder. Neither of them had dared to stop—beyond a few snatched moments to gulp water from a stream that spilled across the deserted road back at Glarrshulz—for a day and a night. On top of a long day of walking and fighting before that.
Yes, fighting. Peddlers like Brand often had to fight snatch-thieves, but that was a matter of sprinting and a few hard and sometimes vicious punches, not swords out.
Except that it had been blades bared, this time.
Which is why he was on the road alone, when peddlers were usually wise enough to travel in trios or more. Poor Raldris had been left to the vultures and wolves back at Ulksbridge; Brand and Ottomur had been too busy fighting off hamstringing attempts on their mules by outlaws of seemingly endless number to bury their old trail-friend. Besides, Raldris, throat slit from ear to ear, had been past minding how what was left of him got treated.
They’d made it to Thlomund with Ottomur groaning and hunched over a hacked-apart hand, and his mule lame and badly cut about, too. So in Thlomund old Ottomur bided now, in the cheapest room they’d been able to find, trying to heal. Leaving Brand to trade on alone, on into Kremel, with the summer drawing down.
The winter ahead bade fair to be a hard one. Brand mainly dealt in goods wanted in all seasons: thread and waxed cord, bone buttons, and small mongery; tools and knives and gate-catch hook-and-eye fastenings. Unless sales were brisk, he always had a good-sized array; he had one now. That stout a cargo of such wares wasn’t light, and surefooted Trustivus wasn’t young; Brand couldn’t push it to go faster. His faithful beast was plodding along as fast as it could, neither dawdling nor complaining, hating the wet and the cold every bit as much as its master, and wanted to be out of the weather just as badly as Brand did.
Yet wanting to be at the Stag didn’t bring it any closer. It was the only inn on the lonely stretch between Thlomund and Waylin Point, not quite halfway between.
Which did not, Brand reflected grimly, looking again at the sky, which if it stayed like this would bring darkness sooner than the setting sun, make it near enough.
His stomach rumbled, and as if in reply, so did his mule’s. Come to think of it, his throat was parched.
Another howl, from off to his left this time. And nearer.
Not that he dared do anything about either thirst or hunger, beyond bending to catch up and swallow a handful of snow. Stopping to dine and drink would be less than prudent about now, for the wolves were hungry, too.
It had been a bad year, with outlaws raiding out of the woods along the southern roads, and the wolves prowling ever more boldly in the north. Everyone said the wolves were bad this year; not a day passed without talk of some new mauling or eyes by night looking in windows no wolf would normally be bold enough to go anywhere near. Some of the howling hunters had grown fearless enough to stroll through the hearts of large towns from dusk to dawn, and gather in nearby fields even on the brightest, fairest days with many folk out and about. It was worst in Kremel, folk said, and he was walking into Kremel right now.
And it seemed all the talk had been right, for the local pack was padding after Brand, outflanking him on both sides. Closing in.
There’d always been wolves in these dark forests. They usually took weak or sick deer, and sometimes sheep and goats when deer grew scarce or in the cold heart of winter when smaller meals were asleep deep in hiding and the wolfpacks were going hungry, but this year’s wolves, these large, lean black-furred beasts with red-gold eyes that went red when they attacked—these wolves were different.
This had always been a lonely road, but since Thlomund it had been deserted; Brand had seen no one at all. Perhaps the wolves had something to do with that.
He wore boots of his own making; clumsy-looking things, because he was no corviser, but they had good hard toes as well as the usual hobnails, and flared, back-curving metal spineplates that rose above the backs of his knees and should help guard against hamstringings. Yet Trusty had no such protection, and wolves that found no joy in going for backs of a peddler’s knees would likely merely shift to arms and hands and throat.
“Stop filling yourself with good cheer, Jantis Brand,” he reproved himself aloud, and checked the sky again. A sudden chill wind was rising at his back, plucking up and whirling dead leaves past him; above, the talons were crossing the sky faster, as if rushing to be in at a kill.
A kill Brand fervently wished would happen elsewhere.
This was a wild stretch at the best of times, with an occasional woodcutters’ trail or clearing but nary an overgrown ruin to seek rude shelter in, let alone a steading.
It was just him and his mule and the wolves.
There came a rustling in the trees then, hard by on his right. A crashing of trampled dead leaves and a snapping of dead branches.
Brand turned to face the din, not slowing his steady plod onward, and clapped hands to the hilts of his sword and his favorite knife. The one he was getting better at throwing.
A dark figure burst into view, cloaked and hooded, sword in hand.
Oh, great. Outlaws.
Brand cast quick glances all about, looking for the rest of them. Leaping from all sides, that was the way of it, the way outlaws usually . . .
But there came no others, and the lone man with the sword was staggering now, stumbling out into the road to crash down on his face, sword cartwheeling from his hand.
He struggled to rise, twisting desperately over on his side to reach that emptied hand beseechingly up at Brand.
And then sank down with a sort of wheezing groan, and lay still. His other hand fell away from his throat, and Brand realized the man had been clutching it, all this while.
Trustivus snorted and broke into a clumsy trot.
Brand left the mule’s side just long enough to take a few quick strides closer to the fallen man, to peer—and then to pluck up the outlaw’s sword.
Which proved to be a worn but wickedly sharp butcher’s cleaver, of good heavy iron. It felt solid and usefully dangerous in his hand.
“God be thanked,” he muttered. A free sword was a free sword.
He hastened back to Trusty—as a wolf howled from back in the trees not far behind where the outlaw had emerged.
The outlaw who’d been clutching the bitten-open ruin of his own throat.
The wolves were hungry, all right.
Brand felt like slapping his mule to keep it trotting, but Trusty was back to plodding; a swaying, exhausted gait now.
He was watching a mule stagger.
Trustivus wasn’t going to make it to the Stag.
Brand cursed feelingly, then turned on his heels as he walked, in a spin that let him look in all directions—so he saw the separate moments when wolves trotted calmly out of the trees into view, their eyes fixed on him.
There and over there…and, now, a third, likely the one who’d just howled. On his left, to his right, and behind him—more of them there now, the whole pack spilling out onto the road to follow him.
Trusty snorted again, and it sounded somehow both fearful and—exasperated, like a grim curse. Brand found himself chuckling.
The wolves drew in closer.
Not chasing yet, not quite. More like herding. Following patiently, awaiting their best chance to take down peddler and mule without getting hurt.
Not one of them had paused for a single moment to feed on, or even examine, the fallen outlaw.
“So,” Brand said aloud, “wolves of taste and discernment.”
His voice drew all wolf eyes.
Eyes that were turning red.
“Wonderful,” Brand growled. “God be with me now!”
The road crested a little rise and then descended sharply, to a wet muddiness ahead where the most modest of creeks crossed the cart-way. Perhaps the high ground of the rise might have been the best place to make a stand, but there wasn’t a shadow’s-worth
of cover; the wolves could come leaping in at him from all sides. Besides, Trusty was already past the height and hurrying down towards the mud, snorting and breaking out into a real fear-sweat.
So, this was it. The place he was most likely going to die.
As he hastened to catch up to Trusty, Brand shot more swift glances back behind. All of the wolves had picked up their pace to match his, loping along with an eager grace, red eyes fixed on him. Hungrily.
It was growing noticeably darker, but he could still see clearly. Enough to spot the glimmer of water just off to the left, where the creek widened into some sort of pond.
Nearer, nearer…he could see dead, drowned trees, standing like sentinels in inky water…footing that had to be worse for a wolf trying to spring than dry, solid ground. A trifling advantage, but he’d take it.
Brand broke into a run, grabbed firm hold of Trusty’s bridle rather than trusting the strength of the old lead-rein, and hauled hard to the left, running and pulling for all he was worth.
Which wasn’t much, just now, but . . .
Snorting and tossing its head but not complaining as badly as Brand had feared it might, the mule veered with him. It might balk upon reaching the actual dark water and being unable to see footing, and for that matter Brand himself might then be stumbling or falling on slimy, slippery underwater rocks he couldn’t see, but he highly suspected such things would very shortly be among the very least of his problems, and—
Splash splash splash slip SPLASH snort buck confused kicking treetopple Sper- LASHHHH.
They were in the water and slipping and sliding continually on slick unseen rotting boughs and saplings drowned underfoot, sinking into and churning up a muck of rotting slimy leaves and decay that let loose a choking charnel-midden reek that made Brand’s gorge rise despite the peril. He was trying to turn before they got really stuck, or charged on into watery depths where they’d have to swim; this widening of the creek was certainly large enough to be a real pond. A long-dead sapling had fallen at their arrival, and mud and icy water were flying, and—turn to face the wolves, turn, curse you!
He didn’t realize he’d shouted that aloud until one of the wolves—they were charging now, coming at him in an eager rush with long fangs gleaming—barked some sort of defiant reply.
Brand’s newfound outlaw sword came in immediately useful: he trusted in its heavy sturdiness to chop viciously backhanded at the wolf’s snout—by the Open Gates of Hell, at its gaping maw!—and half-slice, half-smash its head aside, and then sink his knife into its throat.
All he had to do was thrust in; the force of the hunter’s leap as it burst past dragged open its neck in a long, ragged gash. A moment later, it had shouldered him heavily aside and was gone—into the pond beyond with an almighty crash and fountaining of waters. Trusty was shrieking in anger and fear and lashing out with hooves that caught a smaller wolf in the face and bowled it over backwards, and thudded home heavily into the chest and ribs of another.
Brand hadn’t time to see more; though he was slashing and stabbing like a madman, snapping, snarling jaws were everywhere, trying for his legs and arms and throat. Buffeted and stumbling, Brand kicked down, trying above all to keep his feet and not get flung over and back into the waters with half a dozen of the beasts atop him. If that befell they’d be crowding each other to get at his throat, slamming each other aside to try to take his life—
Two wolves slammed into him at once and he was driven staggering backwards, but they’d both been leaping, not planted, so twisting sideways as he gave way was enough to spill one of them down into the waters. Brand was already slipping, so he sacrificed his balance in an odd sort of hop that brought him down hard on the fallen wolf with both knees, and felt something give under his left knee.
Then he got that left foot planted, and spun to drive the outlaw sword into the ribs of a wolf that had just locked its jaws on his knife forearm. God, they stank! A rank musk that was somehow worse than the fetor of the pond-muck. He clawed and snarled and roared out his fear and fury as he stabbed and hacked and stabbed, trying to keep them away from his legs, legs and throat and they were weighing down his arms again and, and—
Trustivus let out a bubbling roar of rage like nothing Brand had ever heard a mule voice before, and sprang atop a rolling, snapping wolf, hooves thudding, trampling the beast, surging to bring its feet crashing down again and again. A wolf sprang at it from behind, seeking to hamstring, and the mule turned with a speed that told Brand it had been watching for this, and laid open the side of that wolf’s head with one lashing hoof.
The wolf tumbled away to splash down far out across the pond, and left behind only bubbles.
Brand spared no more time for checking his rear, but flung himself face down, pinning the wolves on his arms beneath him, twisted free to stab them ruthlessly until they rolled away shrieking, and got up to stagger back and catch his breath.
Suddenly, there were no more wolves biting or springing at him.
Which was a good thing, because he was right out of breath, and drenched, muddy, and bloody to boot. Four wolves were down and the rest were bleeding or limping as they circled hastily away out of reach, to growl at him from a safe distance like so many chained inn-yard dogs.
Something inside Jantis Brand was pleased to see that the wolves considered something like a good dozen running paces to be a “safe distance” from him.
That just might win him time enough to get his wind back. Because unlike some fireside tale or other, no one was coming in the proverbial angels’ nick of time to rescue him or Trusty…they were on their own out here, in the bleak, cold, uncaring wild forest with night coming down and at least a dozen wolves determined to take them.
Being as he was already wet, and because he was bloody-minded enough to want to show the wolves calm defiance, he took the time to wash the worst of the blood off his face and hands and blades, then took Trusty’s bridle again as if nothing at all had happened, and squelched his way back to the road.
Wet through, and hurting in a dozen places.
It was still a long way to the Black Stag, and night was fast coming down.
He stalked on, trying not to show his growing limp, and showed the wolves his back, as if he had nothing more to fear from them.
And perhaps God or the angels had sent him aid, because when snapping and snarling arose behind him and he turned quickly to wave the outlaw sword warningly, he found he had nothing to menace.
The hungry wolves were fighting each other to be first at the feast, devouring their dead fellows.
They were two rises and seven bends of the road beyond the pond before his looks back showed him wolves once more. Padding patiently after him like grim soldiers on the march, silent and malevolent, their eyes like so many lanterns in his wake.
At The Black Stag
“You come too late. Our gates are closed.” The voice was flat and unfriendly.
“Is that you, Olbrecht? Since when does Master Blaubader turn wayfarers away from his gates when there are wolves a-prowl?”
There came a rattle of chain from the other side of the heavy timbers that Brand correctly located, so when Olbrecht, on the inside of the Stag’s stout new palisade, swung aside the stout inside door of the narrow viewing slot to peer warily sidewise at the spot in front of the locked and barred gate, Brand was standing right outside, looking back at him. Wearing his best merry smile on his face.
He felt doing that was only prudent, considering all the mud and blood and his generally drenched and disheveled appearance.
He saw by Olbrecht’s expression that the doorwarden remembered him. His face, at least. And was trying to peer past him, so Brand obligingly gave way and indicated Trusty with a flourish.
Olbrecht didn’t smile—but then, Olbrecht never smiled.
“Trusty here and I walk alone, yes. Needs must. Alone except for the wolves.” Brand pointed meaningfully back down the dark road with the outlaw’s sword.
“We’re full,” Olbrecht informed him.
“Ah. Whereas I,” Brand replied, “am empty. Also cold, wet, hurt, and liable to noisily and messily decorate your closed front gate with wolves—and, quite likely, my own life’s blood, too—very soon now, if you don’t open up.”
“Every room is already taken, and shared by as many guests as will possibly fit,” the doorwarden said dourly. “Every table in the taproom claimed as a bed, too. We’re full. And I’m not turning a beast out of the stables for you, when their owners have already paid for the shelter of a stall, nor—”
“I’m too cold and wet to last a night in the stables, but it follows that I’m too cold and wet to brave a night in the forest entertaining wolves,” Brand replied calmly, “and I can pay. Surely Trusty can be lodged in the stable door-throat until morn, and I with him?”
“No,” Olbrecht said flatly. “We don’t let guests in with other guests’ beasts for very good reasons. The mule can be tethered in the stable-throat for the night, but not you. Not even in the loft; that’s where we of the house are all bedded down.”
“No.” But the doorwarden had slammed the viewing hatch shut and was now lifting and swinging the gate-bar by its chain. “You’ll have to spend the night in the attic.”
“You have an attic? Paradise!”
“Perhaps,” Olbrecht said darkly, undogging a chain that would let him push the heavy wooden gate open far enough to let a slender man—or mule—through, “and perhaps not. It’s haunted.”
Olbrecht saw the wolves. And slammed the gate in some haste.
With Brand and Trustivus on the safer side of it, thank the Lord.
“My thanks,” Brand told him, and meant it. He pretended not to notice as the doorwarden closed a storage box fitted to the inner face of the palisade right beside the gate, and studiously went right on not noticing—despite Olbrecht’s sudden sharp look in his direction—that crossbows and racks of quarrels were neatly fitted within it. “So what’s all this about a haunted attic? No one here at the Stag has so much as mentioned an attic, in all the years I’ve been coming here!”
“Small wonder,” Olbrecht grunted. “We may be backcountry fools here, in the opinion of some talkative peddlers”—he gave Brand a sour look— “but we’re not quite so simple as to spew careless words that’ll give us a darker reputation, and cost us trade. Now let’s see to your mule and get inside. You may be used to this cold, hardy and successful entrepreneur of the road, but I’m not.”
They’d trudged just long enough for Brand to look at the familiar dark bulk of the Stag and see that only the nightlantern by the front door was lit before Olbrecht added sourly, “And most guests are snoring right now, so bide quiet, hmm?”
“I shall be the soul of near-silence,” the peddler promised, and grinned at the disbelieving look the doorwarden swung around to give him.
Olbrecht insisted that the mule’s sidepacks and Brand’s own bulging way-pack be left with Trustivus. Brand wasn’t pleased, but knew he had little choice; in his current halffrozen weariness, Olbrecht could probably shove him and Trusty back out through the gate one-handed and with ease. He wasn’t surrendering his money belt, though.
As they worked with Trusty, the doorwarden assured Brand several times that his packs would be safe, as he’d be sleeping across the inside of the closed stable door until the hostlers came to relieve him at dawn. When Trustivus was settled with water and hay and mash, Olbrecht watched the weary mule sag against the stable wall and grunted, “You could treat your beast less hard, and it’ll last the longer.”
“The wolves,” Brand told him, waving at the worst of the blood on himself, “have driven us hard. It was press on or die.”
The doorwarden looked at him, then at the outlaw sword, and growled, “And you can put that away, or I’ll start thinking you have it out to slice me with.”
“I lack a scabbard for it. I had it from a wolf-chewed outlaw on the road, and those same wolves left me no time to be unbuckling anything.”
Olbrecht shook his head and led the way to the inn door. “Peddlers,” he growled. “Each spins a more colorful tale than the last. Well, ’tis much of the entertainment we get here, so I let most of the falsehoods pass . . .”
He turned in the doorway and raised a stern warning finger to his lips, but when they’d shouldered into the darkened taproom and Brand smelled the hearth-stew, his stomach rumbled as loudly as a burst of laughter.
Not that most of the men bedded down on the tables were asleep. Snores arose here and there, but there was much muttering back and forth. That broke off as heads turned to try to see and measure the new arrival.
As the doorwarden hastened to close and bar the door, a wolf howled in the night outside. Mournful, and on watch, and very close by.
“By God, they’re bold this year!” a man snarled from one of the tables.
“Worse’n’they’ve ever been!” another put in. “You there—they were following you, weren’t they?”
“More than following,” Brand murmured. “But let’s talk of such things in the morning, hey?”
Olbrecht clapped an approving hand on his shoulder, and led him through the tables toward the hearth and the lidded cauldron waiting there.
Behind them, the low-voiced conversation resumed.
“Wolves, wolves, that’s all they talk of hereabouts! Wolves this and wolves that! But I can tell you, things are worse up north in Yorotrusk!”
“Oh? How so? The wolves come in armies up there?”
“Or they’re all bigger than oxen, with fangs as long as soldiers’ swords, and able to fly?”
“Nay, nay, you fools; the wolves up there are no doubt as hungry as these hereabouts, but Kremel-folk have darker worries; spirits are frightening the living half out of their wits by night!”
Brand grimaced over the steaming bowl Olbrecht had just handed him. Peddlers’ luck was running true to form, to be sure. He was headed for Yorotrusk, after Waylin Point— if, God willing, he made it that far.
Bigger than Waylin Point, Yorotrusk was a bustling old stone town where folk had coin to spare, and there were more of them every year; the Lost Helm there was a good inn, among several, and he could sell all the wares he’d brought and even buy a thing or three towards the building of next year’s stock. Spoons and unhilted blades; Yorotrusk was always good for those.
Any town had its hauntings and scare-tales, but “spirits,” now? That sounded bolder than usual . . .
He turned back to hear more, but Olbrecht hissed firmly, “In the morning, peddler. I’m away from the gate too long as it is! I’ll show you to your bed now!”
And a long, labyrinthine, steep and twisting way the way to bed proved to be in the dark, Brand burning his mouth on the stew—a thick broth of rabbit with many mushrooms, and quite good—in his hasty gulping to get the level in the bowl low enough to avoid spillage as they climbed.
Up narrow, steep steps, around a corner into what had surely begun life as a closet before its back had been punched out to give into a former chimney of soot-blackened stone where cold wind whistled down from above, up some rough-built rungs there and through a curtain into what Brand recognized as the far end of the upper passage— Olbrecht waved a warning finger for silence, though the stentorian chorus of snoring coming through guestroom doors on both sides of the passage made the caution seem unnecessary at best—and along it to another curtain. There was a door beyond that, then another breakneck narrow stair up to a deeper chill that came with its own dust and gloom; a landing crowded with brooms and a mop and bucket, where there was a door in the wall festooned with a fist-sized old padlock Olbrecht took some trouble in opening.
“There you be,” he grunted finally, waving grandly into deep darkness. “Bedding in that chest, pillows in that one, and there’s a clear bit of floor yonder. Chamberpots over there. Settle up in the morning. There’ll be hot porridge.”
“Thank you, Olbrecht,” Brand told him, and again, meant it. Despite the rats he could hear scurrying, and the chill breeze moaning through gaps in the walls somewhere down the far end of this sprawling attic. He’d have to keep bent almost double, the rafters were so low, but his room for the night was far larger—and for that matter more private—than any of the guestrooms. It looked to run the entire length of the oldest part of the inn, the barnlike main building with the swayback roof that first greeted the eyes of wayfarers once they were through the gate. Sure enough, the rafters were bowed lower farther on, despite many stout treetrunk braces that had been wedged into place beneath them, long enough ago that it was now all a dust-shrouded chaos of old crisscrossing cobwebs.
The wolves howled again outside, and were answered by others in the faint, far distance. The near ones were startlingly loud up here in the attic.
“Haunted, you said?” he asked Olbrecht, knowing he was querying empty air. The doorwarden had turned on his heel and departed the moment he’d indicated the location of the chamberpots. And there they stood, as promised: an array of spares enough to resupply the entire inn, by the looks of them. Gleaming coldly in the faint light…
Where had that come from?
Though Brand couldn’t have said where it had come from, there was now a faint,pearly light all around him; moonlight, falling into the attic through . . .
Windows that didn’t exist. There wasn’t a window to be seen anywhere.
Nor, unless his wayfarer’s senses were all wrong and he’d lost several days somewhere—impossible!—was the moon up yet.
Brand peered all around—nothing moving, no menacing gliding figures—then tried the door. Which opened readily enough, though there was an immediate clatter outside on the landing.
He smiled thinly. Olbrecht hadn’t locked him in, but had set up an alarm to warn if he stirred: a broom leaned against the closed door.
Not emerging to retrieve the broom, Brand found the padlock, took it so it couldn’t be used to lock him in, pulled the door shut again, and sought pillows, blankets, and a chamberpot. All these and a floor and roof, too! Truly, all the luxuries of grand high-coin accommodation.
After a moment, a thought struck him and he found an old discarded table leg amid the litter of furniture in need of repair that filled most of the attic, and leaned it against the inside of the attic door, as his warning alarm against intrusion from the inn side.
Then he sat down and devoted himself to finishing the stew and licking the bowl clean, even before he pulled his boots off.
Spirits or no spirits, he wasn’t sharing his stew with any rats.
Very suddenly, Brand was awake. And tense in every nerve and rigidly-outthrust hair.
He couldn’t have said what had awakened him. All was dark, still, and chill. No moaning of wind, and no chill breeze; outside in the night, the wind had fallen.
No wolves howling, either. No owls hooting. Nothing but the faintest of contracting-in- the-cold creakings from elsewhere in the sprawling old inn to tell him he hadn’t gone deaf, and this wasn’t some sort of soundless dream.
The darkness of the attic was growing dimly lighter, the deepest of deep blue radiances stealing through inky
He tapped a fingernail against the handy chamberpot, just to hear the faint ‘ting’ of sound and feel its reassuring hardness. It was real, all right, and he was awake.
He had been dreaming, though, and hearing something in his dreams that was absent now.
Something unsettling, something very close . . .
Words, whispered in his ear.
The blue glow was brighter. He seemed to remember, from his dreamtime, insistent whispering and the feeling that it was coming from an unseen face just behind and beside him . . .
He turned his head as fast as he could snap it around, just in case a face was right there, lurking.
Nothing but empty air.
He was alone. The pearly silvery-blue moonlight that wasn’t moonlight was stronger than ever, filling his end of the attic, outlining the many curves and legs of damaged chairs and stools and tables. Showing him that nothing at all had moved in their heaped and tangled profusion since he’d first laid eyes on them.
Then, something did move. Appeared. Down at floor level, amid much furniture.
A pair of tiny eyes, glowing from a dark corner, regarding him. And as suddenly gone again.
A rat. He could—just—hear the patter of its lightfooted, swift scurrying. Dying away as it headed for the far end of the attic.
Brand spun around again, to glare in the other direction.
Nothing. He was still alone.
Wrapping himself more firmly in his blanket, though he didn’t feel cold, Brand sank back down onto his bedding-heap of six blankets, settled his shoulders until he had the pillow comfortably under his head once more, and stared up at the rafters low overhead.
There’d been words. Words he’d understood. So, spoken in his language, and…no, he couldn’t remember what they’d been about, though he’d certainly understood them at the time.
A lone and very near voice, addressing him personally, someone who knew who he was—Jantis Brand, peddler—and wanted to convey something of importance. Persuade him to do something. Something urgent.
Yet he could not, no matter how much he tried to recall, remember what it was.
Nor, so far as he could recollect, had he ever seen who was speaking, though he seemed to remember feeling the weight of a cold, intent regard. Did he feel it now?
His heartbeat thudded. Utter silence. Well, did he?
There was nothing whispering to him, nothing to be seen, no feeling that someone was watching him right now.
Yet the room felt…aware around him. As if it was waiting, and listening.
Yes, this would certainly be enough to make folk think the attic was haunted and not want to spend another minute in it, let alone a night.
For a moment he thought of taking his pillow and bedding out onto the landing, to huddle there until morning.
But then, who was to say a closed attic door would keep…well, whatever had whispered…away from him? Did doors that didn’t close properly shut out—or shut in—spirits?
If it was a spirit.
So far, all he knew was that no one at The Black Stag wanted to talk about this attic, because it was “haunted.” By a whispering voice, it seemed, but…he’d been in danger of dying, this day, and he’d had nightmares before, and—would things have been different if Olbrecht hadn’t said the word “haunted” to him?
Brand found himself yawning hugely, and shook his head. He had to get some sleep, or he’d be asleep on his feet when he hit the road on the morrow, and the wolves would get him for sure.
He stared up at the rafters and started to hum road-songs, the bawdy, rolling tunes that one could spin on and on if one knew, or could invent, lyrics enough. He hummed them deep and low, just for himself, not loud. And tried to call to mind campfires and hearths he’d sung or heard them sung at, elsewhere on the road, over more years of traveling and selling than he cared to remember . . .
He came awake again abruptly. He hadn’t recalled drifting off to sleep, but he was definitely awake again now. And as tense as ever, his very nerves singing in his ears.
Around him, the attic was pitch dark, and cold. That blue light, whatever it had been, was gone, and—and—
It all came rushing back to him, his last memories of what must have been the end of his dream before waking, moments ago.
Yes. He’d been exhorted to do things by a whispering voice, and those softly insistent whispers had been coming from an unseen mouth right by his ear.
And right now, lying awake in the blind darkness, he felt watched.
And…and was that a hint, a mere snatch, of that soft whispering voice?
In his left ear, but so faint he had to strain to hear it. Yes, there it was again.
Insistent. And horribly, horribly close.
Brand rolled over onto his side and flung the blankets and their warmth away, found his feet, and pawed for the unseen door.
Once it was open and he was through it, he traversed the upper passage as stealthily as he knew how. Snorings and coughings came through the doors he passed, and the old inn building creaked in the cold night, and he didn’t think anyone had heard him as he fisted the doused-for-the-night passage lantern down off its hook, found the flint striker and the spills, lit one and got the lantern going, and as softly as he’d come, retraced his steps to the attic.
Which seemed deserted. The feeling of being watched was gone.
Brand smiled crookedly, drew the door closed, lifted the lantern high, and began to search. Moving nothing, but slowly and intently examining everything again.
Everything was as before, the discarded furniture as tired as it had seemed earlier, the dust as thick, the cobwebs as undisturbed. He could find nothing.
With a shrug and a shake of his head, he took the lantern back to its hook, extinguished it, and went back to bed.
Where he listened to the whispers in his dreams until morning.
One Of The Lucky Ones
The shouting awakened him. Shouts—angry and abrupt, but cries of men annoyed with each other and wanting something done now, not fighting—and bangings of doors, and then the low-pitched rumble of a cart, a rising din laced with the clankings of chains; a large wagon.
Brand yawned, finding it hard to throw off sleep. By the light leaking into the attic in scores of places, it was full morning. Another wagon rumbled, and beasts snorted. Aye, the Stag was fully awake and everyone going on about the new day; those wagons he was hearing were departing.
Strangely, his bladder hadn’t roused him. The attic looked as undisturbed as ever to the eyes Brand rubbed to try to clear them. As he yawned, and yawned again, and decided the cold would be his best rouser. Besides, with everyone on the move, he’d best check on Trusty and his wares.
Sleepily he stumbled down to the stables, passing many open doors with empty rooms beyond; he was rising late. Well, no wonder, with a spirit whispering in his ear half the night . . .
A bitterly cold wind was blowing, and the sky was like racing smoke. Storm weather. Luck be damned for all wayfarers. No wonder the wagon-merchants had been in a hurry to get on the road.
Someone had moved Trusty to the back of the common passage to let other beasts out of their stalls. The saddlebags and his own way-pack had been shifted to keep company with his mule, and seemed otherwise undisturbed. Brand checked them, of course, but was pleasantly surprised to find nothing missing, and even his own knot of mule hairs laid over the contents just under the straps undisturbed. No one had even . . .
But wait. His way-pack bulged more than it should have done, definitely more than it had last night. Had someone thrust something into his pack to hide it, or put something there to be found so he could be accused as a thief, and—?
He flung aside the heavy gloves he always packed on top, then the spare shirt beneath. The plump pouch that held his mending kit, the—
He found himself staring down into the empty eyesockets of a human skull. It was intact, with jawbone still attached, and so grinned up at him, brown-yellow with age and glossy smooth, well-worn and clean.
And somehow, although the sockets gaped as two windows into dark emptiness within, it was looking up at him as it tendered its endless sardonic grin—
In sudden revulsion, fear rising like a shrieking violin, Brand flung the pack down and rose, stumbling hastily back. For one horrified moment he thought the skull was going to float smoothly up into view to go right on grinning at him, rising straight up out of the pack like a snake-charmer’s cobra in a fireside tale, but…no. Somehow it had worked its way to the top of the pack, though, the gloves and shirt inexplicably falling past it rather than back into place over it, so its knowing grin was still visible.
And becoming more so as the thing rotated around to sit up and face him squarely—
Brand swallowed with an effort, finding himself shaking. If he’d turned and run, he’d have kept on running forever, perhaps, but—
Two swift steps and his hands closed on the familiar worn and stained leather of the pack. He clawed hold of the hide thong loops on either side, and in another instant had the pack upended and was shaking it hard, in a quickening frenzy that had everything falling from it in a tumbling flood.
The skull had been on top, his shakings had dashed it floorward, it should have shattered on the stable floor…but there was nothing there now save all of his belongings, scattering in rumpled chaos as he stared.
He’d seen those horrid brown-yellow curves clearly, he’d watched it hurtle down—and in an instant, even before he could blink, it had just…vanished.
As if it had never been there at all, as if he’d dreamed it. No, peer as he might, he could now see no sign of it. Brand found himself looking wildly into every corner, into impossibly far places for a skull to have rolled even if it had been as heavy as a cabbage and bounding along at speed.
No, all his belongings were here, strewn in the trodden straw and muck, but the skull was simply…gone.
The floor here was hard-trampled dirt in some places and old, rotting floorboards in other spots, all of it garnished untidily with straw, but surely he’d have heard it strike and shatter.
So instead of shattering on the floor, it had vanished before striking the floorboards, and now there was no sign of it at all. Yet it had seemed solid enough—not that he’d touched it, but it had made his way-pack bulge, and had taken up space there in the heart of all his familiar belongings, and . . .
A sudden drift of hard rain drummed on the stable roof overhead. Damn and blast.
Brand stuffed everything back into his way-pack, patted Trusty and dipped him water from the inside trough into a nosebag, and made for the door.
Two steps out into the yard, he wished he hadn’t. Icy sleet was falling, so heavily it formed moving, opaque walls like smoke, driven across the world by gusts of angry snarling wind. Cold and raw, the rain stinging hard pellets on his cheeks. And the open road outside the inn walls would be worse.
Brand concluded this even before slipping and almost falling, the way-pack swinging around on his shoulder and nigh overbalancing him.
He planted his feet in firmer mud to steady himself, in time to realize he was already soaked and thoroughly chilled—and that the sleet was now driving across the yard horizontally, right into his face.
He promptly slipped again, this time wrenching something in his thigh and ending up knee-down in ice-crusted mud. Brand struggled up to his feet cursing heartily.
The rest of his brief return journey to the inn proper was even worse.
Part of him wanted to rush out into the storm and get just as far away from here as he possibly could. Though he couldn’t leave his way-pack behind, and might well be bringing the skull with him.
And part of him knew better. This sort of bite to the wind, and this bone-chilling ice rain…no. A day to stay indoors, if at all possible. His coins were meager enough, but they’d be of no use to him if he was frozen dead, out on the road.
The sensible thing to do was to bide for an entire day and night through at the Stag, and get Trusty—not to mention one Jantis Brand—properly fed and rested.
Thanks to all the hasty departures he’d heard, there were now plenty of open stalls, so he paid Olbrecht for proper lodging for Trusty, and paid more—my, but inns weren’t losing any coin at the keeping home and warm hearth game!—for the loan of the attic padlock key until next morning. Then Brand took the pack of his best wares up to the attic, locked it and his money belt in there with the padlock, returned for the mule-packs to store them in his attic hideaway, then borrowed one of his for-sale thongs and made a neck-chain for the attic key, hung it around his neck and revisited Olbrecht to pay for a bath, and relaxed from all of his labors with a nice warm soak. A private bathing chamber with a copper hip bath; sheer bliss. When the water cooled—all too soon in this weather, despite the warmed bricks and fire—Brand got out and washed his overdue-for-it garments in the same bath, then luxuriated in the last of the fading warmth until he judged himself dry enough to don his spare clothes.
He was on his way back to the attic with his bundle of sodden, well-rinsed garments when he saw a familiar portly figure shouldering down the passage, though the jutting bristle-moustache was whiter than he remembered.
“Master Blaubader,” he greeted the innkeeper happily. Nicolae Blaubader wasn’t known for his smiles, but the sight of this particular peddler evidently earned one. Brand had been trading up and down this road for years; he and Blaubader knew each other well and of old.
“Doing well?” The Master of the Stag was missing a few more teeth, but his smile was as wide as ever.
Brand shrugged. “Better than the sane might expect. Dark times.”
“Indeed,” Blaubader agreed gravely. “And darkening. Seldom are the new tales brought to our ears cheering, these days. It almost seems night is coming to Kremel.” His gaze was alert; he wanted to hear what Brand could add.
“Folk are fearful, to be sure,” Brand agreed, “and the wolves…I’ve never seen them so bad. Almost didn’t make it here.”
The innkeeper nodded. “You’re not the first to warn us. Wolves and brigands, wolves and brigands…Tauliver went missing somewhere between here and Ulksbridge, and three Koeblenn wagons are late arriving in Ostelink. But the Stag, at least, remains a safe, snug refuge on the road.”
“I’ve always found it so,” Brand agreed, “and think I’ll rest a day here. You keep a good house. Friendly. But, Master of the Stag, I have to ask: what whispers in your attic?”
The smile fell off Blaubader’s face like a heavy black curtain plunging down.
“I don’t,” he said curtly, leaning nearer and keeping his voice low, “talk of that.”
“You had a full house last night,” Brand replied, dropping his own voice to a conspiratorial murmur, “so Olbrecht took pity on a cold wolf-hounded peddler and lodged me up under your rafters. Where I dreamed of whispering all night, insistent whispering in my ear—with no mouth to make it.”
“Ah! So, you saw no skull?” the innkeeper grunted.
Something in his face made Brand decide to answer firmly, “No.”
“Good.” Relief seemed to flow off Blaubader like a waterfall. “Mayhap you’ll be one of the lucky ones.”
And he nodded an abrupt farewell and lurched on his way, starting to hum an old trail song as he gathered speed down the passage, in an obvious hurry to be elsewhere. Beyond more questions, belike.
Brand watched him go, thoughts racing but getting nowhere. What did the innkeeper know? How to get him to say what he did, without making a foe and risking having the gates of the Stag barred in his face forevermore? And how did old Nicolae know it? Was this a Blaubader family secret handed down the centuries?
Answers he had none, nor any way just now to get. Brand sighed and resumed his climb to the attic, to spread his washed clothes out over the stored furniture to dry.
It was high time to spend more of his precious coins. He repaired to the taproom for his first leisurely hot meal in days, finding himself in need of more than warmth and food.
He needed companionship that didn’t whisper.
More than a dozen merchants were sitting dining and drinking, all waiting out the storm as he was. All men, and almost all faces he knew; merchants who took the same roads he did. He was the only pack-peddler; these were wagon traders who dealt daily in more coin than he’d likely ever see all at once. Perhaps they could be steered into gossiping of skulls and whispers—and fonts of knowledge or not, he always learned something from traders’ gossip, and took comfort from the fellowship. Trusty wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
This double-chinned merchant seated in front of Brand was, though.
“Oh, they’re bad, right enough,” he was telling the room earnestly, waving a tankard as large as Brand’s head for emphasis, “but look at it this way: the worse the wolves are in a stretch of countryside, the fewer the brigands. And wolves are cunning and ruthless, but at heart simple enough creatures; they’re looking to fill their bellies with the least amount of trouble. Brigands, now—they’re either desperate, or nasty cruel sorts who enjoy killing and torment. They can scheme and plot vengeance for a season to come…nay, give me wolves every time. As long as I have three good solid crossbow quarrels ready for each snarler, I know how that’ll end. I even know buyers for wolf-pelts.”
Did he, now? Double-Chin was one of the few men in the room Brand had never laid eyes on before; what scandal or troubles or worsening business had driven him from his usual trading haunts to this particular backforest road? The way with the worst reputation, that led into Kremel?
Hmm. Not that an answer would likely be offered, or easily learned. As someone else took to tongue-wagging, Brand drifted to an empty table and caught the goodwife’s eye. As she started her journey through the tables to learn his wants, he looked around the taproom. The thin, sour-faced man with a nose as sharp as a drawn dagger who was speaking now, was another merchant unfamiliar to him, but most of the other faces in the taproom he knew, if not the names that belonged to all of them.
At the next table, nodding greeting to him now, was plump and moon-faced Helmut Krause, seller of fine gowns and tunics and cloaks, far smarter than his looks suggested. A fair trader, and a good man, one of the few who treated peddlers as equals.
Brand gave him back a smile and nod, then did the same to another fair and friendly trader: Anders Fuchs, seller of belts, bridles, and harness.
“Evil,” Sourface was intoning darkly, “is on the march.”
Brand could not disagree, other than to prefer “prowl” to “march” and to feel a touch of his usual weariness with those who seemed to feel the need to display their talent for pointing out the tossed-in-all-teeth obvious.
The goodwife assured him a pleasant smallfowl soup was hot and ready and could be in a steaming bowl in front of him in mere moments, that venison and parsnip stew was available for a copper more, and roast boar could be had if he was feeling particularly wealthy—or ready to become less so—this day. Brand told her he’d begin with the soup and parley farther if his stomach so guided him; she received his decision with a swift smile and bustled off happily enough.
The talk—well, gossip, if one clove closer to precision—continued to rage around him, to the accompaniment of many waved clay pipes and grounded-for-emphasis tankards, and Brand learned one more time that wolves and brigands were bad everywhere, and shapeshifters and restless spirits that glided or flew menacingly were plentiful enough as far afield as Ostelink.
Any prudent peddler learned all he could of recent ambushes and bridges washed out, plague and forest fires and signposts gone missing or turned awry out of mischief—as well as anything else that could mar or complicate his journeys ahead, but Brand was determined not to spend all of his down day at the Stag hearing of gloom and dire dark deeds and more doom ahead. So he drew out Krause, who was apt to wax enthusiastic about anything new among his wares, and duly learned that the gown trader had some porcelain doll’s heads to sell for gifting of dolls at Christ’s Mass, carefully packed against breakage in a stout compartmented wooden coffer he’d made and was proud of—though Fuchs rolled his eyes at the lengthy description of its exacting construction. And said nothing of anything new or special in his own trading, merely shook his head and muttered, “Riding out lean times, as you are. Awaiting better times to come, as we all are—or fool ourselves into thinking will come, to keep going.” And he spat into the rushes and thrust his cold and empty pipe back into his mouth like a bung into a keg that would see rough handling ahead.
Brand could offer nothing bright and new for his own part, so they turned to retelling old tales of pranks and past successes and the pratfalls of others.
The night wore on and the goodwife offered cheese biscuits, and dark stout, too, so Brand could augment his soup without leaning too hard on his purse.
He did as much, as did Krause and Fuchs, ere they nodded amiable farewell and took to talking with other merchants. Replete, Brand sought his bed neither early nor late, but in the mid-wain of merchants departing the taproom, heading for the attic with his rented key despite the availability of empty rooms.
The attic was dark and deserted, with no trace of the glow that stole around it betimes, and no feeling of watching presence. He was alone with the night and the distant growls of the dying thunder, as the storms that had raged all day took themselves into the distance, leaving only a steady, heavy rain behind.
Brand fell asleep listening for a drip, anywhere among the close-overhead rafters—but hearing none at all. Nothing but the close, still darkness . . .
And, when he’d sunk into slumber, so far down in the inky depths that he had to be asleep, the whispers.
Gentle at first, sidling up slyly, and then, when close by his ear and not rebuffed by his waking, more insistent.
He listened eagerly, this time, not seeking to flee or shut out, but to drink in, and remember.
Oh, to recall these whispers in his dreams, come morning!
He had to remember, had to tamp down the words so that in the cold bright dawn, when he rolled his stiff self out into the chill to go down to Trusty and begin his journey on to Waylin Point, he’d know what the whispers wanted.
The whispers coming from the skull he could not see.
The skull that even now was hovering right by his ear, but that wouldn’t be there if he turned to look at it.
The skull that wanted him to seek out the dead, and avenge them.
“So Master Blaubader was right,” he told the whispers wryly. “I am one of the lucky ones.”
And then he added, in a whisper of his own, “For my sins.”