CHRONICLER WALKED. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good. He had searched for horses in Abbott’s Ford and Rannish, offering outrageous prices for even the most broken-down animals. But in small towns like these, people didn’t have horses to spare, especially not with harvest fast approaching.
Despite a hard day’s walking, he was still on the road when night fell, making the rutted dirt road a stumbling ground of half-seen shapes. After two hours of fumbling through the dark, Chronicler saw light flickering through the trees and abandoned any thought of making it to Newarre that night, deciding a farmstead’s hospitality would be welcome enough.
He left the road, blundering through the trees toward the light. But the fire was farther away than he had thought, and larger. It wasn’t lamplight from a house, or even sparks from a campfire. It was a bonfire roaring in the ruins of an old house, little more than two crumbling stone walls. Huddled into the corner those two walls made was a man. He wore a heavy hooded cloak, bundled up as if it were full winter and not a mild autumn evening.
Chronicler’s hopes rose at the sight of a small cook fire with a pot hanging over it. But as he came close, he caught a foul scent mingling with the woodsmoke. It reeked of burning hair and rotting flowers. Chronicler quickly decided that whatever the man was cooking in the iron pot, he wanted none of it. Still, even a place next to a fire was better than curling up by the side of the road.
Chronicler stepped into the circle of firelight. “I saw your f—” He stopped as the figure sprang quickly to its feet, a sword held with both hands. No, not a sword, a long, dark cudgel of some sort, too regularly shaped to be a piece of firewood.
Chronicler stopped dead in his tracks. “I was just looking for a place to sleep,” he said quickly, his hand unconsciously clutching at the circle of iron that hung around his neck. “I don’t want any trouble. I’ll leave you to your dinner.” He took a step backward.
The figure relaxed, and the cudgel dropped to grate metallically against a stone. “Charred body of God, what are you doing out here at this time of
“I was headed to Newarre and saw your fire.”
“You just followed a strange fire into the woods at night?” The hooded figure shook his head. “You might as well come here.” He motioned Chronicler closer, and the scribe saw he was wearing thick leather gloves. “Tehlu anyway, have you had bad luck your whole life, or have you been saving it all up for tonight?”
“I don’t know who you’re waiting for,” Chronicler said, taking a step backward. “But I’m sure you’d rather do it alone.”
“Shut up and listen,” the man said sharply. “I don’t know how much time we have.” He looked down and rubbed at his face. “God, I never know how much to tell you people. If you don’t believe me, you’ll think I’m crazy. If you do believe me, you’ll panic and be worse than useless.” Looking back up, he saw Chronicler hadn’t moved. “Get over here, damn you. If you go back out there you’re as good as dead.”
Chronicler glanced over his shoulder into the dark of the forest. “Why?
What’s out there?”
The man gave a short, bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. “Honestly?” He ran his hand absentmindedly though his hair, brushing his hood back in the process. In the firelight his hair was impossibly red, his eyes a shocking, vibrant green. He looked at Chronicler, sizing him up. “Demons,” he said. “Demons in the shape of big, black spiders.”
Chronicler relaxed. “There’s no such thing as demons.” From his tone it was obvious he’d said the same thing many, many times before.
The red-haired man gave an incredulous laugh. “Well, I guess we can all go home then!” He flashed a manic grin at Chronicler. “Listen, I’m guessing you’re an educated man. I respect that, and for the most part, you’re right.” His expression went serious. “But here and now, tonight, you’re wrong. Wrong as wrong can be. You don’t want to be on that side of the fire when you figure that out.”
The flat certainty in the man’s voice sent a chill down Chronicler’s back. Feeling more than slightly foolish, he stepped delicately around to the other side of the bonfire.
The man sized him up quickly. “I don’t suppose you have any weapons?” Chronicler shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter. A sword wouldn’t do you much good.” He handed Chronicler a heavy piece of firewood. “You probably won’t be able to hit one, but it’s worth a try. They’re fast. If one of them gets on you, just fall down. Try to land on it, crush it with your body. Roll on it. If you get hold of one, throw it into the fire.”
He drew the hood back over his head, speaking quickly. “If you have any extra clothes, put them on. If you have a blanket you could wrap—”
He stopped suddenly and looked out across the circle of firelight. “Get
your back against the wall,” he said abruptly, bringing his iron cudgel up with both hands.
Chronicler looked past the bonfire. Something dark was moving in the trees.
They came into the light, moving low across the ground: black shapes, many-legged and large as cart wheels. One, quicker than the rest, rushed into the firelight without hesitating, moving with the disturbing, sinuous speed of a scuttling insect.
Before Chronicler could raise his piece of firewood, the thing skirted sideways around the bonfire and sprang at him, quick as a cricket. Chronicler threw up his hands just as the black thing struck his face and chest. Its cold, hard legs scrabbled for a hold and he felt bright stripes of pain across the backs of his arm. Staggering away, the scribe felt his heel snag on the rough ground, and he began to topple over backward, arms flailing wildly.
As he fell, Chronicler caught one last glimpse of the circle of firelight. More of the black things were scuttling out of the dark, their feet beating a quick staccato rhythm against roots and rocks and leaves. On the other side of the fire the man in the heavy cloak held his iron cudgel ready with both hands. He stood perfectly still, perfectly silent, waiting.
Still falling backward with the dark thing on top of him, Chronicler felt a dull, dark explosion as the back of his head struck the stone wall behind him. The world slowed, turned blurry, then black.
Chronicler opened his eyes to a confusing mass of dark shapes and firelight. His skull throbbed. There were several lines of bright, clear pain crossing the backs of his arms and a dull ache that pulled at his left side every time he drew in a breath.
After a long moment of concentration the world came into a blurry focus. The bundled man sat nearby. He was no longer wearing his gloves, and his heavy cloak hung off his body in loose tatters, but other than that he seemed unscathed. His hood was up, hiding his face.
“You’re awake?” the man asked curiously. “That’s good. You can never be sure with a head wound.” The hood tilted a bit. “Can you talk? Do you know where you are?”
“Yes,” Chronicler said thickly. It seemed to take far too much effort to make a single word.
“Even better. Now, third time pays for all. Do you think you can stand up and lend me a hand? We need to burn and bury the bodies.”
Chronicler moved his head a bit and felt suddenly dizzy and nauseous. “What happened?”
“I might have broken a couple of your ribs,” the man said. “One of them
was all over you. I didn’t have a lot of options.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, for whatever that’s worth. I’ve already stitched up the cuts on your arms. They should heal up nicely.”
The hood nodded once. “The scrael don’t retreat. They’re like wasps from a hive. They keep attacking until they die.”
A horrified look spread over Chronicler’s face. “There’s a hive of these things?”
“Dear God, no. There were just these five. Still, we have to burn and bury them, just to be sure. I already cut the wood we’ll need: ash and rowan.”
Chronicler gave a laugh that sounded slightly hysterical. “Just like the children’s song:
“Let me tell you what to do. Dig a pit that’s ten by two.
Ash and elm and rowan too—”
“Yes indeed,” the bundled man said dryly. “You’d be surprised at the sorts of things hidden away in children’s songs. But while I don’t think we need to dig the entire ten feet down, I wouldn’t refuse a little help….” He trailed off meaningfully.
Chronicler moved one hand to feel the back of his head gingerly, then looked at his fingers, surprised that they weren’t covered in blood. “I think I’m fine,” he said as he cautiously levered himself up onto one elbow and from there into a sitting position. “Is there any—” His eyes flickered and he went limp, falling bonelessly backward. His head struck the ground, bounced once, and came to rest tilted slightly to one side.
Kote sat patiently for a few long moments, watching the unconscious man. When there was no movement other than the chest slowly rising and falling, he came stiffly to his feet and knelt at Chronicler’s side. Kote lifted one eyelid, then the other and grunted at what he saw, not seeming particularly surprised.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you waking up again?” he asked without much hope in his voice. He tapped Chronicler’s pale cheek lightly. “No chance at—” A drop of blood spotted Chronicler’s forehead, followed quickly by another.
Kote straightened up so that he was no longer leaning over the unconscious man and wiped the blood away as best he could, which wasn’t very well, as his hands were covered in blood themselves. “Sorry,” he said
He gave a deep sigh and pushed back his hood. His red hair was matted down against his head, and half his face was smeared with drying blood. Slowly he began to peel away the tattered remains of his cloak. Underneath was a leather blacksmith’s apron, wildly scored with cuts. He removed that as well, revealing a plain grey shirt of homespun. Both his shoulders and his left arm were dark and wet with blood.
Kote fingered the buttons of his shirt for a moment, then decided against removing it. Climbing gingerly to his feet, he picked up the spade and slowly, painfully, began to dig.