A small dirt path stretched across the land, cutting through increasingly rarer farmland and small copses of trees all the same; to someone flying over it the sight would have remembered a snake that sloppily tried to climb its way up the near mountain range just to give up before making it past the large forest hugging the slopes all around the mountains. Riding on the path were two men wearing hooded cloaks that kept their horses going at an hurried trot, most likely to reach the small village barely visible in the distance before the sunset came upon them. Both of them wore a simple mail armour underneath their cloaks and had a simple longsword resting on their hips, details that hinted at them being more than simple wanderers. What sealed the impression however was their sky blue surcoats, a white cross painted across their chests and a silver pendant hanging over it, garments that even in the most remote and forgotten hamlet were known as symbols of the Order.
The one that kept himself on the back lifted his eyes from the ground for the first time in hours and instead he stared at the back of the man in front of him. He was fairly young, barely in his early twenties and the only thing of note about him was how there was nothing of note about him; everything from his average height, to his average brown hairs and eyes, down to his average face seemed to be the result of a careful design intended to make him as unassuming and easily forgettable as possible.
For a few moments he just stared awkwardly at his travelling companion, an embarrassed silence hanging in the air, until the older figure in front of him sighed tiredly and turned to look at him out of the tail of his eye: “What is it boy? If you want to say something just go ahead and say it, having your eyes burning a hole in my back is unnerving.” The man was much older than him, maybe in his mid forties, and everything in his face showed it; from the greying hairs, to his skin roughened by years of exposure to the sun and wind, down to his tired brown eyes that spoke of experience, everything about him told of a long life of hardships.
“For the last time” the older man groaned out in annoyance “ I’m no commander and just because I’m a old geezer and I helped out turning you in something less pathetic than what you were when you have been enlisted, doesn’t mean I’m some sort of drillmaster. So stop calling me Master.”
“Friedrich, why are we going there?”
Friedrich growled out in frustration: “Are you stupid or what? We’re being sent to this backward hole because in the last six months almost thirty people just vanished in thin air and the only real clue we got is that they all went to this Gods-forgotten place looking for a guide.”
“That’s not what I meant!” replied the younger man scowling “It’s just that I could have understood if it was just merchants or tax agents, but more than half of them were patrols of soldiers, one of them was an Order Knight just like us. If it’s really the work of monsters as they think, then either it’s a fairly strong one or we’re not dealing with a stray. Wouldn’t it be better if they sent more than just the two of us or even a Paladin?”
The sound of Friedrich chuckling told him before he spoke that something of his question sounded ridiculous to the older Knight: “You mean they should have sent just one Paladin? No offense to them but for all their training and shining plate armour, they would perform rather poorly without anyone else to support them. They’re supposed to be the trump cards hidden within our ranks and the bulk against which the enemy will stop, you can’t just send one of them scouting, there’s a reason if even us lesser Knight are needed. I thought after an year you would know better about how we fight.”
All trace of mirth however disappeared from his face as soon as he resumed talking: “As for why it’s just the two of us, officially we aren’t supposed to know, but it’s all a matter of politics.” The way Friedrich spoke those words made clear that his opinion on the choice wasn’t one of agreement, a sentiment that seemed to be shared amongst most of the veterans of the Order. “That mountain range act as a border between three states at once: one is obviously us, the other is a Demon Realm and the last one is a Monster Friendly Kingdom” he told him, the last word almost spat out in disgust.
“While we couldn’t care any less about what a Demon Realm think of us, apparently our fearless leaders seems to rather enjoy maintaining a trade route with a nest of heretics, which of course mean that they would rather not upset them in anyway. Since our superiors think this is the work of wild monsters instead of a military action, the only way an Order presence would be tolerated so close to the border would be if its size it’s too small to be perceived as an hostile action. So in other words” Friedrich concluded, disdain obvious in his voice “the reason why they sent a rookie and an old man to do a job more suited to a whole team of Knights is because the nobles living at the court still want to wear their silk dresses.”
The younger man was taken back by the vehemence behind the words of his senior, he had known since he met him that Friedrich was a fervent believer in his role in the Order and that he rarely accepted compromises when it came to dealing with monsters, but to hear him speaking so openly against the leaders of their nation was disturbing. It didn’t escape his mind that according to protocol such declarations could have been interpreted as treason and if he was to be strict, he would have to report him once they were back to the Capital. However when it came to such slips up the members of the Order were rarely strict, especially since such mistrust toward the nobility was a wide spread sentiment born from decades of misrule from a royal court as incompetent as it was contemptuous.
Instead he asked him: “Aren’t they worried about what might happen should this incident turn out for the worst?”
“Of course they’re worried, but they came to the conclusion that even if such a turn of events was to happen, they still wouldn’t lose to much. Besides, this isn’t called Dead Land for nothing.”
The Knight nodded grimly in understanding, ever since the war of conquest of the nearby Demon Realm came to an end, the border and the nearby lands had been judged too dangerous for any permanent industry or settlement and they had been instead devoted to act as a buffer between the Demon Realm and the Kingdom proper. That didn’t prevent however some of the more stubborn from still trying to do otherwise, but asides from a few exceptions all attempts turned out in failure, leaving strip of land that were anywhere between barely a mile to almost a dozen in width to be mostly deserted.
The small village they were finally approaching was one of those exceptions, although one could chalk it up to how the presence of the mountain range and a nearby neutral party was of deterrence from any kind of military action launched against it; that didn’t mean that the chance of wild monsters crossing the border and heading toward the settlement was an impossibility, the fact that they were now going there on an investigation was proof enough of that.
It wasn’t anything more than a chaotic gathering of precarious wooden buildings surrounding a central square made out of rammed earth, the only stone structure in sight being the well in the middle of it; at first sight there couldn’t be more than a hundred people living there, yet the apparent lack of cultivated land left him wondering how they sustained themselves. Few people were still out on the streets and the few who were looked at them impassively before going back to what they were doing; a couple of time he thought he had seen children spying at them from behind doors drawn close with the same apathy of the adults, before the door were closed completely as they neared them. Coupled with the almost unnatural silence in which the settlement was wrapped, he couldn’t deny that the whole experience was unsettling.
They stopped their horses in front of a slightly bigger building, an inn by the look of it, and they made their way inside. Once they where past the heavy door they found themselves almost immediately plunged into darkness, the only source of light some faint candles spread sparingly on the tables and a few windows which shutters were barely opened. To make things worse, on top of the smoke from the candles and the one coming from the small kitchen in the back, there was the one produced by the lit pipes that some of the older costumers were smoking with pleasure. The only improvement over their expectation was the wooden floor that let their step echoing in the room, interrupting the few hushed conversation going on at some tables.
Aside from some quick glances, they made their way to the counter without being given any attention, something that instead of calming him made the young Knight feel even more uneasy. Waiting for them behind the counter was a burly balding man wearing a dirty apron, which turned on them almost immediately and after grasping his hand together he gave them a wide smile that missed some teeth: “Welcome to my humble inn my dear costumers, looks like you looking for rest after a long journey, how may I help you?”
Seemingly not as disturbed as him by the whole place, Friedrich was quick to made his intention known: “Actually we were looking for information about a series of events that transpired near this settlement.” As he said so he casually put a small pouch on the counter, the sounds of metal tinkling against metal getting through the canvas. Now looking positively ecstatic the man widened his grin even more, to the point it looked like it would split his face in half at any given moment: “You just have to ask. So, what is that caught your attention about our lovely hamlet?”
Ignoring the disturbingly cheery bartender, the older Knight wasted no time: “In the last six months a frightful amount of people had been disappearing in these woods. All of them had previously visited this village looking for a guide, or so I’ve been told. Have you heard anything about it?”
To the surprised of both Knight the man seemed to be amused by the question, before he shook his head and began talking: “So the city folks have finally noticed, huh? I also suggest you to choose a better informant next time, those disappearances had been going on for at least eight months, although it’s only two months after that they’ve become so noticeable.”
Friedrich had to fight down the surprise from showing on his face, but in the end he managed to ask with an even tone: “You mean that there have been more people going missing? Why did no one knew about it?”
“Do not be mistaken, it’s something we neither thought of until recently nor are we sure if there’s any truth to it. You see, those woods you so easily dismissed have quite the fame around here; the paths safe enough to be travelled on a horseback are few and far in between and even then nothing is certain. Most of the time it’s much easier cutting through the forest on feet seeing how often a landslide close off the other paths, but that doesn’t mean it’s a safe bet; there are a lot of crevice in which one can fall and once winter comes the snow just help them going unnoticed, although that’s nothing compared to the packs of wolves that creep around.”
“You mean Werewolves?” asked the younger men.
“No, I mean actual savage hungry wolves that wouldn’t waste a moment before trying to turn you and your horses in their next meal. Trust me, if what I heard about monsters is true at least you can try to reason with them; lots of folks here would gladly take a whole Demon Army over wolves any day.”
Ignoring the glare that was sent in his way by Friedrich the bartender resumed his speech: “So anyway, even without taking into account that part of the forest is unexplored and could hide Gods know what, people going in and never returning weren’t something unexpected, especially if they were stranger without a guide. It’s only when they became too many that we realized something was out of place and some of us think there have been a pattern going on ever since the first folk of this streak went missing.”
“A pattern?” asked the Order Knight, now interested by the turn in the conversation.
“Yes, some of us noticed that this far those gone missing aren’t casual travellers, they all have something in common, besides of course visiting our humble abodes.” He then raised one hand and proceeded to lift a finger for each thing he listed: “They all came from far inside the mainland, they either weren’t married or spent little to no time with their wives and finally, they weren’t the nicest people around.”
“And you managed to know this much about them?” asked surprised the younger Knight.
“Jobs like mine have their perks” was the prideful remark of the bartender.
“However those traits don’t seem too accurate, most of those gone missing were soldiers of the Order, there was even a Knight between them.”
“As I said, not the nicest people around. Don’t give me that look” the man said ignoring the withering glare that Friedrich gave him “I’m sure they were all model soldiers or whatever, but they could have taken some lesson in manners; most of the soldier I ever saw around were either drunk, starting a fight or both. And your Knight in shining armour didn’t even want to pay his expenses in my inn, claiming his mission was the work of the Chief God and as such he couldn’t be troubled with earthly matter such as money. A fancy way to say that he was broke, if you ask me.”
If he was irked by the bartender remark, Friedrich didn’t show it, so his next question didn’t sound as menacing as it could have been otherwise: “If that’s the case, is there any other knowledge we should be informed of that this village kept to itself?”
The man grin settled to a more modest expression and for the first time since the conversation started he seemed disappointed: “No, we don’t have any idea of who might be behind this or why, if that’s what you’re asking. Hell, we don’t even know if they truly disappeared within the forest or on the other side of it, the only people that visit that forest regularly are our hunters and woodcutters and even them don’t go too deep into the woods, so just because last they saw them they were still in the forest, it doesn’t mean they still were there when they went missing.”
“This hunters” asked surprisingly the younger Knight as he seemed to be thinking over something “Do you think we could hire them as guides to explore the forest?”
The look the bartender gave him barely managed to hide the condescension that was much more obvious in his voice: “I wouldn’t count to much on that, as I said the only thing we’re sure of is that all those travellers went missing much deeper in the forest than what any of us is familiar with and that isn’t without good reason. They might be more confident in their chances of survival out there in the wild, but that doesn’t make them stupid enough to think they could fare any better further in the woods.”
“I’m sure we could come up with a deal they would find satisfactory” replied curtly the older Order Knight.
“I know to you city folks it might be a shocking revelation, but not everything can be paid back in money” replied the bartender, this time pouring much more hostility in his tone “This isn’t the first time someone thought himself to be more clever or more skilled than his ancestor and tried to make a name for himself by uncovering the secrets of the forest. Do you know then why we still don’t go any further, despite knowing that it’s there that the higher trees grow and bigger game live? Because of all the fools that went there most didn’t return and those who did crossed the village gate feet first.”
The burly man took a breath to recover from his previous outburst before concluding: “If you want to go and get lost yourself, go ahead, but if you expect any of us to follow you to meet our death, you could as well turn on your heels and go back to where you came from. No one has even been able to return from the heart of the forest and no one is going to try is luck now.”
“That’s not true!”
The three men were caught off guard by the raspy voice that said such a certain response; they all turned to see at the furthest end of the counter and old scrawny man sitting on a stool, now looking at them with an air of authority that didn’t belong to such a frail figure.
The bartender must have known him since he quickly recovered from his surprise and replied to him without masking his irritation: “Damn, you old man, I thought I had made myself clear when I said you are not supposed to eavesdrop on my conversations with my client, even less interrupt them with your babbling!”
Friedrich however seemed to be interest in what the old man said and inquired further: “What do you meant by that? You mean there’s someone that could act as our guide?”
“Of course there is! Everyone knows about him even this young fellow over there” he said ignoring the scalding glances said fellow kept throwing his way “People just like to forget about him because he’s not properly a part of our community. That and there are stories about him.”
“You know damn well those are no stories. There is no way he kept coming back from the forest without a scratch while those who follow him always end up injured in accidents or worse! He’s bad luck!” As to seal his opinion, the bartender thought proper to spit to the ground and to make some gestures with his fingers that were probably meant to ward of said bad luck.
Despite the show he just witnessed the veteran Knight was intrigued by the words of the old man, enough that he decided that it was a lead that was worth pursuing: “Can you tell me more about this man?”
Ignoring the bewildered look of the bartender the elder grinned in satisfaction before complying to the request: “I like when you youngsters can recognize who’s truly worth your time. But yes, ther’s such a man, an hunter and quite a successful one, although he lives outside the village walls in a small hut of his; he lives by himself, although sometimes he shows up here to get a drink at the inn or to sell some game to the butcher. That aside, I won’t deny that he can be weird at times, but when it comes to moving through this woods he knows them like the palm of his hand and he’s the only one I’ve ever heard off that can get so close to the border and come back to tell about it.”
“So he go as far as crossing the border?” asked Friedrich, asking successfully the fit of worry that new piece of information caused him.
“Hell if I know, nobody ever followed him long enough to know that, but that didn’t stop people here to came up with the strangest story, mostly about how he would be kind of a bad luck charm to those that get to close to him” he said while giving a meaningful glance toward the burly man behind the counter “Why, just recently I heard some folks saying that he would be the one behind these disappearances, all rubbish if you ask me.”
“And how can you be so sure?”
The old man smirked showing a great deal of amusement before answering: “Because the same people up until a few months ago claimed that he worked for forest spirits or even that he was a god of the hunt hiding in human clothing as a reason for his successes.”
The Older Knight conceded the point to the elder, but he still decided to maintain some caution about this man. His next question however betrayed none of those feelings: “Who’s this man then and where can I find him?”
Smiling as he finally accomplished a great task the elder was all too eager to answer him: “Going north from the gate closer to the forest, you’ll find a small hut almost a mile from here, just next to a thin and long boulder standing upright. You can’t miss it and once you’re there you can work your magic and try to enlist him into your merry adventure, although that would probably be the hardest part, he does look the part of the lone wolf down to the last bit.” Those last words were followed by a choked giggle of which neither of the Knight could make sense and that left the younger one mildly disturbed.
“You still have to tell us his name” reminded him Friedrich.
“Oh dear, I almost forgot, didn’t I?” asked the other man, in a way that wasn’t all that convincing “Well, that’s easy enough to fix, he’s…”
All three men remained silent and turned toward the bartender, the two Knights with a look of surprise and the elder with one of annoyance. “I was trying to build up an atmosphere, you know? Now you ruined it” he reproached the man behind the counter.
“They didn’t ask for a bedtime story, no sense going circles around it if you could tell them immediately. Besides, don’t you always find a way into mine conversations anyway?” he replied somewhat smugly.
“Wolfy? What kind of name is that?” asked the younger man in the group, ignoring the bantering between the two.
“That’s not really his name you know, but nowadays almost everyone don’t even remember his true one” replied dismissively the old man “It’s just a nickname that stuck with him because of his lifestyle and a… incident that happened at this very own inn.”
“What kind of incident are we talking about?” asked Friedrich in concern.
“Just a brawl with some drunkards.”
“You forgot to mention that it was him against three of them” the bartender said with no little irritation in his voice.
“That didn’t chance the fact that it was all of you other that pried them apart.”
“He still managed to be on the winning side despite being outnumbered.”
“They were drunk and he was not, not that hard to deal with it in those condition.”
“Two of them tried to pin him while the other was punching him.”
“But if I remember they let go of him almost immediately.”
“Yes” the man finally said, clearly annoyed by the banter he had going on with the elder “ Because when the one in front of him threw the first punch he bit down on his wrist! You were there too, it was like watching a wild animal not letting go of the prey it got, you can’t just dismissing all of this as normal! That mean is crazy and you know it!”
“He bit another man?” asked in disbelief the younger Knight.
“He was just defending himself while he was in a tight spot” said the elder as if that was enough of an explanation “Besides, people tend to do crazy staff if they’re being cornered, so if you want a tip you shouldn’t think too much of it.”
Both Knights still looked wary after the explanation, but Friedrich nonetheless thanked the old man before they both began making their way out of the inn only to be interrupted by the bartender: “Wait, are you really going to meet him? At least wait until tomorrow, the sunset will be upon us in less than an hour, why don’t you rent a room and go visit him once you’ve rested?”
They ignored him and instead reached their horses, before climbing on them and looking for the gate the elder mentioned. Once they found him and they began to trot their way to the hunter’s hut, the younger Knight spoke again: “Are we really going to meet that man? If even half of what they said is true, then I’m not so sure he might be someone safe to be around.”
The only acknowledgement he got was a grumble of approval from Friedrich, until he decided to further elaborate after a brief silence: “For once we’re thinking the same; an eccentric loner that spends his time wandering around the border with a Demon Realm and showed an intense episode of violence before? I don’t need to be neither an Exorcist nor an Inquisitor to think that something may be at work with him, but so far those are just rumors and besides he seems like the only viable option. Least we can do is meeting him in person and see who and what this hunter truly is.”
It wasn’t long before they saw the boulder the old man told them about and almost hidden behind its bulk was a simple if carefully built wooden hut, although by its size one would have called it a small house. As they made their way to the front, they caught sight of a man around his mid thirties walking slowly toward the front door, an hunting bow slung over his shoulder and carrying an hare by its hind legs, the bloody patch of fur where an arrow found its mark clearly visible. He must have heard them coming since he turned his head in their direction, finally letting them have a good look at him.
He had unruly brown hair, that despite looking messy looked clean enough to warrant the idea that he kept himself clean fairly regularly; his eyes were a deep forest green and they were looking at them with an inquisitive, almost predatory glance, showing a deal of intelligence that they didn’t expect to find in the man. A thin vertical scar crossed over the left corner of his mouth, starting from a bit above the upper lip and going all the way down to the chin, ruining what otherwise would have been an handsome face. A brown dirty wool cloak hid most of his body from sight, but they could still tell that he was of average height and of a wiry build, definitely features that fitted well with him being an hunter.
Said hunter keep looking at them for a while before turning back to the hut and resuming walking toward it. Deciding that they were close enough both Knights stopped their horses and got off of them, before walking in the same direction of the man they had been looking for, despite him not sharing even a glance with them. By the time they stood in front of the hut the hunter was already sitting on a stool next to the door and he had placed a large wooden dish at his feet, while still ignoring their presence.
For a moment everyone was silent, then the hunter took off his cloak, showing his simple but well maintained trousers and short sleeved shirt, before glancing at them: “Yes? Were you two looking for something?”
As always it was Friedrich who opened the conversation: “As a matter of fact, yes. We were interested in meeting you…”
“Wolfy? No need to dance around it, wouldn’t be the first time someone call me that” he said sensing the slight hesitation in the other man voice “Although I do have a name, it’s just that with how many times they used that nickname I might as well take it as my own. It’s Barnwr by the way, the name I mean.”
Seeing as he made no other attempt to continue, the Order Knight decided to ask for what they came there: “We were told that you know the forest very well and we were looking for a guide of sort to get through.”
“Really now?” was the uninterested reply as the other man seemed to be using a great deal of his attention to undo the straps that kept his thin leather gloves on “Well, I’m sure that if you were to look somewhere else you’ll find someone much more familiar than me with the path to the next kingdom, never got there in the first place.” He then stopped himself, looking as if he was thinking over something before an impish smile made his way to his face: “Unless what you’re trying to do is sneaking in the Demon Realm, in that case I’m sorry to tell you that nobody on this side of the border has ever visited it willingly, nor do they plan do to so anytime soon.” He then chuckled to himself as he finished removing his gloves, as if he just told a joke he was proud of.
Ignoring him Friedrich said: “Actually, we wanted to explore the forest in its entirety if possible.”
That seemed to get the hunter attention since he froze and slowly looked back at them from a new angle: “You want to explore the forest, as in the whole damn forest from its edges to its heart? Just the two of you with me as a guide?”
“Yes, that was the idea.”
For a few moments the hunter remained silent, then he shrugged and picked back form the ground the hare he caught: “Who knew Order Knights were suicidal, guess you truly learn something new every day.”
“Pardon me?” asked the older man in clear irritation.
“They did told you that the forest isn’t a nice place, did they? Well, the further you go in the worst it gets and don’t take me as example, I’m cut from a different cloth than any other. To make matter worse, in three days there’s going to be a full moon and everything that live there tends to go on a frenzy on nights like that. So the short of it is, don’t even think about it.”
Thinking the conversation was over the hunter took a length of twine from a nearby pot close to the door and began to tie it around the hare’s hind legs. The other man didn’t give up and instead he tried to made him change his mind: “If you know we’re Order Knights then you should also know that we can take care of ourself, no matter the danger, so if you’re worried about our safety…”
“Your safety?” the hunter interrupted him as he stepped on the end of the cord to hold it down “ You seem to have a misunderstanding going on, I wouldn’t care one bit if you were to go into that forest right now, but if you expect me to waste my time and put myself at risk just to look after you two than you’re sorely mistaken.”
“I told you already that we need no one to look after us.”
The hunter just ignored him, instead he look at the younger Knight behind Friedrich and shouted: “Hey, you back there!”
After a few moments of confusion the young Knight looked back at him with a questioning look: “Me?”
As if to answer his question the hunter grabbed the hare by the head and he lifted it until its skin was pulled taut.
“Yes you, until there’s actually someone else hiding behind you” he said while pulling out a sharp looking hunting knife from a sheath on his belt “What do you know of monsters and the Order?”
The question made Friedrich frown at him: “I don’t see why you would…”
“Was the question for you? No, so shut it and let him answer the question.” He then turned once again to look at the younger man, staring at him expectantly.
After a few more moments of hesitant silence he finally began to speak: “W-Well, a monster is a creature which very own existance is an outrage to the Chief God…”
In the mean time the hunter had used his knife to score a cut all along the hare back before dropping the blade: “Go on.”
“And they use their appearance…” he said before being distracted by how the hunted had gripped the fur on both sides of the cut and he began to pull them apart “ …they use their appearance to fool men to follow them into perdition…” He was distracted once again by the tearing sound of the skin being ripped free from the muscles and bones underneath it before gulping nervously and resuming his talk “…and to convince women to shed their humanity and join their ranks.”
“Uh.” For the first time the hunter seemed to be genuinely surprised, but that didn’t stopped him from keep peeling the hare’s skin off, for the displeasure of the one he was holding conversation with. “Guess that’s an improvement, last I heard about it you Order Boys went around teaching people how monsters would eat them and how witches built gingerbread houses in the middle of the woods. Sorry, I was thinking out loud, were you saying?”
The young Knight had to make a considerable effort to distract himself by how the hare was mostly naked by that point, but he finally regained his focus and resumed speaking: “Therefore it’s the Order duty to fight against the spreading of their ilk, to curb the seeping of their influence and to keep the innocents from falling victim to their lies.”
“An interesting story if I ever heard one” the hunter said evenly before grabbing the hare’s head again and pulling its neck taut “But answer me this, what does it mean practically?”
The Knight confusion was quickly replaced by disgust as the hunter slipped his knife through the animal’s neck and with a quick motion he decapitated it, leaving the rest of the body to fall to the ground, blood oozing from the stump where its head once was.
“What I’m trying to say is, how do you fight against something like that?” the hunter asked once again as he grabbed one of the hare’s ankles and snapped it with a sickening sound halfway between a crack and a pop, making the young man flinch. “I suppose kindly asking them to leave wouldn’t work.” Another ankle snapped and the Knight felt a wave of nausea come over him. “Which of course would mean the you have to make your point through violence, leaving the speech to swords.” Another ankle. “Answering question with death and blood.” Another ankle. “And you are telling me that you’re ready for this?”
The young Order Knight didn’t look like he enjoyed the whole procedure, if his sickly pallor was anything to go by, but he still tried to hide it and he answered in what he hoped sounded like confidence: “Y-Yes, I’m ready for it, I’ve trained to this day to be ready for this.”
For a moment it looked like the hunter believed him, as he nodded in understanding, then almost in the blink of an eye he forcibly yanked the hare’s fur pulling it away, along with the snapped off feet, and hurled it at him almost as fast. The moment the wet and bloodied fur met his face the younger man had to force down a short scream and took a step back, while he feverishly wiped at his face to get it clean.
The responsible for his lost of composure merely chuckled, even a Friedrich was glaring daggers at him, and he pointed at the Knight with his bloodied hunting knife: “See, this is what I was talking about. You expect me to believe that you can take care of yourself and not become a burden to me, when he act like that for something like this?” As if to further drive his point home he plunged the knife in the animal’s stomach and dragged it down, leaving its guts to spill out. At the sight the young man looked away in disgust while Friedrich looked at him with disappointment from the corner of his eyes.
Despite that the older Knight didn’t give up on the idea that he still could convince this hunter, although by that point his attitude was already making him doubt how much of a wise choice was coming to him in the first place: “I know that his behaviour leave a lot to be desired and his competence may be less than stellar, but on the other hand I more than make up for it on experience alone.”
“Fancy way to say you should have been retired already” the hunter replied in a deadpan tone.
“Besides I can assure you that we can reward you in a more than satisfactory way” Friedrich pressed on, having already decided that dealing with his insufferable attitude was a necessary evil if he truly was the only one who could help them.
“You’re talking about money right?” the hunter asked, smiling in a way that the Order Knight found almost disturbing. He then put the guts he took from the animal he had been working on until a few moments ago and put them in the wooden dish at his feet. He then cleaned his hands on his trousers and fished for something under his shirt, until he brought out for them to see a necklace with various trinkets hanging from it, including one large shining gold coin.
If the older Knight was surprised he managed to hide it better than his travelling companion and instead he simply asked: “Where did you get that?”
“This? You’ll be surprised what people can leave behind them in the forest, especially in these latest months I keep finding more and more trinkets like this one.”
“You call that a trinket?” asked Friedrich, this time barely concealing his surprise.
“What else could it be in a place like this? With this I could probably buy half of the village as long as I don’t take the inn or the well, what good would it to me? So as you can see, money it’s not something I’m looking for, sorry if I’m disappointing you” he replied as a mock apology.
There was one last way the Order Knight tried before declaring the recruitment of the hunter a lost cause: “I’m sure you heard of those missing people, if it’s the work of monster as we suspect, then we need to confirm it as soon as possible and without your help…”
“I’m going to stop you now before you waste anymore time” the hunter replied suddenly, this time sounding irked “While I can admire how you see your effort as some sort of holy war that doesn’t mean I have to help you out of some sort of moral obligation for the greater good. If I can be blunt the reason the village is still standing is definitely not your concern toward it, you Order Boys only show up when you smell heresy or monsters or whatever else is that turn you on. I think I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that as long as they have a roof over their heads and a full plate on their table, nobody here would particularly care if this was Order land or a Demon Realm.”
So far Friedrich had made a remarkable effort to not show his displeasure toward the man attitude, however that last retort brought him dangerously close to breaking the facade of calm and politeness that he had struled so hard to maintain: “You do know that what you just said is…”
“Heresy? Treason? What are you going to do, arrest me? Or maybe you want to call the Inquisition and have me put under trial? I could hide for months in the forest if I wanted to and you’d sooner get lost in it than find me. Beside you’d still need a guide to show you around the woods and I doubt anyone would help out someone who put the last person that refused to cooperate under detention in one of your dungeons.”
Despite how much he would have loved to wipe that smirk off his face Friedrich had to admit that the hunter had a point; even if they managed to find someone else they couldn’t afford themselves to get a bad reputation so soon in such a remote place, it would have made getting help from the locals near to impossible.
“However, since I think myself as a good man I’ll give you a piece of advice: go back to where you came from, this isn’t a job for two measly Order Knight, especially when one is a rookie that still get sick from the sight of blood and the other is an old geezer that looks like he’ll snap in half if he turn around too fast.”
Just as the older man thought it couldn’t get any worse, the young Knight decided it was a good moment to but in the conversation: “Do you know who you’re talking to? Master Friedrich is a veter of the Order, with dozens of battle worth of experience…”
Before said veteran could interrupt him and reproach him for using again the title of Master when speaking about him the hunter suddenly turned to him, a look of disbelief on his face that showed even in his voice: “Friedrich? As in Friedrich Blackthorn?”
“Hey! You can’t just interrupting while I’m talking to…”
“Hush!” he shouted at the younger man “The grown ups are talking. You, answer my question, are you really Friedrich Blackthorn?”
For the first time since their conversation started Friedrich could feel genuine interest and almost a sense of urgency coming from the hunter and the way he seemed to be waiting for an answer almost reminded him of a starved animal waiting for its food to be given to it. He honestly couldn’t tell whether it was a good or a bad thing.
“Yes, I am” he answered cautiously “What does it matter to you?”
Instead of answering him the hunter seemed to have been filled with rapture and he kept muttering to himself. Finally he looked back at him and any trace of mockery was gone from his voice: “This isn’t the first time you’ve been here right?”
“I’ve to disagree, I’ve never been here before this day.”
“Maybe not this very same spot, but you’ve definitely been in this part of the border before” the hunter conceded him “ Around twenty years ago a dozen of miles east of here there was a case of monsters infiltration right? Some small villages, not unlike this one, had to be evacuated, many locals were kidnapped and were rescued and there was even some process conducted by the Inquisition. Finally, after almost an year the invading monsters had been all either pushed back or exterminated and most of the merits for such a resounding success were given to a young Order Knight that was commended for his sense of duty and fighting spirit. That man was called Friedrich Blackthorn.”
While his young travelling companion was staring at him in while gaping like an idiot, Friedrich himself was surprised in no little measure. It had been more than two decades and to this day very few people even remembered such incident, let alone who was part of it. That the man in front of them was one of those people was nothing short of baffling.
“Alright, we have a deal.”
“I’m sorry?” asked the confused Order Knight, the sudden sentence bringing him violently out of his musing.
“I changed my mind, even if you are less than half the man you used to be back then, it still make you competent enough to look after Flimsy back there. Maybe we do stand a change to go into that forest and come back in one piece after all” the hunter told him in a much more even tone.
“Is that really why you changed your mind?” asked Friedrich. While such a change was indeed a welcome one there was no denying that given the previous attitude of the other man he was bound to be a least wary of him. So to him it didn’t feel unnecessary to question his motivations.
To his surprise the man answered quite honestly: “In truth? No, there is more to it.”
“And what would that be?” he asked in return, still suspicious of the hunter.
“I lived in one of those villages.”
Of all the answers he expected that wasn’t one of them and for the first time Friedrich was left speechless. If the hunter noticed that he didn’t let it show, instead he began talking in a much warmer tone: “I’ll say that it’s too late to try anything now, so we better meet tomorrow at the village gate, you can spend the night in the inn just avoid the rooms on the left end of the corridor, last time I heard they had a bedbug problem. Once we found each other tomorrow we can talk about where you want to go and which route we’re better to take. Now if you excuse me, I have to go and bring this to Ol’ Gerald.” He then grabbed the wooden dish still filled with the hare’s gut and he stood up from his stool.
“I didn’t think you’d have a dog” asked the younger Knight, Friedrich still too confused by what just happened to reply in any sensible way.
“Oh no, you got me wrong. Gerald is an old grey wolf, he used to be such a pain that I tried to get him more than once, but the clever bastard always managed to escape. Now he’s probably twelve and he’s limp, so I decided that the least I can do to show my respect for a superior opponent is to treat him good every once in a while.”
“I see…” said Friedrich in a doubtful tone. He honestly didn’t know what to think of him anymore, the more time he spent in his company the more he didn’t know whether he was an insufferable loud mouthed heretic or just insane. In order to save his own sanity he decided that they were better off going along with it and leave him for the time being at his own device.
The two Knight reached their horses and made their way back to the village in complete silence, until the younger one of the two asked what was also in Friedrich mind: “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Honestly? I don’t know anymore and at this point I don’t care either as long as he does his job.”
The other Knight was about to reply until he suddenly went stiff and he turned toward the treeline with a focused expression.
“Is something the matter?” asked his senior in concern.
For a few moments the young man seemed to be looking for something, until he slowly shook his head and told him: “Nothing, must have been the wind or something.”
What he didn’t told him was that for a brief moment he felt as if someone had been silently staring at him.