The sun was just peaking over the top of the mountains as he got to the village, casting a dazzling display of color as it began to fade. The village wasn’t anything special compared to other nearby settlements–being only medium-size, even on the lower end of that compared to villages of the same size. The village didn’t have a wooden wall that separated it from the wilderness that surrounded it. There had been plans to make one, but with most of the men having to tend to the farm at the start of the season, and the relative peace of the land, left no hurry for the construction of one. The only time there had been any panic was when a bear had wandered in near the end of summer, but the guards had scared it away before anything could occur.
The boy chuckled a bit at the memory of watching the bear run down the pathway that led up to the town, the same pathway he was strolling up now. Approaching the edge of the village, he nodding his head at the guard who smiled and waved at him as he stepped out from the woods.
“Cullen, good to see you’ve come back before your mother decided to send me out to get you.” He said, resting his spear against his shoulder.
Cullen smiled back, “Of course,” He said, bowing dramatically, “we can’t trouble the great Jakob to trudge through these woods to look for a foolish boy.”
“That’s good to hear,” Jakob replied, scratching at his beard. “You know, I’m surprised you’re so willing to go out into these woods alone at all considering the recent rumors that have all the woman-folk in an uproar.”
Cullen frowned, thinking back to the odd tracks he had seen by the bank before he shook his head, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He responded at last, shrugging his shoulders, “All those merchants like to weave fantastic tales for the children and women, they can choose what they want to believe. Myself–I don’t wager much on the truth of those stories.”
“You know such creatures are not to be trifled with?”
He scoffed, “Look, I’ve been going out into the forest for most of my life, so I think I would notice if something was amiss.”
“Mhmm, I’ll trust you know what you’re doing then, just giving you a fair warning in advance,” He said before turning back to the woods and covering himself with his black cloak, his head and spear-tip poking out. “I would recommend going to your mother swiftly before she decides to come search for you herself—you know how she can get about you.”
He chuckled, “Of course, I’ll see you around then, Jakob.”
“Oh, and make sure you collect Silas before you head home; I heard he had gone to the tavern and you know how that boy can get.”
Cullen cursed, but thanked the man before heading off into the village. He quickened his pace towards the large tavern in the center of town, smiling and offering quick greetings to the people who called out to him, but never slowing down and before long he stood in front of the building. He could hear raucous laughter and the joyous songs being sung from within, and he sighed before he pushed through the doors and into the building.
The tavern was well-lit from the overhanging lanterns and tightly packed as people milled around each other and the packed tables, topped with empty mugs–one table even having the company of a passed-out man laid gracefully across it, a stream of drool coming from his mouth. No one seemed perturbed by the man and they all danced in what he assumed they were thinking was a graceful and dignified manner, but to Cullen seemed like they were flailing their arms around with the elegance of a chicken with its head cut off. He sighed–he was supposed to find Silas in this mess.
His eyes scanned the floor of flailing limbs, but he couldn’t make him out from amongst the crowd. He pushed his way forward through the crowd of drunk people, apologizing as he bumped into people, but continued to trudge forward, calling out for his friend amongst the noise of the tavern. However, his shouting was barely a whisper in the boom of the tavern, and he quickly ceased adding anymore noise to the cacophony. He promised himself when he finally found his friend, he was going to make him promise to never get drunk in this place again, if only to save his poor nose from the nauseating smell of drunkenness and vomit.
“Cullen!” He heard his name suddenly called, and he turned to see a man with messy black hair and a tanned complexion pushing his way through the drunken crowd.
“Stefan,” Cullen said as the man came to a stop in front of him, panting. “Where’s Silas, I was told he came here tonight.”
Stefan straightened himself up and took a deep breath, “Aye, Peter and myself followed him after all the work at the barn was finished, we were worried he’d make a fool of himself again alone after what happened this afternoon.”
“This afternoon? I was there all morning and through most of noon time, everything appeared fine to me.” Cullen replied; his brow furrowed. He thought back to his time on the farm and he hadn’t seen anything amiss amongst the other farmhands, and the old man seemed calm earlier, much calmer than he usually is anyway.
“It happened a little after you left. Peter, Silas, and I were all locking up the barn when Ol’ man Huber came and took Silas away.” Stefan explained, “We couldn’t make out what they were saying, but we could hear the yelling, and when Silas came back, he was all red in the face and muttered something about the tavern.” He shook his head, “we followed him here because we know how he can get.”
“Thank you two so much,” Cullen said gratefully, bowing his head slightly to the older man.
“Where is he so I can take him home.”
“Peter is with him right now at a table off in the corner of the tavern, we figured it was best we kept him away from this rabble of people.” He replied, pointing off towards a darker corner of the tavern before indicating with a tilt of his head to follow him. “And no need to thank us, Silas is our friend and a hard worker, we wouldn’t want anything bad to come down on him or your family for that matter.”
Cullen followed the man, grateful that the bigger man was better at elbowing people out of the way than he was, which allowed him to push through the crowd mostly unmolested, except for the occasional drunken stumble. It didn’t take long for the pair to reach the table where a concerned Peter was looking down at a figured lurched over the table, his burly hands tightly clenching an empty mug.
Peter perked up as he saw them approach, “Ah, good, you got him Stefan.”
Cullen bowed his head in greeting to the graying man, “Good you see you, Peter, thanks for watching Silas for me.” He said, sighing as he looked down at the groaning man, still unaware that his friend was here.
Peter waved his hands as if brushing off a stray wind, “Ah, no problem, no problem at all, a pleasure really. I love spending my time watching over drunken people and not being able to join in.”
“What? It’s true, Stefan, I’m not kiddin’ here, a really fuckin’ favorite hobby o’ mine, honest.”
Cullen grimaced before bowing his head until his eyes were fixed on the rotting floorboard, “I’m really thankful you took time out of your busy day to help my poor, dumb friend here. I’ll make it up to you somehow.”
Peter looked at the bowing boy for a few moments before sighing and shaking his head, “Lift your head, boy, I was just giving ya a hard time, is all. Whether I like it or not, this idiot is my friend and I probably would’ve done it anyway.”
“Thank you, but I’ll still find a way to make it up to you both, I promise.” Cullen said, straightening himself up.
“You don’t have to–” Stefan started before he was cut off.
“But I want to,” Cullen said affirmatively, flashing a smile at the two men. “My family has a time-honored code: always pay back those who help you, and that’s going to be no different here.”
The two men looked at him, dumbfounded, before Peter broke up into a laugh, “Just like ya Dad, that damn fool.” He said, smiling affectionately, “Look, if you wanna pay us back, make sure this idiot gets back safe and sound, and throw in a few of your mother’s cakes and we’ll call it even.”
“It’s a deal then…” He said, pausing as Silas let out a loud groan and a shudder ripped through his board frame. “You can both go home now; I’ll take care of him from here.”
The men nodded at him before they began to head out towards the exit, the crowd thinner now that the night was approaching, returning to their homes to repeat the process over again the next day. Cullen watched them leave, a small smile on his face on being compared to his dad, before sighing and looking down at his groaning friend who was mumbling something indiscernible, his eyes shut. He smirked as he crouched low so that he was face-to-face with his friend, placing his hands on the man’s back.
“Hey, Silas…” He said gently, patting him on the back softly. “We gotta head home soon before my mom kills us…well, more me actually.”
The man grumbled something out and turned away from him. “Well, I tried to be nice.” He said, narrowing his eyes as he raised his hand high in the air before slamming it down on the man’s back. Silas shoot up from his spot and glanced around wildly, his eyes bugging out of his head almost as he frantically looked around. His eyes settled on Cullen who was smiling at him innocently, his hands behind his back.
“C-Cullen?” Silas stuttered, trying to stand up before his unsteady legs gave out and he collapsed back down onto the bench. “Wh-whaddya doing here?”
“Oh, you know, admiring the dancing,” Cullen said, watching as a man in the center of the tavern shook his lower body in a haphazard manner, oblivious to the lack of people around him as he gave a huge grin.
“Izzat so?” Silas lowered his head back onto the table, “Well, leave me be…leave me be, I’m gonna rest…”
Cullen stood up and grabbed him by the shoulders, “No can do, Silas, you see, it’s rather late and I think I’d whether spend the rest of the night in the comfort of my home, instead of…” He paused, looking around the tavern, grimacing at a distinct brownish liquidity substance staining the floor. “This lovely place.”
Silas leaned his head back, his eyes glazed over and a dreadful smell coming from his mouth as he spoke. “Do I have to?”
“Of course we do,” Cullen crossed his arms and leaned away to avoid the smell from invading his nose any further. “We have to get up first thing in the morning to get to the farm.”
“I don’t want to…” Silas whined, digging his head into his arms and turning his body away from him. “The old man got all angry with me over some chickens disappearing, and I don’t want to go back there.”
Cullen sighed at his friend’s petulant display, feeling a pang of annoyance flare up in his stomach as he clenched his fists tight. He always got this way when he was drunk, and that’s why Cullen typically tried to curb his bad habit because it was near impossible to talk to him when he was like this. Not to mention that he always said he’d never go back to the farm as there was always something that flared up between him and the old man–it was weekly at this point–which was mostly on account of how Silas has some special way to get under the old man’s skin. Usually, he was able to get to his friend and calm him down before it got much further, but since he had gone out of the day, he hadn’t been here to stop his friend’s…baser impulses, but there was always one ace up his sleeve that he knew would always convince Silas to see his way.
“Well, Silas, I can’t force you to do anything, you know that.” Cullen began, taking the seat next to his friend, causing him to raise his head slightly from his arms.
“But, I mean, I’m only doing this for your protection.”
“That’s right, Silas, your protection. Think about it, Mother doesn’t like that you drink…now imagine if she found out?” Cullen said, narrowing his eyes at his friend and watching as the glazed over eyes cleared up a bit as his words began to take hold.
“I’m not saying I would or would not, you know my mother has her ways of knowing when these things happen.” He stood up and circled around to the other side of his friend, who’s head followed him. “I’m just trying to make sure you don’t get in trouble is all.”
Silas bit his lip, “I…I don’t wanna go to work still though–that old man really did it now.”
“Let me handle Old man Huber, I’ll get him to ease up on you. Also, you know what happens when you don’t get up early to go to work…”
With those simple words, Silas shot up straight from his spot, albeit, unsteadily as he found himself grabbing the table to steady himself. “Take me home!” He yelled frantically, grabbing onto Cullen’s shoulders and shaking him, “I’ll be up early too, I swear it–no, earlier than early, I’ll be up before that damn rooster crows, just take me home, please!”
Cullen laughed as he pried off his friend’s hands, glad that the old tricks still worked on the silly lad. “Okay, okay, calm down. We’ll get you back before long, but I recommend getting straight to bed unless my mom notices that horrid smell on your breath.”
“You’re right…hmmm, I skip dinner, but breakfast is more important anyway.” He said, rambling to himself at the end, as he began to push Cullen towards the doors, surprising him at how quickly he sobered up after that scare.
He chuckled at his friend. Despite his flaws and attitudes sometimes, he’d never wish for anyone else to be his best friend, he thought as he was pushed through the doors and out into the brisk night’s air, the troubled thoughts from the woods now at the farthest corners of his mind as a wave of contentment spread through his body.
It wasn’t long before the pair reached their home, with Cullen being half-pushed all the way there before he finally decided he could walk on his own, remembering the funny looks he got from the other townsfolk as they noticed the look of desperation on Silas and the huge grin on Cullen. After noticing the looks, Cullen righted himself up and began to walk on his own, slower than Silas to frustrate his friend, who began to whine about his pace, drawing more looks and Cullen could even hear faint whispering coming from a few people. Silas didn’t appear to notice these looks or whispers as he had trudged forward, Cullen following slowly behind, trying his best to not laugh at his friend’s oddly determined face. Honestly, if anyone wanted Silas to do anything, they should just threaten his stomach, that’ll get him moving in a heartbeat.
The house itself wasn’t anything impressive: a medium-sized wooden building, with some windows in the front where Cullen could see faint candlelight and smoke emanating from. He noted a few rotting parts in the wood that he would fix later as they approached the rickety door, another thing, he noted with a grimace, that he would have to repair another day, but for now, he grabbed the handle and pulled it out, a loud groan from the fragile door erupting as he pulled, before he ushered Silas in and shut the door behind him.
The main room of the house was lit from the fire in the cooking pit off into the corner of the wall, the smoke billowing out into the bricked chimney above it, a pot hung above it with a delicious aroma coming from it, making Cullen’s mouth fill with saliva and a noticeable grumble coming from his stomach. The table in the center of the room already had bowls set out and a candle in the middle, the small flame flickering back and forth. The only thing missing now was the people.
Cullen looked towards Silas who was eyeing the pot hungrily, clearly having forgot his promise to him in the tavern. He elbowed his friend in the side and tilted his head towards the small hall on the other side of the room, causing Silas to frown, but he nodded his head and quickly moved his way towards their room, casting one last look at the pot before opening a door and going inside.
Cullen kicked his boots off and waited a few moments before deciding to make his presence known. “I’m home,” He called before moving towards the cooking pit and looking into the pot, his mouth watering as he saw his mother’s famous beef stew bubbling in it.
The savory blend of potatoes, peas, carrots, beef, and other ingredients wafted into his nose, and it took every ounce of self-control to not go and grab one of the bowls on the table and pour himself some. He wasn’t allowed long to focus on the stew before he heard loud footsteps pound their way towards him, and he turned to feel a sudden weight wrap around his chest, an unruly mop of brown hair and a small, toothy grin greeting him as he looked down. He laughed and, stepping away from the boiling pot, raising his little sister from her armpits and began to spin around, careful to avoid the table and other hanging objects in the kitchen, her infectious giggling lighting up the room as she twirled around in the air.
Cullen set her down after he began to feel a little dizzy, and she looked up at him, jumping up and down with the same toothy grin from before now much bigger on her small face. “You’re home!” She exclaimed.
He chuckled, “Of course I’m home, I got nowhere else to go to.”
“I know, I know,” She replied quickly, still bouncing up and now. “But you always do that thingie Mommy doesn’t like–she’s really angry by the way–and then Silas didn’t come home, and I was bored because I had nothing to do all afternoon but sit here and watch mommy knit and cook.”
“Why didn’t you go and play with the other kids, Isabel?”
“I wanted to, but Mommy told me I had to stay in and help her with house stuff,” She pushed her lips out, “And Silas didn’t come home early so that I could play with him.”
Cullen chuckled as images of the last time Isabel had “played” with Silas. He had come home to see her laying on his back, with her arms wrapped around his neck, a defeated look on his face as he looked up hopefully at him to save him from the menace that was his little sister. He had, of course, left him there.
“Well, I’m home now and I’ll make sure we get to play together a lot before you go to bed.”
“After dinner of course,” An older feminine voice suddenly said.
Cullen looked up to see his mother standing in the hallway entrance, her arms crossed and eyes narrowed as she looked at her son. Cullen gulped as she walked in and grabbed two of the bowls off the table, and handed one to his sister, her gaze avoiding his as she stared straight ahead and poured some of the stew into her sister’s bowl, and then her own before grabbing a spot at the table. Isabel looked up at him and shrugged before the spot next to their mother and digging into her own food, leaving Cullen standing there with an awkward smile on his face.
“Are you going to get yourself some food?” His mother said, the tension palpable in her voice as she finally looked at him with piercing eyes much worse than the hawk he had disturbed earlier.
“O-Oh, o-of course.” He responded quickly, grabbing his own bowl and filling it up before sitting down as far away from his mother as he could.
“I presume Silas won’t be joining us tonight?” She said, blowing on her spoon before putting it into her mouth.
“He, uh, was really tired after work. Decided he wanted to go to bed as soon as he got home.”
After that, the rest of dinner was silent, except for the occasional giggling of his sister as she pointed at him.
“Come on, Isabel,” Cullen said, picking her up and letting her rest her head on his shoulder. “It’s time for bed.”
“Aww… Do I have to? I’m not even tired…” She said, a yawn at the end betraying her as she slumped against his body, her breathing gentle.
“Yeah, Isabel, I promise I’ll play with you some more after I get home tomorrow.”
“Promise?” She said groggily.
“Of course, Isabel. I’ll even get Silas to join”
“That’ll be fun…”
Cullen moved out from the main room of their house and down the hallway where their rooms were. Pushing the door to room his sister shared with their mother, he set her down on the floor and helped her changed out of her worn dress before grabbing the simple white nightgown her mother had knitted for her and putting it on her. She was unsteady on her feet as he picked her up once more and set her on the large bed, covering her up to her chest with them and began to stroke the mess of hair on her head. She leaned a bit into his hands, and he could see her eyes starting to close.
“Goodnight,” She said quietly, her breathing becoming slower and deeper as he rubbed her head.
“Goodnight, Isabel, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He replied, leaning down and kissing her on the top of her head before gently stepping out of the room and shutting the door.
Once shut, he stood next to the door for a moment, a pit forming in his stomach as he realized there was nothing now to stop the “talk” with his mother. She had, thankfully, left him and his sister alone as they played and excused herself to go and clean the dishes, but now that his sister was peacefully asleep, he knew what was coming. She knew he was lying about Silas, and also knew that he had gone out that day, she had some weird sixth sense when it came to him, though he suppose that the trips out into the woods probably weren’t much of a surprise to her at this point, and she often begrudgingly allowed them as long as he came back before sundown. It was most likely more related to the fact that he had lied about Silas; after all, when was it ever his custom to skip a meal? Though, he figured he could even worm his way out of that one, he was sure she was more upset about the specific reason he had gone out in the woods this afternoon.
Sighing, he began to head back towards the kitchen, realizing there was no reason to prolong the inevitable anymore. Once he stepped into the main room of the house, he saw his mother sitting at the head of the table, her hands entwined together and he gaze now focused on him as he entered the room, a cold sweat suddenly breaking out on the back of his neck as her predatory gaze fell on him.
“Hey, mom,” Cullen said quickly, unable to keep the nervous tone out of his voice. “I was thinking of hitting the hay tonight, busy day and all, so I’ll see you in th–”
“Yes, Ma’am,” He responded quickly, taking the seat without further question.
They sat in silence with Cullen only hearing the rapid beating of his own heart that seemed to be threatening to burst from his chest. He didn’t dare look to his mother and instead focused on the burning candle set in the middle of the table, watching the flame flicker back and forth, not daring to break the uncomfortable silence hanging between them.
“You know why we’re having this talk, right?” His mother spoke up finally breaking the silence.
“Was it because I accidentally forgot to clean the dishes before I left?” Cullen responded quickly, keeping his eyes focusing on the candle’s flame.
“Oh, then was it about tracking a bit of mud through the house the other day when I got home.”
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, “Why didn’t you go to that arrangement I had set up?” She said finally, eying her son who looked idly at the ceiling.
“Arrangement?” Cullen said, his brows furrowed as he feigned thinking about it deeply before snapping his finger suddenly. “Oh, you mean that thing you did with that Inn-maid, right?”
“Yes,” His mother said through clenched teeth, making him swallow audibly as he thought up the next lie to say.
“Honestly, I thought that was tomorrow…”
“Oh, tomorrow…” She said, smiling sweetly at her son. “Even after I had reminded you this morning before you left for the farm?”
“Must’ve slipped my mind…”
“Yeah, it must have, that’s what I told her anyway when she came here asking where you were…though it was odd that she said after I had told her that, that she had actually run into you after your work, and you said you’d be right back because you had to go get something really quick…”
Cullen blushed and went back to glancing at the ceiling, “Ah, I suppose I did run into her…must’ve forgotten when I was going to get the thing I got.”
“What did you go to get?”
“Was that a question?”
“Cullen…” She said threateningly.
“Okay, okay,” He said, sighing and resting his head on his hand before glancing over at his mother. “I went out into the woods to avoid the whole thing.”
“Because I’m not interested in her.” He said, leaning back into his chair and crossing his arms.
“Not interested?” She replied, sounding as if she was told that the church was being burned down right now. “What’s not to be interested in? She’s very pretty, has an income of her own, and she has great…assets any man would die for, and the best part is she is interested in my good for nothing son.”
“Yeah, still not interested in her though.” He shrugged and leaned back into the chair, “Can’t say I ever will be…also, never be interested in any of the other girls you try to make me court.”
She looked like she wanted to say something back to him as she straightened up and had her mouth open before her shoulders slumped and she leaned back into her chair. “When will you be.”
“Whenever I find the right one, I suppose.”
“You’re not even looking for anyone.”
“Because I don’t have to: I’m still young and have time to worry about that stuff later.”
She sighed and pursed her lips at him, “I’m just trying to make sure you don’t let that ship sail, Cullen.”
Cullen smirked and leaned forward on the table, “You just want grandchildren, mother.” He said, chuckling as he watched her face contort into a grimace and turn away from him, a faint blush on her face. “I can read you like a book, you know that.”
“You should go to bed,” She said, standing up suddenly and smoothing down her dress. She put her hands on her hip as she looked down at Cullen once more, “I expect you to apologize to Eliza tomorrow morning for leaving her like that; she’s probably no longer interested in you after abandoning her like that.”
“I will, I will. I do feel a bit bad for doing that anyway,” He said, standing up and kissing his mother on the cheek as he passed by her to head to his room.
“Oh, and one more thing…” His mother called out as he stood in the hallway, “We’re going to have a little ‘chat’ about Silas and you when you both get home tomorrow, and I fully expect both of you to come right here after work or so help me if I have to find both of you.”
Cullen gulped, “Understood, mother. Goodnight.” He responded quickly before hurrying and disappearing around the corner into his room.
Cullen’s mother sighed and began to untie the apron around her, setting it down on the chair she had been sitting in. That boy was a handful, much like his father unfortunately in that regard, but she wouldn’t trade him for the world. She just disliked his indifference when it came to marriage, though she supposed his father was a lot like that too, she thought back to how oblivious he was when she wanted him to notice her. He was always too focused on something else or helping people. He was never one to sit idle for fear of growing bored, and though it had been frustrating at the time, she now looked back nostalgically on those memories.
A smile formed on her face before it was split open by a yawn. Shaking her head, she turned and blew out the candle, casting the room into darkness before heading back towards her room; after all, she had to get up early to feed her disobedient children.