A Long Night
An icy chill caressed Irulen’s face. His breath blew hot against the winter air. He pictured the moisture striking valiantly into the open cold only to freeze and fall to the ground absent sound. Often Irulen found solace in unforgiving weather, the kind that made most people barricade themselves indoors to wait for the cyclic signs of spring to come again. Perhaps that’s why I like the cold so much; it acts as people-repellent.
Nevertheless, Irulen’s profession kept him busy year round, hot or cold, rain or shine, sun or snow. His travels, while offering moments of solitude and peace, meant he always had to make landfall among others at one time or another. He didn’t enjoy the actual working part of his existence, but he felt a filial duty to send coin back to his aging parents and mentally deficient brother. Living off the wild might keep him happy for a while, a long while even, but the burden of responsibility always got the better of him, sooner or later.
Using the gift of foresight, Irulen’s mind traveled the path ahead. The village drew near. For now, though, he enjoyed the sharp crunching of the snow underfoot and the quiet company of the raven on his shoulder.
A blue streak illuminated a feathered throat, and light glimmers pierced dark beady eyes. Max the raven was Irulen’s only true companion.
The wizard often sent the dark creature to local towns with a sign around his neck; “Crimen? Mysterium? Leave note and offer in leg pouch.” The raven would wait around, sometimes for days on end, for an unfortunate soul to invest a note and then bring the letter back to his master. Otherwise, if no note came, Max would move onto the next town with his master in tow.
Since they currently had a job waiting, Max sat comfortably upon his shoulder-throne. Irulen sifted through his cloak pocket and pulled out a piece of smoked meat, holding it up to his feathered friend. Like a disappearing act, the morsel was gone in an instant. The bird’s beak grinded with glee.
The sun had all but fallen, and dusk was fast claiming its domain. The traveler continued on, further enjoying the contrast of his crunching feet against the deafening silence of the snow.
After another hundred paces or so, the path veered slightly to the right, and a few strides more brought the village wall into view. The wall, made of towering wooden pylons, was shut up tight. The village might as well have been under siege.
This was a familiar scene; one Irulen often came across in his travels. Humans are paranoid creatures; we love to lock things up tight, especially when something is awry. The tendency of communities to be self-subjugated by fear always baffled him.
While the village walls appeared ominous, it seemed that security, in reality, was hard to find. The walls were vacant. He stood out in the cold for a heavy handful of minutes, pounding on the door. The first sign of life, in the form of a chubby face, peered over the top of the fort.
The plump watchman chattered his jaws quickly. “Who goes there?”
Irulen looked up. “Good day. I am Irulen, traveling wizard. I come to fulfill a contract sent to me by raven: ‘One murder by unknown creature in exchange for 20 silver. Signed, William Steadfrost.’”
The fatty cylinder paused and stared at Irulen before retracting over the wall without a word.
The wizard stood increasingly annoyed.What is this world coming to if people cannot exhibit common courtesy! Different ways to inflict pain on the mole-man flashed through his mind.
The gates screeched in protest, but reluctantly opened as men inside chipped at the ice that had frozen the portal shut. The doors eventually swung wide, and a tall, ominous figure stood some fifteen feet inside the village.
“I am William Steadfrost.” The man boomed. His iron gaze held Irulen in place. “It is I who hired you, welcome to Frostbridge.” Steadfrost towered over Irulen, most of his face obscured by a powerful beard. His black hair served as stark contrast to the whiteness of his surroundings, as if the falling snow refused to stick to it.
Irulen motioned toward the portly gatekeeper. “And what might that man be called?”
Indignation colored the mole-man’s cheeks a shiny red. “I am Lew, head of the town watch.”
Irulen returned his gaze to Steadfrost. “He has a title as well as a name. Pardon me, kind sir, but are you titled as well?”
The giant man stood stone-faced. “I am the chief of this village.”
“Excellent. I am Irulen, mystery solver, and I believe you have a killing that needs my attention.” He allowed his gaze to wander the crowd. He kept Lew in the corner of his eye.
Lew piped up with his squirmy voice. “You aren’t just a mystery solver but one with magic… supposedly.” He squinted at Irulen. Suspicion filled his black, beady eyes.
Irulen graced his statement with silence.
Lew began again, a little louder this time. “I don’t suppose you could demonstrate for us—as a token of assurance—something magical?”
“My dear sir.” Exasperation flooded through Irulen, touching his voice, though he tried to control it. “I’m sure you are not aware of how magic works.” The wizard waited for the stressed twitch in the pudgy man’s face to settle and then continued. “I possess magic, yes… in fact, I was born with it… but my magic is not inexhaustible. My essence is in fact finite. It will run out one day. For this reason, I require compensation for my services, so when that time comes, I will have the means to retire to normal human life.”
“Sounds like a load of rubbish to me.” Lew spat the words as if in challenge. “Fraudulent… merchant…”
Everyone near the little man took a step back.
“…talk.” He looked around.
A young girl giggled.
His eyes darted around quizzically. “What?”
No one answered.
“What’s wrong?” Even as the words passed his lips, a frozen breeze widened his eyes.
A young boy stepped forward and pointed to the ground. “Your trousers, sir.”
Lew grappled with his pants as he thrust a finger in the wizard’s direction. “You! You did this—umph.” He struggled to pull his pants back up, tripped, and fell face first into a snow bank.
Nervous laughter decorated the empty air.
Irulen feigned innocence. “But you said I didn’t have magic, and I surely haven’t left this very spot.” He noticed the little girl giggling, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Lew scrambled to his feet and dusted himself off. He yelled, “You do, you do have magic!”
“Thank you for vouching for my abilities. Now then, William Steadfrost, I grow weary. Would you like my services or not? I do have to inform you, regrettably, that I must add one silver to the contracted deal, for the demonstration. My magic must be compensated.”
The sudden menace creeping over the chieftain’s features took Irulen aback. This was not a man to be trifled with. While his body spoke of violence, the large man’s words were delivered with surprisingly precise diction. “My daughter Isabel is dead… slain by a beast of unknown origin… and you bring tomfoolery to my feet!”
Irulen pulled down the hood of his cloak and bowed. “You are right, of course. My apologies, sir. I am sorry for your loss. I take it you want the beast identified so that you may hunt it?”
Irulen continued. “I would be glad to do so under the agreed contract then, but night is quickly falling upon us, so the investigation is best left for morning.”
An inkling of despair crowded the corners of the chieftan’s dark eyes as he nodded. “I understand, so be it. A room has been made for you at the tavern.”
A musky scent lingered in the room, one resembling a bear den that had been vacated for about a week. The bed sheets had been pulled up, but were still undeniably ruffled. Irulen wondered which of the gorging ruffians he’d passed in the hall below had soiled this living space. Regardless, he reminded himself of why he often slept wrapped in his own cloak. The room was warm and for that he was grateful.
The wizard offered his arm to Max who obliged by stepping onto it. Irulen placed the raven on the small table adjacent to the bed, unslung the satchel he carried underneath his cloak, and began rummaging through it.
Max’s uneasiness vanished as Irulen pulled out the pieces to his perch. Once his master finished assembling the perch and backed away, the raven hopped onto his rightful throne and fluffed his wings. A tingle of paternal pride coursed through Irulen. Max was the wizard’s one unfaltering source of contentment. In addition, he made a great watch-bird, and Irulen never worried about his belongings with Max there to guard them. No intruder would enter the room without sending the raven into alert mode.
With everything in reasonable order, Irulen made his way down a corridor of wooden planks. His footsteps bounced off the stone and wood of the walls.
Few patrons filled the drinking hall on this particular night and, for the most part, they drank solemnly. The room stood taller than the rest of the inn, creating the illusion of an unexpectedly large amount of space. Still, as far as taverns went, Irulen figured this one was as good as any to drink away one’s woes. Since alcohol loosened lips, and suspects often joined the revelry in order to avoid suspicion, what better place to begin an investigation?
Irulen seldom wasted magic to bolster his hearing. Even without magic, however, his well-trained ears keyed in on certain words, and he ascertained the demeanor of the people who spoke.
The death of a young girl did not often promise a pleasant night for any tavern, and this night was no exception. Six souls in all, all men, had split into two groups, a group of four and a group of two. The larger group was engaged in a fierce debate over what creature could have taken Isabel to her miserable fate. The group of two sat off in a dark corner, brooding quietly.
Common people, those whose entire existence was spent within the confines of a single day’s ride, loved to throw around words such as “demons”, “trolls”, and the like. Irulen thought this phenomenon stemmed, in part, from the political nature of these small towns. Town gossip almost never encircled a tangible person. Such speculation and slander could, and often did, lead to irreparable social rifts, even bloodshed.
The group’s argument, which had previously been kept at a respectful murmur, grew in volume as the patrons plied themselves with booze and pride.
One tall and gaunt man spun a story about how wolves had claimed Isabel Steadfrost. “She was a strong-willed girl, always more independent than her father would have liked. It was naturally unavoidable that she would eventually find herself outside the town walls past dusk. You see,” he continued, “The wilderness is the great equalizer of all things. Out there, in the realm of animals, a princess becomes food, as our Isabel surely has.”
While the loud mouth had something of a point, Irulen felt his lips loosening in defense of the wild places he crossed routinely. For all his magic and capability, Irulen had never used his gifts to defend himself in the wild. He had, in fact, never encountered an animal that had meant him harm. He found his mouth open and a reverberation forming in the back of his throat when a mug slammed the table in front of him. A dark, frothy wave spilt over the top of the mug and onto the table.
“You look too young to be what you claim to be,” said the serving girl.
Her gaze met his, and Irulen was at a loss. A golden hue surrounded her small pupils and eventually gave way to darker shades of green. Her eyelashes stuck out like spikes protecting something sacred. She wore a white headscarf tied neatly in the back and sported good posture for a young rustic girl. Her plain gray robes were bound by a brown rope. A few beads of sweat streamed down her face, matting loose strands of fiery red hair to her rosy cheeks which were besmirched by the toil of a smoky kitchen. Her face was slightly shadowed in the tavern light, but freckles seemed to adorn her fair features.
He found words and responded. “And what, pray tell, do I claim to be?”
“A man of magic.”
If there was ever a bane to the conservation of Irulen’s magic, it was women. Whether in public or in the bed chambers, when they gave him the look he saw before him now, he would often oblige with a demonstration.
“Here, give me your arm.”
She indulged him, somewhat cautiously.
He ran his fingertips down her shoulder to her wrist. They heated at first, then cooled as he dragged them across her skin. He explored her hand and let go of her fingertips. Her cheeks flushed red. She brought her hand to her face and looked at it as she would a stranger. Then she pulled her hand back and slapped him across the face.
The two men sitting apart from the others jumped up at the commotion and approached menacingly. “Is there a problem, Farah?” The taller man inquired as he kept his gaze locked on Irulen.
The serving girl paused for a moment. “No, I believe I just solved it. Have I not, Mister Irulen?”
Irulen rubbed his jaw and struggled to control a childish grin. “You certainly have, my lady. And please, call me Ire.” He said the last bit while looking at the men before him.
“Ire.” The name played off the girl’s ruby lips. “But your name is pronounced Ir-u-len, why Ire?”
“Call it a character flaw,” said Irulen, nonchalantly. Truth is, I’m prone to fits of rage, best managed through a simple reminder. Wrath doesn’t suit me as a nickname. He watched her walk away and thought he detected a slight awkwardness in her stride. Perhaps an urge to look back? Doubtful.
Irulen gathered up his self-loathing and redirected his gaze back to the men who had risen to defend Farah’s honor. “Please,” he pleaded politely, “I’ve been traveling for quite a few days. Would you sit with me?”
After looking at each other uneasily, the men complied. They took their places at the table with stiff formality.
The taller fellow with a familiar face introduced himself as Jorin Steadfrost, William’s son and Isabel’s older brother. “And this is my friend, Brom.”
Irulen nodded his head toward the two and then spoke to Jorin. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Jorin cocked an eye. “I appreciate your words, but truth be told, I put little stock in empty utterances. Isabel’s corpse still rots in the woods. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And yet, you use your magic to impress serving girls.”
Brom chimed in before Irulen could respond, leaning in slightly. “You should work to impress us, find out Isabel’s fate.”
Tense silence fell over the table as both men held the wizard with frozen stares. Irulen looked from the large black pupils of Jorin’s green eyes to Brom’s rusty brown marbles peering from beneath his shaggy, dark hair.
The boisterous group of men grew louder in their repertoire. Jorin and Brom redirected their eyes from Irulen over to the ruckus.
Jorin’s hand tightened around his mug. “Angus has sure got a gaping hole of a mouth t’night.”
Brom nodded. “I’ll raise my beer to the thought of smashing in his stupid skull.”
Irulen opened his mouth to speak, but snapped it shut just as quickly. He slouched a bit in his chair. “Very well. To the matter at hand. Tell me what you know.”
Jorin looked to Brom, who nodded that Jorin should go ahead and start. “Well,” Jorin began, “For Isabel, yesterday was as normal as any other day. I didn’t see her for most of the day. Brom and I were out hunting, but I did notice her at dinner. She looked especially happy, excited even… but for Isabel this was all normal. She has often been called the winter’s sun around here, a reference to her unbreakable spirit.”
Brom took over, smiling wistfully at what could only be a fond memory. “Quite the famous one she has always been. Always attracting the younger lads, getting into trouble…”
Jorin, having recovered his breath, continued. “It seems so apparent to me, looking back, that she appeared to be expecting something.” He took a deep breath, held it, and blew it out slowly. He shook his head. “And this is why I can’t accept what those men over there say, that wolves claimed her, or beasts… or demons.”
Brom interjected, “Well, you see, wizard, there was a wolf that had claimed the corpse before I found it. Blood red in the mouth it was, and it growled at me so that my spine shivered.”
“So you found her?” Irulen tried to steer the conversation back on track.
But Jorin spoke next. “We set out to look for her by torchlight last night. This morning we amassed a much larger party. Much of the town became involved, and we fanned out in search of her.”
Brom leaned in toward Irulen. “It was I who found her, in a clearing near a grove of pines. William told us to leave the body be and attached the note to your raven. We covered her body so it wouldn’t be harmed any further by anything wild and have taken to the mug most of the day awaiting your arrival.”
“Will it be you taking me to her at daylight?”
Both men nodded.
A pair of wiry hands came down heavily on the table.
Angus leaned close into Irulen’s space. “Why ah you heyah anyway? We all jus’ decided over dare zat she was eatin’ by da wolf.” His slurred speech was difficult to understand.
Jorin’s chair flew back as he stood, and he punched Angus square in the face.
Angus fell backward over a chair and hit the ground. Blood streamed from his nose as he took pause. The other three raised themselves from their table quietly with the potential of violence simmering in their eyes.
Jorin screamed at them, “It was no wolf! Only stupid fools like Angus would think that. I suppose a wolf snuck through our town walls, grabbed her by the neck and dragged her right past our gatekeeper?” Jorin cocked an eyebrow and waited for a response.
One of the men mumbled something about a demon under his breath before submitting to Jorin’s deathly stare. Irulen looked behind him as a flash of red locks pulled back into the kitchen. Whether it was the commotion, or her curiosity in him, Farah had indeed taken another look. He smiled inwardly.
Irulen stood up with his hands outstretched. “Please, please, everyone calm down. I understand emotions are running high, but emotion is an enemy to reason. We will, in time, lay Isabel to rest and her story with her.”
Angus spat blood and wiped it away with a dirty sleeve as one of his acquaintances helped him to his feet. “I’m sure there will be a story, spun from a web you yourself shoot out of your arse, as fake as your concern in our matters.”
The sudden clarity and bite of Angus’s words left Irulen at a loss.
“That’s what I thought.” Angus scoffed. He and his companions shambled under the stone archway, through the oaken doors, and disappeared into the dark night.
Jorin shook his head as he plodded toward the fire place. A few dogs that were absorbing the heat scattered in his wake. His bulky figure stooped low, picked up a piece of tinder, and placed it on top of the weakening flame. “Angus is an idiot, but his suspicion is not idiotic.” He turned the full intensity of his gaze on Irulen. “I suppose, wizard, that suspicion is something you regularly receive. For three days your raven visited our town, like a harbinger of death. Many would think someone like you could easily have a hand in the deaths for which you are hired to investigate.”
Irulen smiled. “There is rarely a town that I have visited where I have not been, at one time or another, considered a person of interest.”
Brom shifted uneasily in his chair. Jorin grabbed a prodding iron and stabbed at the burning embers.
“As for the appearance of my raven,” Irulen continued, “I’m really not sure, but I seem to have a sense—maybe passive magic, it certainly isn’t something I actively think about— a compass inside me, if you will. It’s as if I’m being steered toward where I need to be.”
“People like us only experience magicians like you in folklore.” Brom spoke from his seat and raised a long-neglected mug of ale to his mouth.
Irulen hated being called a magician, but he let the reference slide. His mug met his lips. The liquid was dark, frothy, and warm… only slightly tinged with the chill of the downstairs cellar. He had to concede Brom’s point. “There truly aren’t many of us.” He shrugged. “If I wasn’t one myself, I’d doubt real mages existed. I am, after all, a skeptical person. Truth be told, I’ve had mobs try to tear me to pieces one too many times. My work obviously deals in delicate matters, and I have still not perfected the social element of it all.”
Irulen explored the room as the fireplace roared. A stone wall surrounded the place, and a wooden roof arched upward from there. There were a good number of tables and stools and, what looked like, a small stage for a performer. He imagined how lively the place would be in better days.
“You know,” he said to the men, “It has been a while since I’ve seen taverns such as this one in a state of merriment. Sure, on some occasions people celebrate the dead, usually when it’s a man that’s passed on honorably. But more often than not, and especially when it is a woman who’s been killed, I find myself in a somber embrace. I think I need a break from it all.”
Brom’s face wrinkled under his black beard. “I’m sorry that your occupation grieves you so…”
“But…” Jorin interrupted, “surely you must take comfort that you find yourself on this side of the living divide and not that of your quarry.”
“Quarry, you say? The dead are not my quarry. I do not travel to find dead bodies. I do not take pleasure in lingering over a corpse. I hunt living culprits who have caused the deceased to be so removed from our plane of existence.”
“You speak in too stately of a manner for this time of night, traveler,” Jorin said.
“You are right, of course. Sometimes I get caught up in thought.”
“For now,” said Brom, “think of good ale and mead, the company of women—though not the serving girl, mind you—and see yourself to rest. Tomorrow will be a trying day for us all. I now depart, good night.”
Irulen wasn’t one for much resting, too often haunted by images of the past, but he bid the others good night and ordered two more mugs of beer to keep him company.
A chill snaked up his spine as Irulen approached the door to his room. The sense that a strange presence was nearby overwhelmed him. He pressed his ear to the door.
A slight rummaging sound, and fear for Max, propelled him into action. Irulen swiftly shoved the door in and fell into the room. He stopped dead in his tracks.
Farah sat gently on his bed with her feet hanging off the end. Though she was older than her small frame portrayed, she appeared rather childish sitting there. She held Max with her left arm while scratching under his chin with her right hand.
Some watchbird he is.
Realizing he may have made a commotion, and being found with this girl in his room would not help his cause at all, he glanced up and down the corridor before quickly shutting the door behind him. Irulen surveyed her, took in the knowledge filling her eyes, and determined that she wasn’t as young as he had first feared. Hard to tell sometimes.
“I didn’t realize I’d made such a good impression,” Irulen said as he moved into the room. Farah’s headpiece was gone, and her wavy locks bounced freely about her neck and back.
“Bury your mischievous intent.” She placed Max back on his perch, studying Irulen from beneath her lashes.
Irulen’s expectations had unexpectedly fallen off a cliff. Here’s a girl waiting for me in my bedroom, in the late hours of the night, and she’s not looking for mischief. That can only mean one thing. “Well,” he said, “it seems we’re risking a lot for little. What’s the trouble?”
“I’m not sure exactly, but things aren’t what they seem.” She glanced at the door as if she might be heard. “This is not the first time a young girl has gone missing. Five years ago, before the new wall was built, Angus’s daughter, Claudia, was dragged into the woods, brutalized, and breathed her last under a full moon. Angus went on about a demon in the woods that used wolves as puppets, demanding they bring him a steady flow of nubile women to devour, body and soul. The matter was investigated, but nothing was unearthed to refute his story. Angus would not be swayed from his reasoning. Those who listened to him began taking precautions against the demonic forces. They built the new town wall. They patrolled and even enforced a curfew…” Her voice faded.
“Where did William Steadfrost stand on all this?” He leaned in closer as his interest grew.
“He thought we were trapping ourselves in more so than keeping goblins out. After a few years of his criticism and a lack of violence, the patrols ceased, and the curfew was less strictly enforced. Then there was Igrain last year… an orphan like me and not much younger.” Farah paused, apparently hesitant to continue.
Irulen coaxed some bird seed out of his pocket and placed it in her hand. She held it across to Max who nibbled at his snack gently. Irulen waited. She would tell her story her way, in her time. He watched her gently pet the bird’s head, allowing her the space she obviously needed.
She paused, a wistful, forlorn look crossing her features. “People are acting strange and have been for a long time.” She stopped and shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Maybe it’s nothing particular, but I’m scared. I may be a few years older, but I’m still alone, like Igrain. I live here at the inn. I have nowhere else to go.”
“Look, I understand how you’re feeling.” His heart ached reluctantly with the need to reassure her. He scratched his head. “Ah, you’ll be safe. I’ll have my business here sorted out tomorrow, and whichever devilish creeps are lurking in the recesses of this town will be ferreted out… You have my wor—”
He stopped talking and stared at Max, who had his head cocked, not at him but past him, toward the door. Irulen threw his right hand over Farah’s mouth while extinguishing the candles with a wave of his left.
They sat in dark silence for many long moments.
Floorboards creaked in the hallway. Irulen held his breath, unsure of how much the person might have heard. Whoever it was, stood close.
After a moment of silence, the form shifted weight and continued moving down the hallway. The steps seemed more of a shuffle than full strides as if something dragged behind. Irulen exhaled slowly in relief as the sounds fades. The benefits of confronting a possible eavesdropper were far outweighed by the prospects of being caught alone with one of the town’s few beautiful flowers.
Farah tugged at his hand.
“Oh.” He pulled his hand away. “Sorry.”
“Sure as snow you are.”
“So… what now?”
“A lit candle would be nice.”
Sudden sparks ignited against the darkness as Irulen struck his flint stones together. Before long, one candle was lit, and two glowing faces sat in silence. Farah glanced nervously at the door, then looked down at her hands.
“Look,” started Irulen, “you can stay here if you want, though I would rather no one saw you exiting my room in the early hours.”
“How would that work?” Farah asked.
“I’m used to sleeping on stones in the wild. I can sleep on the floor.”
Her face convulsed. “Ew! You have no idea what I’ve seen spilt on that floor.”
“Ha, well, I’m sure it is no worse than what’s been spilt on that bed…”
Farah studied him, her eyebrows drawn together in a slight scowl.
Irulen stewed in the shame of his lack of decorum. He felt as if he had been stripped naked. He laughed a little nervously. “Well, I don’t think you’d want me next to you in that bed, anyway. I’m not a light sleeper. I toss and turn. I wouldn’t want to put you in any danger. I’ll tell you what—let me have a look outside.”
Once again Irulen found himself using magic for the sake of a girl. He stared at the crack underneath the door. His foresight, of course, worked best when unimpeded by physical objects. Fitting through a crack took time. He blurred his eyesight through contracted pupils and pushed between the door and floor best he could.
His mind’s eye scanned the hallway to either side and even checked around the corners. Then he came back to the room with a blink of his eyes.
Farah was awe-struck, her wide-eyes sparkled above a slackened mouth. It was a look Irulen often took advantage of. Not this time, though. Dammit. Not this time.
“I’m sorry,” he said as she snapped back into it. “I forget people aren’t used to it the way I am.”
“It was weird, like everything between you and the door changed in a way… blurred even… I don’t understand. What… what did you see out there?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “Nobody there. I think you are good to go if you are quiet about it.”
She smiled and gave Max a pet on the head as she stood. “Well, I made my way in here, didn’t I?” She crept to the door, cracked it open, peaked through, and snuck out.
The door pulled shut, and Irulen wondered at the stillness of his room.