11. Sinking In the West
Low layers of pink and violet set the western peaks ablaze as Kannen led the Smithy and his children across town to safety. She followed the swaying light in the town’s square as fresh squall cuddled the area in its arctic stranglehold.
The Smithy swept stray flakes from the dark strands dangling over his mutilated eye socket. “Haven’t seen you in these parts before. Who are you?”
She grinned. “You haven’t. I’m Kannen, and I’m just passing through.” She helped his daughter up the slippery slope in the path. “No one special.”
Once atop the knoll, the group halted a short distance from the lantern in the square. The Smithy’s boy doubled over in its unsteady light, holding his midsection.
“Son.” He set a bulky arm on the boy’s back. “What’s the matter?”
The youngster dry heaved into a mound of snow. “My belly’s off, papa.”
The gentle giant scooped his eldest offspring up in his arms and plodded toward the inviting glow of the inn.
“Is brother going to be all right, papa?” The girl took Kannen’s hand and followed them inside.
“Fine, little cub.” The Smithy had to duck to clear the inn’s doorframe. “He’ll be right as rain.”
The Vicar came to his aid first. “Gracious me!” He set the back of a hand on the boy’s forehead. “Not warm to the touch.” He glanced around the new party. “What happened?”
Kannen released the girl from her grip who scurried to the fireplace. “He’s battered, wife’s dead, and the boy…”
“Is a tad ill,” the Smithy said, completing her thought. He toted his child closer to the fire, but the boy flinched and cowered as they approached.
The Innkeeper approached Kannen. “The others. Where are they?”
Kannen rubbed her half-numbed hands. “The Cleric and my cargo weren’t in her cottage. We followed the blood up the hill.”
The Innkeeper’s eyes grew.
Kannen ambled to the bar. “The one you call the Miller was dead. No idea where the Cleric went. The lawman said he wanted to trail the creature into the mines.”
The Smithy carried his son into the far corner of the inn and placed him on a tabletop to sleep.
The Vicar led the towering man back near his daughter at the hearth. “It was them,” he glared into the big man’s hurt eyes, “wasn’t it?”
The Smithy bobbed his head. “I was in my shop when it first invaded our home.” His glistening eye floated into the smoldering logs. “I grabbed a weapon when I heard her shout for the children to run. Before I had made it out the door, it had burst into my forge.”
Their hostess strode to his side at the fire. “What was it?”
His head twitched once. “Gray. Mouth full of fangs. Incredible strength.”
“I warned you.” Kannen flopped into a barstool. “That stranger,” she pointed to the front door, “is what they want, and you let him go!”
The Innkeeper took a defensive stance and huffed. “We only wanted to let the Cleric revive him. For all we knew, you were a raving lunatic.”
A maniacal chuckle from Kannen.
“What does he have that they want?” The Smithy caressed his daughter’s long straight hair.
“She claims it’s a gemstone,” the Innkeeper said, sounding accusatory.
“What about it?”
Kannen spun on her stool. “I don’t know what it does, but these things froth at the mouth in its presence. I know that much.”
The Smithy gave an affirmative grunt. “They’re ruthless creatures, but iron,” his gazed drifted around the room, “and fire inflict injury.” He nodded. “Sizzled its hide with my pokers before it mauled me.”
The Vicar shuffled from the front windows to join them. “Then, we---”
A shriek from the shadows in the back corner. Another smaller gray creature assaulted the Smithy and clawed at his face before he could react. The big man shoved its lean body away and held the thing at arm’s length.
Kannen drew her swords and charged it.
“No!” The Smithy’s wild eye found hers.
Kannen reared a blade behind her right ear. “It’s not him any longer.”
“I won’t let a stranger murder my boy.”
The creature howled and raked its long bony fingers at anyone in reach. Venomous incisors snapped at the Smithy’s wrists.
“There’s no way to reverse it.” Kannen crept closer to the nightmare.
The big man’s lower jaw trembled. Tears fell.
Kannen prepared for a swat. “Either you do it, or---”
With a swift pivot, the Smithy hurled the body of what had once been his namesake into the crackling fire. High-pitched screams. Sizzling flesh. The torso of the monster expanded in the intense heat. The Smithy pulled his daughter under his belly and turned his back to the hearth. One final howl, then a cloud of gray matter and puss.
The Smithy shielded her from the horror. “Don’t look, pumpkin.”
Kannen marched to the hearth and jabbed the burning leg with her sword. Satisfied that it was gone, she turned to the Smithy. “We need the weapons that you have in your forge. The others will be here soon.”