9. Flesh and Steel
Kannen and the Constable filed through the leaning picket fence that bounded the Smithy’s home. Fangs of snow jutted into the growing darkness from atop each post. Somewhere beyond the stone and timber home, a gurgling creek meandered along the backside of the property.
Kannen crept to the front windows on its main floor. A ruddy light flickered, clinging to its final sources of energy. Two holes had been made in the lean panes, one in the lower right corner and the other near its center. “Doesn’t look good.”
The Constable took ginger steps to the front door. Howling winds whistled through the holes in the windows, causing him to stutter back off the top step. Bitter flakes stung his bare hide like sand or grit. After a deep breath, he made his way to the threshold. They exchanged doubtful glares, and then the lawman set a fist on the door’s cracked face. To the Constable’s surprise, it creaked ajar, allowing a brief burst of powder into the home.
“Didn’t expect that.”
Kannen accompanied him inside. “Think he found shelter somewhere else?”
Her companion shook his head. His boots clopped, one over the other, nearer to the lone light source on this end of the property. They made their way into the sitting room to their right. Two simple chairs sat before the fading fire, one of which had been knocked on its back. Again, they shared an apprehensive glance. Kannen knelt close to the hearth. A small pile of wood coals smoldered in the emptiness.
The Constable crouched beside her and poked at the embers with a finger. “Been going since last night, I figure.”
She watched him as he rubbed some of the ash between a finger and thumb. “How can you tell?”
He rose and inspected the overturned chair. “The wood around these parts burns to coals in eight or ten hours.” He lifted the back of the chair off the floor with the tip of a boot. “Those are cold, meaning they’re several hours beyond that.”
Something clanged to the floor on the far side of the home, startling Kannen to her feet in its direction.
“Wait.” Her companion took a few paces toward her. “There could be anything back there. We don’t know where the Smithy is right now.”
Kannen strode into the hall. “And, what if that was him or one of his kids?”
His expression read disbelief and annoyance. Kannen scoffed and walked down the hallway blades drawn. Something crunched in the room at the end of the narrow corridor followed by a sound akin to a boot being tugged from stubborn muck. Kannen held in the doorway of the little girl’s bedroom to her left. She heard steel being drawn from leather behind her.
“Careful,” the Constable whispered.
Kannen advanced on the commotion. A plank groaned underfoot as she crept past a rendition of their family crest perched on the wall. Pots and ladles came into view hanging from a rack over the fireplace in the kitchen at the end of the hall.
Something in there hissed. A moist plop on the kitchen floor followed by the back door slamming against the door jam and swinging on a whining hinge.
“Damn it.” Kannen sprinted the last stretch into the empty room.
What greeted the traveler in the kitchen dropped her jaw. “Heaven’s ghost.”
“The Smithy’s wife,” the Constable said, panting beside her.
Her gray corpse lay sprawled out in a fresh pool of dark red blood. Her raven curls fell over her frozen terrified face. The Constable took deliberate steps over the pool and around the body. He kicked a small bulge of gore across the stone floor with the tip of his boot. “Her heart.”
Kannen held back the urge to vomit behind a green sleeve. “We’re too late. They’re here.”
Her partner couldn’t take his eyes off his deceased neighbor. The back door swayed on a whining hinge in a fleeting breeze. The Constable wasted no time in heading out into the back yard in pursuit of who or whatever tore a hole into his friend.
“Hold on.” Kannen joined him on the back porch.
A pair of lines snaked off in the snow toward the forge.
She walked a line on the right side of the trails. “Whatever did this is large.”
He mirrored her on the other side. He knelt down and set a splayed hand in the trail. “Bigger than us, that’s for certain.”
Kannen studied the dome-shaped forge. A steady flow of white smoke poured from the stone chimney on its backside. Silence from within. She high-stepped through the drifts in its direction. A sudden rattling from the bushes to her right stopped her cold.
“Easy,” the Constable muttered.
She lowered her torso, blades at the ready. Something shifted in the colorless bare branches. Small and cautious, it shifted back and forth in the growing shadows.
“Who goes?” She advanced on the form watching for any changes in its gestures and position.
A pair of crunching steps from behind her. “What do you see?”
Kannen’s gaze remained steadfast. “Not our killer.” Another small form stood up beside the first. “Too little for that.” She halted a few paces from the bushes and raised her weapons. “You can come out now, or I’m coming in.”
Nothing in response but a hollow howl from the storm.
“If I have to come in after you,” she said, “you won’t like the outcome.”
Two small figures shifted behind the bare twigs of the bushes. A high-pitched voice whispered to the other bent shadow.
Kannen pounced around the edge of the shrubs. The children shrieked, one of whom tumbled on their rump.
She took another step toward them. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
The girl helped the boy from the snow and huddled close to his side.
The Constable waded to Kannen’s side. “His children.”
A visible relief washed over the youngsters.
“Your father,” the Constable said, “where is he?”
The boy turned and pointed a lone finger toward the glowing interior of the family’s forge.
Kannen darted off toward the structure at the back of the property while her counterpart wrangled the children under the trust of his longsword. Inside the forge, shadows danced and warped upon its rounded stone walls. Kannen slid inside the open doorway and inched along the nearest wall. Two tables of tools and instruments, one on either side of the room, formed an aisle to the large bellows and the forge’s hearth. Aromas of worked leather and smelted metal mingled with those of burning oak.
Her voice whispered in the near darkness. “Smithy?”
She inched past sets of tongs, hammers, and a swage block. A groan from the far side of the hearth stopped her cold. She glanced over a shoulder. The Constable had the children stalled behind an outstretched arm.
Kannen took cautious steps to the edge of the hearth, halting when another moan broke the silence. “Smithy?”
His feeble reply came. “W-Who goes?” A cough stifled by a wet mass.
She followed his voice around the fire. “I mean you no harm.” She stopped next to his tattered leg. “I am Kannen.” She looked back up at her partner as he and the kids came into view. “I’ve brought the Constable and your children with me.”
The Smithy lifted his mangled arms. “Come, children!”
They scurried into his protective embrace. The girl was first to speak. “What happened, Papa?”
The Smithy’s face lulled into the firelight. His left eye lay under partially congealed blood and matted wavy black hair. His good eye found Kannen. “A creature. Never seen anything like it.” He kissed his kids on their heads. “Put a brand into its gray hide before it took off.”
The Constable strode to the forge’s back door. “Which direction did it head?”
The Smithy pulled himself to his feet. “North---along the river.” He took feeble steps toward home. “My wife.”
Kannen sheathed a sword and grabbed one of the brawny gent’s sleeves. “Don’t.” The Smithy’s eye moved from her hand up to Kannen’s eyes. “She---” Kannen glanced at his kids. “She’s gone.”
Some of the light in the big man’s eye faded. He wiped back his sorrow and hobbled to the weapons hanging on the far wall. “No time for such things now.” He plucked a broadsword from the row and turned his quivering eye to Kannen.
“We make for the inn.” Kannen moved out the back door. “You may soon get your chance for vengeance.”
Once in the yard, the Constable stalled next to the half-frozen stream.
Kannen spun on a boot. “Aren’t you coming?”
His keen eyes followed the unusual prints up the hill. The lawman shook his head. “This stream leads up into the mines. No one knows them better than me.” He stared into the thickening gray of the distant peak and the unspeakable hell it protected.