“Uncle?” Earhart called.
Riding on the backs of their horses, their group had reached the forest surrounding Kreme village when Gull came down from his horse to check something.
He called again, “What is it?”
Gull warily looked about as he answered, “I’ve been to Kreme before. This is the path the villagers use the most.” He got up and mounted his horse. “The snow is undisturbed.”
A man said, “Well, yes, you can tell just by looking at it.”
“It snowed last night, the sky must have covered any tracks from yesterday.”
“No,” Gull responded. “This snow hasn’t been disturbed in a while. No one has used this path in days.”
“It is very cold,” another said. “You can imagine why no one would want to come out in such weather.”
“Only the rich can afford to think like that,” Gull said. “The poorer you are, the less you’ll worry about comfort and more about food to put in your mouth and wood in your fireplace. These people are very poor, yet no one came to set traps or chop wood.”
“The wolves must be keeping them at bay.”
“It is as we feared,” Teyrnon said. “This is the worst case possible. Even after we set traps and erect repellants, if this part of the forest is infested by them, the villagers will still have no choice but to sit tight and strap their belts through winter.”
“It’s very quiet,” another said. “That’s a bad sign, they must be nesting nearby, they could even be watching us right now.”
Gull glared around and spoke slowly, “Yes… I know what this silence means. I’m just not sure if it’s wolves.”
He led his horse down the hill to where the village was already in sight.
“We’ll find out more after we speak to them.”
* * *
“Hello…! Hello!” Teyrnon called, jumping up and down as he did so to try and look over the wooden wall surrounding the village.
“What are you doing, stupid?”
Earhart followed, “Can’t you see that the gate is barricaded from the outside?”
He shrugged. “That doesn’t mean there’s no one in there.”
“Do you see anyone in there?”
“Just move the timbers out of the way. Someone help him open the gate.”
Earhart led his horse next to Gull, who was looking at the tracks on ground. “You want to check it out?”
“No need, it’s way too obvious,” Gull said. “These tracks are from yesterday, the snow hasn’t yet had the chance to cover it all.”
“Sixty, maybe seventy people, heading south.”
“And their carts must have been very heavy. You see it? The wheels dug much too deep into the ground.”
“If it was then it’s not a short trip they intended to make.”
Earhart nodded at the snow-coated mountains where the trails led. “What’s there?”
“What’s there…is a place no sane man wants to go near.”
They removed the heavy timbers and opened the gate. When Gull’s party rode inside, they were welcomed by a village inhabited with silence.
The place was intimidating and gave Natir the chills. It was a very small village with rundown houses scattered about, and all the doors and windows her eyes could see were barricaded.
Her company called left and right with no one but the wind to answer their cries. Not a single living thing was left inside, while every trail and footprint she saw on the ground told the story of a chaotic exodus heading the only way out.
They stopped at the village’s center where an altar of wood and clay was, and one of the men went down to check it out.
“Offerings,” he showed them a handful of bones and ashes then clapped his hands together to dust it off, “lots of offerings. And no one bothered to clean it.”
“HELLO! IS THERE NO ONE HERE?”
Their calls were all in vain.
“Where is everybody?”
“Gone,” Gull said. “These people gave up on help coming and left in a hurry. We are a day too late.”
A man turned his horse and asked, “Now, can someone explain to me why would anyone abandon their home, their depot, and the safety of their wall and head out to the open where the wolves are waiting for them?”
“Because the wall wasn’t enough,” Natir said.
He turned to her, so she explained, “You see how their houses are barricaded?”
He looked around and shrugged. “So they shut their doors as they left, so what?”
“I’d do the same if I left my house.”
“The doors, yes,” Natir said, “but not one of these windows isn’t barricaded with logs, they’re nailed to it. This took work. This took time. It’s not something you’d do when you’re in a hurry to leave, so it must have been done much earlier… Whatever these people feared, the wall couldn’t stop it. It came to their very front doors.”
The man signaled with his hand. “That wall is six feet high! And as far as I can see, it’s not broken anywhere. There is no wolf ridiculous enough to jump over such a thing into a place inhabited by people.”
“What if it wasn’t wolves?” she said.
He waved his hands to his sides. “Then what was it? Go on, I’m listening.”
“Enough,” Gull said. “The woman is right. It took time to barricade these windows and that’s not normal, everything else is just a guess. Now spread out, break into their houses, and let us hope we find some old bastard left behind who can tell us what in Veles’ name happened and why they all left.”
Natir headed towards one of the houses as everyone went separate ways.
She glanced to her side as she walked and saw Teyrnon walking parallel to her to the house next to the one she was aiming for.
Teyrnon winked at her when he noticed her looking his way, which caused her to smile before she could pretend she didn’t notice it.
The door had been shut by a chain and lock. Natir shook it, unsure what else to do, when she heard a loud crank that startled her.
She looked over and saw Teyrnon hammering at lock with his axe, and soon he broke into the house.
In the wake of Teyrnon’s success, Natir felt stupid for not thinking of that herself and searched for something to break the lock with. She had not brought a weapon when the group had split up, and there was nothing nearby that she could use for a hammer.
Natir sighed in frustration and headed back to her horse to get an axe, but she stopped halfway and turned to another house that stole her attention.
Inexplicably drawn to the structure, she headed towards it.
The house was barricaded differently. Its windows were shut entirely—she couldn’t so much as peek inside—and the door had several chains and heavy timbers blocking it.
She was running her palm over one of the timbers when she thought she heard something.
“Hello?” she called.
Natir could almost swear that she had heard a noise or a voice coming from within the house; she just wasn’t sure what it was. She stuck her ear to the door and listened.
“Hello? Is there someone in there?” she asked.
She flinched back a little, startled, as she heard it again: the sound of a little girl crying.
Someone was surely left behind, locked inside this heavily-barricaded house for safety.
“Hey? HEY?” She banged on the door. “Is there someone locked in there? Hello? Can you hear me?”
She ran to the house where Teyrnon was and shouted, “Teyrnon, Teyrnon! I need you to come here, quickly!”
“What is it?” He came out in a hurry and followed Natir, who had already run back to the house.
“Break these locks.”
Teyrnon didn’t argue. He hammered the locks right away. “What, did you find something?”
“There’s someone locked inside, I can hear her.”
“What are you two doing?” Another man joined them when he heard the ruckus.
“She thinks someone is locked inside.”
Natir yelled, “Just break the door.”
The three of them worked on the locks and the timbers, broke the door open, and hurried inside.
A foul scent slapped her.
The house wasn’t big; it consisted of one or two rooms open to one another and had a door at the back that led to the storage, but without a single beam of light coming in, the inside was almost pitch black.
The voice of the sobbing girl became clearer.
“Hey, come out.”
“Hush, it’s a child, don’t scare her.” Natir signaled them to stay back and felt her way through the room with her feet.
Natir yelped with pain after a few steps as she bumped her knee on a table and almost got knocked over.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I just hurt my knee.”
Teyrnon told his friend, “See if you can open a window, I can’t see a thing.”
Natir’s eyes started to adjust to the dark; she navigated her way around the table and followed the girl’s cries.
“Sweety? Sweety, where are you?”
She located the girl, who was kneeling next to the storage’s door with her back to Natir, sobbing nonstop and chewing on something in her hands. Her shadowy figure told Natir that she must have been ten or twelve years old, tops.
“Hey there, little one. It’s all right, don’t be afraid, we’re friends. Where are your parents? Why are you crying? Are you scared?”
“Hungry,” the little girl said.
“You’re hungry? Is that why you’re crying? What are you eating?”
“It’s all right, we’ve got plenty of food. I’ll feed you, if you’d just come to me and—”
Natir froze a mere step away from the girl.
Something didn’t feel right.
The foul scent grew stronger the closer she got to the girl, and the floor suddenly felt slippery beneath Natir’s feet.
Natir hesitantly looked downward; she couldn’t see much, but she realized that she was now standing over a pond of thick, sticky liquid spread across the floor.
The menacing shadows of doubt danced in her mind, causing her heart to beat out of her chest.
“Little girl… What’s that in your hands?”
The girl tossed her head up towards Natir.
Awestruck, Natir couldn’t move a muscle for how terrified she had become in an instant.
Almost pure white eyes struck fear into Natir; the girl’s face was monstrous, her mouth all teeth, some are like animal’s fangs and half an inch long. She had punched a hole in her stomach, pulled out her own intestines, and was gnawing on them.
Letting out a growl unlike anything Natir had ever heard in her life, the girl jumped Natir in a flash and tried to bite her.
Natir received a strike to her side that knocked her across the room.
Natir quickly got to her feet and turned back, realizing that Teyrnon had slammed his body into hers to push her out of danger.
“Teyrnon!” Natir saw the shadowy figures of Teyrnon and the girl struggling against each other.
The girl snarled and thrashed like an animal and had grabbed Teyrnon’s axe with one hand and his thigh with the other. She lunged at him and gnashed her teeth, trying to bite him.
It took a mere two moments before the other man ran to Teyrnon’s aid. He shouted and struck the girl’s side with his axe, knocking her motionless and face-down on the floor, several feet away.
“Are you all right?” Natir shouted.
The two men retreated a few steps, and all three of them panted with shock as their eyes locked on the girl’s body.
“Did you see that?”
“Is she dead?”
“Yes. Yes, I think.”
“Is she dead or not?”
“Did you kill her?”
“I DON’T KNOW. I HIT HER, OKAY!”
Natir creeped closer to her companions.
Teyrnon, who had lost his axe during the fight, pulled a dagger from his side and took a hesitant step toward the girl.
His friend stopped him. “Take this.” He gave Teyrnon his axe and armed himself with his sword instead.
Teyrnon approached the girl one step at a time.
With the girl’s face turned the other way, Teyrnon and the others could not see when her eyes suddenly shot open. An unnerving sough escaped her beastly mouth yet she remained still, not moving a muscle.
Teyrnon slowly knelt down, holding the axe in midair with one hand and reaching to grab the girl’s shoulder with the other to turn her around.
Before Teyrnon could react, the girl rolled at him, got a hold of his hand, and chomped on it.
Teyrnon howled with pain and, in his panic, repeatedly struck the girl with the axe. Natir screamed, and Teyrnon’s friend quickly jumped in to help him, throwing the girl against a wall.
Teyrnon quickly rolled away somewhere into the dark. His friend immediately ran after the girl, shouting with all his voice and raising his sword in the air with both hands, but the girl jumped back at him almost as soon as her feet touched the ground, howling, her guts dangling from her belly and her jaws wide open.
The force of the impact flung the man to the ground as the girl pinned him, roaring crazily. She knocked the sword out of his hands and sprang down at him, aiming to bite his neck off.
He shouted and crossed his arms in front of his face to protect his head when suddenly a loud bang sounded and broken pieces of wood shattered into the air, the force partially throwing the girl off of his body.
The girl turned her attention to Natir, who was fretfully retreating backwards with two pieces of broken wood in her hands, the only surviving parts of the chair that Natir had smashed into the girl’s head.
When she saw the girl howl and swiftly come after her on all fours like an animal, Natir became overwhelmed with panic and threw the wood pieces at the girl before she ran the other way, screaming.
The girl grabbed Natir’s ankle just as she passed the door, causing Natir to fall face-down.
Natir couldn’t believe how strong the girl’s grip was; she could almost certainly drag her back.
Natir quickly rolled onto her back and kept kicking her free leg at the girl’s head, trying to free herself. The girl, on her belly, shot her hand at Natir, trying to draw her in and bite her as she drooled a mixture of blood and saliva all over.
Suddenly, a war hammer struck the back of the girl’s head.
She still raised her bloody head, growling like a demon, and sent her mouth down, trying to bite Natir’s leg, but almost immediately she received another strike that cracked her head open and laid her lifeless on the ground with her blood and brain splattered all over the place.
Holding the bloody hammer with both hands, Gull glared left and right.
“What, are you idiots, doing?”