Chapter 4 -- The Man From Afar
As the sun started to set I finished with my work for the day, loading up my sledge with wood and hauling it up the side of the hill towards home. Usually I’d have stretched my work time until all of the light was gone from the sky, but Aurie and Goff had invited me over to their house to meet Evan, the boy, and his family for dinner, which I’d seen no reason to decline.
Edda and Rowan were napping on the porch when I arrived, piled together like a stack of pelts, and only moved once I’d finished storing the wood and walked up the stairs.
“Early dinner for y’all tonight,” I said, as they raised their heads in unison. Rowan immediately jumped to his feet, nose to the door. Edda was a little slower, but not by much.
After giving them both a fat bowl of chow stew, a personal combination I kept in stock for them made from meat drippings, leftover vegetables, and a few hunks of bread, I stripped down to my shorts and stepped outside. It wasn’t far, maybe 50 yards, out to the icy cold stream behind the house, and I made the walk through the evening air quickly. It had been a long time since I’d felt the need to clean up.
I washed and then returned through the cold air quickly, stripping down, hanging up my shorts and donning a clean set of clothes from my closet, and throwing on my large hunting jacket as an extra precaution. It could have been late into the night when I finally returned, and the way that the temperature was dropping it looked like we were on the cusp of the first snow.
Now almost ready, I paused a moment to run a hand through my hair, eventually tying it up in a functional ponytail in the back and whistling to Edda and Rowan. The two wolfhounds stood at attention as I grabbed my lantern, hunting knife, bow, and arrows. It would be good to introduce the boy to the tools of his new trade, if he was even cut out for it in the first place. There were millions of people in the world, and the business of killing did not suit many of them.
By the time I reached Aurie and Goff’s home the sun had almost set, lazily dropping towards the horizon and bathing the whole valley in pale orange light. Aurie and Goff’s house was a humble one, but a bit nicer than most of the houses I’d walked past to get here. Aside from the main road there were little more than game trails linking the rest of the town, so while our houses might have been separated only by a few miles as the crow flew, the walk itself took much longer.
I knocked on the door and was greeted immediately by Aurie.
“Val, you’re here early!” she said.
“Wasn’t quite sure how long the walk would take, and I always err on the side of caution,” I said. “Hope I’m not intruding.”
“Oh no, you’re only ten or fifteen minutes before sunset,” she said. “Just expected you to be the type to arrive fashionably late.”
“I was always taught that showing up late is disrespectful,” I said.
“Ever the gentleman,” Aurie said, before leading me and the wolfhounds inside.
“Where would you like them?” I asked, pointing to the dogs as we entered the living room where Goff was tending a fire. He stood and offered a handshake.
“Oh, wherever they feel like sitting,” Goff said. “We’re not too picky.”
I nodded, turning to the two.
“Behave yourselves,” I said, getting a bark from Rowan and an understanding blink from Edda.
“It always surprises me how smart they are,” Aurie said, as she walked over and gave Edda a scratch under the chin. Rowan edged in front of his sister for attention, leading Edda to roll her eyes and find a spot to flop on the ground.
“Yeah, it’s easy to forget that they’re not people sometimes,” I said. “I think part of it was training them since birth, part of it was their father, and part of it is that wolfhounds are just damn smart.”
Rowan flipped over onto his back, presenting his belly to Aurie.
“Well, sometimes,” I said. “I told you to behave.”
Rowan wriggled to the side and looked at me upside down.
“Go be quiet with your sister,” I said.
Rowan deflated and walked over to Edda, laying down next to her.
I turned to find both Aurie and Goff looking at me with hesitant expressions.
A beat passed.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked.
“I guess it’s just strange to have you here, in our humble little home,” Aurie said. “It’s one thing to do business with somebody -- hell we done business with all kinds over the years -- but it’s a whole nother thing to sit down and invite a person dinner, ’specially a man like you.”
I paused for a moment.
“A man like me… what does that mean to you?” I asked.
“Oh, well neither of us really know,” Goff said. “I mean hell, been doin’ business with you for damn near five years now and we don’t know next to anything about you. Six foot somethin’ guy from far away comes rolling into town with a hound the size of a horse, sets up in the mountains and before we know it you’re building a hell of a house, killing more bucks than the rest of the valley combined, and only coming by every two months to buy what you need and set off into the woods again. And you ain’t crazy neither, ’least not that we can see…
Uh, what I meant by that is… uh...”
As he trailed to a finish, Aurie had a surprised look on her face, like she had known what Goff was thinking but hadn’t wanted to say anything. As the room was left in silence even Goff himself had a look on his face like he’d overstepped.
I took a deep breath in and out, which Aurie and Goff both stepped back at.
“I-I’m sorry for that, we ain’t meant no disrespect by it Val,” Aurie explained quickly. “Just… we…”
“How many people around have the same questions?” I asked. “About me.”
“Oh, uh… ah... well…” Goff started, to which I stepped in.
“I’m guessing a lot of them?” I said.
Goff nodded, accompanied by Aurie.
I nodded in return. Before I responded I took a moment to turn to the wolfhounds and motion them at ease. They had picked up on the tension in the room and were standing at the ready, which wasn’t helping my case. At the signal they relaxed, laying back down on the floor, and I turned back to Goff and Aurie.
“And here I’d thought I was all alone just minding my business out there,” I said, letting a chuckle out. I saw some of the hesitation leave the couple, but there was still an unease to them. I continued.
“I’m not one for much company,” I said. “I like it out there in the woods. Things are as simple as they are tough, nothing on your mind besides putting food on your plate and staying warm for the winter. I’m good at what I do and I enjoy it, so I guess that’s why I don’t often come into town or make much of fuss otherwise. But, if I’m inconveniencing people, if I’m scaring anybody, I’ll do my best to change things. I’d hate to have everybody on edge around me.”
“No! No, no, no, you ain’t inconveniencing nobody!” Aurie said, breaking the moment. “Hell, what you want’s what all of us want: a simple, honest life livin’ off the land and working hard for what we got. Ain’t nobody that can take that away from you, just like ain’t nobody can take that away from us. We just… well like we said earlier, we hadn’t taken much time to get to know ya, and you and… you’re off in the woods, you’re so big and strong it’s… people just didn’t know.”
Her words brought a smile to my face.
“You’re warming my heart, Aurie,” I said. “Just hope I cleared everything up.”
“Yeah, it’s just cause you were so big and strong and none of us knew ya,” she said waving my words. Goff nodded in agreement.
“It ain’t nothin’, and ain’t gonna be nothin’,” Aurie continued.
“And I gotta apologize for pryin’,” Goff said. “Usually ain’t my business to go botherin’ a good honest man but, I guess it just kinda slipped out.”
“No hard feelings,” I answered, which Aurie waved away again.
“All this somber seriousness needs a healthy bit of whiskey,” Aurie interjected. “Come on, let’s get drinkin’.”
The people of Minns lived simple lives, but if there was one thing that they could do as well as anyone in the world, it was make whiskey. Most people distilled their own and Aurie and Goff were no different, pouring themselves and me a healthy glass from an unlabeled bottle as we sat down on the back porch, lighting a lantern for a bit of light. Almost as soon as I’d sat down though, Goff was up again, rushing to tend to a slab of meat spitted in their cooking pit, and I was left to pass the time chatting with Aurie and sipping mountain lightning. I hadn’t been as heavy of a drinker since I’d moved here but I could still tell good from bad, and this was beyond good. Aurie and I passed the time with the same chitchat we always had, talking about the seasons, the goings on in the valley, who was doing what with whom. Aurie seemed to have a never ending stream of information from her time at the general store, and even as we talked five, ten, fifteen minutes longer than we usually did, to she still had story after story to tell. Goff was in and out, adding a comment here and there, but mostly focused on preparing dinner and draining his whiskey any time he could get within arm’s reach.
Soon enough though, I saw Edda’s ears perk up, and looked out into the woods to find the light of a lantern bobbing through the darkness.
“Well that should be them!” Aurie said, standing up and walking to the edge of the porch to squint her eyes.
“Is that my no good dirty rotten brother Marrel I see out there?” she called.
“Aw shut up Aurie, cain’t even see you through the trees and you’re already ribbin’?” an old but lively voice called back. “Ma would smack ya across the head.”
“Well Ma ain’t here watchin’ us is she?” Aurie responded.
“Nah, she’s probably up in heaven drinkin’ the bar dry,” Marrel shot back. “Speakin’ of which, y’all got whiskey?”
“’Course we got whiskey, what type of house you think I run around here?!” Aurie teased, and by then Merrill had reached the edge of the woods, followed by a woman and two children.
“Well at least you done somethin’ right,” Marrel answered, as he lead the little group up to the porch. Aurie was the first to meet them, giving her brother a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Oh it’s good to see ya Marrel,” Aurie said, as she stepped back. “Thanks for walking the kiddos over here.”
“Least I can do,” Marrel said with a smile. Then it was the woman’s turn to hug Aurie.
“How are ya Kay?” Aurie asked, arms still around the younger woman.
“We been survivin’,” Kay said. “It ain’t been easy, but you wouldn’t believe who’ve been coming out of the woodwork to help.”
“People care about y’all Kay,” Aurie said, and then opened up an arm to welcome the two kids. “Especially these little guys. How are ya kiddos?”
The boy was tall and skinny, probably right in the middle of his growth spurt, and sported hair that looked like it had recently been cut, alongside well cleaned clothes that had been pressed as finely as they could be. The sister was less elegantly dressed, and must have been seven or eight, much younger than her older brother.
“And uh,” Marrel said, turning to me, “that must make you Val.”
A quiet spell came over the porch as he said it, an echo of Goff and Aurie’s hesitation a short while earlier, and he stepped up to just out of arm’s reach, placing himself between me and his family.
“I’ve heard a lot about you from m’sister,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
His tone told me that it wasn’t a pleasure at all. He was nervous, but trying not to show it.
“The pleasure’s mine,” I said. “I consider myself lucky to meet the family of such good friends.”
I stepped forward and offered a handshake, which he took, before turning back to the boy.
“Evan,” Marrel said, nodding his head towards me. The boy stepped away from the girls and set slightly shaking shoulders as he walked towards me, also holding the line between myself and his family. He was a head and a half shorter than me, probably a few inches over five feet tall, and bowed his head as he approached.
“It’s an honor to meet you sir. I thank you kindly for offerin’ to teach me your trade,” he said, stiffly reciting prepracticed lines. “And I swear that I’ll do whatever it takes to honor what you done for me.”
I looked the boy up and down to see what I had to work with. He had the beginnings of a mountain man’s shoulders and chest, which would need to be refined if he would ever draw a bow back, but that was a start. His arms and legs were slight but not weak, and bore no signs of bad joints or muscle knots. His hands were newly forming calluses, which I expected had come from new work now that he was the man of the house.
Nothing spectacular, but nothing wrong either.
“Raise your head and look at me,” I said. The boy jerked, but gathered himself and raised his head.
Good eyes, clear and healthy, but there was something more important in them than his vision. I could see fear, a roaring fear just trying to tear its way out of him, to make him run and hide, or cower behind his mother.
But he didn’t. A few moments passed, and while the fear didn’t subside, it didn’t escape either, just barely held back by his slightly bitten lip and tensed fists. I liked that. Any boy could take action if he was stupid or confident, but it took a man to stand up in quaking boots and still do what he thought was right.
At last, I nodded, offering a hand.
“I appreciate the respect you’ve paid me,” I said. “It’s a sign of a good man, and I’ll expect to continue seeing as I start to train you.”
There was a pause, and in a moment that fear flashed away from him.
“Y-yes,” he said, stumbling but forcing himself to regain his composure.
“Yes sir,” he said, nodding and taking the hand. I saw Marrel and the rest of the family sigh with relief.
“Now it won’t be easy,” I said, as he stood back, a smile on his face. “We’ve got a very short time before the winter and I plan to make the most of it, so be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your entire life.”
I saw the fear starting to creep back in, and his hands tensed again.
“But know that you can do it,” I said, “and that I will do everything in my power and my ability to make you succeed. That’s my promise to you, and my promise to your family.”
I looked up at them as I said it, getting a smile from Aurie, a nod from Marrel, and a gracious look from Kay. I turned back to Evan.
“But for tonight, let’s get to know each other. Let’s enjoy the food that Goff and Aurie have prepared for us, and prepare to meet tomorrow. We’ll start at dawn,” I said.
He nodded, putting a hand over his chest.
“Thank you sir, I promise I won’t let you down,” he said, just in time for Goff to arrive from the firepit with dinner in hand. He looked at the two of us and to the rest of the family, seemingly worried that he had interrupted something he shouldn’t have, and was starting to slink back down the stairs when Aurie called at him.
“They’re done with all of the serious stuff Goff,” she said. “Now get over here, I’m hungry!”
Dinner came and went quickly and left us all gathered around the fire in the living room, with more whiskey for everyone except the little one, Mare, who found new friends in Edda and Rowan anyway. Without me even noticing Rowan tumbled her onto his back and carried her over to the edge of the couches, standing tall with a fierce grin on his face while Mare giggled happily. Edda rolled her eyes and came under the table to rub against my legs, offering her flank to Evan, who carefully patted her side.
“You weren’t kidding about them being nearly people,” Aurie said.
I sat up, snapping twice to Edda, who turned straight to attention, sitting.
“Gorchan Wolfhounds are probably the smartest breed on the continent,” I said, moving a finger back and forth as Edda tracked it. I looped my finger and she rolled over onto her back.
“And among Gorchan Wolfhounds, these two were sired by one of the biggest, the baddest, and the smartest,” I said. “I’ve raised them since they were just pups, and since then they’ve learned most of the Edaran language, and how to hunt, track, work, and apparently entertain at parties.”
I nodded to Mare, who was on all fours in a playful standoff with Rowan.
“They help you hunt?” Evan asked.
I nodded, whistling once at Edda, who rolled back up to standing and took a position at the front of the room.
“Edda here’s my star tracker, although both she and her brother can do any job they’re needed for. This girl can smell a drop of blood from miles away, pick sick heads out of a herd, sense running water and the weather-- almost any information that I need while I’m out on the hunt,” I said.
Reaching in my pocket I pulled out a tiny piece of jerky, one of the few I kept on hand just in case. With a quick toss Edda rose onto her hind legs, catching it easily.
That got Rowan’s attention, and he left Mare to stand at attention next to his sister.
“And Rowan, the troublemaker, is my retriever,” I said. “Faster than a trophy buck, big enough to fight a wolf, and smart enough to avoid anything that he can’t kill by himself.”
Rowan bared his teeth, fierce fangs that I had seen savage a deer’s throat in a single strike, and I threw him a piece of jerky too, more to get him to close his mouth than anything else. No need to make things more intimidating than they needed to be.
“So they do the hunting for you?” Marrel asked, tongue loosened by the whiskey on his breath.
“No,” I said, “although they certainly help. These two are blessed with incredible natural abilities -- their sharp noses, their razor fangs, their swift feet -- but when it comes down to it I’m the one who fires the shot, I’m the one who tracks the herd, I’m the one who keeps them from danger, and I’m the one who turns all of those abilities that they have into a successful hunt. You take them away and sure, things might go a little slower, but every part of the haul that I bring in wouldn’t happen without me or the tools on my back.”
Marrel fell silent, embarrassed, and I nodded to Evan.
“They’re wonderful creatures, excellent companions, and honestly, as much a part of my family as anyone, but I wouldn’t have offered to teach you if I couldn’t do everything I do alone,” I said.
The boy nodded.
“And who knows, maybe one day Edda will have a litter of pups and you can raise one or two of your own,” I said.
His eyes glowed.
“Th-thank you sir!” he said. I patted him on the shoulder and gave him a wink.
Things began to wind down then, as the conversation and the booze flowed a little more slowly and the fire began to burn down to the cinders. Conversation moved back towards the goings on of the valley, and when that finished, to nothing, a quiet coming over the family as the light in the fireplace faded. Marrel had fallen asleep, whiskey hitting him harder than most, and Kay had cuddled in with Aurie alongside Goff, who watched the fire with a happy, relaxed gaze on his face. On the floor Mare was cuddled between two snoozing wolfhounds, and rounding out the bunch was Evan, who was fighting to stay awake and losing the battle.
I took the silence as a chance to stand up.
“It’s time for me to be moving on,” I said. “It’ll be an early morning tomorrow for both me and you Evan.”
That got everyone moving, and before long the little troop of Evan, Marrel, Kay, and Mare were dressed and ready to head home.
“Aurie gave me an idea of where y’all live, so I’ll stop by to wake you up this time and walk the path to where I live, but after that you’re gonna be doing it yourself,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Now come on, get some sleep.”
“Yes sir,” he said, and with that we waved them goodbye and the young man led his family into the night, back the direction that they’d come.
As soon as we walked back inside Aurie wrapped an arm through mine, giving me a side hug.
“I know I said it before but I’ll say it again, what you’re doin’ for this family is mighty fine,” she said. “And I want you to know that whatever it is you want us to pay for it is-”
“No,” I said. “Don’t think about payment.”
“Are you sure? Any man would-”
“No,” I repeated firmly.
She squeezed my arm.
“You’re a good man Val,” she said.
With that, we had reached my things, and I quickly donned my overcoat and boots, giving the couple a final hug and handshake goodbye before stepping out into the night.
“Hope to see ya soon Val!” Aurie called. “We sure do love seein’ ya.”
I waved back, and turned into the night.
It was snowing, I realized, as the ground began to crunch ever so slightly beneath my feet, and as the lights of Aurie and Goff’s house slowly faded I found myself at a stop, looking up at the moonlit sky. My breath was heavy in the air, billowing white clouds punctuating the darkness and the silence all at once.
For the first time in a long time, the freezing air truly felt cold.
I lifted my collar up around my face and tightened my jacket, preparing to set off at a jog, when both Edda and Rowan stopped, standing at attention, ears poised and tails raised at something off in the distance.
I immediately set down my lantern, unslinging my bow and nocking an arrow as I stepped away from the light, peering out in the woods. It wasn’t unheard of for bears, wolves, moose, or mountain cats to wander through the woods around here, and none spelled good news.
Edda let out a low growl, quickly followed by her brother.
Severe Warning. The two of them knew to keep utterly silent in the face of any wild animal, relying on my signal to move, so for them to speak meant that they detected something out of place, something dangerous enough to override all of their training.
Rowan pawed the ground, briefly looking back to me. He was waiting for my signal, an attack phrase in Old Edaran that signaled combat. Next to him, Edara looked frustrated, like she didn’t know how to communicate what she was sensing.
We had signs for every animal, including fellow hunters, which meant that this was something new, something that they’d never seen before.
I tensed up my bow, drawing it to full bore and stepping further out into the woods, listening against the silent night. Anything moving would have been making noise.
But I heard nothing.
The attack phrase was on my lips, ready to release the hounds into the night. For twenty, thirty seconds I stood in place, straining every sense against the silent black, looking for any sign.
The thing that stopped me was the dogs falling silent again. The looks of concern were still on their faces, but as far as they could tell, there was no immediate danger anymore. I walked back to the two of them, kneeling down with my eyes still on the woods, but there was nothing there. Rowan was the first to return his attention to other things, but Edda lingered on the forest.
“What’s out there girl?” I asked, crouching next to her. She leaned into me, whimpering, and I scratched her behind the ears.
“It’s alright,” I said. “Is it still out there?”
She whimpered again. She wasn’t sure.
I hugged her into me.
“It’s okay girl,” I said. “We’ll deal with it if we have to.”
And with that I stood and cautiously headed home once more.