The Bird and the Beast: IV
She scrubbed her hands raw with the cold snow crust, and yet, they seemed just as bloodied as before. It was as though she had been tainted, and the stain would never go away.
She shivered violently, but not from the cold. The body on the ground taunted her from its frozen place. She had murdered another person. She could have run once she stabbed him in the groin. She could have taken his horse and left him in the cold, but she did not. She made sure that he would not rise again. There was no denying it—she was a killer.
She sat in the same spot for quite some time, watching the cold body as though she expected the pelt on the back to rise and move—but it never did. It lay as cold and as still as when she crawled away from it. The dagger lay beside it. The blood on the blade had most definitely frozen by now.
The cold was creeping nearer. A gentle gust of wind broke the eerie silence, like faint whispers in the dark, and Juniper realised that she had to move on if she wanted to survive. If not, Eli would have died for nothing—he didn’t even want to venture into the woods to begin with.
Had it not been for her, he would still be alive. Had it not been for her, many would still be alive.
She rose on unsteady legs. Her muscles had stiffened from the cold and she almost tripped as she took her first steps.
Hesitantly, she picked up the dagger. The blood was almost black against the blade, and she gazed at it for a few moments before she desperately rubbed it against the ground. When the blood was removed, she returned it to the sheath on her belt and began walking through the forest, leaving the dead man behind.
She knew not where she was heading. She tried to follow the footprints best she could, and as dawn was approaching, it became easier and easier to see in the thick forest. She had run quite a distance, and the footsteps appeared clearer in the blue hue of the morning.
She followed them all the way back to the main path. There, she waited for a moment, making sure that no other Stone Wolf waited for her—but the path was empty and silent. A single trail of a horse led her along the path, and she followed it with heavy steps. Perhaps, she thought, she could find Old Nellie again.
She shed her tears of grief and fear as the morning became brighter. Soon, the snow-covered moss seemed rather serene and the silence was comforting. The trees swayed slowly in the wind, and here and there, snow fell softly from the branches. The ground crunched underneath her boots as she wandered, her breath appearing as thick clouds around her as she exhaled.
When the sun finally gleamed through the thicket of trees, Juniper fell to her knees and cried.
She knew not what had become of Eli—she didn’t even know if he was dead. Thus far, she knew nothing. She didn’t even know where or how he had disappeared. Thinking back, she knew it must have been when she rode ahead, but she had heard nothing. No scream, no thud, no sounds of fighting—nothing.
For a moment, she considered going back. Perhaps he was injured and in need of help? But what could she possibly do? How far away was she from him? If he was lying somewhere in the cold, he would most certainly be dead once she reached him. She felt useless, pathetic. Everything she touched turned to dust. What was she thinking, leaving Noxborough?
She snivelled as she rose again. Each foot felt like an anchor holding her back as she kept thinking about how Eli Goodchild had saved her from the freezing cold out on the moors, only to die in the Evergreen Wilds because of her.
And what of Elisabeth Goodchild? What would become of her? She was waiting in their little cottage for her husband to come back in one piece. How long would she wait until she realised that he would never return to her?
She thought about the man she had killed—did he have a family? Did he have children who waited for their father to come home? Indeed, he was a vile man who wanted to hurt her. She acted in self-defence. Anyone would have done the same. That did not erase the fact that the man was dead, and she was the one who killed him.
She had attacked him with the intention to kill. It wasn’t an unfortunate result of her attack, it was the intent of it. The stabbing had been purely in self-defence, but the cutting had not. She felt disgusted with herself, mortified—and yet, she knew she had little choice. Only the Builder could judge her now.
When she had walked for a long while, she could feel the familiar smell of smoke from a chimney. Behind a few trees, a small cottage appeared right by a crossing of four pathways. There, Old Nellie grazed some grass she had dug up from underneath the snow and Juniper wailed out in relief.
She hurried to the horse, grabbed the reins, and stroked the horse gently over the muzzle. Fastening the reins to a tree, she then turned to the cottage.
She was cold and tired and in dire need of safety. Stumbling into the small garden, past a hammer of stone, and up to the door, she banged on it with desperate pleas. “Let me in! I beg you, let me in!”
Mere moments later, the door swung open, and a thin old lady stood in the doorway.
She eyed her and gasped. “My dear girl! What has happened to you? Come in, come in!”
“Thank you!” Juniper snivelled and stumbled into the warmth of the cottage, entering straight into a small kitchen.
By a table sat a crooked man with a long, grey beard. He quickly rose and extended a pair of thin, fragile arms towards Juniper.
“By the Gods,” he said, “what’s happened? You’re covered in blood, girl!”
Juniper collapsed on one of the chairs. She had no more tears to shed, but sobs were still escaping her as she said, “W-we were a-attacked.”
The man and the woman gazed at each other and after a few short moments, the woman asked, “Was it the Blood Crows or the Black Claws?”
Juniper shook her head. “No, Stone Wolves. Eli, he—” She bit her lip and shut her eyes hard, trying her best to gather herself. “He said Stone Wolves.”
The man huffed angrily and muttered, “Baeltic’s blistering balls!”
“Eileth!” snapped the woman. “Watch your tongue.” Then she sighed and placed a comforting hand on Juniper’s shoulder. “Eli? Eli Goodchild?”
Juniper looked up at her. The woman’s eyes were black as beetles, filled with life. Juniper bit her lip and nodded slowly.
The woman frowned, sighed deeply, and hung her head. The man, Eileth, placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder and frowned as deeply.
Juniper swallowed. “We rode from his farm two days ago—or three. I don’t rememeber. He—he was escorting me to Kingshaven. But we were ambushed and—” Swallowing a sob, she dropped her gaze. “I don’t know what happened. He was right behind me, and then, I was all alone.”
“The Stone Wolves never let you scream,” muttered the woman. “You were lucky to escape with your life. I see that it can’t have been easy.”
Juniper gazed down on her apparel—dark blood stained the fur on Elisabeth’s coat, and fresh tears welled up in her eyes even though she thought she had no more.
Looking back at the woman, she shook her head. “I killed a man.”
The woman’s eyes were hard but understanding as she nodded. “Good. One less Stone Wolf makes the world a better place.” She straightened, as far as her old body would allow her. “I’m Wayla. You’ll be safe here.”
Juniper sighed deeply, feeling quite overwhelmed by relief. “Thank you. I’m—I’m Juniper Arlington, daughter of Duke Arlington, and I must deliver a very important message to the Duke of Kingshaven.”
Eileth and Wayla looked at each other again, this time with surprise in their eyes, before the bearded man nodded and said, “Welcome, my lady. What happened to the guards?”
Juniper frowned. “What guards?”
“The four guards from Eastshore,” said Wayla. “They came to rescue you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t understand. No one has come for me.”
The elderly couple shared another look before they both sighed. The man sat down by the table again and the woman shuffled around the small kitchen.
“You must be hungry,” she said and grabbed a bowl. “I only have oat porridge, but it makes for a sturdy breakfast.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think I can eat right now.” As Wayla nodded and filled the bowl for herself, Juniper asked, “What guards were you speaking about?”
“They came just by the White Wakening,” said Eileth. “Four guards from Eastshore. They were sent to fetch you, they said. Took them a while to leave—another traveller stole one of their horses.” The man sighed deeply. “We warned them of travelling the northern woods during winter. Blood Crows are one thing—but Stone Wolves… Only a madman crosses their path.”
“Who are they?”
“Mountain Folk,” muttered Wayla. “The nasty kind. They worship Baeltic, God of Chaos and Death. They barely have any rules, kill and rape as they please, eat human flesh. They even eat their newborn if food is scarce.”
Juniper felt her stomach churn. The cold laugh of the masked man echoed around her and her hands started to tremble.
“They rarely come down from the mountains,” said Eileth, “except during winter.”
“If you met one of them and lived, you’ve been blessed by Volta’s light.” Wayla smiled a toothless smile and gently placed a hand atop Juniper’s.
The cottage was warm and the food was good, but Juniper had no coin to offer. As a last resort, she took the gold necklace around her neck, the elegant Hammer of Edred, and handed it to Wayla as payment for room and supper, but the old crone refused it.
She said that taking the life of a Stone Wolf was payment enough. Even though Juniper still felt horrified about the deed, Wayla’s gratefulness made it a little easier to bear.
When the darkness fell that afternoon, the old couple invited Juniper for a memorial for Eli. He was an old friend of theirs, they said, and they wished to honour his memory and ask the gods to care for his soul.
Juniper hesitated—she had learnt to fear the Wild Gods. The Architects said they were dark spirits in disguise, remnants of the evil deities the Builder banished, but some claimed that the Wilds Gods were much older than the Builder himself.
Clutching the pendant around her neck, she watched in trepidation as Eileth and Wayla made their sacrifice to Volta, the Goddess of Light.
On a stone altar filled with lit candles, they placed freshly baked bread, goat’s milk, and honey together with a single, dried flower. They cried, sang, and wailed into the night, and the forest seemed to echo their grief as the trees groaned in the wind.
When Juniper had gone to bed, she prayed to the Builder to protect her. She also prayed for him to welcome Eli to his court beyond the Void, and she prayed for forgiveness.
Perhaps, she thought, she was doing the world a favour in killing the man—yet, she did not want the blood of another living being on her hands. The stains would never fade.
That night, she slept restlessly. Tossing and turning, she listened to the whispering winds and the distant howls of wolves. Once she finally fell asleep, she was back on the Town Square with the Vasaath’s blade at her neck—or, she was dragged underneath the masked man who, in her dream, had the claws of a wolf and canine teeth.
When she woke up the next morning, she was exhausted. At breakfast, Wayla told her to stay another night.
“It’s another two days to Kingshaven,” she said. “The southern road is safer, but there are still bandits lurking about. You really shouldn’t travel alone.”
“I don’t have any choice,” Juniper muttered.
“No,” sighed Wayla. “I suppose not. There are things in life one has to do alone. We all face at least one gauntlet. This one seems to be yours, then.”
She helped the old couple with some of the chores, like sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, and baking bread. By evening, they sat down for a well-deserved supper.
In a way, the forest around the little cottage was quite tranquil—Juniper felt safe, tucked away in a place where no one would find her. Being allowed to say for another night, Juniper slept much better.
Two more days, she stayed in that cottage together with Eileth and Wayla. They were rather odd, but sweet. Wayla often spoke to herself—or to the gods, Juniper wasn’t quite sure which—and Eileth liked to sing, but he never made much sense in his songs.
During her third supper with the old couple, she felt at ease. It was a quiet night, calm, and just as they enjoyed a nice cup of tea, three loud bangs landed on the door. Juniper jolted, spilt her tea, and shrieked.
Eileth, being startled by both the banging and the shriek, moaned loudly and almost fell off his chair. When another three loud knocks came, he rose from his seat and stumbled to the door. He opened a hatch to see who stood there before he hurried to open the front door.
A man stepped inside, covered in freshly fallen snow. He shuddered loudly and stomped on the floor to shake some of the snow off. “Baeltic’s balls, it’s cold outside!”
“You’re early!” Eileth exclaimed.
“Aye,” said the man. “I’ve just come from Three Crossings, travelling the King’s Road, but I was caught in the storm so I thought I might as well take the route through the forest.”
“Eames!” Wayla trilled and rose to greet the man.
“Hello, Mother,” said the man, Eames, and smiled. When he noticed Juniper, he nodded to her. “Miss.”
Juniper stared at the three of them, bewildered. The family reunion was beautiful, albeit rather surprising.
Their son, Eames, sat down by the table and was served a bowl of the stew Juniper had helped made and he downed it without much reverence.
“Where are you going next?” Wayla asked.
“He’s a messenger,” said Eileth to Juniper.
“An express deliverer,” Eames corrected. “And I’m going to Kingshaven. Can’t stay long, have to leave again by morning.”
“Well, Lady Arlington,” chuckled Wayla and looked at Juniper. “It seems you have been blessed, indeed.”