Bird in the Hand is Worth More
Sun shines through the trees creating bright streams that intermingle between the stumps as dawn cracks. Light, bringing forth the start of a new day, wakes the wildlife within and birds begin to sing their songs filling the environment with tunes only known to them. The world of Albion is erratic in her breathing; every breath sweeps the landscape taking the branches in a drunken influence as their silhouettes run across Alaric’s face. The cold breeze feels nice on his skin, and the soft susurration of fallen leaves and the creek running nearby is soothing to his ears. Yawning, he gets ever more comfortable and turns his head toward Isaac. A fire pit sits between him and the wolf, long extinguished by the hands of time, and Alaric watches the wind gracefully move Isaac’s thick white fur. The dire wolf now spans the same height as him, he breathes steadily, completely undisturbed by the world around him as he continues to sleep.
Their campground is a way off the main road in a small clearing of the wood behind a wall that lies in ruin and Alaric looked at it in wonderment. At how nature has been whittling it away, but it stood defiantly in a precarious way. He thought it to be holding on by sheer willpower for whatever purpose it was intended for. Having been breached multiple times, remnants of a symbol show on the lower corner of a hole and taking his pointer finger traces the rest out in the air. He starts by making an oval, then draws a vertical line down the middle stopping midway for a circle placed in the center and then continues all the way down with the line. The world and the Rapture. He thought. Then draws two horizontal lines above the circle that go off to the right. The two World Wars fought when there were ‘just’ humans. He goes below the circle on the center line and makes a mark that goes off to the left. The World War fought after the Awakening.
I know this represents humanity, but why would something like this give them hope? Hope for what? Isaac, you awake?
No, the wolf groaned.
“Good!” Alaric jumped to his feet, “With the pace we’re keeping we should have no problem getting to Longleaf before noon.” He says, walking over to the creek.
Alaric plunges his head into the stream and jolts up loudly exclaiming from the gelid water thoroughly waking him. Shaking his black hair, he runs his fingers through it a couple times letting it stay where it may and walks over to grab his garment hanging off a branch. Adam’s ale trickles down his chiseled jaw and body paving pathways of its own around his muscular figure, dampening the bandages wrapped around his torso. He took his cloak and dried himself off before slipping his arms through and welcomed the rest of three silver plates resting on either shoulder. The red wool hung weathered and tattered passed his knees and he grabbed a necklace that hung around his neck.
Hm, seems like the damn thing is almost healed. Alaric thought touched the bandages as he kneeled to slip his boiled leather boots on.
He stuffed his dark linen pants into them before lacing and began buckles steel covering overs them fixing golden eyes onto Isaac.
I don’t know why you won’t let me heal it. The wolf said.
I can’t use your healing for every minor injury I get. Besides, it’s good to let my body do it is thing every once in a while.
Isaac yawned displaying a wide variety of razor-sharp teeth and headed over to the creek to get something to drink.
Do you think this tip will be worthwhile? That traveler told us there was some strange stuff going on near Longleaf, which sounds promising, but he couldn’t have been vaguer about the person we’re supposed to find. “Look for the Big Guy, he can tell you about the Unigani.” That could be anyone.
“Yeah, I know, but he also said that we wouldn’t be able to miss him… Maybe he’s a giant!” Alaric says which much childlike enthusiasm while packing up his rucksack.
A giant? Isaac snickered. Don’t be ridiculous, since when have giants ever been in Albion?
Hey! They were real! And there’s been more and more rumors about them lately!
Alaric you can’t believe everything people tell you in a pub, whatever he is, I hope he tells us something we don’t already know. We’ve been searching for six years finding next to nothing on them. Just, how can a group so infamous from what they did to our village that everyone knows of them, but no one knows anything about them.
“I don’t care how long it takes. They can’t hide forever. It’s only a matter of time until we find someone that knows or has seen something, and I have a good feeling about this place. That traveler sounded like this guy might actually know something.”
There was a long pause as he strapped a bedroll down and attached a cast iron pan near the back of a leather saddle. His legs twitched from the memory and he instinctively scratched them. “I’ll never stop until I kill them for what they did.”
He feels something nudge his head, and Alaric looks up to meet Isaac’s mix matched eyes. The wolf’s left is like a vast sea of twinkling garnet that shines bright, and fierce, while his right burns an intense blue, like an ocean abyss with little specks of starlight paleness beaming out. The contrast emits a perfect serenity between a storm of fire and ice and gives off a soul piercing gaze. We’re in it till the end. We’ll find em no matter what.
Alaric finds calmness in Isaac’s eyes, he always has, and reaches a hand out to muss up his fur. Standing, the wolf’s head comes up to Alaric’s armpit with paws the size of his outstretched hand. A long wide scar runs across his snout, and on his left arm some of Alaric’s red wool from his cloak tied around it.
You ready? Isaac says. 
“Yep! I just finished!” He picks up the saddle and throws it over Isaac’s back! “Oof! Boy when did you get so big?!” You sure it’s not too much weight? I can carry something you know.
No, it’s fine. Isaac licks him on the cheek as if to reinsure these words while he begins to buckle the leather straps around his neck and waist.
“Well alright if you say so, but if it starts to be too much let me know.” patting him on the head he removes a wineskin off the wolf’s back and walks over to the creek. “We’re about 3 leagues from Longleaf. When we get there, we gotta load up on supplies, we’re getting low. I think all we have left is a couple pieces of bread.”
I’ve heard that most of this town is made up of humans so…
“Yeah, yeah,” he says with a dismissive wave, “I know, we need to be careful.”
They climb through one of the holes that lies in the stone wall and head back toward the main road.
All I’m saying is, you know they’re going to hate us so whatever happens try not to lose your temper, and get us kicked out like you did the last town we were in.
“Me?!? You know very well, that wasn’t my fault!”
You punched a man over a stuffed ball…
“It’s not a stuffed ball! It’s a Namigi! Okay! And it’s incredibly rare to find an original one! Besides, those thugs had it coming bumping into me like they did, and to make matters worse one of them stepped all over it!” Alaric reaches into one of the many leather pouches on Isaac’s saddle and pulls out a light blue stuffed ball that’s about the size of his hand. It has round black eyes, a tiny black mouth, red blushes on it, and pink ear muffs. His eyes immediately light up upon seeing it! “Look at this and try and tell me it’s not cute!”
Okay, okay, you’re right it is cute, but that’s not the point. Let’s just keep out of trouble this time, okay?
Once back on the main road they walk in silence for some time. Isaac trailing off to make a path of his own and Alaric watches him playfully jump from boulder to boulder that lies in the thicket. The wolf eventually leaps down and joins upon meeting a fork in the road. To his left he sees a trail continuing to another section of the forest, but to his right the trees dissipate into an open valley.
Eecon is to the left isn’t it?
“hmmm.” Alaric scratched his chin, “I think so…”
Coming out of the wood and into a grassy plain, the clouds on the horizon got ever darker by the minute.
“It shouldn’t be long now, from the sun it’s almost noon.” He pulls out a pocket watch adjusting the crown and winds it a couple times. “Ah, good.”
Alaric, I was thinking… While we’re getting supplies... Can I pick up a book or two?
“You’re still on about that? You think you’ve got the basics down enough to read something on your own?”
Yeah! I’ve memorized all the words you taught me, I know the alphabet by heart, and! He says pridefully, I can spell my name.
“Oh yeah? Tell me. What is it that got you so interested in wanting to read anyhow?”
Oh, uh, nothing. Isaac looked away flustered, I just, thought it was about time I learned is all.
“Ooh? Hm, what was it now…” Alaric gives him an inquiring look lowering his head to the wolf’s height, “So, it has nothing to do with that lady wolf we met a while back?” Isaac quickly moved to nip at him, but Alaric stepped out of the way just in time. “Hey, hey, don’t be so embarrassed!” he said laughing, “You have been picking it up pretty quickly, how about this, depending on what they have— we may buy a couple while we’re there. It’ll be good practice! I never did get her name.”
And you won’t, not until I can read and write properly.
Rain began to lightly fall as they approached Longleaf. The town lied by itself in the middle of the grassland and was outlined with a thirty-foot wall made from trees bounded together with iron clasps. As they got closer two men in leather armor fumbled around the top of the gate yelling, “Halt!” drawing arrows, they took aim at Alaric and Isaac with one accidentally letting loose and the arrow wisped by their feet.
“L-listen here buddy!” He said with a thick accent drawing another arrow, “We don’ wan no trouble! You come any closer now, the next one will be between ya eyes! So, state yer business boy!”
“Sir,” Alaric called out raising his hands, “We’re not looking for any trouble! We heard there’s someone here called, the Big Man? He may be able to tell us some things wanna know! Also, we would like to stock up on supplies if you have what we need!”
“Whatchu wanna know?” He said, lowering his bow while the other stayed firm.
“We’ve been searching for the Unigani! A traveler sent us here saying some strange stuff has been happening and that this, Big Man, might be able to tell us something about it.” Trying to lighten the air, Alaric lowered his hands and said, “Do you guys welcome everyone like this, or am I just special?”
Look at there Isaac, see how diplomatic I’m being.
Oh, shut up.
The two men didn’t find the humor, and the man still aiming his arrow spoke, “We don kno nothin bout no Ugani. The big guy is our Mayor and all he’ll do is tell ya the same. Hmm,” He said looking toward Isaac, “seems to me yer mutt looks pretty packed as it is, besides, we don carry no supplies for yer kind anyway, so go on.”
“If I may I’d like the chance to-”
Brown liquid flew onto Alaric’s boot… and looking down his eye began to twitch.
Alaric, remember what I said? Let’s calm down.
I am calm! He thought in a rather uncalming way as laughter came from the man.
“Yer see that Larry!! I actually got the Muttfucker!”
It doesn’t seem like you’re calm.
That son of a bitch spit on me!
I don’t care. We need to get inside.
“If it’s alright- I’d like to ask him myself.”
“Did you not hear me boy?” The other man, Larry, then pulled him off to the side.
Isaac, what are they saying?
I can’t hear it all… but it sounds like the Mayor won’t be to happy if he found out about this.
The two men break, and both start pulling on ropes. The gates began to slowly swing open and the man with a curled lip called out, “Well, come on through boy. The Mayor’s somewhere round town. Well?! You def or what?! Come on!”
Isaac shakes off some of the water that’s collecting in his fur and they walk through without a word.
There are no paved roads; Only ones made from dirt that start to turn muddy with the storm picking up. Most of the houses are made from log and coming in, to their right, it looked like one had recently burned down.
The gates close with a thud, and townsfolk ran by with coats over their heads. A man and a woman looked at Isaac and then to Alaric with scorn as they pass by and disappear into one of the homes. He watched them soon reappear as the curtains shuffled to invite a pair of eyes to stare at.
Come on. Isaac pokes him on the back. Let’s find a tavern, and out of this rain before I get soaked! No sense and worrying about the Mayor, we’ll find him after the storm settles.
Thunder rolls out and an early twilight sets into Longleaf as they find a tavern in the middle of the town square. They race to the porch both muddy and drenched.
“With all the ruckus going on inside it wasn’t hard to find the place and it’s… its only 2pm! Why is everyone drunk?”
Brush some of this water off me will you I can’t go in there like this!
“Whaaa?!” An old woman bursts through the double doors and grabs Alaric!
“Imma miss that ole Margaret!” She slurs at him. “She was the salt of the sea! But she got swept away by back pain caused by a severe case of being lactose intolerant…She drank a glass of milk- one day and died!”
What the fuck is this woman on about?? She reeks of booze!
“MADGE!” A bald man with a thick mustache comes out after her, “Madge get off that boy! You need to go home, yer drunk!”
“Huh? What? Yer not Margaret!” The woman shoves Alaric out of her way and runs into the rain.
“My apolo- gies…” the man said breaking off after meeting Alaric’s golden eyes.
What is wrong with these people? Isaac said shaking off a little bit before walking through the double doors.
To them nothing, it’s what’s wrong with us. Let’s see if we can get a room.
The tavern was filled with piano music fueling the merry laughs, foot stomping, drinking, and gambling going about. A candlelit chandelier hung between the first and second floor providing most of the light with oil lamps on the walls aiding it. Alaric coughed from the smoke and bourbon entering his lungs as him and Isaac made their way to the bar. People who were not preoccupied began to stare at the gigantic beast and whispers started.
“I think that’s one of them werewolves…”
“Da fuck that Muttfucker doin roun here?” A woman said putting down her beer
“I hear them only eat tree bark, how them able to stay in the wild so long. It’s true. My cousin told me.” Another said.
Alaric sighed. He and Isaac had all heard it before.
He took a seat, pulled out a coin purse, and called out to the bartender asking for a room. She turned around, looked back and forth between him and the wolf that meet her eye level, and he could see the baseless contempt set into her face.
“Sorry hun, wer all booked up.”
“Really?” Alaric pointed to a board behind her that said ‘rooms’, with no keys missing. “You got a lot of keys back there to be all booked up. Listen, we’ve been traveling for a long time, we’d just like a room, please, we can pay double for the sheets to be replaced.”
“No, you listen. If you’re gonna start trouble imma need for you to get the hell out of my saloon.”
“What? No, ma’am, we just want a room, we have coin.”
“And I told ya… We’re. All. Booked. Up.”
“Do you know where we could get one then?”
“Maybe the stables. That’s where mutts  belong right?”
Let’s just go Alaric, it’s a big town, I’m sure we can find someplace else.
No, no. We’re not going anywhere.
“Miss Mae, is there a problem?”
“No.” Alaric said shoving a hand off of him, “There’s no problem.”
“Yes, thank God Charlie! I asked it to leave but it simply refuses to go!”
He starts to protest but as they bicker the piano stops, and the bar quiets down.
“I don think I like the way yer lookin at me son. Now, ya heard the lady. She said to get.” Charlie said dumping beer onto Alaric. “Hold yer nose fella!! We got a wet dog in her now!”
Laughter exploded from within the saloon.
Isaac… Alaric thought as beer dripped over his face.
I mean… He did start it.
An uproar rippled through the tavern as Alaric punched Charlie! Bottles smashed! Tables flipped! Swords unsheathed all around them as Isaac growled and pinned someone down who tried to attack Alaric from behind!
Charlie got back up to swing, but Alaric caught the fist and threw him over his shoulder smashing through a table and an ironclad grip wrapped around Charlie’s throat.
“Stop this at once!!” was yelled out followed by a loud bang!
Isaac looked up with amazement! Is that a gun?! Where the shit did he find a gun??
The hell if I know!
They, along with everyone else, looked at the huge figure standing in the doorway. A beefy man with a wide chin and strong jaw put a silver pistol into a holster hanging off his belt. The man, well over seven feet tall wore a blue linen button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and has it tucked into his trousers. Black suspenders with brown leather braces hold up his dark pants and a loose black neckerchief hung around his neck. Golden hair can be seen underneath a black leather hat and the spurs on his boots clank in the silence of the tavern as he walked through.
“M-Mr. Mayor Wes, sir, thank God you’re here!” Miss Mae cried out from behind the bar, “These monsters wer gonna try an rob me! Kill Charlie in cold blood if they had the chance yes sir they would!”
That’s the big man?! Alaric we’re screwed!
“That’s bullshit!” He exclaims. “All we wanted was-”
“Pipe down boy— and listen.” The Mayor said holding up a hand and took a seat near them. “Charlie down there is one of my good friends. My second in command in fact. Now. You’re gonna loosen that grip of yers there, and let em go. You too.” he said directed towards the wolf and Isaac removed his weight.
“And what if I don’t feel like it?”
Alaric don’t push this! Just look around!
“Boy, let me ask ya something. What were ya planning on doing after yer done with my friend there?” The major laughs. “Ya plan on taking all of us on at once, huh?! We know all about yer kind boy, and someone as stupid as that will lose! Now… I’m not gonna say it again.”
Alaric stayed there for some time staring at this man and bright blue eyes held his at the silence grew to become palpable. Reluctantly, he let go and Charlie shuffled around the floor gasping for air screaming, “Hang them!!”
“Hang em? No, no, no. That’s not gonna happen. What’s going to happen Charlie is yer gonna get up off that floor and apologize to this boy. He did his part, you do yers.”
Alaric was dumbfounded. Looking at Isaac and then around the room to see if this is some sort of joke, and he sees that everyone around felt same. He turned toward the Mayor whose face held the grim, with serious eyes fixed on Charlie.
“I saw what you did.” The major walked over and jerked him up, “If it were any other man in here you wouldn’t expect anything less! That right?” The question lingered in the air as the two men stared face to face. “I asked you a question! I said is that right?!” A unison agreement came out from everyone. “Good! Now, this is my town! These are my rules! That shit don’t fly here anymore, and if any of you don’t like it, you can leave! God help you if ya think you can make it on your own out there! I ask, do we have a problem with this boy?”
“Sir, No, Sir!” Echoed throughout the tavern.
“Good! That’s what I thought. Now…” The said brushing off Charlies shoulders, “Apologize.”
Mumbled words came out from the man who didn’t meet Alaric’s eyes, him and Isaac accepted it nonetheless, and Charlies stormed out of the tavern. The Mayor, generously offered them a room and a meal for their trouble and he ordered food for himself. He introduced himself as Sir Wesley Morgan, former marine, and Mayor of Longleaf, and as they exchanged pleasantries, they headed for a table near one of the windows. The music picked back up, shouts from around over some gambling discrepancy started, and soon you would have never known the incident had happened. Isaac, occasionally though, caught a few unwelcoming stares and Mayor Wes took notice.
“Isaac, is it?” He said directing his attention toward the wolf. “Pay em no mind son, they don kno no better… Hell, I used to be the same way myself… Only reason I’m no is, well, one of you saved me while I was out in the Netherlands on some business. Yep. My platoon deserted me, and I was knocking on death’s doorstep when ya’ll found me. Took me in as if I was one of yer own.” He said gulping down some ale. “Whew! He sure got some pretty eyes! Alaric, my apologies again for what happened earlier. Don’t hold it against him, Charlie ain’t a bad man, everyone’s jus a little tense right now cause of the bandit raid a few days ago. One of them bastards actually made it through the wall, burnt down Margaret’s house. I recently raised security on the wall. I can’t let anything like that happen again. Not to my people. They didn’t give you no problems, did they?”
Woah! Isaac said , He was in the Netherlands?! Ask him what that was like!! It’s not often you meet someone that’s been out there!
“I’m sorry to hear that. We saw that home on the way in, and no we didn’t have any trouble. Was anyone hurt from the raid? Also, Isaac was wondering if you could tell us anything about the Netherlands?”
“Fortunately, no! My men’s training is starting to pay off! We got them out of here before any other damage could be done, and does he now? Well pup! I’ll tell ya, they’re everything of what the stories say! Dangerous and strange land. Mostly invested with Hollowmen, but, it’s a look into how life used to be before the rapture. A place where if you’re smart you’ll never go to, only reason I was there were on military orders.”
Their food came and as they ate Alaric told him why they came.
“As for supplies, head on over to Billy’s market. Tell em I sent ya and that I’m callin in my favor, take what ya need and she should give ya no trouble. The Unigani…Uh…” The Mayor looked around and leaned in, “Now I don know much, only speculations and rumors, but a couple of my rangers on a hunt stumbled upon… well, gruesome things in the wood due west a here. They took me out there and it was none of our kind, jus animals is all, but… it was the likes of something from a nightmare. Word soon got around town and folk think it were bandits out to scare us, they’ve been after this land for a while now. I ain’t never heard of no bandits doing what I saw. Strange stuff, drawn all over the trees. Animals sewn together…it was sickening. Gave us a rightful scare it did! I gathered some of my men to go back out there and check it out, but it was gone by the time we got there. Nothin’ came from it. Lemme tell you somethin’ though boy. From what they did to that Aethrid, yer a fool to go out looking for such a people.”
“Alaric please, call me Wes.”
“Wes, I have no problem taking care of myself.”
“Then yer more foolish than I thought boy, but ya got guts kid.” He said standing up, “As long as ya here I’ll do my best to help, but after that, consider the debt paid. You behave yerself in my town now while yer here.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this… but I like him. Tell him he’s a gentleman if I ever saw one and thank you for the hospitality.
Alaric relates the message to Major Wes before he takes his leave and him and Isaac head back over to the bar where Miss Mae hands them a tiny key that says 4D. Only once they make it up the stairs and into their room does their joy burst out!
I can’t believe it boy! Alaric says jumping on the bed, I mean, we don’t know for sure that it’s them, but it’s the most solid lead we’ve got! We’ll have to check it out tomorrow, maybe the rain will die down, but we must at least stay here a night. After all mayor Wes has done for us it’d be rude not to.Isaac sniffs the trunk at the end of the bed and makes his way throughout the room, grabbing a towel off one of the shelves and bringing it to Alaric. You’re right! Hey, take this saddle off and dry me please I’m a right bloody mess. There’s an umbrella over there near the door we can use when we go out, but Alaric I don’t know about staying...
The looks I’ve been seeing these people give me, I don’t think it’s safe here.
I just got a bad feeling is all.
Okay, okay, we won’t stay. I think you’re dry now, let’s go see what they have at this market. I’ll leave the key on the bed.
The storm hadn’t let up at all when they headed outside, but the umbrella shields them a little bit as they make their way to Billie’s Market. When they entered the woman let out a scream from behind the counter, but Alaric explained everything the mayor said and she’s was quick to calm down,
“Oh, please honey, I’m not prejudice. Ya’ll jus startled me is all. We don get much of yer kind here, but please take whatcha like, I owe that man a lot more than what you could ever find in here. The names Billie, and sweetheart if ya need any help, jus’ lemme know.”
Ask her!! Ask her!! Isaac said tugging on Alaric’s cloak.
“Ask her what?”
If she has any books!
Alaric looks at Billie who looks utterly confused at what is happening, “He wants to know you have any books, preferably ones that aren’t too difficult, he’s just learning how to read. Also, we need about 30lbs of cured meat, some bread, and if you have any fruit that would be nice. We have a long trip ahead of us.”
“Ah! Books are over there in that trunk, just let me. There we go! I’m afraid this is all I have. There’s no real order to it, just things I’ve picked up over the years. I’ll get that stuff ready right away!” she said and scurred off toward the back.
Hmmm, I don’t know if we can take any of these… Alaric says kneeling over shuffling through the pile. Plato, Le Morte de’ Arthur, Shakespeare, they’re really hard reads. I doubt even some of the people here could read it, that’s probably why they’re stuffed in a trun- wait a minute!
What?! What is it??
He pulls out a thin blue book and excitedly shows it to Isaac. It’s the Cat in the Hat!  That’s perfect! Alright we’re taking this, and, He rummages around and pulls out a second book, The Dragon’s Boy, that one we’ll have to read together but it’ll up your skills a bit.
Alaric puts the books in one of the bags as Billie comes out, “Okay sweetie I got the meat wrapped up, and five loafs of bread baked fresh this mornin, unfortunately we don’ have any fruit. Will that be it for ya’ll?”
“Yes, thank you so much! Oh, and if you can, can you please tell Major Wes thank you for  the hospitality and tips, and sorry that we couldn’t stay any longer.”
“Sweetheart, I’ll make sure he gets it. Have a safe trip!”
Alaric packs the food into the saddle and they make their way out of the store and of Longleaf, heading west. The storm is treacherous. Winds begin to pick up slowing Alaric and Isaac, but once they make it into the thick wood the mountainous terrain becomes another problem on its own. Raw and unpredictable, Alaric slips his way through on wet rocks, and night begins to fall hindering their vision making it difficult to keep course west.
It’s getting too dark! How far do you think we’ve been? When I said let’s leave, I didn’t mean let’s look right now just find another place to stay is all!
Only a couple leagues, I think! Look for anything! Major Wes said it was here and then gone the  next day, they had to of had a purpose! Maybe we can still pick up a scent!
Alaric have you gone mad? With this much rain?! Isaac cuts in front to try and stop him, but he keeps going. We need to get out of this Alaric, it’s too dangerous, one of us will get hurt.
“Just a little further, okay?”
Wait Alaric, stop! I think I see something!
There’s light coming from that cave down there.
I don’t see anything! Isaac, those eyes of yours are truly brilliant, Okay, let’s head down there and check it out.