White Wolf (Pt 2)
The wagon bumped as it passed through the covered bridge, jarring the young man awake. He sat up with a start before the aches and pinches of his body caught up with him, and though he tried to keep himself steady on his arms, the bump and sway of the cart tested his balance strenuously. He reached a hand back to rub his head and neck, grimacing at their soreness. The sack serving as his impromptu pillow was less than ideal and its contents were not the best form of stuffing he’d ever experienced. He was fairly certain he could feel several lumpy cups and dishware within.
“Where are we?” He asked as he sat up, calling out to the cart driver. She glanced over her shoulder before looking to the road again.
“Are we continuing through?”
“End of the line for me, sarei,” she answered. “This is where I unload. You’ll have to find another ride if you want to keep moving on.”
“Thank you,” he croaked out, trying not to cough as the dryness of his throat caught up with him.
“A ‘thanks’ wasn’t my payment,” the carriage driver reminded him as she guided her horses toward a large wooden building. He nodded, knowing the motion was useless without her ability to see it, but still felt compelled to do so as he reached into his pocket to fish around for a couple of coins to hand her. The cart came to a halt and he climbed over the edge of it and hopped from its side.
“You watch out for yourself, sarei.” She called after him as he walked off. “Plenty of people who would try to take advantage of a face like yours.”
He raised his hand and waved it dismissively back at her as he walked away. There was plenty of advice that he didn’t need after his years of experience traveling the roads of Ossteros, and that caution was one of them.
He continued on foot through town until he came across a large building that advertised itself as a general store. As he pushed the front door open, the clang of a cowbell sounded and an older man stepped out of a small back room. His hair was graying but his eyes were bright and alert, and he carried himself in a way that implied plenty of energy for a man of his age.
The term ‘general’ was apt for this building as all kinds of supplies sat on shelves or hung from hooks and straps on the walls. Farming tools, chicken wire, saws and pruners all shared space with jars of preserved food. Just shelves over from them he could see carved wooden sculptures and a variety of knickknacks and items that looked like toys. There were pickled vegetables and fruit jams, baskets and spools of threads and fabrics, and all sorts of other miscellaneous materials available for any who might need them. The store was a total hodgepodge of items.
“What can I help you with?” The presumed owner asked, resting his large hands on the counter as he watched this stranger with mixed curiosity and study.
“I’m just looking for a room,” the young man responded, turning his gaze away from the provisions around him to look toward the speaker. “Just for a few days, I think.”
The man behind the counter eyed him quietly for a moment, studying him with an indiscernible expression. Finally he lifted a hand to point toward the store’s front door.
“There’s a trail just down the street that turns east. You’ll know it’s the one when you see the little footbridge over the creek. Just past it is a large blue farmhouse. Anne and her wife keep a room open for people coming through. I think her last tenant left a couple of weeks ago, so you could check there.”
“Thanks,” the young man said with a nod, then turned to go. He could feel the store keeper’s eyes on his back as he left.
He found the trail with little effort, a well-worn foot path that led him away from the central thoroughfare of Coalwell. The walk took him through fields of wild grass and flowers and briefly into a grove of thin trees before he could hear the creek the shop owner mentioned. He followed the sound for several minutes before he came to the aforementioned foot bridge that led him through yet more fields, until finally he spotted a farmhouse in the distance.
It was a quaint soft blue, a color that would echo the sky on a clearer day, but among the low-hanging clouds of the evening it only provided a faint reminder of skies long gone. It sat on a hill top dotted with bright but small clusters of wild flowers and further behind it he could see the looming form of a barn and smelled the scents of livestock. The picturesque scene was a lovely sight to behold, but the sentiment of such a view was lost on him. Even since before arriving in Coalwell the young man had one thing on his mind, and that sole focus cast a veil of fog in his head. The smaller pleasantries of life were lost to the noise of the intrusive memories and thoughts that served as a constant background murmur in his life. He could hear dogs barking as he climbed the grassy hill and headed up the small gravel path that led him to the porch of the farmhouse.
He knocked and an older woman answered the door. Her thick, graying hair was pulled back in a large bun and her weathered face was dark and decorated with wrinkles. Frown lines creased her brow but she kept her expression pleasant as she took in the sight of the stranger on her porch.
“Evening, soulie. You’re not a familiar face now are you?”
“It’s sarei, ma’am,” the young man corrected her softly. She apologized with a nod.
“What can I do for you out here, sarei?”
“I was told by a man at the general store in town that you keep a room available for travelers?” His voice echoed a hopefulness that he did not have the energy to feel after his journey into town.
“Well I do have an open room, sarei,” the older woman responded, resting a fist on her hip. “You get to pay for it by coin or by work, but I charge daily rent either way.”
“What’s the work?”
“Farm chores, minding your messes and helping with ours,” the woman answered. “Do you want to know the cost?”
“No, ma’am. The work will be fine.”
She looked him over, regarding his fair complexion and state of his soft hands. He could tell immediately what she was trying to assess.
“You sure you don’t want to know the cost?” She asked again with no bother to disguise her reservations.
“I promise you, I’ll do good work,” the young man assured her. The woman’s mouth drew into a thin line but she nodded and finally gestured for him to enter.
“Alright, well let’s show you to your room. We got a cozy little spot up in the attic. It’ll be breezy but we keep some extra blankets up there. I’m Anne Greenfield, by the way.”
“Illithanos,” he responded. Anne glanced back at him again as she led him up a set of narrow stairs.
“You got a sire’s name to go with that, sarei?”
“Not one that matters, ma’am.”
Illithanos did not have many possessions, and so settling in did not take him very long. He rinsed his hands and face off in a shallow wash bin and wiped the dampness away with a hand towel, looking at himself in the small vanity mirror that sat in his attic room. His short, platinum hair was tussled and messy, too fine and thin to tangle but unkempt nonetheless, and it was all he could do to wet it and move it from his pale sea-gray eyes. He was tired from travel, but that was just his life now. Always moving from one place to the next, staying around long enough to catch a breath and perhaps make a bit of coin before going on.
Initially he had wandered because there simply was no where left for him to stay, not after he’d lost his home. Not after he’d lost his family. Often times he felt as aimless as the river, always moving, always flowing, but with no course in mind. But even that was incorrect he had realized some years back. The river is always flowing out to the ocean. It always has a goal in mind. Perhaps that thought would have been heartening to others, the idea that their actions would still inevitably lead them forward to some greater place, but for him it did nothing but make him feel even less connected, even more directionless. Life had become only moving from one place to another, to another still, and he saw no end or relief in sight. The day to day drudgery of existing was a thing he did only because the alternative meant to stop entirely.
But then, one day, all of that changed. And suddenly he realized his river did in fact have an ocean it was striving to reach after all. He had an end goal, he had a purpose.
He had a name.
“Belmius,” he muttered to himself as he often did in these moments. He used it to ground himself, to remind himself why he was still trudging forward.
“Black Swamp Huntsman,” he continued, staring at the face that reflected back at him but not seeing it clearly. Hardly recognizing the tired eyes and firm lines before him, hardly recognizing his own face because, truthfully, he had never bothered to stop and consider it. He still had the fair features and the smooth skin of a boy just barely an adult but he carried the weight of pain and loss that no child should endure. His eyes looked too old for the rest of him.
“Slayer of the Aylon, the Creature-Children of God.”
This was a name he had heard several years back in another town, in another time. He’d been working as a sweeper at a tavern, cleaning up for closing and scrubbing at some stains on the floor when he heard a couple of patrons mention the name. They were talking about how a human had done the unthinkable, had gone out and managed to actually kill a nedran, a black swamp dragon. He stopped scrubbing as he listened to them, intent on trying to glean any more information on who such a hunter could be.
Nedrans, and in fact all Aylon, were far beyond the power of mortals in Lendral. Descendants from the god Omed’ra Himself, most believed they regarded the mortal races with little to no interest, like ants to an elephant. His own family, his own life, had been ripped apart by one. Not a nedran specifically but an Aylon nonetheless. And now to hear that a mortal, that a human of all things, had not only stood up against one but had defeated it, had slayed it, that gave him hope. That gave him direction. That gave him a purpose.
“Belmius, Black Swamp Huntsman, Slayer of the Aylon,” Illithanos repeated to himself again in the mirror, the muscles in his shoulders and neck growing tight with his tension, “the Creature-Children of God… I will find you. Eventually,” he concluded with a sigh, dipping his hands back into the washing bowl and idly moving them against each other. “Once I know where you’ve gone to...”
He heard footsteps coming up the stairs to the attic and turned to see who was arriving. There was no door to his room, leaving him able to catch sight of his landladies on their journey up the steps though he still had to wait for them to pass the sharp turn the stairs made in their ascension first. A woman appeared from around that little corner and continued up the narrow staircase. Not Anne but her wife, Illithanos presumed. She looked up and saw him as she continued her climb, giving him a polite smile. She looked a little younger than Anne though her face was just as darkened and wrinkled from sun. She had short dark hair that curled in toward her cheeks and bright hazel eyes.
“Anne told me we had a new tenant,” she said as she covered the last few steps. “Naturally I needed to come meet you myself. I’m Jesstine.”
“Illithanos,” he introduced himself again, squeezing the hand towel idly as he spoke.
“Well, Illithanos, it’s good to meet you. Our big house gets a little lonely since the children have grown and gone, so it’s always nice when someone comes to stay for a bit.”
“Anne warned me there would be some work involved,” Illithanos said, already tiring of the small talk, though he didn’t want to come across as dismissive or rude. Still, if they were going to make small conversation he’d rather it not be about personal matters. Jesstine gave a soft chuckle at his statement.
“Well, yes. Tomorrow though. It’s late enough today, all you need to worry about is getting ready for dinner. Do you need any help settling in?”
“I’m fine,” Illithanos answered softly. “I don’t travel with much as it is, so not much to unpack or sort out.”
“Well at least let me show you where you can wash your clothes,” Jesstine insisted. “Assuming you carry any spares on you. In case you don’t though, we’ve got some here you can wear while yours dry.”
“Of course,” Illithanos responded. Jesstine took him back downstairs and showed him where the washboard and basin were and where he could hang everything to dry afterward. She brought him to a small closet with clothes folded and stacked inside.
“Some things our son left behind,” she explained to him as she drew out a few articles to show the young man. “He’s a bit taller than you, so I imagine they’ll be a little large. But better that then too snug,” she mused playfully.
“I suppose so, yes,” he agreed with her sentiment, trying to keep his growing weariness in check. Jesstine noticed it regardless, looking past the polite and pleasant exterior he was working to maintain, and her lips drew thin as she considered him for a moment.
“How about you take these,” the older woman offered, handing him the stack of neatly folded clothing, “and go back up and get changed. I’ll handle the wash for you tonight.”
“You don’t need to, ma’am,” Illithanos insisted softly but Jesstine shook her head. She’d have none of his polite refusals.
“No. You’ve had a long trip and I can see how tired you are. And how stubborn you are to hide and ignore it,” she chided with a mother’s tone. “You go up and get changed and get some rest. We’ll try and wake you for dinner. At the very least we’ll leave something set out for you in case you wake later.”
The way Anne and Jesstine ran their household, they usually preferred their temporary guests to be around for mealtimes and to not be up and about while the women slept, but Jesstine was willing to make an exception for the young man before her. As a mother she was used to having a son who refused to acknowledge the small moments when he needed to take care of himself. She supposed it was that similarity she saw in Illithanos that led her to make that exception for him.
Illithanos as well could recognize the mannerisms of a woman whom, though kindly, was simply not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. He relented with a wordless nod and took the offered clothing before heading back up into the attic. He changed into clothes that were in fact too baggy and headed back down to hand off his dirty traveling outfit to Jesstine. She took the handful and whisked them away and Illithanos again retreated to his temporary space, this time to crawl into the bed and nest down as he tried to manage any of the sleep his sore body and tired mind needed.
Sleep was always dodgy for Illithanos. Closing his eyes and letting his mind go to fatigue, he often found himself hearing the faint but viscerally heavy voices of his parents or the cries of his younger brother. He could feel the heat of fire around him, heard its angry roar and crackle, and sometimes could even smell the suffocating and choking smoke.
Years ago he used to run from these memories and refused to shut his eyelids until pure exhaustion made it impossible to hold them open, not wanting to be burdened with repeating the same moment over and over again, but as he’d grown he’d learned to stop running. Now he embraced the sounds and sensations with a near fatalistic acceptance, not fleeing the memories but instead trying to scour them for any meaning they held, searching for any insight they could bring.
When he was younger he used the terrible memories to cling to what little he had to remember his family by, working to retain the images of their faces and sounds of their voices. But since discovering the name of Belmius that focus had shifted. Now he used these memories to glean everything he could about the creature that had attacked them. What it looked like, what it sounded like, the way its sour breath smelled and the horrible light in its eyes. Anything he could use to track it down again when he had the Aylon Slayer at his side to help him take his vengeance. But sometimes he would get too into the memories and a sudden crash of burning wood or a cry from his baby brother would become too real and he would jolt awake, adrenaline racing and heart pounding. Closing his eyes to return to the memories was always a mixture of reluctance and grim acceptance. And the times when he closed his eyes but did not return to this memory, those were the times when he mostly did not dream at all.
But tonight, on this night, beneath the light of a Lassah full moon, he had the rare event of experiencing another, more random dream. As he lay with eyes shut he thought he was hearing the powerful though futile shouts of his mother. Sleep took him the voice calmed, became low, and grew more melodic. It softened like the breeze of a cold wind barely rustling the leaves of bushes, and in his mind he found himself walking through a forest of skeletal trees, the voice of the woman just a faint tone on the wind around him.
He walked through this unknown woods and the ground grew increasingly muddier. Soon he was moving through a swamp, the tall white trees that jutted from the murky landscape around him curling and twisted, sticking out in crooked, broken ways. He came upon a pool of water and looked down at it but where he expected to see his own reflection there was instead just the slightest ripples on the dark water’s surface. A gust of air moved around him and the woman’s voice carried on it rose in volume. He stood there, staring blankly down at the dark water, and the voice grew closer.
Another rustle of wind and he was aware of a presence that joined him. The breeze that softly hissed all around had become the sound of breathing from one who stood just behind him. He could feel as the stranger took in a breath of air, heard a woman start to speak, and just as her words would touch his ear he found himself suddenly awake in bed.
Illithanos stared up at the dark wooden ceiling of the attic roof above him. The transition from dream to reality was so abrupt that his mind was left reeling, working to understand which existence he was in now. Outside the wind was howling from a storm that had been creeping in all evening. There was the soft flickering of light in the narrow corridor that led up to his small attic room, a lantern that had been left lit for anyone trying to navigate the steep staircase at night, but otherwise the house below him was silent and still. The young man put a palm to his forehead and let out a sigh. Somehow the nights with random dreams could prove to be more disturbing than the horrible nightmares of fire and loss.
He continued to lay back for minutes before he finally pushed himself up, though the action only left him seated on the edge of the bed for another long span. There was a feeling of listlessness that clung to him whenever he wasn’t moving forward, a sense of not quite knowing what to do in the moment, and a drive like he needed to push onward and that the act of standing still for even a moment was a waste.
Despite that feeling, Illithanos often found it hard to keep moving. Whether through necessity of motion or by sheer will power, he finally removed himself from the bed entirely and headed carefully down the narrow stairs.
The landing from the attic opened into an alcove that connected with the kitchen and his nose told him before he could spy it through the dim lighting that there had indeed been some food left out for him. A pot still warming on the wood-burning stove was covered, and carefully popping open the lid he could smell the peas porridge that had been made for dinner. There was also some bread and butter left sitting out and a small plate for him to use at the table. Illithanos sat to enjoy himself a humble meal and discovered a small note tucked beneath his cutlery as he did. Picking it up and opening it, he found just a quick scribble. ‘Be ready for a bright and early morning,’ signed by A. Greenfield.
Illithanos sat the note back down and focused on enjoying the slightly warmed food. He could admit to himself that his hostesses were a pleasant way to spend this period of rest, at least.
Rest, of course, is quite often a subjective term. It could easily be a general change of pace or a chance for the mind to recharge even if the body is still busy. This certainly ended up being the case for Illithanos, for as he did manage to get a bit more sleep that night with his stomach full, the next morning he was awoken bright and early by Anne and taken out to the barn to begin his set of chores to pay his night’s rent at their house.
He was shown how to milk cows and clean out stalls and taken around to feed the chickens the two women kept. Anne walked him out to the well with her, giving him the rundown of general morning routines and what would be expected from him bright and early every morning. Though she and Jesstine could handle the farm on their own just fine, and in fact had been doing so for around a dozen years now, having the extra set of hands to finish up some of the daily chores helped them have time to get to projects that were usually put aside. They also enjoyed the extra help with repairs and running errands out in town. The sun’s light was finally waking to join them as they returned to the farmhouse and Jesstine had a hot breakfast of creamed wheat and eggs waiting for them.
“So where are you headed, sarei?” Anne asked as they enjoyed their meal, gaining some energy for the chores that would follow. So far Anne and Jesstine had been satisfied enough to share stories and anecdotes about themselves and their lives out on the farm, but Illithanos had remained mostly quiet, save for being agreeable to their statements. He’d said little about himself, a natural habit he’d picked up during his travels partially out of safety but mostly out of apathy.
“Out to the big city, maybe?” Jesstine hazard a guess between bites of egg. “We had a gentleman come through a month back who was heading out to the city to start in the plays. Remembered him talking about how his family’s cobbler life didn’t fit him.”
“Farm life didn’t much either,” Anne said with a light scoff as she took a drink of hot cider from her mug. Jesstine gave a chuckle at her wife’s comment before turning back to Illithanos.
“Or are you headed out to meet someone, maybe? You got family that lives further along?”
“Something like that,” Illithanos softly relented to her question as he prodded at his porridge. “There’s a man I’m supposed to find, further east I think.”
“Fair enough,” Jesstine stated. She could tell pushing him for more information would not prove very fruitful. After a moment of silent eating she ventured for another question. “Can I ask you something maybe a little intrusive?”
Illithanos gave her a look of measured caution but did not turn her down, and so she proceeded.
“You’re a durmian, aren’t you?”
There was a pause from Illithanos and Jesstine continued on, filling what might have otherwise been an awkward beat of silence.
“See, my dear Anne was saying she was worried you might not be best fit for some of the labor around here, but I was thinking to myself, anyone who’s been traveling for much time and still looks as pale as you, well that’s not just a matter of you avoiding sun or much hard work is it, sarei?”
Illithanos idly looked down at the complexion of his arm. His skin was so light that an observer could practically trace the pale blue veins that ran under its surface and no amount of weathering could ever manage to darken it or wear it into a more leathery texture. Durmians were known as the Porcelain People for this reason, though otherwise they were nearly indistinguishable from humans, a rare set of twins among the races of Lendral.
His kind were often considered omens of good luck to have around mostly due to their affinity for learning magic if a suitable teacher could be found. It was uncomfortably objectifying to be considered an omen in any sense of the word, and regardless, the matter of their race had only brought disaster upon his family to begin with. Aylons had a way of seeking out durmians, believing they could learn magic from the gifted mortals. A magic that Aylons felt was their birthright, being descendants from the Creator God Himself. This was exactly what had occurred when Illithanos had lost his family at such a young age. It was reasonable for most durmians to keep the truth of their heritage quiet for this very reason as it could be difficult to determine who might seek them out for personal gain.
“I’m sorry if I’ve crossed a line,” Jesstine’s voice broke in through Illithanos’ thoughts and he looked up at her, not fully tracking on how long he’d been sitting in silence. Anne looked as though she was trying to pretend nothing was amiss as she enjoyed her breakfast, but Jesstine gave the young man an apologetic smile. “I was only curious, I did not mean anything by it, sarei.”
“No, it’s alright,” Illithanos heard himself say as he refocused on the bowl of food before him. He offered the woman a little smile in return. “I’m just not used to being asked that. I’m durmian, yes.”
“Well it certainly explains the name, too,” Anne chimed in. Her wife cast her brief scowl of disapproval.
“Could have been regional,” Jesstine chided.