White Wolf (Pt 3)
Illithanos stayed with the couple for nearly a fortnight before he felt the call to continue on. During that time he’d been dutiful in assisting around the farm every morning and afternoon, earning time for himself in the evenings though that time alone mostly left him restless. He often spent it heading back into the town, happy to make deliveries or run errands for Anne as he did, but his true motivation was the search for any information regarding the Black Swamp Huntsman that might be brought in from people passing through.
Unfortunately for him, Coalwell was not the busiest of places.
It had once been a booming mining town but issues with the mines had caused investments in it to dry out and what used to be a more bustling thoroughfare of coal and supplies was now just a trickle of farm produce or the rare crafted goods being shipped out with the occasional wagon full of trade coming in. Illithanos had ridden in on such a wagon himself, and counting that one he’d only managed to catch sight of two during his time in town. Mostly he lingered and waited for signs of anyone returning from their own travels out, but those who did always had little information that he found relevant, and so his attempts proved only fruitless.
In spite of the lack of information, or perhaps because of it, Illithanos prepared himself to resume his search. He shared his plans with Anne and Jesstine who responded by asserting that he leave with more possessions than he’d arrived with. Jesstine tailored some of the clothing left behind by their son, refitting it to sit more comfortably for his height though the garments still hung loose in areas. They also packed him food that would keep for several days out on the road, and while they didn’t have much money to spare, they still insisted on giving him a few coin to cover another ride out of town.
Illithanos knew better than to protest their charity; the kindness of strangers could make a world of difference to a young man who could not guarantee that food and a bed would be waiting for him elsewhere. Besides, their company had been pleasant and helped uplift his spirits for the little time he’d spent with them. Keeping a temporary memento of the brief occasion wouldn’t be so bad.
There was no wagon heading out that day, he found out only once he’d completed the long walk from the farmhouse into the town proper, but he decided against heading back to the Greenfield’s to wait for the morrow. Instead he left on foot, traveling eastward as he followed the well-worn main roads. He kept close to the roadway when he took breaks or settled down to try and sleep, hoping to catch the sound of anyone passing by that he might barter a ride from. Despite his watch, days passed and he never saw a soul as he continued along. This was not wholly unusual; the young man was quite accustomed to empty roads.
Nearing the end of his fourth day walking, while the sun was dipping down low behind him and he was contemplating stopping for the evening, Illithanos was overcome by an odd sensation. It was as though someone were walking up directly behind him; a looming, almost oppressive presence that pushed against his back and shoulders. He cast a glance over his shoulder and found nothing. He paused and turned, straining to search the woods and road around him.
In the distance he could hear the sound of hoof beats and a deep sense of dread, unexplained and uninvited, worked its way slowly into his mind, growing with the sound of approaching horses. Hurrying from the side of the road and to the surrounding woods, Illithanos ducked down into the foliage, hunkering to keep from sight. A panic gripped him as he moved, forcing him to his hands and knees, and he crawled through bushes and underbrush to get away. An unfathomable fear, one without reason or understanding, swelled within him as the unknown riders drew closer on the road.
It was not quite sheer terror, not the same terror that he knew and remembered from his childhood at least, but something so stark and primal that it played into his most basic fear for survival. The feeling of something stalking him, something heavy and smothering and overwhelming, growing ever stronger as he lay among dirt and vegetation, the sound of horses coming nearer and nearer. The ground around him felt as though it now rumbled, each hoof striking like a crack of thunder. He could almost feel their approach in the air, like the way one could feel a building storm. The evening, already gradually dimming as the sun lowered, grew unnaturally darker. The pounding noises of racing hooves reached where Illithanos had stepped off the road. Then they stopped completely.
The silence was startling in its abruptness and Illithanos had to work to keep still, combating the sense of horror that threatened to overwhelm him. He strained to listen, searching for the sound of the beasts catching their breath or their riders speaking, some clue as to what was occurring on the road just meters away as he kept his head down and his face pressed to the dirt.
The air felt heavy, as though it now carried physical weight, and within it that sense of dread loomed in a near palpable manner. It was a net pinning him to the ground, making it impossible for him to even outstretch a hand. Not that he wanted to. His panicked mind was certain that even a single motion would reveal him to whoever, whatever, must be standing out on that dark highway right now. With his ear pressed to dirt he continued to wait, trying to count through the seconds as this eternity lingered.
And then, just as suddenly as it had all stopped, the sound of hoof beats began again, continuing off further down the road. The abruptness by which they resumed startled him just as badly as it did when all had ceased, and once more Illithanos had to fight the urge to cry out from it. As the sound gradually faded, so too did his panic begin to finally ebb, the great dread that had gripped him waning, and finally Illithanos felt like he could breathe again. It did not even dawn on him that he’d been holding his breath the entire time until he exhaled the spent air from his lungs.
With a deep gasp he pushed himself up to his knees, shaken by the unexplained occurrence. He sat catching his breath as he tried to understand what had just happened but he had no answer. He’d never experienced such an event in his life; not even the memory of the red dragon compared to the moment he’d just survived. With shaky but firm hands he brushed himself off and gradually stood, heading back toward the road to search for anything that might lend him answers, but when he reached the roadway he found no sign of fresh prints in the dirt, whether from animal or person.
Illithanos set up camp much deeper in the woods than normal that night. The following few days he refused to walk along the roadside and it was not until the forest broke out into open fields that he reluctantly left the cover of the trees. Out in the distance he could see the sprawling shape of a long stone wall, signs that he was nearing the city of Hamdell. The fields around him were the results of the city’s lumber industry and much of the area was now converted into farmland. The feeling of dread that had taken him by the roadside had continued to linger with Illithanos for days, following him like a dark shadow just out of sight, but now the signs of civilization brought him hope. Hope in the promise of regular people and every day life. Hope in the form of the mundane that served as a mental ward against the unexplained, as though eerie situations were found only on long empty stretches of roads or in dark lonely woods and had no place behind tall city walls.
A helpful result of his long walk alone was that Illithanos still had the extra coin on him, having come across no travelers to purchase a ride from, so when he passed the stone walls and entered into the city itself, he was able to rent a cheap room at one of Hamdell’s less impressive inns. It was hardly extravagant, little more than a straw-stuffed bed in a drafty little den, but the accommodations gave him a chance to bathe and shake off some of the several days worth of dirt that was collected on his clothes. After a long nap he afforded himself a hot bowl of porridge and a mug of beer. Then he set about to search the town for places of gathering and gossip.
Illithanos did not approach people with his inquiries. He worried about putting himself on the spot or garnering unwanted attention with his questions, so instead much of his time was spent sitting and listening, hoping that his prying ears would catch a name or hear a promising word or two. This tactic served him well enough in past towns where travelers enjoyed killing time by spreading news and gossip from places they’d visited, and late into the afternoon it managed to serve him well again as his attention was drawn to a man who’d just uttered the word ‘huntsman’ in his conversation.
Illithanos worked to focus on the man’s voice, trying not to make his eavesdropping too obvious with a tilt of his head or turn of his gaze. Instead he pretended to fixate on a loose button on one of his extra shirts that the Greenfield couple had packed for him. It took a bit of focus but slowly the conversation grew clearer, even through the noise of the bar room around him.
“… he came in a few days ago, staying on my property,” Illithanos heard the man say in conversation. “He’s been out in my woods, you’d hardly notice him.”
“He’s not much of a problem?” A woman responded.
“Nah. Actually he’s practically been making me money, bringing me varmint hides and keeping them out of my chickens and garden. It’ll be a shame when he goes, I think.”
Illithanos continued to listen but nothing else was said that helped identify if the individual they were talking about was the man he was looking for. He knew it could just as easily be any other huntsman traveling with the changing seasons. Either way he didn’t want to approach and ask, concerned about inviting trouble if he admitted to listening in. He also knew from experience that asking too many odd or highly specific questions could just as easily net him far too much unwanted attention. Instead the young durmian waited for the man fill up on drink and head out, slipping out after him to quietly follow. While shadowing was an even more suspicious thing to get caught doing, it was a skill he was admittedly more practiced at and thus more confident in.
The sky was dark when he and the man left the tavern but the city around them was moderately lit by hanging lanterns. It made it easier for Illithanos to follow further back without losing sight of his quarry. After only a couple of blocks and a few turns later, Illithanos hung back and watched as the man approached a stable hand, retrieving and mounting a small horse. He trotted off down the cobblestone street and the durmian resumed his following, finding it harder to keep up without appearing suspicious.
By the time the man on horseback left town he’d picked up to a much faster canter and the best Illithanos could do now was follow after the sound of retreating hoof beats and search the ground for signs of fresh tracks or droppings. A ways out of town he came upon a well worn path with hoof prints leading up it and, saying a silent hope for luck’s favor, the young man continued along it as night fell around him.
After a lengthy walk he was rewarded with the sight of a light in the distance. It was small but bright, a lantern left out on a porch or shining through a window. Illithanos paused in his approach, feeling more confident that he was on the correct path but also not wanting to show up on a stranger’s doorstep again, especially if it meant asking odd questions about the man’s property and anyone being housed on it. He recalled the man mentioning woods on his land and decided to search for signs of a tree line, though picking such a detail out at this point was a matter of peering into the darkness in hopes of seeing an even darker patch in the distance.
Cloud cover limited the light of the moons and stars that night, leaving Illithanos nearly blind in his searching. Still, even with the growing evening chill pulling shivers from the young man, Illithanos favored his chances and chose to avoid the distant house. Helpful people like Anne and Jesstine were, in his experience, not all too common, and he did not fancy himself lucky enough to meet another kind stranger so soon after them. He would rather wander in the dark.
Moving across the surrounding fields was slower than moving along the dirt trail. He had to be much more careful to avoid shallow pits or raised bumps in the soft, uneven ground. Gradually the land grew firmer and his footing more confident as he successfully approached the tree line. Long roots of tall trees weaving unseen through the soil built a more stable foundation for blind travel than the pitted and logged field.
The air was less cold as he stepped into the dense forest, the vegetation around him trapping and holding in some of the fleeting warmth from the day that bled off so easily in the open fields. He had successfully found the edge of the woods, but despite that minor victory, Illithanos was still directionless. He stopped and leaned against a thick tree, closing his eyes as he reached up to massage along his brow and across his eyelids. He was shivering from the night walk but at least he was not tired. The nap that had taken up the better part of his afternoon and early evening had seen to that.
He hesitated against the tree, lingering on the edge of the woods, then finally pushed himself to continue, his pace all the more slow and careful as his feet had to search out solid ground and avoid leaf-covered branches that might snap or shift and give way at a moment’s notice. The thick canopy blocked out the remaining light that the clouds were allowing through, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the deeper levels of darkness around him as he pressed forward.
Still, forward he pressed. He knew he would never get anywhere lingering against tree trunks.
He walked not knowing what he would find, or if there was anything to find at all. All of his steps onward were driven by fleeting hope, by a sense of possibility as he picked his way through the darkness. The restless river, moving forward even though it could not always see where its winding and twisting course would inevitably lead it.
Time that he could not measure passed as the night wore on and eventually his mind told him it would be best to set up a small area for himself and settle down to keep warm for the night before the cold took him completely. It was at that moment as he was gathering up some large branches to begin constructing a small shelter that he heard a faint sound drifting through the still air. He paused to listen and the sound continued on, a faint, melodic whistling. Dropping the branch he’d been holding, Illithanos turned and carefully began to pick through the darkness toward the noise.
As he approached he became aware of the smell of smoke and caught the faint flickers of light in the distance. Emboldened by his discovery he managed a faster pace through the woods, still mindful to keep his passing as silent as possible though he was no master at that task. He tried to hold his growing excitement at bay, reminding himself that this still may be just some passing huntsman and not the human he was looking for, but for the first time in a long while, he felt a small flame spark up inside him, a passion that spurred him forward. For the first time in a long while, he felt true hope, not just its fleeting shadow.
The first thing he could make out as he approached was the whistling in the air, clearly a song though he did not recognize it. As he drew close the sound dropped to a hum and did not pick up again as the tune continued on. He could see a lone figure sitting before a flickering and snapping campfire, their back toward the approaching durmian. The stranger was very broad with large, thick shoulders, though from his distance and the lighting Illithanos could not tell if it was layers of clothes that gave the individual such an imposing size or if the stranger was honestly so big. The figure sat upon a sturdy segment of cut wood and Illithanos could tell they were leaned forward toward the fire, their right arm reaching out to prod at the charring logs with a long stick, moving and rolling them to keep the fire burning.
Illithanos lingered, trying to assess the situation further, and the humming stopped as he heard a deep bass voice speak.
“Ah, is that the little white wolf I have been expecting?”
The stranger had a Northern accent, where his tongue sounded heavy and certain words were spoken with less articulation. His speech was slow and deliberate, as though every statement, every word, was delivered with decision and purpose. Illithanos hesitated where he stood and remained silent, ducking behind one of the nearby thick trees as if he could hide himself any further from the man who was not even looking his way.
“Come now, wolf cub,” the man called out again and gestured to another cut stump that sat near him. “I have a seat here waiting for you already.”
Though he did not turn to look toward Illithanos, the young man was nonetheless certain this stranger was speaking to him. He could not tell if that revelation troubled him or not. On one hand he knew he wasn’t the quietest when trying to move through the woods, and given he’d not heard the sound of anyone or anything else approaching, it would only make sense that the hunter was calling out to him. On the other hand, the familiarity in the stranger’s voice caused him to hesitate. The statement that he was expected left him feeling unsettled and cautious.
“There is no need for this,” the man spoke again, his deep voice resonating through the darkness around Illithanos in a kind yet firm tone. “I know the night is cold and the fire here is warm. I even have meat for you to fill your belly. Just come and sit.”
Illithanos was beginning to feel foolish. Clearly the stranger knew he was here, and he’d already come this far. What was he doing, trying to linger out of sight? Was he truly going to just leave now? Cautiously he stepped forward but it wasn’t until he crossed the threshold of the fire’s light that the man turned his head to him.
The human’s face was a grizzled mess of scars. One eye looked partially fogged over and large chunks of his nose were missing. Beneath his cloudy eye ran a deep gouge of a scar, and his cheek was torn and sunk in. His head was shaven back to a low stubble and Illithanos could see the scar continued up the side of his head, removing part of his ear in the process. It looked like the hunter had gotten into a fight with something large and was lucky enough to walk away with his face as intact as it was, but beneath it all there was still a kind smile on his mouth and a look of softness in his eyes as he regarded the young man who stepped timidly from the darkness. Here in the firelight Illithanos could more clearly see the thick layering of furs and leathers that draped along his shoulders and the stump that terminated there. The huntsman had only one arm at all, the other gone completely at the shoulder.
The young man caught himself staring and promptly sat down upon the wooden log placed for him, landing harder on its surface than he meant to. His backside ached at the impact but he ignored it as his mind worked to settle on which of the many questions that were now racing through it he should hazard to ask first.
“Are you Belmius?” He asked, his voice sounding odd to him in the moment. It was farm calmer than he currently felt.
“I am he, yes,” the huntsman answered with a nod and a smile, and Illithanos felt a small rush of relief before it was replaced with caution and confusion.
“Why… did you say you were expecting me?” He asked hesitantly. Belmius responded by drawing his stick from the fire and gestured with it skyward, raising his head to the clouds. Illithanos tilted his head up, searching but not knowing what for.
“Several weeks ago,” Belmius started, “when Lassah shone as the light of Clarity, I saw a vision. I saw myself in these woods,” he continued, lowering his stick back down to nudge at one of the logs on the fire. The motion caused a loud crack as sparks danced up into the air. “A young white wolf came to me from the darkness. It seemed lost and alone, but it was full of something powerful. So I came back to these woods to await my white wolf. And now I see you have come.” Belmius looked back over at the young durmian sitting with him.
Everything about the man, every motion he made and every word he spoke, came across as sluggish but powerful and deliberate, and the mannerisms both calmed and intimidated Illithanos.
The statement of the vision caused his mind to think back and he recalled the odd dream he had under the last full moon. But in his dream the woods he had seen were nothing like these and the voice he’d heard on the breeze had been higher and feminine, a complete opposite of the huntsman’s.
“You seem hesitant,” Belmius spoke again, breaking the silence left by the young man. “But you did come to me and ask me my name as if you had been looking for me, yes?”
“Yes...” Illithanos repeated more than answered, breaking himself from the small spell his memories had sent him into. “I mean yes,” he said again, this time as more of an answer than just an echo. “I have been looking for you.”
“Then finally we have found each other,” Belmius concluded with a reassuring smile. “Now tell me, little wolf, who are you? What has brought you to me?”
Illithanos introduced himself and told the huntsman his story. Belmius listened patiently with a stoic expression as the young man recounted the tragedy that befell his family, the memories that returned to him nightly, and the drive that kept him moving and searching for the one he now spoke to. As he finished the older human nodded, his face solemn and understanding.
“You want justice for what has been done to your family?” Belmius asked when the young durmian fell silent again.
“I want vengeance,” Illithanos snapped angrily, reaching up to wipe away tears of pain and anger that had begun to fall during his recounting. Belmius smiled, his expression kind.
“I can give you that, my young wolf. You hold on to your anger. It is a passion that will keep you strong.” Belmius balled his one hand into a tight fist and gave the durmian a firm tap on the chest with his knuckle. The gesture was slight but even so Illithanos had to shift his weight in his seat, worried about being knocked over by the casual power of the human.
“Can you still fight?” Illithanos hesitated to ask. “I mean, considering...” He gestured to the man’s absent arm. “I don’t mean to doubt your reputation or skill, but...” he trailed off again, uncertain of how to finish the question he’d already been reluctant to start. Belmius gave him a patient grin and chuckled softly.
“I understand your concerns, my young wolf, but you do not need to worry. Have faith and we will bring this monster down together.”
“Faith?” Illithanos questioned, his brow knotting. Belmius nodded and drew his fist to his own chest.
“Faith is what will give us the power to turn mountains into pebbles. Together, and with faith, there will be no way we can fail.”
Illithanos frowned but nodded nonetheless. He had to admit that this was not quite what he’d expected when dreaming of finally meeting the legend he’d been searching for, but he would simply have to adjust. He was here with the man he’d spent years seeking, and that man was ready to promise him what he wanted most. Belmius drew back as he sat on his log and reached into a deep pouch at his side. He pulled out a bundled of thin leather and unwrapped it. Inside was a thick cut of dried, smoked meat that he offered to Illithanos who took it gratefully.
“Now, we will need to talk about this monster of yours,” Belmius began, his slow but strong cadence lulling Illithanos into a state of calm and readiness as he chewed his jerky and listened. “We will need to work out where to begin our hunt.” He reached for his poker stick and used it to mark in the dirt between them. “The beast that came for your family is known as a Damerok. There are less than a dozen of them and they hail from the southern lands of Jahklon.”
“Jahklon?” Illithanos frowned. “But what would one be doing in Ossteros, then? My family’s house was far west of here, in an area called Glenville.”
“Aah,” Belmius’ deep voice was like a growl from a benign bear as he drew out a small map in the ground. “Aylons will range very far from their territory when committing these sorts of acts. The Damerok is hoping that it will escape the consequences of its actions by going so far out. It is still possible that it does not keep its lair in Jahklon, but even then it will be south of us, in the southern deserts I imagine. We will need to cross the Barrier Mountains and begin our search there, see if anyone has heard of its passing.”
“The Barrier Mountains?” Illithanos asked, partially dismayed. “That’s nearly a month’s travel from here!” To his surprise, Belmius laughed.
“Young white wolf… You have come too far to forget the lessons of patience now.” Belmius reached out and placed his strong hand on the durmian’s shoulder, giving him a broad smile. “And you will need time to ready yourself for this confrontation. Finish your meal and prepare for sleep, for tomorrow will be the first day of a new journey for you.”
Illithanos woke with the sun and was surprised to find Belmius already up. The huntsman was roasting a pan of wild nuts over their campfire and the smell drew the young man out from his bed. In the cold light of the morning he could better see the campsite around them and was able to notice some details that had missed his attention the night before.
Firstly, he could better see the makeshift area the man had set up. It was clear both that Belmius was quite resourceful out in the wild and also that the huntsman had been settled here for several days. Aside from the fire circle and sleeping arrangements, the man had also built some sort of stone oven and chimney area for smoking leather and meats. He had a drying rack for animal skins with a few hides already stretched out on it and even a small cooking area that looked to be for boiling water as there was currently a kettle nestled into the coals and flames there. Everything was still more crude than one would find in an actual residence, but for being out in the wilderness like this, and especially to someone more transient like Illithanos was, many of these constructions looked like absolute luxury.
The second thing Illithanos noticed, and truly the more impressive thing, was the great blade of steel that rested against one of the trees around their camp. The weapon looked to be shaped like a glorified carver’s knife. It stood taller than Illithanos himself, when counting the hilt, and the blade was nearly as wide as the trunk it rested against. Illithanos stared in wonder at the weapon, blurting out a thoughtless “Is that yours?”
Belmius raised his gaze from the breakfast he was roasting and cast the young man a curious look, lifting an eyebrow. He then turned his head toward the weapon in question.
“I don’t know, did you bring that here yourself last night?”
Illithanos closed his mouth, looking down at the ground as his face flushed from foolishness. Belmius laughed at his chagrin.
“Come,” the huntsman beckoned him toward the fire pit. “Come and sit down. We will have a nice warm breakfast before we pack up.”
“Can you still fight with it?” Illithanos asked timidly as he sat down and the huntsman offered him a cup of roasted nuts. Belmius frowned as he regarded the question.
“I would not bother to keep it around for sentimentality alone,” he answered, standing up and heading for the kettle of water. Steam was pouring from it as he grabbed a rag of leather in his hand and lifted the kettle from the coals and licking flames to set it aside.
“I see,” Illithanos said softly, eyes still downcast. “I apologize for my ignorance, my questions must sound foolish.”
“It is alright, white wolf, there is plenty you do not yet know. But I expect you will learn in time.”
The two had their warm breakfast and then it was time to take down their camp. Illithanos was surprised at how much of their amenities the huntsman took apart and scattered.
“Rocks. Sticks. More rocks,” he explained as he pulled apart his smoking stack. “They are not meant to last. Better we simply return them to the ground ourselves.”
There was still plenty the huntsman did carry by way of equipment, however. A few pots and pans for cooking, cutlery and bowls, flasks, kettles, rope and gear. Illithanos helped him pack everything up and gladly carried part of the burden, watching the older man effortlessly hoist stuffed leather packs and that great blade onto his back with one arm. He struggled enough to settle a heavy bag onto his back with two.
With camp cleaned up they began their long journey on foot toward the Barrier Mountains range. Illithanos was already used to walking about, indeed he had spent much of his life doing so, but Belmius still kept a more strenuous pace than he was accustomed to. Conversation was limited between them as it was clear neither man was used to traveling with a partner and usually walked in silence.
They followed the main roads, stopping by towns or cities as they came upon them for more provisions, Belmius often trading furs in place of currency, or selling pelts for money to carry them for a bit, but for the most part they set up fast camps out of towns and off the roads and stayed outdoors. Illithanos did not much mind it. The shelters that the human taught him to construct were more comfortable than what he could to put together himself, and after a few days he found he didn’t think much of renting a room to stay in a proper bed. Even when the nights were colder Belmius had plenty of furs to offer to keep him both warm and comfortable on the woven branches and leaves that made up his temporary sleeping mats.
They had been traveling for the better part of a week and were steadily moving down a long, empty road when Illithanos commented.
“I’m a little surprised you follow the roads as much as you do.”
“Why is that?” Belmius asked, looking back at the young man who followed just a few steps behind him. He was getting better at keeping pace with the older man but still preferred to hang behind as they walked. “Why would I not?”
“I don’t know...” Illithanos admitted, “I guess I just imagined that, as a huntsman, you’d know all these secret wood trails and shortcuts and things. I never really pictured it would be a lot of just following more roads.”
Belmius sniffed and raised his head to look at the woods they were passing by as they walked.
“Hundreds and hundreds of years before me,” he started, “there were people walking from one place to another. And they did their best to find the shortest, easiest ways to get there, because they were lazy and in a hurry.” He gestured with his hand to the road beneath, its face flattened and smoothed from time and use, well-worn grooves from wagon wheels filled in with rock and gravel to keep from turning the ground too uneven and making it dangerous for horse hooves. “And those best trails that they made became more and more used and grew bigger, and now they are our roads. Who am I to argue with them?”
“I suppose I didn’t think of it that way,” Illithanos admitted. Belmius let out a hearty laugh.
“Sometimes, young wolf, sometimes we need to accept that someone else has already done all the work and come up the best idea themselves, and we will simply be better to follow in their foot steps. There is no shame in not having to figure out every little thing yourself when you can learn from another. You do not have to re-invent the wheel when you want to build a wagon, I think I’ve heard them say,” Belmius stated, and though they walked in silence after it, Illithanos found himself appreciating the brief exchange more than he’d expected.