It was a trek of inconvenience. They wandered up and down pulsing hills, dancing along the slippy, tripping slope.
Then the hills and bramble dispersed, the castle came into sight, followed by the line of wagons spiraling up to it.
The fortress sat tiny in the distance, the crumbling bottom merging with the roll of the hill it was founded on. Haze wafted in front of it. The stone walls diminished with a green moss yellowing with age. From the sibling’s path on the road, they could see bleached white of the walls, the remoteness removing the colors of a once great tower. It sneered at them, tall and foreboding.
The road’s end was in sight, the serpent spiraling down into what appeared almost a town. Even from their high perch on a zenith of a hill, Rasmus and Kaia Kondori could see the wheels dug deep into the dirt and the permanent decorations that sprouted out around their spokes. Those were not the wagons of travelers. They were homes, rooted where they were.
Kaia and Rasmus tilted their heads in unison.
“So, I’m thinking,” Kaia said, “and just bear with me on this—we go down and just ask them if they’ve seen any sort of demon wandering about.” She held up her hands, an exaggerated brow-raise, settling the matter.
“Kaia, we are here to get some supplies.”
“I really doubt they know anything,” Rasmus replied, a quirk of a smile on his lips. He plodded down the hill. “And we need to keep up the image that we know everything.”
“I see it very unlikely with all that we’ve heard about this area they’ll know nothing. They must have something interesting to say.”
“I guess worst comes to worst, they can always just regale us with tales of that castle. Maybe it’s ‘haunted’ if you catch my drift.”
Kaia allowed herself to flow with gravity, skipping down the rocks.
“I bet there’s a vampire. Lord of the castle. Master of their universe. Orchestrating the whole thing. Unleashing demons and the Wyrd to mutate hunters and demanding children sacrifices. I’d like to see one for once,” she said. “Then you can lie about defeating it too, my sweet Ogreslayer.”
“And you can bite me after he drains you, you ass.”
She smiled and locked her arm around his.
As the sloping road carrying them onward, the villagers perked their ears towards the strangers, and the siblings could hear shouting long before they reached it.
At first Kaia grasped tightly onto her brother’s arm as eyes in the streets turned to face them. But the outlines of the figures grew when Rasmus pressed onward, and it became clear there was no tension in the shoulders of the locals, no torches or pitchforks in their hands. In fact, one waved, and soon she could hear the smiles in their shouts. As they approached, the threatening murmurs became clear. They were encouraging, attention seeking. Come buy.
The wagons had plenty of space on the dirt road, giving wide berth for vendors to spread out their wares.
Though it was still warm that late summer, the peasants dawned hoods and thicker cloaks, baggy sleeves cropped short, hanging over thin-fabric tunics. More items hung from thick leather belts, some having bags strapped all the way down their legs. Though colorful in garb, the peasants still had the sun-chapped, dirty faces of a hard mountain life. This time, however, unlike most of the remote villages, their expressions were not fitted with frowns. As Kaia and Rasmus wandered through the camp, solicitations came from all around. Hands waving, wares held up in fists, they cried and scrambled for attention, trying to sell.
Buyers of all sorts wandered, and Kaia realized only those merchants at the very edge seemed fascinated by the newcomers, their hoopla loud enough to make it seem like the entire busy square greeted them. Booths farther down teemed with shoppers, but these at the edges appeared quite forgotten.
Unlike most places with this much of a crowd, the road was large and the sky was easily visible. Kaia’s grip on Rasmus relaxed.
“Oh, pretty lady, let me teach you a song!” shouted a man with a large brimmed hat, gesturing at all the lutes and other instruments stacked in cases behind his stool.
A woman who concealed her hair in a purple scarf held out her pretty pottery, each one faint colors of yellow and red over tan. Another thrusted dead geese and ducks out by their necks. The merchants all shouted so loud that hearing grew hard, and soon all the words grew mashed together without even a hint as to their original form.
Luckily, neither of the siblings were the sorts to be polite, and they walked through with heads held high, barely acknowledging they were being shouted at. The expectation to buy or at least acknowledge the clerk was beyond their common decency.
“Wow,” Kaia said. “Where are we?”
“I never knew there would be this much trade… And it has to be trade, right? They couldn’t farm cotton or find too much clay this high up.”
“It would explain the roads.”
“The badly used roads.”
“Look at that line of wagons.”
Up on the hillside leading to the castle walls, people in caravans serpented down the rocky path. Ahead a few of the booths appeared popular, people hording around them taking up the entire street.
“In a place like this, there’s probably at least one fortune teller,” Rasmus shouted across his shoulder. “He’s probably a charm seller.”
“Then I would imagine it’s a girl,” his sister called back. “Women are less likely to be massacred for the magic use as men don’t feel threatened by us.”
Rasmus didn’t know how to take this, but he was a little offended. He sent his sister a meaningful squinted eye, but she just shrugged: What can we do?
“I only mention it,” he continued despite his distaste, “because if there was anyone to ask about the goings on here, it would be her.”
“She’d be most helpful in getting even an inkling where to go next, but to get the word of our presence around, we’d want to ask the town loud mouth.”
“And who’s that?”
“Probably also a woman.”
They pushed past the most desired stalls and got a breath of air. The bodies parted for a ways down, and it looked as if some sort of well sat in the center of the bustle.
She bit the inside of her cheek, squinting at the sun. “Or we could ask the guy in charge. The lord or head merchant or whoever. He’d be forced to give some sort of announcement or warning.”
“And I guess he’d be a man.”
“Let’s just assume.”
“Keep your eyes out for an official sort of home, I suppose.”
She pointed to the castle.
“Ha,” he said.
“Though,” she reconsidered, a finger on her lip, “he might do the opposite. Keep it under hats, I guess.”
“I believe he would be in something big. Either the castle—a possibility—or in a very big tent.”
“How about the entertainer?” she asked. “Storytellers not only know a lot, but they also tell a lot. A lot
In a sea of children, cross-legged and attentive, an older man sat on a crate, petting his copper colored and silver streaked beard as he spoke in a deep, murmuring voice.
Rasmus turned a pointed glance at his sister. She blinked innocently back. “What?”
“How stupid do you think I am?”
“Well, if I’m considering your actions, your basic knowledge, your common sense… my perception changes from time to time.”
“Kaia, I’ll never get you away from him.”
“Wow, you don’t get me at all.”
“In the city, we didn’t get going until sunset because ‘Just one more!’”
“Quality does matter. Not every Tom, Dick, or Vlad is going to have that effect. The man happened to be very mesmerizing. Besides this is a bona fide, legitimate suggestion.”
“Well, Master Vampire Hunter, if you really want to pass the word of your presence, the best way to do it is to tell the person whose job it is to spread lies.”
He chewed this over.
“He’d also probably be able to tell us about that wonderful castle and the vampire that is inside,” she added.
“There is no vampire inside, you lunatic.”
“Well, if there isn’t, there will be,” she said.
“I was joking before. I am not picking a fight with the rich leader of impoverished peasants in treacherous territory. What do you want to do? Stake a lord for pocket change?”
The storyteller didn’t look up as they approached, noise pollution too brash for footsteps to interrupt the grip of his tale.
“His trick was not normal backstabbing,” the storyteller insisted, his voice bursting from his chest and into the air around them. “He doesn’t have the personality to be involved in betrayal. The guild has no tolerance for selfishness. No matter their strength, no matter their bravery, overstepping into cruelty is not something that the hunters cannot abide by.”
The sound level diminished greatly in a cone around him; those merchants selling either intrigued or graciously being polite.
Rasmus walked by a stand and pretended to be interested in the rocks for sale while his sister hopped down cross-legged behind a young dirt covered boy in overalls, no more than five.
A girl with long, silky black hair brushing the dirt scowled over her shoulder at her. Kaia held up her hand to obscure the child’s porcelain face and kept listening.
“What he had done is not in the rules and regulations, for they know of the difficult decisions and high cost that fighting the Wyrd causes. The guild’s numbers often dwindle. At times when the immortals arrive on this plane, when the longest lasting vampires are found, the rarest of monsters terrorize the humans without fear of the guild, the guild must assemble their members and take to battle. Many will die, and at times their men are swept out. Considering the cost for one to truly be able to fight the beasts of the Wyrd, they cannot deny people on grounds of morals.”
He leaned back towards the house behind him made of stones and overgrown with plant. The storyteller held up a finger. “But they can teach! They can punish! They can reinforce social disgust for inappropriate actions. The men over time learn that only those pure of heart and strong of will and clean in motives will rise in the ranks. They are taught deep to the core how to be good. Their people are the trained to be inhumanly gracious.”
“How well that works, of course, is a different matter,” Rasmus muttered to his sister.
A child looked up at him. He just cracked a crooked and forced grin.
“So did our great Riskov trick her by playing against her love? Was it a sin for him to manipulate the beastly woman so? He believed it to be, but he knew it was the only way.”
He shook his head in solemnity. “When she came to him, when that smile dawned on her beautiful red lips, when she walked with a swaying hip at his side and gently removed his hat, guilt clenched his heart. His pulse grew tense. And thus, when she went down to his neck and began to drink deep, his blood was too thick with grief for her to even get an ounce.”
He brandished a finger. “Even so! He fulfilled his duty and plunged the dagger deeply into her stomach. She screeched and screamed in pain as the silver edge burned. Quick as slamming door, he brought his stake out in a fist and finished the job, plummeting it deep into her heart.”
The audience swallowed with a grim silence.
“And there he lowered himself, in the cherry orchard dirt and tears fell from his face, down to his beloved.
“He had told her that she would be his always. He just couldn’t state the price.”
The old man bowed his head.
The people gaped at him for some time. They realized he was done.
A few clapped.
Rasmus and Kaia glanced at each other, wide eyed: Yikes
Then the girl scoured her peers. The scowling child was crying. They were all crying. Silently, horribly, tears rolled down their face as their innocent little features contorted with grief. Kaia’s gut wrenched.
One child leapt up and hugged the old man. He patted the boy on the back.
A few got up and left. Others sat there expectantly. Kaia hesitated, looking at her brother; he was clearly debating. When she rotated back, she realized the eyes of the storyteller were directly on her. She froze, caught in a bright light.
“Can I help you, miss?”
Her eyes flicked back and forth helplessly.
“I was just listening,” she said.
“Oh?” he smiled. “Did you like my story?”
“Didn’t hear the beginning of it.”
She silently pleaded to her brother for help before her insides lurched; he was gone. She flung her glance about sporadically to catch where he had went.
Down the road, in between a large man and a woman carrying a great deal of clothes, Rasmus’s blonde head bobbed along. He smiled and waved at her, mouthing, “I’ll be back.”
She grimaced in the direction of the falling sun. Kaia turned back to the man—who was still waiting.
“Who’s Riskov?” she said.
The kids’ attention was all on at her now.
“A hunter,” he said. “Not famous. He died some time ago.”
“How’d you hear about his story?”
“I know about all kinds of men’s stories. Back in my time, I was the lord’s guard, and many men in his employment came from retirement of the guild.”
“I thought retirement meant death in the hunter world,” she said.
Now all the children scowled.
“What?” she mouthed at the one next to her.
He stared at her levelly. “Or they ‘quit.’”
“Oh,” she nodded.
“They told me a great deal of stories. Now that I am too old to serve the lord, I come here to tell you the tales of all the poor hunters.”
“You have some good ones?” she asked.
“I believe so.”
“I have some good ones,” she nodded. “But they wouldn’t be appropriate.”
He nodded. “And who are you?”
“Traveling bard. I sing the praise of my Master, Sir Limpsvee.”
“Ironic name considering the old war wound he got from an ogre,” she shook her head in mock sorrow. “Twelve of them, actually. He barely made it out alive.”
He smiled at her. “Is that so?”
“Poor man. Can never walk right again.”
“So, you like to hear tales?”
“Oh, very much. It’s why I’m here. In fact, do you take requests?”
He frowned. “If I am able, I suppose I do. What is it you wish to hear?”
“What’s with the castle?”
He paused before looking over his shoulder.
“It’s a castle,” the boy next to her said.
“Oh. Well, that’s a good yarn. Makes sense. Factual. Though, if I may offer a little constructive criticism, if you’re planning on going into storytelling, embellishment is your bread and butter.”
“It is the home of the village lord,” the old man told her.
“Your fearless leader lives there?”
“He has, yes.”
Kaia frowned, looking around. “Is this… are you… a part of the region? Or are you independent?”
The old man raised his eye brows.
“What I mean is,” she said. “Do you obey the laws of the realm, or does your nobleman create them?”
“We are not uncivilized if that’s what you mean.”
“Ah,” she smiled. “Independent then.”
He smirked curtly. “We run by the rules of the authorities, just like anybody else. What’s your interest in it?”
“The castle,” he said, growing impatient.
“Really nothing. I haven’t seen anything like it, and I’m pretty well traveled. Even the large fortresses in the east don’t compare, but that may be because their residents keep them maintained.”
“The castle here is older than the ones recently built by those on the west coast. Our land does not have much money and, even if it did, we still wouldn’t receive enough trade to repair it to all its glory.”
Some kids got up and left.
“You seem to have a lot of people right now.”
“They come from all over, every village on these mountain tops visits this place for market. The area used to be a gypsy coven, run by a family. People would come from leagues around to purchase their potions and tokens. They soon found the protection of the coven stopped the creatures of the Wyrd from entering. This grew to be the connection between all of the villages, and, thus, now what you see is the one resemblance of an eastern community that us poor mountain folk have managed to maintain.”
“Do the people from the valley come up here?”
“Oh, no, no. This is the place where the world grows grim. Those beneath the snow drifts, down by the dark forests refuse to venture near us. The closest village is a week’s journey, and to trek through snow and ice to be closer to the Wyrd? No, it is mostly just us mountain dwellers.”
An invisible frost tickled her neck. Her back went erect. “I just came from one two days away.”
He paused before waving her away. “They don’t count.”
She relaxed. “What do you mean?”
Another child rose to his feet and marched away.
“There are many rumors about what goes on down in that town, but I say they are members of the Wyrd themselves.”
A little boy was in the middle of standing before he stopped short, oogling the man with eyes the size of his fists. He sat again. All the children and Kaia herself turned to him.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
The man hesitated, eyes moving from each fascinated face to the next. His face flushed pink. Kaia immediately slouched lower in preparation. Truth would be covered by entertainment. She prepared to sift through it.
“The men and women that live down there see very mellow lives. Few travelers trek in between their town and the next, them being the very last village before the expanse of the Wyrd allegedly lives. As you children may know, we are surrounded by danger and excitement. To live in our poverty without persecution, we have moved up into these mountains. But the Fjall, these Hills from the Wyrd, protect us. The mystical does not travel well in the cold. They do not like closed off places. The mountainsides and rocks and stones stave off any more vicious trespasser. It keeps us safer than most.”
He swallowed, reflecting on something before smiling at his audience. “It is in that manner which so many outsiders can live here. But to the village next to the Wyrd, living by the open plains and so close to the dark hideous forest in which the evil things are attracted, they are exposed much more than we.”
“So why do they live there?” Kaia asked, her heart fluttering.
“Why indeed? We people of the mountains cannot claim to understand those different than us, but there are rumors.”
“They’re demons, right? Ghosts?” she said. “They’re not people. They’re just pretending to be.”
“That is one of the ideas.”
She smiled self-gratifyingly.
“I don’t believe that is the case,” he said.
Her mouth twisted.
“They have been there for ages. It is just the drivel of townsfolk. Their people change from time to time, wanderers go in and out, and once, when I was only slightly younger, a guard member and I were sent down there to speak with them about some monster troubles they were having. They held all the qualities of man.”
“Most creatures do,” she said. “But also, I believe the change was recent. I have been there before too… A long time ago, so my memory is faint, but I’ve found that it cannot possibly be due to creature infestation. I mean, I know people…”
Suddenly, she stopped. Shoulders tensed.
“No. I only believe that is a wives’ legend,” he said. “The people there are cold and cruel, but it can be expected from those of us who live on the frontier.”
Her heart beat in her tongue as she scrambled for something to say.
“They are no colder than any of us,” he added.
The wrinkles of his eyes deepened as he glanced across his circular realm from his perch on his stool. He continued, “But there are strange stories that nerve us.”
“Like what?” Kaia asked.
“About one year ago a priest entered into the town to rid people of all their sins. He came to the heathens, preaching, preaching like many had done before, vast groupings of great men wishing to be the ones to bring righteousness to those out here on the cold front. But this time it was different. He stayed. Not only did they allow him to enter in, but they began to build a church for him. He sent a message to other fathers of the cloth, he brought in monks and missionaries. He began to spread the word of the light, and they would listen.
“They built the temple within a year, all men working together, arms united, heaving side by side. The building rose to great heights in no time, and thus the town found religion.”
“Not that peculiar,” Kaia said slowly, waiting for his point.
“There was a reason that they did not succumb to the pleas of the priests and lectures of the holy, despite. They are not the kind of people who reject religion or the safety of it. In fact, if anyone needs optimism to keep them in hope, it is they. The reason is not because they were so claimed heathens, but that, we believe, they were trying to keep a secret.”
“That you know, I imagine,” she smiled slyly.
“People talk,” he said. “It is hard to keep the gossip down. And gossip, as we all know, always holds some form of truth to it.”
“You just can’t decipher which part.”
“I suppose so. But the problems that alighted the rumors are always the same. The exaggerations go to explain the same circumstance: it is believed that the people of that village commune with the Wyrd.”
Kaia stared off into the distance, looking to see if her brother was pushing back through the crowd. Her ears still perked, she tilted one at him, hairs on her neck on end.
“And what makes you think that?”
“Every year, a child goes missing.”
A large, cold lump choked her.
“Even for those who live out here, that is a lot.”