Part 4 – Within the Walls
Jala alliteratively approached the slumped sentry, searching for signs of sentience. Silently, smoothly, swiftly and sensuously she unsheathed her favourite poking stick. It had been whittled carefully from the rib of her first kill, and had served her well over the years. Taking a breath, she raised the stick and tapped the prone figure firmly in the chest.
‘GARGBLARGH,’ the man yelled, trying to jump up and tripping over his own foot in the process, ‘don’t hurt me! I mean, who goes there?’
Jala could see instantly that he would be no use to her – he was obviously a coward, and probably a drunk. Flecks of bile clung to the tufts of facial hair that passed for his beard, and he smelled strongly of booze and sweat.
‘What happened here?’ she asked, ‘where are your people? What do the markings on the grass signify? Why were you asleep at your post?’
‘I wasn’t asleep,’ he said in wounded tones, ‘I was hit over the head.’
The man removed his helmet, revealing an exaggerated egg-shaped lump poking up through shaggy, greasy hair. Jala was unimpressed – it would take more than one blow to know her out – but she opted not to voice her disdain, as previous characterisation has suggested she was a more tactful soul than that. Still, she couldn’t help wondering why the village elders would allow someone with such a thin skull to stand guard.
‘Who hit you?’ she asked, anxious to gain at least one answer before he ran away or wet himself, as traumatised cowards are wont to do.
‘I don’t know do I,’ he grumbled, rubbing the lump on his head, ‘I was unconscious at the time. I don’t think it was a who, though.’ He leaned towards her in a conspiratorial sort of way. ‘I think it was a what.’
Since she was a child Jala had heard whispers of old magic, of creatures that were not creatures, of the curses that lay heavy over the land to the south. Older members of the tribe had gleaned snippets of information from their forefathers and cobbled together the notion they had not always lived in the farthest flung parts of the North, but had been chased there by something Other. As new generations were born they scoffed at this notion, saying the tribe had far too many warriors to allow themselves to be chased anywhere. But the story persisted, saying that the Other could not be fought with steel alone. They were strong and terrible and, in most versions of the tale, without physical form. But there was nothing for them in the dark and the north, so amongst the ice and snow the tribe was safe.
Jala had never completely believed these tales, even when she was small and impressionable. She saw tales of the Other as stories designed to frighten little ones into doing as they were told. But now, so far from her home and in the presence of this terrified man, she wondered if there might be some truth to the tale after all. She found her hand had gone to her pocket, patting the place where the ice serpent’s teeth lay. Had her mother believed in the legends of the Other?
‘What do you mean, you think it was a what?’ Jala began, when all at once the sentry’s eyes rolled back in his head and he toppled forward, face first onto the ground. He twitched a couple of times, as one might do when bitten by something venomous, then lay very still.
Jala nudged him gently with her foot, but he made no sound. Hunkering down in the dirt beside his head, she turned the man over. His face was frozen in a mask of surprise, mud collected in his nostrils. He was completely dead.
‘Huh,’ Jala got to her feet, ‘that was unexpected.’
She pulled his helmet out of his hand – he wasn’t going to need it anymore, after all – and pulled it on over her own head. Disguise was not something she relished – she preferred to face the world on her own terms – but if there was anyone alive in the settlement, they would presumably be so terrified they would shoot first and ask questions later.
Jala carefully pushed open the gate and stepped inside. Before her lay a muddied track, strewn with indicators of interrupted life. A bag of grain had been dropped, the contents scattered everywhere, and at the blacksmith’s dwelling the embers of a fire glowed – the source of one of the tendrils of smoke she had seen from the road.
She moved forward, looking for signs of movement, but all was eerily silent. She was about to risk calling out a greeting when she heard a clatter from inside one of the dwellings, the sound of something falling to the floor.
Without pausing to think Jala pushed open the door and instantly something warm fell on her from above, biting and clawing. She grabbed the creature and pulled it off her, holding it in front of her by the scruff of its neck. It was a stoat, small and scrappy looking, with bald patches and a defiant look about it.
‘If I release you,’ Jala told the creature sternly, wishing once more that she had Fyůlra’s gift, ‘you must promise not to attack me again. I don’t mean any harm, I am merely passing through.’
She stared at the animal gravely. It stared back. There was no way of telling what it thought, and she couldn’t stand here talking to it all day. She set the animal down on the earthen floor, and it scurried underneath a hammock in the far corner of the room where it glared balefully at her from the shadows.
‘You’re not Gravatt,’ said a voice behind her. Jala whirled around, weapon at the ready – to see a small, dirty child peering from behind sackcloth hung to separate the hut into two spaces. ‘Why are you wearing his helmet?’
‘I borrowed it,’ Jala replied. ‘He… doesn’t really need it any more.’
‘They got him to then,’ the child nodded. ‘I thought they would. They got everyone else. Everyone except for me.’
It was a girl, Jala decided, although it was hard to tell just by looking at her. She had the same shaggy hairstyle as Gravatt the sentry and was dressed in a shapeless smock.
‘What happened here?’ Jala asked.
‘I don’t really know,’ the girl said, ‘I was in the cellar under the house. All I heard was shouting, and then there was nothing for a long while. I stayed down there all morning to make sure, then I had to dig my way out again because the trap door got stuck shut.’ She pointed to a large chest in the middle of the room – ‘I think they put that there on purpose – my parents, I mean – to protect me.’
Jala nodded – it was a sensible move. Probably the parents thought they would get back somehow and move the chest out of the way so she could climb out again.
‘I’m Freya,’ the small girl volunteered. ‘Who are you?’
‘Were you wanting to help fight the monsters?’ Freya enquired hopefully, ‘are you a mercenary? Or were you just passing through as you told Marek?’
‘Marek?’ Jala said, then she followed Freya’s gaze to the guard stoat. ‘Passing through,’ she confirmed. ‘What monsters?’
‘The ones that’ve been ransacking the countryside,’ Freya said, as though talking to a particularly stupid child. ‘The ones that did this to the village.’
‘I know nothing of any monsters. I only wanted a place to buy provisions, somewhere to rest for the night. I did not expect to find this when I came here. Perhaps I should have gone East towards the woods after all.’
‘Oh,’ Freya was disappointed, ‘I hoped maybe you’d be a mercenary. I thought you could help me fight them.’
Jala smiled. She would have been the first to go after the monsters at that age, but times were different now. She fought to survive, but she did not deliberately seek out trouble. Or did she?
‘How are you at fighting?’ she asked.
‘I’m OK,’ the girl said. ‘I mean, my father’s the village carpenter… so mostly I make things out of wood. But, I made myself a wooden sword, and I practice with that. And I’m good at chopping, too – I have my very own axe.’
‘A sword and an axe,’ Jala smiled, ‘very good. But do you have any ideas where we should look for the monsters?’
‘Not yet,’ Freya admitted, ‘but the runes will know. We’ll have to wait for moonshine before they tell us, though.’
‘Runes? Do you mean those carvings around the gate?’
‘Yes, that’s right. They were carved there by my great great grandfather to protect the village and tell us what to do in times of crisis.’
Jala snorted. This sounded like superstition rearing its head – magic cannot protect a village, only strength can do that. She thought of her own people, of the warriors who had protected them for decades. They would never disappear without a trace – they would die with blood on their swords and fire in their eyes. There again, had that always been the case? Had they once fled the same monsters that now tormented Freya?
‘When you say moonshine, do you just mean night?’ Jala asked, ‘or do you mean a very specific night when the moon is full and sitting in just the right part of the sky?’
‘A very specific night,’ Freya said with a frown, ‘the runes couldn’t just talk every night, could they? That would just be silly.’
‘Right,’ Jala said, ‘and when will this moonshine occur?’
‘Three sleeps from now,’ Freya replied.
It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared – she’d been half expecting the child to ask her to hang around for a whole cycle – but three days in this ghost village with nothing to do would be agonising. Not to mention potentially dangerous – quite apart from the mysterious disappearance of the population, if any chancers happened along the road and found a deserted village they’d be in there looting in an instant.
‘I don’t know,’ Jala said, ‘is there anything else we could use? Apart from the runes? A map, maybe, or a magic… spoon?’
Freya shook gazed at her pityingly.
‘You don’t have to stay,’ she pointed out, ‘this is not your village. I just thought the fight might appeal to you, as a barbarian. I have heard your people like violence more than anything.’
Jala smiled at the crude attempt at manipulation. This tired trope about barbarians was something she had expected to hear – admittedly not from the lips of a child – but there were more effective ways to wound than words. Sharp sticks, for example, or large rocks.
‘And what will you do if I leave?’ she asked the girl.
‘Wait for the moonshine,’ Freya said. ‘When the runes glow silver I will read them, and understand where my people have gone. And then I will go to their aid, and the aid of all the other villages the Others have stolen this year.’
Jala considered the response. The child was surely clinging on to a false hope about these runes – for even if they did glow as she described how would she know what to make of their message? On the other hand, if they did contain some clue as to the mystery of what happened here, the adventure could be just what she was looking for – the reason Linna had sent her away.
She looked at Freya’s grubby face, and made her decision.
Voting closed Sunday 26th of May