Master Buckley, Orna, and Nightwalkers
Glyn Buckley tried to guide the talk in the common room of his inn to another topic. It wouldn’t do to forbid the tall tales, especially to half-grown whiffets like that bunch. That would just make the young men more determined to tell them.
However, there and been enough bad goings-on without tales of nightwalkers. The innkeeper would never forget the night a parade of dead from the fever days demanded entrance to the Stillwater Inn. Nor would anyone who had been there that night.
“In that case, Bricen, you’d best hurry home. And you too, Arlen Faxon. It’s a long ride back to Llyn Crag and your bride will be complaining to your in-laws about you being gone. The gloaming’s already here and dark comes behind it. They say nightwalkers prey on young men,” Guto Cadell warned gleefully.
“Ain’t that old fool, Guto worried that he’s blaspheming his great he-god?” Orna muttered from the kitchen. “None of the deities of old were to be trusted, the he-gods especially. All the time fighting among themselves. Taint no wonder folks stopped worshiping ‘em. Tricksters many of them was too. Beholding to no law but themselves.”
Glyn was relieved that none of the men heard. Too many of them worshiped Un’Naf. Although those who frequented the common room were not as fanatical as some, having the wrong word get back to the elders was dangerous. None of them could be trusted, as far as the innkeeper was concerned.
The Brethren of Un’Naf had begun claiming that their god was not just more powerful than any of the old gods and goddesses, but that he was all powerful, omnipotent. That was not in any of the old teachings. None of the ancient deities had supreme power, including Un’Naf.
“It’s true. All true! You know those hunters from Llyn Crag were drained of blood. Nightwalkers come for hunters because they smell blood on ’em. And they can’t be killed except by the Sword of Gwil!” Arlen, Afon Faxon’s son exclaimed.
Glyn Buckley knew more about that small hunting party from Llyn Crag than he let on to his patrons. The innkeeper had taken a shortcut on his way to get supplies. He came upon a group of men at the scene of the killings. His stomach lurched at the memory. Buckley swore that he’d never stray from the road again.
The Faxon boy was right. Every one of those men were killed — long deep slashes on their backs, like from an animal’s claws. Yet those gashes weren’t spaced like an animal’s talons would be. The bodies were bloodless. There should have been ankle-deep pools of blood on the ground, but there were none. He shivered at the gruesome nature of the scene.
From the corner of his eye, Buckley caught sight of Orna. Her long blonde braid had more gray in it than it had a year before, but that sort of talk still set her on edge. The cook believed too many folktales. Although, he’d seen enough of late to make him wonder what was real and what was a tale. If he couldn’t steer the conversations, then he’d best at least get Orna away from it. If she got all worked up about tall tales, she might accidentally set the kitchen on fire.
“What lovely aroma is that, Orna?” he asked, taking the cook’s elbow to guide her away from the talk.
“Iron. My grand-da said iron would kill a nightwalker, or least wise keep them away… There was only one Sword of Gwil. If nothing else could kill them, the world would’ve been overrun,” she muttered, moving her long braid aside. “Huh? What was that, Glyn? Oh, I just took out a tray of apple dumplings. Let’s fix you one and maybe a cold glass of cow’s milk?”
Walking into the kitchen, Master Buckley hesitated at a window. He glimpsed something move in the distance.
A woman? he wondered. But now she’s gone. Just a trick of the twilight. It had to be.
He kept the thought to himself. Orna was already agitated.
No sooner had the cook mentioned the cow than the beast let out a hideous bawling cry. Orna’s face paled. Glyn knew the cow was safely in the stable, but he rushed to the window with Orna. The horses started up a clamor that sounded like they might tear down the stable. A from staggered out and fell to the ground, but another streaked into the darkness.
Glyn grabbed a torch and stuck it into the stove to light it. When he straightened, Orna was there handing him a fireplace poker. The cook held long tongs in her other hand.
“Iron. Works better than fire,” she stated, following him out the door despite his protests.
She couldn’t be right. Whatever or even whoever killed those hunters, nightwalkers were just stories. With his jaw set, Buckley ran across the yard, Orna right on his heels. She loved that cow like it was a person.
Orna’s face blanched even whiter than it already was, a greater fear came to her. They turned to see a little boy with strawberry blond hair, with a bit that stood up at the back of his head. It was the cook’s grandson.
“Bode… Goddess preserve us,” she muttered.
“Nanna you promised a bedtime story,” the child called as he started down the steps.
One of the young men from the common room peered out the door curiously. His eyes were wide. Glyn knew the ruckus from the cow and horses would have scared anyone who heard it right after the tales those fools were telling.
“Arlen Faxon show a lick of sense and get the boy back inside. And shut the door!” Orna yelled before Glyn had a chance to speak.
Arlen hesitated, but complied when Glyn nodded to him. At the sound of the door firmly closing, Master Buckley moved toward the fallen pale form. The long dress billowed in a gust of wind. It was a woman. Her breath rasped as she gazed at him with nearly colorless eyes. She extended a hand toward him. All of her fingernails were at least two inches long and claw-like.
He gasped and took a step backward. Orna fervently muttered words he didn’t know. It was the language of her home. She looked at the headwound on the woman and clicked her tongue.
“Horseshoes are iron. When it broke the skin, it must’ve weakened her, but she’s not dead. Quick, Glyn! Stab it with the iron poker. That’s no woman!” Orna cried.
Glyn swallowed. Whatever the creature was, it looked human… or mostly so… It was injured and defenseless. He tried, but couldn’t make himself raise a hand to her. Or rather, it.
The claw-fingered hand dropped and the colorless eyes closed. Shifting the torch, Glyn saw the mark left by a horseshoe on her forehead.
Orna shrieked as the second nightwalker rushed back out of the woods. It moved impossibly fast. In one moment, it was a hundred paces distant. In the next it was right there. Glyn had not seen it approach.
The innkeeper turned to face the direction of Orna’s terrified gaze. It was pure chance that caused Glyn to have the poker held at the right angle. When he turned suddenly, the supernatural speed of the approaching nightwalker caused her to impale herself on the iron tool.
While Glyn was distracted the first seemingly dying creature got to her feet. She lunged awkwardly. Orna didn’t share Glyn’s misgivings. With the fireplace tongs in a two-handed grip, the cook swung them into the nightwalker’s head. The iron landed with a wet thwack. Dark blood oozed from the creature’s head, then it began to sizzle against the iron.
The innkeeper’s attention returned to the second nightwalker, the one who was pierced by the poker. The weight of the impaled creature dragged Glyn’s hand downward as she fell. He heard a similar sizzling sound, but it came from inside the nightwalker, where the poker went through her body.
“There’s more of ‘em out there!” Orna hissed.
Rustling noises came from the woods. It sounded like a dozen people walking steadily through the forest. As the sounds grew closer, he could make out their pale shapes moving among the trees.
“Get back inside, Orna,” Glyn told her, but his own feet seemed rooted to the spot.
He yelped when lightning abruptly split the sky. A loud blast of thunder cracked as a tree exploded in fire. Wind buffeted the innkeeper and the cook. It came from the direction of the llyn.
A cacophony like dozens of braying mules rose up with the winds. In the twilight he watched as a great funnel cloud took shape, uprooting trees and demolishing barns as it approached. The noise got louder as the size of the cloud grew.
“A waterspout!” Orna exclaimed.
Although it was no ordinary storm. Lightning shot out of the waterspout. Tornadic winds howled. The pale shapes moving in the woods stopped.
“I heard tell that tornadoes and waterspouts could hop, but I’ve never seen one to know if it were true,” he muttered.
Then it did precisely that. The distant whirlwind rose up above the llyn and in a heartbeat it was over the forest at the end of Buckley’s property. It was so close that the wind pulled thatching off the stable’s roof. Half the paddock fencing was pulled away. Then a chicken coop flew into the waterspout too.
The roar of the twisting wind was deafening. Although louder still were the shrieks that came from the woods. Hearing them made Glyn’s blood run cold. Human-looking forms were sucked up into the funnel cloud.
Lightning shook the earth as it struck repeatedly. The screams of the group of nightwalkers became faint as the waterspout lifted higher into the sky. Then it was gone.
“Just gone… The air’s as still as if it was never there to begin with,” Glyn murmured. “Except for all the damage it did,” he added as he surveyed the devastation that came within feet of his inn.
“Coventina…” Orna whispered.
Orna looked him in wide-eyed amazement. Abruptly she turned on her heel and ran for the stable, to check on her cow. From the relieved tone of her voice and the reassuring words she spoke, Glyn knew the animal was unharmed.
The sizzling noise was faint but it drew his eyes back to the two creatures they had killed. All that remained was a goo that was not unlike rendered tallow for making soap. That and smoldering cloth.
His stomach pitched and he vomited. Glyn wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Then he straightened his shoulders and walked to the stable to see for himself that the animals were well.
Dead of Winter — All the Journeys
Universal Purchase Links
Journey 13, The Harbor
Journey 12, Goddesses
Journey 11, the Sumelazon Escarpment
Journey 10, Pergesca
Journey 9, Doors of Attunement
Journey 8, The Lost Library
Journey 7, Revenant Pass
Journey 6, The Fluting Fell
Journey 5, Llyn Pistyll Falls
Journey 4, The Old Road
Journey 3, the Fever Field
Journey 2, Penllyn
Journey 1, Forlorn Peak
Wishing you an easy coast down the other side of this midweek hump. I love to hear from you, so friendly comments are encouraged. Hugs on the wing!
This is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.
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