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Fantasy Fiction Friendship

Clank! Clank! Clank!


The sound of a hammer striking anvil pulled my gaze, and then, I saw him. His skin was dark-grey like ash and his eyes fiery red, glowing beneath the black tarp of his blacksmith shop. Wind blew wintry-cold through his long and coal-black hair. He looked up as I stared and I quickly broke eye contact. Father approached holding a small crate with a clucking hen within.


‘Go on now. Hornbluds deserve good cheer of the dawning winter solstice too,’ he said, shoving the small crate into my arms. The fowl clucked and looked up into my eyes, as if begging not to be given to the beast.


‘Must I, father?’ I asked.


My question was met with hard stare.


‘Efrideet…’ warned Father. Seldom was the time he called me by my full name. I had no choice.


The hot grasp of dread enclosed itself around my neck like a vice, making it difficult to swallow. I did anyway and forced my feet to move to the dark shop.


Before I knew it, I stood just before his anvil, gazing up into the giant of a creature. The hard features of his face and rough skin nearly made me faint. I gathered what little courage I had and held the crate out to him.


‘What must I give in return?’ he asked in a thick eastern accent.


‘’Tis a gift. Do you not know how gifts work?’ I asked, risking a second glance at his face. His eyes glowed orange and pierced through me. He wore neither shirt nor coat. His arms were strewn with muscle and were covered in scars. He knelt and still was taller than I was.


‘What must I do with this?’


‘Kill it. Cook it. Eat it, of course. It's the winter solstice!’ I exclaimed, nervously digging the tip of my toe into snow.


‘Gratitude.’ 


I threw the crate into his gigantic arms and rushed back to father. Finding myself at his side, I turned to the Hornblud that had finally calmed the upset hen down.


‘There, I did it.’


The Hornblud nodded at my father and he returned the gesture.

‘Well done, Deet. No one should be devoid of cheer in this season,’ said father, with a wide smile. I turned as mother approached, carrying a bundle of spices and bread beneath her arm.


‘We must go, Hestyn. The collectors have arrived. If they see us they could hurt us,’ said mother.


Father’s smile faded he spotted a group of armed men enter the marketplace. They wore ragged black clothes and had cruel-looking cudgels and rusty blades attached to their belts.


‘Come, we will return to the marketplace tomorrow when they are still recovering from a night of heavy drinking,’ said Father.


We made our way back to our home on the outskirts of Shieftree Village. Our cow, Iva, greeted us with a cheery moo and the warmth of our cabin draped itself around my shoulders. I was glad to be home. Father butchered our hen and mother cooked the meat and before long the cabin smelt of delicious stew and cayenne. The meal tasted even better.


Just as sleep was about to usher me to bed, a sharp knock broke the pleasant stillness of the night.


‘A visitor? At this hour of the night, Hestyn?’


‘So it seems,’ said Father, as he stood up and went to the door. Before he had lifted the latch the door burst into splintered pieces, tossing him onto his back.


Mother rushed to the kitchen table and grabbed a paring knife. I sat up as three men entered the cabin.


‘Hestyn! You had a feast here and did not deign to invite us? How rude,’ said one with a cruel scar running from forehead across to his chin, presumably the leader. His beady eyes swept the cabin and he scratched at his patchy beard.


The other two brutes, from the north, judging by their pale skin and black hair, entered behind him with equally malicious grins.


‘Please, Raynwuld,’ spoke Father, getting up to his knees. ‘My pelts didn’t sell as well as I would have liked. Tomorrow I will gain all that I have left and pay what I owe you. No need for any of this.’


‘You said that last time and I told you I wouldn’t knock so pleasantly. You see, I am a man of my word and clearly you are not.’


‘Leave us alone you cockless bastards!’ shouted Mother.


‘Oh my. Fiery language like that in front of your daughter? Lacking parenting, don’t you think boys?’ asked Raynwuld to the laughter of his men. ‘Please, put that down before you hurt yourself.’


Mother darted at the nearest collector and swung her knife slicing into his arm. The man, in shock, backhanded her so hard, she fell to the ground.


‘No!’ shouted Father.


‘Bitch!’ grunted the collector, cradling his arm.


Raynwuld crowed in laughter. ‘She has so much fight in her. How did you ever land yourself a lass with so much spirit, Hestyn? Oh my, I feel I should be bargaining with her not you. At least she has a spine.’


A collector grabbed Father by the collar of his shirt and lifted him up off the floor.


‘What is your wife’s name, Hestyn?’ asked Raynwuld, staring needles into Father’s eyes.


Silence.


‘Either tell me her name or I carve her unborn child from her belly right here and now.’


‘Gabrielle.’


Raynwuld turned and walked before her, touching her brown locks of hair. ‘Listen to me, Gabrielle. You have swayed me. I will bring the loan amount your husband owes down but I will also decrease the time. I expect one-hundred silver coins by tomorrow. I believe that is fair considering the amount of trouble you have given us. If not, Hestyn’s head is forfeit.’


Mother spat at his cheek.


Raynwuld glared at her and wiped the spittle from his face. ‘Wrong move. Let me show you how serious I am.’


He dropped Father on the ground and kicked him hard in the stomach. The other two joined in and began kicking and punching as hard as they could. Father grunted and tried to shield himself but the attacks were too strong. Then, he stopped moving. 


‘No! Please!’ I screamed into the darkness of the outside. ‘Someone. Anyone! Help!’


‘No one will answer you little one. Perhaps the wind will rush to your call,’ said a collector, blood belonging to Father dripping from his knuckles.


Mother’s glare instantly softened.


Raynwuld grabbed Father by the hair and swung a punch with all his might. I jumped up and ran at them. I punched Raynwuld’s leg with all the strength I could muster and leaned in to bite but he slapped me away hard forcing me to the floor.


My vision swam and I saw stars.


‘Enough!’ said Mother.


‘Ah, she can be broken. Come to your senses, Gabrielle?’ said Raynwuld as he and his collectors ceased to beat Father. ‘Good. Now we are forced to take your husband as collateral. I expect to see you by the end of tomorrow, or else.’


The other collector grabbed Father’s unconscious body and lifted him over his shoulder and they disappeared into the night.


Mother jumped up and gave me a fierce hug. Tears dripped from her cheeks and she sobbed quietly. I cried with her.


‘What will we do, mother?’


‘I must sell Iva at the market in Roggenstelt. It’s the only way we can even get close to finding that much coin to pay for your father’s release.’


‘Not Iva,’ I protested. ‘She is family.’


Mother ignored my words. ‘You must go to Shieftree market square in the early morning and sell what you can in pelts, Deet. We cannot lose Hestyn and I don’t think they are bluffing.’


‘Why don’t I go with you to Roggenstelt?’


‘Our pelts don’t sell well there. We have to split up to get the coin we need for your father. I already have a buyer there so I will return to you as fast as I can. You have to be a big girl now. Do whatever you can to sell those pelts.’

***

Her words echoed in my ears as I spread out my father’s pelts beneath the tarp of my stall in the market square. My eye and cheek had become swollen so I could only see out of one eye to set everything up.


The rustling of movement alerted me to someone at my stall.


‘We have ruskalan leather in stock, good sir. The sturdiest leather in the land. It will make great shields and armor. If you know your worth, you should consider purchase,’ I gazed up at the visitor and froze. It was the Hornblud. He held the hen beneath his arm.


‘You are supposed to eat that, not make it your pet,’ I said.


‘Our kind does not eat birds. Her name is Sasha. She is not pet. She is friend,’ said the Hornblud in his deep voice. The hen clucked happily under his arm. Then, his expression changed. A hard frown spread across his face. He knelt before me and lifted my chin with his finger. I could contain it no longer as tears flooded my vision. I sobbed quietly but uncontrollably.


The Hornblud looked around the waking market. ‘Where is your Father?’


‘The collectors have him. They beat him and took him hostage. I beg you, purchase one of my pelts. I need to pay for his release.’


He stood up and raised his hen to look into her eyes.


‘You must watch over her shop, Sasha. I will return shortly,’ he said to the hen. The avian, almost like it understood, clucked loudly and, when he had set her down, raced to her perch atop the tarp like a winged watchdog.


He laced his hammer to his belt and grabbed me by the hand.


‘What are you doing?’


He didn’t answer but instead we marched through the market and through the streets of Shieftree Village. The lack of hesitation or fear in his movements was contagious, spreading to my own footsteps that paced with anticipation.


‘What is your name?’ I asked.


He didn’t answer.


‘My name is Efrideet, but everyone simply calls me Deet.’


‘Otta,’ said the Hornblud without further words. The muscles in his jaw pulsated. He was preparing for a fight. 


We reached the House of Collections. Four men stood outside. Two of them were asleep with empty mead casks in hand but the other two were wide awake. Raynwuld appeared from within and gave a cruel smile.


Otta stopped a few paces away.


I gasped as my eyes saw a man in a stockade, bloodied and beaten. ‘Father!’


Raynwuld scratched at his beard with a devious grin. ‘I was half expecting your mother, Gabrielle, to show up. We would have shown her a good time, of that I assure you kid. What are you doing in the presence of a filthy Hornblud?’


‘How much does Hestyn owe?’ asked the Hornblud.


‘Way more than you could ever possess,’ snapped Raynwuld.


‘Silence your tongue! Gold speaks.’ The Hornblud unlaced a pouch from his belt and tossed it to the ground, the gold contents within spilling into the mud. ‘Enough for his release, no matter the price.’

Raynwuld’s smile faded. ‘Why would one of your kind pay for the release of a man? I was sure your kind hated us for what we did to you. Wait, what did we do? Do any of you boys remember?’


‘Aye!’ said one of his henchmen. ‘We nearly exterminated them grey bastards at the Battle of the Murklands. This of course after we raped their woman and murdered their children.’


‘Ah, yes. That’s right,’ said Raynwuld as he approached the Hornblud, stepping on the bag of coins into the mud. ‘I was there ten years past. It was a long and hard campaign.’


The Hornblud clenched his jaw. ‘Take coin, now. We leave in peace.’

‘You probably fought in the war, judging by your size. I’ll bet you were in the Murklands too. I’ll bet you cut down our fellow infantry-men by the dozen,’ said Raynwuld. As he spoke, the collectors began to surround us. With hateful stares, they drew their weapons. The Hornblud gave a resigned sigh, tied his long black hair behind his back with a red string, unlaced his hammer, and pushed me behind him softly. ‘Stay close, little one.’


‘He must pay for his war-crimes,’ said a henchman.


‘Oh, he will,’ smirked Raynwuld.


One arrow buzzed at the Hornblud striking at his shoulder. He grunted but turned as a collector charged at his back with cudgel raised. Otta stopped the blow clutching at the barbed wood with his bare-hand, blood dripped down his arm. For one split second, the collector stared into the face of the Hornblud. Otta’s face transformed into that of a daemon as his eyes flashed bright orange and he bared his sharpened teeth. He bit the collector in the neck and tore flesh and sinew. The collector fell to the ground with shock etched on his face, squirming as blood spewed from his open neck wound.


Otta snorted and threw his hammer at the archer, making his arrow fly wide. It smashed into his foot ushering a blood-curling scream. He dropped his bow and pulled the hammer from his foot, moaning and curling up in pain.


Raynwuld held his hand up, a dejected look etched on his face.

‘Enough! I understand now we are outmatched. A Hornblud wouldn’t know how to fight humans unless he had fought in the wars. You do realize if you kill me, you will be hunted down like the dog you are, don’t you?’


‘Why shouldn’t I kill you all right here and now?’ asked Otta. ‘As you very well said, I did fight in the wars. I could end you all right now before the sun rises any further.’


‘Because you don’t just put yourself at risk. If you touch any one more of my men, Lord Targwin will hear about this and that girl will pay the price. Hestyn and Gabrielle will meet the same hunt if you strike my men again.’


Otta grunted and cast a sideways glance at me.


‘Ah, you actually have a soft spot for them. How endearing.’


‘How can I trust you won’t do so anyway?’


‘I picked the fight, I pay the price,’ said Raynwuld. ‘On my honor, despite your doubts, I will not pursue if you leave now.’


‘I will leave Shieftree Village in peace. The gold is yours as is rightful payment for Hestyn’s debt.’


‘Agreed. I will allow it,’ said Raynwuld, turning to two other of his men who appeared more than relieved that the fighting was over and they wouldn’t have to face the horned giant.


They lifted the wooden lock of the stockade and Father fell to the ground. I ran to him and embraced him. ‘Father.’


He was shaking and his skin was cold to the touch, but he was still breathing.


‘Help me!’ I cried.


Otta walked to Raynwuld and picked the hammer up from the ground.


‘You will pay for that,’ sneered the collector.


Otta laced his hammer to his belt, turned and picked Father up in his arms as if he weighed no more than a sack of potatoes.


We reached the market place and Mother was there with a worried look on her face.


‘Deet! I was looking for you everywhere. I sold Iva for much more than I thought possible. We can pay of Hestyn’s debt!…’ her words were interrupted as she saw Otta carrying her bloodied husband.


‘What in the hell?’


‘He saved us, Mother,’ I said, tears trailing down my cheeks. ‘He paid our debt.’


‘We cannot stay. They will return for retribution, one way or another,’ said Otta. He turned to his blacksmith shop. ‘Sasha!’

A clucking hen came racing out and in one jump and flurry of flapping wings landed on his shoulder.


‘Is that the hen for the winter solstice?’ asked Mother.


‘It is. His kind doesn’t eat birds, it seems,’ I said.


Father groaned in Otta’s arms.


‘We must return to the farm,’ said Mother.

***

It was nightfall by the time we arrived at the farm. Once in the warmth of our log cabin, Father was put to bed with cleaned wounds and fresh bandages.


‘He would recover soon. He was beaten and cut but no infection nor serious injury has befallen him,’ said Otta in his thick accent. ‘Should he make a bad turn in health, give him one drop of this.’ He pulled a red elixir in a bottle the size of his hand. The liquid bubbled as he set it on the table. ‘One drop is enough and he will be sickly for an hour. Afterwards, he will feel himself a new man. Two drops will kill him. Only use this if there is no other alternative.’


‘Thank you, Otta. I do not know how to repay you,’ I said.


‘’Tis a gift. Do you not know how gifts work?’


I smiled. He stood up and Sasha clucked jumping into his arms.


‘I must go,’ said Otta.


‘You cannot stay the night?’ asked Mother. ‘It’s growing dark and cold.’


‘My kind are not affected by the cold and I can see in the dark just fine. The collectors will be looking for me. I will not give them a reason to hurt you. I will leave but I will not stray far. I will keep an eye on you for a while to make sure you are safe. Before long, they will lose interest and find another victim to harass. Until then, I will be nearby, though I doubt you will ever see me again.’


With that, he turned and left the wooden cabin with a wave and Sasha clucked off into the growing darkness of the night.

December 24, 2020 20:37

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