|The Tale of the Smith
Author: Guede Mazaka
He was too tall, his shoulders too broad in the cramped doorway with its notches and splinters and splits from the winter’s blasting wind. His hair curled from beneath the ragged piece of cloth that bound his cap to his head like the fanciful scrolling needlepoint with which girls decorated their dowry linens, and where the firelight touched it the strands were burning gold, not sober black or dusty brown. His face was too fair for his hands, great brown callused things with old scars barring their backs, and his eyes above all were too strange: a witch-green, like the foxfire that sometimes danced in the forests. He came alone, with a wagon and two good oxen but without any family spilling in behind him, and plunged from the first snowfall of the year into the watchful silence of the tavern.
“Jens Lehmann,” he named himself, gazing about the room. The dying rays of the sun outlined him in red, like some old mountain god driven into demonhood by the Church, and several of the older women crossed themselves. His eyes touched on them and a sarcastic smile tugged at his mouth, but he remained still and quiet till Per the innkeeper had risen. “I’m a blacksmith, looking for a village.”
“Well, you’ve found one, but I think you’ll like a warm place to spend the night first. My name is Per and I keep the inn here. I have a room free and charge—” Per began.
Jens made a gesture with his hand, short and peremptory, and down by the hearth Timo paused from restacking the logs to look up, and over by the door Bastian and Lukas spared a moment from their bickering to watch as well. Strangers were a rare thing in this part of the country, where every day in the sun was a reprieve from the hunger of the great crouching forest, and since the plague had swept through they could be a grave danger as well.
“I have no need. I don’t wish to disturb anyone if I have no cause,” Jens said. He looked healthy enough, but still when he eased further into the room, Timo suddenly rose with poker in hand. And Jens marked him, gaze thoughtful, before turning back to Per. “I don’t have money. I need work.”
The wind blew up then, snatching at the man’s scarf till it fell away on one side and bared his cheek and throat. He caught the end and ducked his head, preparing to throw the cloth back around himself, and the firelight threw a golden cast over a large pockmark behind his ear, ugly but long-healed.
“There’s work.” Per dusted off a hand on his apron and came nearer, finally risking that slow, gentle smile that made him such a favorite in the village, and before the great death among the travelers as well. “I’m sorry if our hospitality’s been a little cold, but yes, we do need a smith and you’d be welcome here. But night’s coming down and it’s too late to find a place for yourself. Stay here and tomorrow morning we’ll show you around.”
Jens looked at him and then around the room, hand still holding the cloth. Then he pulled the band from his head, and the cap with it so everyone could see the scar the plague had left on him. His eyes never warmed, though they caught up the light from the fire in their uncanny glow. “There’s an hour of light left, and my oxen—”
“We’ve got room. Not here—the stables are a different building, but Timo can show you over now. He’ll take care of them, you have my word,” Per said. By the time he’d twisted on his heel to nod at Timo, the other man had laid down the poker and was blandly tossing a handful of pinecones onto the fire to keep the smell sweet.
But Jens still hesitated, and without giving a reason for his strange concern. He watched Per like the rest of the room watched him.
“I’m sorry,” Per said again. He blinked, breathed carefully, for though he was a calm one to whom any mother would trust their child, he was not in the habit of bending his neck unnecessarily. “But it’s not healthy to stay out later than this. Since…since the plague came and there aren’t enough men to go hunting, the wolves have gotten bold here. They come down from the hills early, and roam very close to town.”
After another moment, Jens nodded and came all the way inside. He still kept a hand on the jamb till Timo made his way to him, and then the two of them went out to drive the wagon to the stables and unhitch the oxen. Jens was silent and the falling snow dampened the creaks and groans of the wagon, and the tired lowing of the oxen, till the whole world seemed in danger of quietly drifting into the clutches of snow-sleep.
Timo hunched his shoulders, then rolled them against the prickling. A hook of cold air twisted into his mouth and down his throat and he coughed, causing Jens to glance at him. He gazed steadily back for a few seconds, but was glad enough to turn away to unlock the stable doors. “The old inn—it was burned last year. There was a merchant traveling with his family, and they all died of the plague in it, and so it was set on fire. Half the town’s like that. This used to belong to a rich farmer, and the new inn used to be his servants’ quarters.”
“I see,” was all Jens said. He helped settle the oxen, and then to push the wagon into an empty stall. It was heavy and when they were done Timo had a bruise on his shoulder, but Jens seemed unaffected. He looked around the stables with the same cool, assessing look he’d had in the tavern.
A long, high-pitched sound suddenly soared in the air, crisp despite the wooden walls and then the snow. And Timo saw with some relief that the wolf’s howl did startle the other man, though then Jens merely nodded, as if noting that Per had not lied. That did irk him, though of course Jens hadn’t grown up with Per watching his back during fall raids into the fruit orchards, and he harshly asked the man where he was from.
“Essen.” Jens glanced at Timo, then grabbed the wagon’s footboard and casually pulled himself onto it. He bent over and took out a few smaller bags from the large, misshapen leathery ones that filled the wagon, then gracefully climbed back down. “It’s in the Ruhr valley.”
Timo had only the vaguest idea where that was, but he had heard of it and there was some comfort to be taken in that. “When did the plague come to you?”
The wolf howled again, and Jens pivoted on his heel to look at him, eyes now gray like the darkening sky just beyond. Then he snorted, hitched a shoulder, and walked out the door without another word.
“We just buried our last dead a few months ago,” Timo called after him, lack of knowledge stirring up his temper. He exhaled and his breath fogged before him, and then he shouldered through the cooling mist and went out after the other man.
But to his surprise Jens had gone no farther than the door, and now had the lock in his hands, turning it over and over. He didn’t look up at Timo. “I could make a better one than this.”
“Our old smith, Olli—he died of plague. Back then there were enough people—he wanted to be buried under his forge, and so we did. Nobody’s lived there since.” A chorus of wolf-cries came from the encroaching forest and Timo glanced nervously at the black wall of trees. Then he put his hand on the door and slowly pulled it away from the other man. “They say the cold will keep it away, but it hasn’t been long enough for us to know.”
“It keeps the people away. I haven’t seen anyone in days, since the last town,” Jens said, looking up. He drew his brows down a little as Timo continued to haul at the doors. Then he turned and his shoulders stiffened as Bastian, a shawl now bundled over his shoulders and a steaming pot swinging from his hand, came towards them.
Timo held the other door for Bastian and then shoved the man in before he could talk. He nodded towards the trees. “They’re fierce, like Per said. For miles around the roads are theirs, and especially in winter…you’re the first to come here in weeks.” A loud rattling interrupted him and he ducked his head against the snow the blast of wind drove up against his face, then looked at Jens again. “You should go back now. We’re locking ourselves in to watch for the night.”
The man gazed at him, and in Jens’ face was understanding of the suspicion and the slight in Timo’s words so Timo almost felt shame burn into his cheeks. But then Jens shrugged again, and threw his scarf over his head as he turned so the mark of the plague was once more hidden.
* * *
It was a small village, though those that lived in it still called it ‘town,’ and Jens doubted that it would soon recover its size. The trade routes that had let it grow so before the great death had come were all but abandoned now, and not enough people were along them now to attract the interest of merchants. But there seemed to be some order kept, with no sign of those crazed trains of Flagellants, and where wolves threatened was also rich supplies of game and furs. He thought it would do.
Jens laid back on his bed, hearing the thongs that carried the mattress’ weight groan, and closed his eyes. His pillow was hard from the hammer that he’d placed beneath it, but he’d slept on harder and so that shouldn’t keep sleep at bay. The place was well-built so he heard little from the rest of the inn, and anyway the tavern had all but emptied by the time he’d returned from the stables, everyone hurrying home to bar themselves in like those two boys. They seemed too wrapped up in their own fears, but nevertheless he had propped a stool against his door to ensure an undisturbed rest. He closed his eyes.
A wolf snarled, so loud that he started up with his hand slipping to his hammer, expecting the beast to already be leaping upon him.
But the room was still empty, and he was alone. Jens stared into the darkness, turning the hammer about in his hand, feeling the grooves worn into the handle. Then he rose and made his way to the window. He was on the ground floor, the sill at waist-height when he crouched to avoid the ceiling beams, but the shutters looked sturdy enough and were barred across with iron as well.
The snarl came again, accompanied with the crunch of paws through iced snow. A ruffle of air squeezed through some chink and carried with it the hot, fetid smell of the animal, and so Jens bent further and pulled on the left shutter so the slats tipped, allowing him to see out.
There were two—no, three. Two young ones, he thought. Young enough to prance forward, jaws hanging so their tongues lolled between the sharp long teeth, grinning with menace. And then one older, warier: a black wolf, sitting back and watching. The moonlight turned green in its eyes that met Jens’ so calmly and steadily.
Jens put his hand up against the slats, tilting them further, and then carefully, silently laid his hammer down on the sill. He felt the sides of the window and then tested the strength of the latch. Then, satisfied, he put both palms on the sill and leaned on that, looking back.
Someone knocked at the door, then tried to open it. The stool’s legs ground into the floor and Jens started, then glanced over his shoulder. Then he looked back, but the wolves were gone.
When he opened the door, Per was standing there with a little dark thing in one hand and a blanket in the other. “I just remembered I hadn’t laid an extra blanket in this room and it’s bitter cold tonight,” the innkeeper said. He tried to sneak the other thing into Jens’ hand along with the blanket, and then darted a glance when Jens deliberately pressed his fingers so it crackled. “And something for the smell. It’s musty—at least to me.”
Herbs. A dried bunch of them, and as Jens stood there crushing their tips between his fingers the sharp, musky odor of the wolf came again. He couldn’t smell the herbs at all. “It’s all right. I’m fine.”
“They help keep the fleas at bay too.” Per withdrew, folding his hands behind his back. “Are you…sure you don’t need anything?”
“Yes,” Jens said. He waited.
And the other man pursed his lips a few times, looking with anxious curiosity at Jens, but in the end he nodded and turned away. He walked slowly down the hall, but Jens shut the door before he saw whether Per glanced back.
It was too dark to make out much with the herbs and Jens didn’t care to call Per back now to ask for a candle, so he set them on a shelf. Then he looked at them, and then picked them up and walked over to the window. No wolves awaited him, but he could see the trampled snow where they had been.
He left the herbs on the sill and went back to lie on the bed. The howling started again, occasionally echoed by the distant panicked lowing of a cow, but Jens simply turned on his side so his back was to the window.
Sleep still didn’t come. Eventually he reached into his shirt and pulled out the rosary, then tugged it over his head so he could more easily run the beads through his fingers. They’d been made of a wood so fragrant that when he’d first bought them, they had covered even the oily stench of the coal-fire in the forge, and even now he could detect a slight trace when he held them to his nose. In doing so his thumbnail caught on a cracked bead and he paused, then smiled at the memory.
But then, as always, his eyes began to sting and with no smoky fire for an excuse. Jens almost threw the rosary across the room before curling up around it and squeezing his eyes shut. If sleep wouldn’t come near, then he would force himself to it.
* * *
In the morning Timo and the boy who’d sat watch with him came in, so grey-faced with exhaustion that they sat down to devour their breakfast without a look to Jens. Then the boy stretched his legs till his feet knocked into Jens’ shins and his joints popped, and yawned and introduced himself as Bastian. “I can show you the houses with no owners,” he said. “There’s…oh, there’s that one with the shed that you could—”
“Show me the old forge.” Jens swallowed the last of his bread and washed it down with the dregs of his mug of ale. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then pushed it towards the end of the table.
A thin, short girl with brown hair emerged from the kitchen and silently picked up the dishes. Her face was pleasant enough but neither Bastian nor Timo looked towards her, instead sharing a glance between themselves. Then Timo turned towards Jens, tipping his knife back and forth over his fingers. “It hasn’t been used since—”
“I heard you last night,” Jens said. “If the furnace is still in one piece, that will do for me. Everything else can be fixed.”
Bastian blinked at him, mouth a little open. Then the boy jabbed his elbow at Timo’s arm so the knife slipped through Timo’s fingers, buried its tip in the table. He ducked his head as if to share a joke, but Timo paid him no mind and instead stared straight at Jens, a judging sort of look in his grey eyes.
“I don’t know. Nobody goes there either. Some of the children say they’ve seen ghosts, because that was where it started. A traveler stopped to get his horse shod, and when he’d left Olli already had the bubo swelling under his arm,” Timo said, soft and cold. He lifted and dropped his shoulder, and then put his hand flat against the table to stand, his eyes now hidden behind his flaxen hair. “Bastian can show you, if you still want.”
“The roof’s fallen in at least—you can see that from the road. You’ll still be sleeping here for a while,” Bastian added. He glanced up and his gaze followed Timo out the door, and when he turned back to Jens he seemed a little less sure of himself. “It’s not far, but closer to the woods than most of the town.”
The knife still stood in the table, its handle wavering a little in uncertain balance. It fell out when Jens touched it with a finger, and when he lifted it his forefinger ran over a strange thin, uneven collar of metal where the blade joined the wood. He looked closer at it, and thought maybe it was silver, the remains of a finer handle, but he couldn’t tell for sure in the dim light.
“Show me this forge,” he replied, and got up.
* * *
In the morning light the layer of snow made everything, even the dull stone walls, sparkle with a thousand colors. It softened the outlines of the old smithy, trying to smooth it away, but Jens could tell even before he brushed a few handfuls from the walls that the place had been built strong and well. The roof had fallen in, as Bastian had said, and the doors and windows were long since gone but the walls were solid and the furnace needed only a good cleaning before it could be fired.
Jens walked through the work-room into the living half of the house, and heard a soft cough behind him. He turned to find Bastian lingering in the doorway, leaning as far forward as he could without actually setting a foot inside.
“You’re standing on him.” A nervous smile touched Bastian’s face. He jerked his chin towards Jens’ feet, and then pointed at a short little inscription someone had crudely cut into the stones, about a foot from the floor. “Old Olli wanted to be buried with his things. He always was protective of them. Never even took an apprentice, and if you wanted to borrow a tool, well, you’d do better to ask the Devil.”
“I’d have to now, since this isn’t consecrated ground. He didn’t mind missing the Day of Judgment?” Possessive or not, the old owner of the place hadn’t had much power past his death. The grooves in the holes for the window-frames had chisel-marks around them, so Jens knew that no animal or wild wind had stripped the place. “The priest allowed it?”
Bastian shrugged and rubbed his nose, but cast a slantwise look at Jens as he did. The ax beneath his arm slipped a little and he shifted it till he held it snugly again. “Our priest was in the next village, which got the plague before us, and he died there. We haven’t had one since. Nobody’s come and asked, so we don’t know…”
It would do, Jens thought. Timo had been right and he’d be staying at the inn another week or two, but he could make this place livable before the heavy snows came. Even if he only had his two hands with which to do it.
He went back into the work-room and to the furnace, which still had the remains of its shutters hanging from the stones. The wood snapped rather than creaked, frozen stiff: they would have to be taken off and replaced entirely. Some small animal had made a temporary nest within the hollow where the coals had laid, so when Jens reached in he scooped out dried leaves with the ashes. They crumbled between his fingers save for one stalk, which he idly glanced at as he moved to fling it away. And then he looked at it again, in his mind unraveling the tightly curled leaves into their true shapes.
“You don’t mind living with Olli?” Bastian asked. The words exploded from the boy, as if they’d built up a head of steam behind them, and when Jens looked at him his cheeks were flushed hot against the chilly world.
Jens dropped the stalk and turned again to the furnace, only to strike his foot against something that rang, low but like a bell. He looked down, then lifted his foot and used it to kick away the snow till he’d uncovered an anvil. “He’s dead, so it doesn’t seem like something I need to worry about.”
“Well, yes, but there’s—” Bastian shrugged, and his shoulders stayed hunched as he didn’t quite meet Jens’ eyes. “It’s not consecrated ground. And there’ve been things…at night…”
“Likely the wolves you all worry so much about.” The anvil seemed all of a piece, which was a relief since Jens’ own had been too heavy to take along with him. He bent down and ran his fingers over the top, then frowned as they caught on something: deep scratches, four in parallel. “If the rest of you don’t care to come here, that’s fine. I can always meet you at the inn for business. But as for ghosts—I’ve seen plenty that’s more fearful.”
After a moment, Bastian stepped out of the doorway. His ax-head flashed as he swung it from beneath his arm and propped it against the ground for a make-shift staff. “It’s just things haven’t been right since the plague came, so it’s hard to tell what’s to need watching,” he said, apologetic but faintly defensive. Then he shrugged. “Well, if you want the place, it’s yours. Olli didn’t leave any heirs. I think it’s too cold to cut large logs—the wood’ll split—but if you really don’t mind, Timo and Lukas and I can pull you some planks from some of the other abandoned houses.”
“I think that will do fine.” Jens pushed himself up onto one knee and moved forward a few inches, then dusted away more snow to find a pile of coal still against the side of the furnace. The sacks that had held the chunks were all but rags, but when he knocked a piece against the anvil, the broken insides gleamed. Damp hadn’t spoiled them.
He heard Bastian walk off a few paces, the boy’s boots crackling through an icier patch, and slipped out the knife from the inn and one of his own. The handle of Timo’s knife was serviceable but crude, and so it was the work of a moment to find the seam in it and pry it off. The wood halves fell away, leaving in Jens’ hand a blade that had once had a different handle. Lumps of silver still clung to it, but most of that had been gouged and scraped away, and then the wood bound over it.
Bastian suddenly exclaimed loudly, incoherent with strong emotion; Jens glanced over his shoulder and didn’t see the boy, but nonetheless he quickly fitted the halves of the wooden handle back around the blade. Then he wrapped up the mangled knife and put it away before getting up and walking out.
“There was one, right there,” Bastian said, pointing with the ax. When Jens came near enough, he seized Jens’ sleeve and pointed again. “I think—”
It was still there, but only for a moment longer. A black wisp, turning quickly, and then the flash of white fur against the dark tree trunks.
“They come down past here at night, and even in the day nobody ever comes in less than pairs to this end of town.” Bastian glanced sidelong at Jens, more words eager to tumble from his mouth. His eyes were bright with worry and excitement.
Jens looked at the treeline again, but only saw a hawk soaring, one lone bit of black against the dull gray sky. “So you’d better find me a good thick door,” he said.
* * *
The old smith had known his business, though to Jens’ eyes his work lacked something in detail. But it would serve fine for Jens’ purposes, and so while Bastian and his friend Lukas alternated tearing up planks with tossing snowballs at each other, Jens gladly scavenged hinges, nails, latches. Other pieces of unneeded ironwork he could melt down, and from one cellar even a bag of charcoal, which would help stretch the limited supplies he’d brought till spring, when he could restock through trade.
They threw it all in the back of his wagon, to be taken back to the inn’s stables. The oxen didn’t much like waiting in the chilly air, but a few houses had soon supplied everything Jens thought he’d need right away. The rest he could make or get later, and he was busy planning the order when the right-hand ox suddenly bellowed, its harness rattling.
Jens tossed the skillet he’d just found over his shoulder and went back outside. He wasn’t surprised to see neither Bastian nor Lukas anywhere in sight, though they’d promised that with all this concern of wolves, one of them would always stay with the wagon. But he did feel a flare of anger, and weight of the skillet on his shoulder as he rounded the back wheels.
Another boy stood there, a slight short youth maybe a year or so older than Bastian—it was a very young village, Jens had noted, and found that odd since the plague seemed to like best the tenderer meat. He had a hand on the ox’s neck and was soothing it, and so when he did notice Jens standing there he started. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry. I was going to call out, but your cow smelled me first and I didn’t want it to bolt.”
“She doesn’t do that often,” Jens said. He took the skillet from his shoulder and put it in the wagon, nestling it firmly down so the jolting wouldn’t bounce it out.
The boy smiled hesitantly and came a few steps nearer. He seemed to be unaccompanied by anyone, and though they were far closer to the inn than the smithy was, they were still well within the unoccupied portion of the town. “I’m Philipp. Per sent me after you, with some bread and deer stew. I think if we eat it now, it’ll still be—ah!”
“Philipp!” Lukas’ call followed the flying handful of snow like a hunting dog after a downed bird. A moment later his red face appeared from the doorway of a nearby house. “Sorry, did I hit you? Bastian hit me in the arm and made me miss him.”
“No, I ducked. But you got snow on the food,” Philipp said, faintly scolding. He held up the now-powdery bundle, then took a step towards Lukas, his head inquisitively leading. “Bastian?”
The other boy soon came barreling through the doorway, taking Lukas with him, and together they nearly crashed to Philipp’s feet with their load of wood. Philipp wrinkled his nose and jerked the food high above his head to protect it, but then laughed as Lukas slyly let Bastian roll him just before grinding a palmful of snow into the side of Bastian’s head. He stepped back, and then lifted his foot again and his heel nearly grazed the ox’s foreleg.
Jens cleared his throat. The others all started, their laughter killed as swiftly and roughly as a lamb at butchering time. Lukas flushed and jerked away from Bastian, and both of them hastily scrambled to pick up the lengths of wood they’d let fall. A few times Bastian cursed beneath his breath and Jens saw Lukas look over with raised elbow, as if to nudge the other boy. But then Philipp walked between them and obscured Jens’ view.
He came over, unwrapping the cloth from the pot he carried, and offered Jens the first serving with a few stammered words. The stew was barely tepid by then, but it was surprisingly rich and the meat quite good. “So you still have somebody who’ll go hunting?”
Philipp glanced up sharply, but then turned away to serve the other two. He rolled his shoulder in a gesture of acknowledgment. “Every few weeks some of us go out, and share what we get. Nobody goes alone.”
At the last moment Jens changed his mind and altered what he said to that. “You’ve got a generous lord, if he’s allowed you to hunt large game now. I’ve been through places where still it’s a crime to bring home a deer.”
“Our lord doesn’t mind,” Lukas said, startled. There was a short, sharp movement near his knee and he abruptly bit down on an exclamation, then stuffed a hunk of black bread into his mouth with ill grace. He had a strange accent, though he took pains to try and disguise it.
Bastian moved from behind him and dipped his piece of bread into the pot. He shielded the other youth while Lukas slipped a hand down to touch his knee. “We haven’t heard from him in a while, same as the priest. And till somebody comes, it just seems like we should do what we can to stay alive.”
“Almost all the cows and sheep and pigs are gone, so there’s only what we can get from the forest,” Philipp added. He held out the pot for Jens, and when Jens declined, shyly took for himself a serving out of all proportion for his size. His hands were still steady though the pot looked heavy and he hadn’t once put it down on the ground.
Jens turned his hand over, watching a drop of the stew slide down his finger. Then he sucked it off and wiped his hand on his thigh, rolling his tongue around his mouth to extract the last of the flavor. “Despite the wolves.”
Philipp and Bastian and Lukas all tensed a little, and Philipp stared at Jens with large pensive eyes. Then he glanced over his shoulder, shivering a little.
“We’re careful,” he said. And he stretched up on his toes, looking at something. “Timo.”
A few moments later, the named man appeared, trudging through the snow with the aid of a long staff. The hilt of a dagger gleamed from his boot, but he carried no bow or other weapon capable of keeping a beast at bay. He gave Jens a level look, chin carried high, before swerving to stand in front of Philipp, who lifted the pot to shorten the reach for him.
“What kept you? The stew’s cold now.” The scolding note in Philipp’s voice was different from the tone he’d taken with Bastian and Lukas, both sharper and softer. It twined like a cat about the legs, begging for a caress.
Timo leaned slightly over the other man, a half-grin on his face and an easy familiarity in the way he ignored the reproach. He ate very well before he spoke, and then it was to Jens and not Philipp, with eyes that cooled as he raised his head. “I asked around, and tomorrow you’ve have seven of us to help you up there, and the women are busy getting together some food for you to lay in. But nobody’s showing up till it’s full light and nobody’s staying past an hour before sunset.”
“It’s likely to take that long to rouse these two from their beds,” Jens said. He waited a moment before he cleared their confusion by jerking his chin at the oxen.
Philipp smiled slowly, his fingers restlessly squeezing the handle of the pot. “Oh. For a moment I think—but you just met Poldi and Schweini.”
“Don’t call me that,” Bastian snapped.
Timo looked sharply at him, but Lukas had the better response with his speculation on Bastian’s preferred leisure company, since it gave Bastian an obvious quality retort. Then those two were off again, leaving Philipp to try and keep the oxen calm while Timo slipped around to speak further with Jens.
The look on his face would’ve done any number of Old Testament fire-breathers justice, but he merely wanted to work out the details for the next day’s work. For a few minutes he and Jens had a discussion so civil that the cold way he pivoted on his heel to end it took Jens by surprise.
“Wait,” Jens said. He watched Timo, and beyond him, Philipp, stiffen warily as he took out the knife the other man had left. After unwrapping the rag from it, he held it handle-first towards the other man. “I think I took this by accident. You left it this morning in the inn.”
Timo gazed at Jens, and then at the knife. He touched the wooden handle with his fingertips, then cautiously took it for a closer look. As he turned it the sunlight glinted off the blade and briefly blinded Jens in one eye, piercing deep so his head throbbed. Jens breathed slowly so as not to make the other man notice the depth of it, digging his fingers into his palm.
“It is mine. I…thank you. I didn’t know I’d forgotten it,” Timo finally said. He obviously was reluctant in his thanks, but he stuck the knife in his belt without any hesitation.
The pain gradually receded from Jens’ head, and the sight came back to his eye. He blinked a few times, then reached up to scratch beneath his scarf. His fingertips grazed the rosary beads and he nearly jerked them away before he caught it. He made himself count three beads before he took his hand down and nodded at the other man. “You’re welcome.”
* * *
Timo more than kept his word and the next day most of the village showed up to help Jens repair the smithy. But though their aid greatly sped the work, it was clear that they still felt uneasy both about the place and about Jens. Nobody spoke any more to him about ghosts, but then, they rarely spoke to him except when need forced the conversation. And they all stayed well clear of the inside, and in particular the work-room beneath which the old smith had been buried.
That, Jens didn’t mind so. He could clear out the furnace and hammer pegs into the wall for his tools without worrying about others’ clumsy hands or intruding ideas. Shifting the heavy anvil into place was a more difficult task, but he still managed it with only his strength and a few poles for levers. But afterward, his palms pressed to the top of the anvil and his breath still coming short with the effort, he could hear Philipp’s laugh outside, high and quick and careless, and he mouthed a few unkind words for this so-called hospitality.
But it was better than some places. So he wiped the sweat from his brow, and then wiped his hand before the dampness could freeze in the cold, and went to bring in the coal.
* * *
They finished proofing the house and smithy against the winter within the week, and the day that the last window-shutter was set into place, Jens took his things from the inn and moved them into the forge. The ramshackle shed that had passed for the smithy’s old stable—barely big enough for a donkey—had been torn down, but for its replacement they’d have to wait till spring, when the sap in the logs had thawed and wouldn’t split. So he left the oxen with Per.
“It’ll be a few days before I can stoke the furnace and start repaying you, so take them for that. When the snow gets heavy you can use them to keep the paths clear of that,” Jens said. He turned as something nudged his shoulder, then moved aside as Timo went through with an armful of firewood.
Per glanced after the other man, then looked at Jens. “I’ll hold them for you till I’ve those new hearth grates.”
Jens watched over the man’s shoulder as Timo paused by the kitchen door to talk with the girl who did the cooking. She smiled, uncertain and slow like Philipp, and then turned her cheek with all the coquetry of a court lady as he darted forward to brush his mouth against it. A twig slipped through his fingers to clatter to the floor, and before he could retrieve it, Philipp slipped out of the doorway from behind the girl to pick it up. Timo’s gaze, warm and good-humored, swept a hint of color into Philipp’s cheeks. “And I owe for the help in repairing the smithy,” he said.
“We need one, so it’s no debt at all. It’s looking out for ourselves, if you want,” Per replied after a moment, soft and thoughtful. Then he frowned, glancing up at Jens. “It’s not done, surely. Bastian says that you’ve nothing to bar the windows but short planks wedged into the frames, and at night—”
“At night I’m accustomed to watching for myself.” It sounded too abrupt even to Jens, who by now had decided the ghost stories were nothing more than a discouragement to pry too closely into the village’s plague times, and the things that might have been done during the panic and the death. Fearful or not, the villagers had not been shy about discussing orders with him and he knew he could depend on their business, if not their welcome. “I think I’ve taxed your household long enough.”
Per smiled graciously at the awkward excuse, shaking his head. “This is an inn. It wasn’t any trouble at all.”
“Well, still. Now that I have a place I want to use it,” Jens said.
Timo had gone into the kitchen, but Philipp lingered in the doorway, one hand on the frame. When Jens’ gaze met his own, he flinched and then looked away and down. The red came back into his cheek, but he stayed and pretended to concern himself with a string of onions pegged to the wall. As for the innkeeper, Per didn’t duck his eyes or let his hands find himself an excuse, though he couldn’t hide the flash of worry that passed over his face.
“Take Bastian and Lukas with you. I’ve some leftover stew and they can carry it, so you’ll have a warm dinner at least,” he finally replied.
Jens refused the offer, and then again and again as Per insisted. He did so with so much politeness that Jens could hardly raise his voice, despite his mounting irritation, and in the end it took a veiled comment on the distrust towards him to stop up the other man’s petitioning. And even then Per fell back with obvious reluctance, his eyes more than simply concerned for the safety of a stranger.
“Wait a moment. Please.” He held up his hand again when Jens turned to go, and then swiftly went into the kitchen.
A moment later he returned with a small cloth bag, the contents of which crackled when he pressed it into Jens’ hand. A dusty smell rose from it, peaked sharply and then died away almost in the same instant. In the doorway, Philipp’s head went up like an alerted dog’s and he stared first at the bag and then at Per. Then some noise in the kitchen caught his attention and he turned towards it, then disappeared into the next room.
“The plague started there, and no one properly cleaned the place after Olli died. If you pin these over the windows, they’ll help keep out the bad…” Per made an uneasy shrug, his knowledge on the topic clearly running out. He moved away so Jens couldn’t return the bag, picking up a bucket of water and washing his hands in it. “But don’t burn them. They make a poisonous smoke.”
Jens pulled at the tight drawstring till he could look into the bag. Then he shook it a little so a few dry, brittle twigs jostled up out of the openings. They were the same as those Per had brought him the first night, and those that he’d found mixed with the ashes in the furnace.
“Once I start working, it’ll be hot enough inside that these would smoke even pinned to the windows,” he remarked. Then he looked up and caught Per in the act of stepping towards him, one hand raised and a worry so heightened it neared fear on his face.
After a moment, Jens tucked the bag inside his cloak. Per withdrew as Jens walked past him and out, and Jens marked the relief in the other man’s eyes.
* * *
It was very late at night, when the fire was nothing more than a few glowing embers and Jens was sitting on the edge of his cot, telling beads to try and make himself sleepy, when they finally came. He’d been listening to their howls for hours, but had heard nothing else till something suddenly scraped at the door, bold and demanding.
He immediately lifted his head and stared at the door. It was an old but robust one Lukas and Bastian had taken off one of the largest houses in the town, made of oak planks as thick as Jens’ thumb, and for the hinges Jens had used a pair he’d brought with him that he knew were sound. But as he watched the scraping came again, and hard enough to make the hinges creak and the oak bend a little. He breathed deeply and his nose filled with a pungent scent, crisp like crushed pine needles with an underbelly of near-nauseating sweetness, like rotting meat.
A third time the door resisted a pawing, and Jens’ eyes went to the withered little bunch he’d tacked above the lintel, which was shivering violently now. As he watched, the stalks finally broke and it fell to the floor. He curled his thumb back so the nail dug into a bead, then flicked it hard forward.
The sound of the bundle’s landing was masked by a sudden loud, vigorous snorting. Whatever was outside the door leaped back so its feet crunched in the newfallen snow, then stamped about in great agitation. Then came the snarl, a low grumbling noise, and it made the hairs on the back of Jens’ neck stiffen, yes, but yet to his ears it had more of petulance to it than real, true rage.
He waited, clicking the beads of the rosary through his right hand. The beast snuffled and snorted a few more times, but it didn’t touch the door. And then everything was quiet again, the only noise the sluggish crackle in the furnace. Jens carefully coiled the rosary and laid it aside on the bed, then got up. From the wall he picked a pair of long-handled pincers and used it to pluck a good-sized ember from the fire, and then he got a poker as well. Then he went over to the door and undid the latch and lifted the crossbar.
Outside the three-quarter moon was dimmed by a gauze of clouds and so the world was an expanse of icy, featureless slate gray, the shadows giving that much color to the snow, with the black line of the woods ending it. The low red-yellow light of the ember made a halo around Jens about five feet wide, which did little to clarify what he saw.
The wolf that had been testing his door now stood perhaps a dozen yards away, tongue lolling and red. It grinned at him as a chilly draft blew down onto the back of his neck, encircling it with a breath-stealing grasp.
Jens forced his exhale past the choke, staring hard at the beast. Its eyes glowed when the light from the ember hit them, but yellow like a candle in a dark room.
Then Jens turned, and the other wolf jumped down from the roof. The flash of its teeth was whiter than the moon. It was moving so quickly that that was all he saw.
The poker took it in the belly and forced a pained, yelping sound from it as its weight suddenly bore down on Jens’ arm. He was sent off-balance and he staggered backwards, then slammed on his heel and used all his strength to spin and toss the wolf off. He had to let go of the pincers to do it and the hiss of ember extinguishing in the snow rose over the frightened—because that was what they were, high and keening like that—cries of the wolves. Jens fell back against the doorway, then hefted the poker in front of him. He gasped once, twice and smelled ashes, bitter and sharp, and blood and damp moss.
The first wolf had lunged forward as the second one had scrambled away, whimpering, and now the pair of them were tumbled into the snow, trembling. It looked as if the second one might’ve taken a breath-stealing blow in the chest—Jens didn’t believe he’d heard or felt bone cracking—and the first one was alternating between nuzzling anxiously at it and standing stiff-legged on guard over it, flashing furious glances at Jens.
After he’d caught his breath, Jens leaned against the door-jamb and toed about in the snow till he’d turned up the pincers. He kicked them in the air, then grabbed their handles and shook them. A few drops flew from the ends and he knocked those against the poker, not wanting them to freeze together. The ringing sound of that was replied to by the first wolf’s snarl; it lifted and lowered its head once, then took a step forward.
Its fellow whined and prodded at the first one’s hindleg, and then when it was ignored, clambered to its feet though it obviously was still feeling the blow Jens had given it. Then both of them stiffened, looking towards the trees.
The black wolf, eyes green and bright as a new-honed knife, was there. It seemed as if the beast must have barked because the pair before Jens suddenly turned away and quickly trotted towards it, but Jens couldn’t recall hearing any such noise. He hit the poker and the pincers together again and the black one looked long and hard at him, then whirled so the snow sprayed up behind it. When the air had cleared, all three were gone.
Jens felt a sour smile come over his face. A little snow had drifted across the threshold during the fuss and he scraped it back out with his foot, then went inside. Then he began to shut the door, but stopped when he stepped on something: those herbs.
After a moment, Jens backheeled the withered fragments out the door with the snow. Then he shut and locked the door, and then went to bed with rosary in hand.
* * *
“Everything was all right last night? You weren’t bothered much?” Philipp nervously asked. His face was an angry red where the blustery wind had driven particles of snow into the flesh, but he refused Jens’ invitation to come in. Instead he simply held up the basket again, letting the warm, delicious-smelling steam curl from beneath its cloth cover into the smithy.
The gusts had already blown in a light carpet of white, but Jens suppressed his sigh and ducked through the doorway. He took the basket from Philipp and peeked beneath the cover, then set it aside on a shelf. “I told Per I didn’t need this.”
“He didn’t send it. I just—I had some leftovers and I wanted to make sure everything here was fine.” Philipp dropped his head and rubbed at the back of his neck. His mitten caught on something and he briefly closed his eyes in annoyance before reaching up with his other hand and carefully working it free. “You look all right.”
“I am,” Jens said, leaning in the doorway. He absently shoveled the drifts back out with his foot as he gazed about behind Philipp, looking for the other one. The snow still wasn’t more than ankle-high overall, but in places the wind had blown it into mounds nearly as high as a child. “Did you have something in mind that you wanted to ask about? Why would I be bothered?”
Something was moving down by the turn in the footpath, just beyond where it twisted past the next nearest house. It stilled as Jens’ eyes fell upon it. Then Timo walked out from behind the building, a faint scowl on his face. His unfriendly gaze swept over Jens to Philipp, where it momentarily softened. Then he turned on a heel and dropped against the corner of the house, settling in for the wait.
“Did something happen to someone in the village?” Jens casually inquired.
Philipp looked up sharply, eyes wide but deeper than the mere veneer of surprise he showed Jens. He was anxious, yes, but backing that was an iron determination. Towards what end was beyond Jens to perceive, but what he could see told him that he needed to watch his step, the youth’s seeming frailty aside.
“No.” After a moment, Philipp shook his head. He pulled at his mittens, twisting one around and around on his hand. “I was just worried. You’ve been here only a few days. You don’t really know what it’s like at night. And—” his head made the faintest movement towards Timo, and then his jaw firmed stubbornly “—and we really do need a smith. We’ve been hobbling along as best we can, but every time something breaks down we can’t fix it.”
“Well, I think I’ll be staying. Thank you for the food.” Jens stepped back, then stopped. He looked at Philipp again. “Will Bastian be around today? Part of the roof’s already bending under the snow, and I could use the help bracing it before the real storms come.”
The pupils of Philipp’s eyes widened and then shrank, so quick they almost seemed to flash blue. He ducked his head again, looking chagrined. “Oh, I’m sorry, but no. He and Lukas were rough-housing last night and Lukas pushed him a little too hard, and he’s hurt his side. It’s not bad, but he’s staying abed today. I…well, I think Timo could help you?”
As he said the last part, Philipp turned to the other man. Timo lifted his head to show an expression of deep irritation, though he should have been too far to have heard their conversation. But then Philipp trotted over to explain, and Jens thought that perhaps this was simply an old routine between the two of them.
Except Philipp refused to cross the threshold, as Bastian had a week before, and as Timo did not do when he finally came up to repeat Philipp’s offer. Every movement he made spoke of his lack of enthusiasm for the task, but when his foot swung through Jens’ door it did so smoothly, without a flinch.
Between them, he and Jens dealt with the roof in a quarter-hour or so, and all the while Philipp stood outside in the snow and the wind.
* * *
Jens watched and listened, and once he’d laid in enough raw foodstuffs of his own, came rarely from his smithy. And the villagers seemed happy to leave him to it, giving him their broken tools and buckles and other orders when he went to the inn to check on his oxen, or to Philipp, who was the exception and who regularly walked to the smithy with Timo glowering in his wake. But even then there still was a strange edge to Philipp’s friendliness, a touch too much curiosity in his worry. And he still never entered the smithy.
Once Jens stepped from the inn stable and looked towards the woods to see Bastian and Lukas coming from there, a pole slung between them and from it two heavy strings of hares. He stayed his feet till they saw him, and looked on in silence as Bastian stumbled, then flushed up and diverted his gaze from Jens, and as a trace of anger passed over Lukas’ face before he helped his companion up.
And once Per came back with Jens, talking quietly and easily about the harvest celebration in October, and what they did and then wanting to know what had been done where Jens had come from, and for a while the stark, eerie white and black of the winter had receded before the warm glow of the fire and the good bread the inn’s cook made. But then dark fell and Per hurried off, leaving behind a fresh bag of those dried herbs.
Jens spilled a few broken bits into his hand and jiggled them about while the heat of the forge slowly teased a trace of smell from them. Then he snorted and was about to toss them into the fire when he remembered the other caution Per had attached to them.
When he looked out, the moon was full and hung low in the sky like a fat hen nestling on the fence of the trees. It was a bright night, a good foot of snow on the ground so the harsh angles of the world disappeared and everything seemed clean and perfect. And yet the sight stirred something else in Jens, something that seethed and twisted restlessly beneath the hard, glassy ice that glazed the land.
He dumped the herbs back into their bag and drew the string, then put it away on the shelf next to the other one, which was still more than half-full. Then he flung more coals into the furnace, and took up his tools.
The heat built up in the cramped room till it nearly equaled that of hell itself, but Jens simply swung his hammer all the harder. Sweat seeped into his clothes, and then when he’d stripped himself to the waist, it slicked off his face and back and arms till he felt as if he’d been plunged into a boiling lake. But still he worked, smashing the hammer faster and faster.
And then the sweat crept between his palm and the handle, and before he could stop it, the hammer had flown from him to strike the stone furnace. The sound rang brutally about the room as the hammer fell, trailing white-hot sparks after it that all met a dull death in the dirt of the floor.
Jens breathed in, only noticing now that he was gasping. He choked on the sooty, acrid air, and then barked it all out in a snarl as he whirled, going back into the living room.
For a few moments he stood there, feeling the sweat cool against him and the stinging taste of the smoke go to bitterness on his tongue. Then he reached up to the rosary, but almost immediately pulled his hand down. That wouldn’t do now.
In a few minutes he’d cooled the furnace and set his things in order, and was standing in the open doorway looking at the moon. Now it’d risen to sit directly above him, a circle so white and perfect his mouth watered to take a bite from it.
A pang of guilt struck then, distracting him enough to remember. He touched the rosary, ran his thumb around a bead, and then with a sharp, vicious motion he yanked it over his head. Jens took a little more care in hanging it on a peg, but not too much lest he remember again. Then he shut the door and, after a moment’s thought, started towards the woods.
Since that first night the wolves hadn’t come near his place again, though of course their singing had serenaded the village every night without fail. Whether they would now or not was their concern; Jens didn’t care if they did and didn’t care if they didn’t, as long as they continued to leave him be. He hadn’t taken the poker or anything larger than his meal-knife stuck into his right boot, but he hadn’t been lying to Per. Since he’d come, he hadn’t told a single lie.
The woods were silent the way a cathedral was, the quiet having such a depth to it that the ears and mind made up noises in an effort to reduce it to something understandable. Where Jens stepped the iced snow did snap and crunch as it yielded to his weight, but as he went further, even that sound seemed to fade away. No leaves barred the light of the moon and the stars, but the great broad trunks cut up his vision into vertical slices, and sometimes it seemed two of those blurred together and sometimes one masked the other, and sometimes there simply were strips missing.
Nothing. A drift-covered stump, and mushrooms frozen to the sides of the trees around it. Empty air around and above them.
And sometimes a strip stole in where it should not have been.
A deer by that stump. A buck with what promised to be a magnificent rack in the spring, eyes large and dark and frozen with fear. Its head was up, its legs thrown out straight and stiff, ready to spring away at a moment’s notice.
Jens spread his hands, then slowly turned them so his palms were facing the buck. He stopped when it snorted, its breath curling white over its head. And then he waited, watching till the breezes blew away the misted breath, till the deer hesitantly bobbed its head. It raised a foreleg, then put it down. Then it lifted it again.
Quick as lightning, he reached out and grabbed a low-hanging branch. The half-frozen sap in the twigs made them snap like twanging bowstrings, and before they’d even fallen from his hand, the frightened buck was tearing away from him, running so fast its hooves dug through the snow to kick up a few dark clods of dirt in its wake.
A short, low laugh escaped from Jens. He shook the last few bits of wood from his hands and then went forward, following the tracks the buck had left behind. He walked slowly and easily, taking his time. The night was long and it was so cold out; the animal would tire before long.
And as it turned out it was a far shorter time than he thought. Long before he’d come to the end of the tracks he heard them: the yelping and snarling, the panicked thrashing of a large body in unyielding brush, the last cry. Jens put his hand against a tree, grimacing as its rime froze through the cloth he had wrapped around his fingers, and then lifted his head into the wind and inhaled deeply. He smelled blood and piss, acid in its freshness, and earthy musk and the clean pungency of broken firs.
And then he heard a loud cracking and a whining howl, and the smells all turned sour with fear. Silence came down like a fist pounded against a table, then spread slow and soft and smothering like death, or sleep.
Jens bent down and took the knife from his boot, and then pushed from the tree trunk. The sound of his footsteps went ahead of him and by the time he’d topped the intervening drifts, long low warning growls had banished the silence.
Two wolves, the black one and one he hadn’t seen before. The black one stood between Jens and the other so at first he could see only the deer’s hooves sticking out from behind on the one side, and on the other, the smaller wolf’s head lying on the ground, its eyes wild and its lips twisted back from its teeth in pain.
He moved a step to the right and the standing wolf snapped at him, doing likewise. But by then Jens had seen where the buck or one of them had blundered up against a half-fallen tree, and in doing so, had completed the break so the trunk had come down to trap a hindleg of the downed wolf.
Jens looked at the black one, and then at the moon. “It’s still a long time till sunrise,” he said. “Does that matter?”
The beast stilled, looking oddly at him. Then it snarled again and backed up till it was straddling its partner, who whined and weakly heaved at itself.
“And it’s very chilly out. You could get frostbite, and then you’d have to cut off the blackened flesh,” Jens added. He flipped the knife in his hand, then shoved it into his belt. This time when he stepped—forward—the black wolf did nothing.
It began to growl once he’d knelt by them, twisting so its hot breath singed Jens’ ear and its bared teeth nearly scratched his cheek. He ignored it and studied the trunk and the leg till he knew how the weight was distributed, and then he got a thick stick and levered the trunk off.
The moment it lifted, the other wolf tried to scramble free, but its leg was too hurt and it could only limp, whining and hanging its head. It hopped about behind the black wolf, which though it had stopped snarling, still was careful to keep itself between its fellow and Jens.
Jens looked at it, and then got to his feet. He started walking away before he’d even finished dusting the snow from him. “And that was my deer, but never mind.”
He knew the black one watched him as long as it could, but Jens didn’t turn around once as he went back to the smithy. And he didn’t sleep well once he had returned, but for once his thoughts were different.
* * *
The man on Jens’ front step was as tall as he was. Younger by several years, slimmer in the shoulders but his back wasn’t bent beneath its heavy load of fresh deer meat, slung up in the hide the huntsman’s way. His hair was black and his eyes were green, and when he smiled his teeth were very white. “Hello. You’re the new blacksmith.”
“Did the soot-streaks or the hammer tell you that?” Jens asked. It was day, and one full of petty annoyances right up to the half-finished knife he’d had to leave off to answer the door. Reheating it back to when he could work with it would take a good half-hour.
His visitor blinked, taken aback, but then he smiled again, close-lipped but still amused. He shifted so a dribble of blood ran out of the hide and splattered the snow beneath his feet. The deer couldn’t be more than an hour dead, with blood still unclotted. “This is payment for you on my back, and it’ll last longer if you get it butchered and hung to smoke now. You smell like you have enough of that in there.”
Jens bit back the sharp retort, and looked steadily at the other man. Two beads pinched a hair on the nape of his neck between them and he reached up to free it, then turned. “Then come in and we can discuss what you want done.”
“It’s not for an order. I don’t have one to put in.” The man remained on the step, though he swung the load off his shoulder and set it on the threshold, half-in half-out. His eyes glittered once before his gaze regained its levity. “I live there—” he nodded towards the forest “—and get all I need from it.”
After setting the hammer down on the anvil, Jens went back over to the door. He reached to put his hand on the wall and instead found the shelf, and the two bags he’d put there. “The others said no one goes in there except in groups, and during the day. On account of the danger of the wolves.”
For a moment the man’s eyes turned opaque and the lines of his face hardened into ice, but then he glanced aside. And he laughed a little, shaking his head. “I know you’re not a fool.”
“That’s interesting, since I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” Jens said.
The man brought his head up sharply then, staring hard and long at Jens. His smile faded away, and in its place was a keen sort of judging, undiluted by any sort of polite masking.
“You know. You knew when nobody told you,” he finally said. He made it a demanding statement, his words trying to force a truth on Jens.
Jens shook his head. “I see a lot. I actually know very little.”
Then he closed his fingers around the two bags and pulled them to where the stranger could see them. The other man couldn’t help recoiling, and then when Jens squeezed them so a slight musty odor arose, his head flinched back up and he stared again.
Careful not to come near him, Jens reached around the jamb and hooked the drawstrings of the bags on a nail driven into the outside wall. He stooped and picked up a handful of snow, holding it till it melted, and then turned and walked back inside while wiping off his hand on his thigh. “Come in and cut up the deer yourself, if you’re so eager. I’m tired of talking with the wind in my face.”
A laugh, and then the scuff of a boot against the threshold. “I’m Michael,” the man said.
* * *
The smell of the smoking meat was too strong for Jens to do any more work, so they moved into the living half and he sat on the bed while Michael cooked some of the meat for dinner. He counted beads to remember his patience. “How’s Philipp?”
Michael’s back stilled so Jens could see the shape of the man’s shoulderblades beneath his shirt. Then he turned, eyes wary above the slight smile. “It’s a bad sprain, but no break. A few weeks and he’ll be fine. How did you know it was him?”
“I’m good at guessing, and some of you are very poor at hiding,” Jens dryly said. “You’re not the whole town, are you?”
The other man wiped his hands on a cloth hanging near the cooking fire, his eyes drifting around the room. They rested briefly on the empty shelf; Michael’s nose twitched as if he could still smell the herbs that had lain there. “No. Per was really worried, and maybe you’ll be less smug if you knew about the arguing…” His voice faded away in thought, and then strengthened again as he shook himself. “No, not quite. The stories and legends you must’ve heard about, they leave a lot out.”
Jens’ thumb came to something pointed and slick instead of the grainy smoothness of the bead. He looked down at the cross, its silver twinkling in the light, and then flipped it over so he could keep telling beads.
“Wolfsbane’s a poison. Silver’s not good either. But it’s got nothing to do with how much of the moon is showing,” Michael went on. He pulled up the chair, then spun it about so he could rest his arms on the back. His clothes were leather as well as the cheaper homespun, but cut and made like any other peasant’s. “It’s just the whole thing takes a while and isn’t pretty to look at, so it’s better to do it after dark. And then once it’s happened it takes just as long to reverse it. It’s not like snapping your fingers.”
“Not a lot of things are.” The stew smelled the same as the stuff Philipp had been bringing Jens, and upon thinking of that he remembered how the youth had soothed his oxen. “There aren’t signs when you’re like this, are there? You’re supposed to be hairier, or have hair on your palms—I don’t remember exactly.”
Michael snorted and held up a hand, its palm callused but smooth-skinned. He rubbed at his nose, then pushed the hair back from his brow. A useless gesture, as the dark strands curled forward the instant his fingers dropped. “No, there aren’t. We’re like anyone else, except when we’re something else. I always thought we hid well.”
Those last few words of his were lilted, delicately setting the unspoken question to float in the air. For about five beads, Jens thought about it, and then he rolled his right shoulder. “I’ve seen a good number of things in my life. You’re not the oddest.”
“Ah,” Michael said. Curiosity still lighted his eyes, but it was of a less urgent nature than before. He was content with whatever he read into Jens’ answer. “I admit, I don’t see a lot of men walking alone in the woods at night. Especially when they’ve been told about its dangers, and then shown a little of them.”
“The plague didn’t kill me, and my traveling hasn’t either. I think by now I’ve got a sense of what I’ll run from and what I won’t.” Jens came to the cross again, far quicker than he had before. He pressed his lips together, then looped up the string so it coiled in his hand. But he didn’t put it away yet. “Anyway, I was warned in a very, very slanted way, and shown by a pair of unskilled…pups. Why so nervous, if you’re so sure of your hiding skills?”
Michael’s eyes flashed and he straightened up a little, but otherwise he swallowed the injury to his pride. He spoke very levelly when he replied. “Because the great death’s only a few months gone from here. Things were very different when it sat in this town.”
“What, because it killed you and your kind too?” Jens asked. He couldn’t help the mocking inflection that crept into his voice.
“No, because it didn’t.” More seemed about to follow, but instead Michael shut his mouth and looked past Jens, eyes angry and narrowed against the hurtful past. Then he glanced back, and the curve of his mouth was bitter instead of proud. “It didn’t touch us, and I don’t know why. But people noticed then, and they still didn’t have any idea but they got it into their heads that the cause, whatever it was, wasn’t holy. They—never mind. They’ve all died now.”
Then Michael fell silent. He did get up when the pot over the fire spoke in sputtering fat, but only to swing it out of the flames and stir its contents.
“But you’re not the whole village,” Jens finally said. “I’ve heard of something else. That a bite from you—”
“That’s wrong, too.” Michael pulled a long hunting knife from his belt and used it to stab up a tidbit from the pot. He blew on the steaming meat a few times before popping it into his mouth, but it still was too hot and his hand went to his mouth and his eyes bulged as he quickly sucked in a breath.
Jens rose and dipped up a ladle of water from the corner barrel, which Michael gratefully took. He was grinning again as he gestured towards the pot, signaling that their dinner was ready, and as Jens cautiously tried it, Michael looked on as anxious as any housewife.
“It’s not bad,” Jens muttered. He glanced up in time to see the smugness in Michael’s face. “You could use some tips from the girl at the inn on seasoning, though.”
The man flinched, looking annoyed. Then he laughed at Jens. “You’re so odd, no wonder you aren’t surprised.”
“You never answered my last question.” Jens pushed past Michael and began to pull bowls from the shelves.
A hand on his wrist stopped him, and then Michael stepped a little nearer, suddenly solemn. “If we’re trying to bite you, we’re trying to kill you. Maybe if you lived, it could be done that way—but so far I don’t know of anyone who has. The sure way that I know is that it takes blood from us, and you need it more than once. But once is enough to give someone the same protection from the plague that we have.”
He smelled of wood and deerhide and sweat, but not of blood. Not right now, though as Jens looked at Michael’s eyes, green as pine needles, he did wonder if he’d stayed longer, asked his questions the night before…but that had been the night, and it didn’t matter in what mood Michael might have been since he hadn’t been in a talking mood then.
Jens shook his hand free. Then he reached for the bowls again, but Michael shook his head and moved towards the door, and so Jens put a bowl back. “That’s not a concern for me now. I think one of your friends would have told you.”
“If you want to stroll around the forest at night, it shouldn’t be a concern for us.” The way Michael spoke, he could’ve been taken equally as reassuring or as warning. “It’s big enough. We can share.”
“Just stop taking…” A whisper of sound caught Jens’ ear and he turned, only to see the door shutting.
He crossed the room in two strides and yanked it back open, but nothing was there, man or beast. Jens stared out across the snow to the treeline, then started to turn. He paused, hand on the door, and then shook his head and went back inside to eat.
* * *
The next time Jens went to check on his oxen, he found Bastian instead of Timo pitching hay to them. He glanced about, and after he was sure that Lukas or anyone else was near, he cleared his throat.
When he saw Jens, Bastian’s eyes widened and his Adam’s apple bobbed hard. But he stood his ground, even if he did need the reassurance of the pitchfork between him and Jens. “Oh…just feeding time.”
Jens looked at him, then walked over to the stall and leaned over the lower half-door. His ox grunted its muzzle mostly free of straw before attempting to wipe the rest of it on his arms, and only after he’d affectionately cuffed the beast away did he address Bastian. “Stay off my roof.”
“I’m—we’re really sorry about that. We just wanted to—you didn’t seem scared enough, and we thought you might try coming into town at night and notice who wasn’t there.” Bastian’s hand drifted to the right side of his chest, and when Jens looked there, the boy blushed. He rubbed at the spot so vigorously that the pitchfork tines skittered over the floor, making the oxen stamp their feet. “If it makes you feel better, that really hurt. I couldn’t get out of bed for a whole day.”
“Good. I’m not really fond of being leaped upon,” Jens said. He reached out and cupped his fingers over the top of the nearest ox’s head and it lowed contentedly, turning into the touch. Even the prospect of sweet-smelling hay didn’t lure it away till after Jens had lifted his hand. “I’m sick of deer, by the way. Next time you want me to fix a buckle for you, bring me a couple hares.”
Jens left before he heard Bastian’s response. He stayed a few hours at the inn to do his usual transactions, and then inquired after Philipp while getting a couple loaves from the cook. Then he wrapped the scarf around his head and opened the door.
It was barely past noon, but the sky was already dark and the snow was falling in great clumps, as if some giant in the clouds was tossing it down by the handful. Something was moving only a few yards away, sluggish and bent under a load of white—but man-sized, Jens realized even as he squinted. He stood there till it slowly resolved into Timo, hair whitened to that of an old man’s and face grey with exhaustion except for the two livid red spots in his cheeks.
The other man staggered into Jens, then dove into the warmth of the inn. In his wake he left huge splatters of snow, and even then there still was plenty left on him to shake off like a wet dog. He raked his hair gold again, and then brushed off his shoulders, and it was while doing that that he saw Jens. Timo took it better than Bastian, only beginning to step back before he snorted irritably to himself. He raised his chin a little too high, but his gaze was steady and sincere, if grudging. “Thanks.”
“Just because I’m good at guessing doesn’t mean I like relying on it all the time,” Jens said. He ignored the confusion that spread over the other man’s face and turned back towards the door.
“Wait—you’re not going out in that, are you?” Timo actually came close enough to seize Jens by the elbow. “It’s already a blizzard, and it’ll be worse in a few hours.”
Jens shook him off. He began to answer, but over Timo’s shoulder he saw Per coming into the hall, that worried look on his face, and something in Jens simply recoiled. He hadn’t scraped together enough sleep, or worked the excess bile out of his body, or something of that sort. But at any rate, he couldn’t stay and suffer the strain of company without violence.
Whether it would be towards himself or someone else, he wasn’t interested in finding out, and so he plunged through the door before the others could hold him any longer. He heard voices calling after him, but the blowing snow muffled them so already they sounded as distant as the mountains. And after the first few minutes, when his desperation to be away had lessened enough for him to notice the bite of the wind, he couldn’t hear them at all.
A few steps later and Jens was well distracted by the effort it took to move his legs. The snow was already knee-high and rising as he watched—so he stopped watching. It was slow going, but he’d still get back soon enough to avoid frostbite, he thought. He put his head down and tucked the ends of his sleeves over his hands, and waded on.
But the snow kept falling, faster and thicker, till soon Jens couldn’t see his hand before his face. The buildings around him he sensed as somewhat darker splotches in the whiteness that was being constantly driven into his eyes; for a while he still managed to guide himself by them, but he was moving nearly at a crawl and so when he finally had to admit he didn’t know where in town he was, he still had a ways to go.
Jens didn’t move, hunched over against the wind. His ears and nose and chin were completely numb, and the muscles in his legs and arms were so stiff he knew he’d lose the feeling in them soon. He could barely force his hand up to his neck, and then when he tried to slip his fingers beneath his scarf and shirt, they wouldn’t bend. He stuffed them into his mouth and sucked till he finally felt his knuckles giving, and then he quickly shoved his hand under his clothes and grabbed the rosary.
The moment he pulled it off, his fingers froze again, and this time they had the added layer of rime that the spit immediately became on them. One end of his scarf pulled loose and Jens had to waste another moment pushing it back. Then to make his fingers curl so he wouldn’t drop the beads, he had to slap his hand against his thigh. He lost the loaves of bread while doing that and didn’t bother trying to retrieve them.
An especially furious blast of wind struck him full-on and he closed his eyes to keep them from turning to ice as well, the howling air ringing in his ears. But the gust lasted so long and his body was chilling so quickly that in the end he had to force himself into it. He kept his eyes shut, and walked on without thinking; the uneven places caused by the different layers of snow, some hard and some softer—but wetter and more dangerous—directed his feet.
Jens had to bend farther and farther in order to take on the wind, and eventually he found his knees sinking down into the snow. It fell in around him, melting against his arms and neck and then solidifying again, and then a sharp whirl blew a drift over his head.
Everything was instantly quiet. And cold, yes, but a lulling, creeping kind and not the whipping knives that’d been dragging at his flesh just moments before. It was shockingly peaceful.
He opened his eyes and it was completely black, so much snow had fallen on him. He didn’t have any guide to go by till he thrust his hands down and somehow managed to drive them into a few twisted, dry wisps of grass. His breath spilled back against his face, so hot that it felt like fiery fingers stroking over his nose and cheeks, and it was smelling staler by the second. If he stayed down here, he’d sleep, but then he’d die.
For one more breath, he thought about it. Then he forced his iron-stiff arm up so he could blow upon the rosary beads. They’d just grazed his lips when the snow suddenly packed onto his head, then crashed beneath some great weight.
His arm was smashed down, and Jens was rocked backwards as a mass of fur came down on him. His lips were so cold they wouldn’t move except to let out an angry hiss, but the wolf kept digging. And then it was shoving, its muzzle slapping him about the head before stabbing its damp, steaming nose against his neck. Jens coughed, shoved up his hands and was stopped by the beast’s belly. The snow pressed up against his back hardened, then gave so he fell a little, and the wolf snorted, its eyes glittering. It pushed again, and again, till Jens finally wedged his legs out from under him and dug his heels into the ground and helped.
Since he couldn’t talk, he caught up the wolf’s head in his hands and held it so they looked at each other. You’d better know where you’re going, he thought.
It stared at him, its ears half-flattened against its head. Then it blew a stinking, searing breath in his face and planted its paws on his chest, and slammed at him. Its jaw dropped as it grinned, and finally Jens’ face thawed enough for him to say something.
“Fuck,” he hissed. He shoved at his feet, then pulled up his knees. The wolf waited for him to get braced before it pushed again. “God damn—”
They writhed and inched along like that till Jens’ back struck something more solid than snow. A fence-post, or…no, it was broader than that. A tree-trunk. The wolf now got up next to Jens and forced them around the trunk till it was shielding them from the wind. Then it seemed content, curling itself around Jens so his arms and hands were pinned by its bulk. He suddenly remembered and sucked in his breath, pushing, but then he felt the rosary rattle against his thigh.
The wolf raised its head again, its lips drawn back in a silent snarl. It stared for a long time, till it was sure Jens wasn’t moving, and then it laid its muzzle against his shoulder. Its tail curled down over his feet, and the warmth of its body was enough to keep him limber even when the snow blew up over them again. But the tree was enough of a barrier so that they wouldn’t be completely buried and could breathe, so he thought they were safe enough. He uncurled the fingers of his free hand, pressing them against the wolf’s belly, and it whuffed at his ear.
He watched its eyes close, and felt the heave of its sides slow to sleep, but didn’t surrender himself.
* * *
An hour or so before dawn, the storm ceased. Jens and the wolf staggered out of the drift that had formed around them and into a world of utter blankness, lacking any sharpness save for the jagged edge of the woods’ treetops. The sky was gray with stripes of green and blue banding it, and a dull glow on the eastern horizon.
After a look about, Jens tried to lift his foot. Then he grimaced and bent over, stretching his joints as best he could, and the wolf craned about to look him in the face.
“I wasn’t that far away,” he told it.
It looked at him, its ears flicking up and then down, and then it abruptly whirled. As he continued to work his limbs, he watched it trot stiffly away, tail snapped to the side like a rude gesture. Jens ignored it and slipped the rosary back around his neck. Then he started off for his smithy.
When he got there, he built up a good fire and then stripped off his clothes, now soaking wet, to hang up before it. A quick check of himself determined that every part was still accounted for, so he ran a hand through his hair and then went about the morning chores. He pulled on his spare pair of trousers before he made his breakfast, and was just sitting down to it when someone knocked at the door.
It was Michael, and he thrust a frozen lump of something at Jens before he stalked inside, lips set in a thin line. “I’m beginning to think you’re mad, not just odd.”
Jens shut the door and looked at the thing, then gently tapped it against the wall: it rang softly like a bell. He looked at it again, then went over to the fire and set the loaves of bread down before it to thaw. “Were you following me? I didn’t hear any howling.”
“With the wind last night? I’m not surprised,” Michael snorted. He put out his hands towards the fire more out of habit than any real need for warmth, since his attention was obviously elsewhere. “I hope Timo and Per had some sense and didn’t tell Philipp about how stupid you were. For some reason he’s fond of you, and—and where are you going?”
“To start the day’s work,” Jens called back. He didn’t turn or pause as he walked into the work-room and began to build up the fire in the furnace.
Angry footsteps trailed behind him, heavy and loud, and so it wasn’t difficult to avoid Michael’s grab at him. The other man snarled and tried again. This time Jens turned, meaning to snap back, but before he could Michael shoved his breakfast at him. Then he stepped back, staring at Jens with a mixture of confusion and exasperation.
Jens held the bowl for a moment, then wiped the coal-dust from his fingers and started to eat. “I thought we settled the point about whether or not you need to worry about me. So why are you still following me? Don’t you have deer to kill or puppies to herd?”
“Don’t you know how to tie a noose if you want to die that badly?” Michael retorted. He flinched almost immediately, then looked off to the side with regret all over his face. But instead of apologizing, he simply took a deep breath and turned back to pin Jens with a searching gaze. “Is that what you were trying to do?”
“I can tie a knot, and no. I just wanted to get back here.” The food filled Jens’ stomach, but did nothing else, and Michael was still standing there. Eventually Jens just swallowed what was in his mouth, drank some water, and then shoved the bowl onto a shelf. “Look, I don’t like company. Especially at night.”
Michael’s mouth quirked. “I’d noticed. So why settle here?”
“Traveling is just as unpleasant. I got tired of putting up with it,” Jens muttered. He turned towards his work-bench, thinking a moment. Then he started putting his tools and the uncompleted work in the order that he’d want them. He paused, reconsidering, and then switched two of them.
Jens started slightly when the door slammed, but then he shook himself and went back to work. He had a feeling somebody else, Timo or maybe even Bastian, would be up from the village to pester him, so best get what he could done before then.
* * *
That night Jens told his beads a full seven rounds before he finally gave up and got out of bed. He tossed his cloak between his hands a few times, then threw it around him and went out onto the front step. Nothing living was in sight.
He waited a few minutes, and then he sighed and looked heavenwards. Clouds completely covered the sky, blanking out moon and stars as the snow did the earth.
“If you don’t stop that, I’m going to come out and make you,” he said. His voice carried very clearly in the still air.
He’d barely shut the door before the knock came, and the moment he’d opened it again, Michael slipped inside with dancing eyes in a carefully expressionless face. “Bastian’s right. You are a little frightening sometimes.”
“I was trying to sleep,” Jens said. His shirt got twisted as he moved and he pulled at it, then had to retuck his rosary as that shifted as well. “What?”
“I don’t think you were.” Michael looked coolly at him, then stepped back to put his hand on the door-latch. “If you’re going to be up at these hours, then do you want to see something?”
Jens stopped and looked back, raising his eyebrows. He started to ask what Michael meant, but the other man had already gone back out before the first word had struggled from Jens’ mouth. He didn’t completely shut the door behind him, and by the time Jens finally crossed the room, enough snow had drifted in to make a pile as high as his heel.
The black wolf was taking up the whole step, lying on its side and panting as if it’d just run a great distance. It looked up at him with its red tongue hanging slackly from its mouth, and then it pulled that in and slowly rolled to its feet. For the first few feet, it moved very gingerly, but long before they’d made the treeline the wolf was springing lightly and easily around Jens.
He rolled his eyes and star-gazed till it got the point—with a bit of a huff, but it settled down to simply lead him to whatever it was. Though he privately had to admit it really was an extraordinary example of its race: its head nearly reached his waist, and the thickness and gloss of its fur would have earned it the jealousy of many a highborn lady. It didn’t need the tricks, frankly.
They walked on for a good deal longer than Jens had expected, or was really willing to go. His body still was feeling the effects of the other night, and he was about to tell the wolf so when it suddenly stopped, its head going up and its ears pricking. Then it tossed its head and barked, and from just over the hill came a couple answering barks. The wolf grinned at Jens, and then, with a flick of its tail, bounded forward. In a moment it’d disappeared over the top of the hill.
Jens rubbed his chilly hands together and cursed at the damn beast. Then he sighed and trudged up the side.
Once he’d reached the top, he found he was looking into a little valley, with the frozen ribbon of water that ran through it looking like silver inlaid in ivory. At one end the creek had flowed over a rock outcropping to form a gently sloping series of waterfalls, but it was so cold that that had turned to ice. The result was a marvelous slide, and a whole pack of wolves was making themselves look ridiculous as they climbed up to the top of it and then skidded downwards. They were all ages and, Jens thought as he watched one adult clearly scolding a half-grown young one, of both sexes.
The black one was sitting at the very top, lazing about with an air of supreme confidence, and the others all accepted its supremacy without question. Even the pair of wolves that were sneakily double-teaming other ones and shoving them down the slide didn’t touch the black one.
Jens’ face ached. He reached up and felt about before narrowing in on his mouth, and then he dropped his hand once he’d determined the shape that that had taken on. Shaking his head, he looked about till he thought he saw a path down that was gradual enough to not test him unduly.
Halfway down it, he stumbled and had to catch himself against a bush. Its twigs rattled and dropped something onto his foot, and when he’d picked it up, he found it was a shoe.
The bush was still shaking, and Jens was about to push into it when Philipp’s head popped out. The youth was clothed, but in great disarray, and his cheeks were hot enough to have lit a coal held to them. “Jens. Hello. I, ah, that’s mine.”
“It seems a little large,” Jens dryly observed, but he leaned over to give it back anyway. Something else rolled into his foot and this time, it turned out to be a mitten, which couldn’t possibly have been Philipp’s since both of his were hanging from a string wound about his left arm.
Jens looked at Philipp. Philipp went alternately red and white, and then settled on pale-faced as he set his chin and shoulders. His eyes were terrified, but at the same time daring Jens to ask the obvious question.
“Timo, get out and take your mitten and shoe. I can’t believe you’re making Philipp stand—isn’t his ankle still sprained?” Jens sighed. He put both of the items in question in one hand and used the other to pull at his nose while the bush rustled some more, and then he tossed them to Timo. Then he looked up, blinking, as a third head—this one with long hair and features even more delicate than Philipp’s—emerged.
That was how Philipp ended up carrying the stew around, Jens supposed. He waved off Philipp’s stammered explanation and continued on down the hill. Just before he reached the bottom, he heard a stuttering step behind him and turned to see the small wolf limping after him, a pleading look in its eyes. Jens glanced up the hill and saw Timo and the girl from the inn watching him with identical wary expressions, still clutching at their disheveled clothing.
Something nudged his knee and he looked down. The small wolf had sat down in front of him and was still staring up at him, and in the end Jens stooped down and picked it up. He grunted—it was a bit weighty for its size—and resumed walking around the edge of the creek. “There have got to be more comfortable places, even if you need privacy,” he muttered. “It’s still pretty damn cold out tonight.”
The wolf whimpered, then licked at the side of Jens’ face. He jerked his head away, and kept his gaze averted till he’d reached the black one. And once there, he set the small one carefully down by it, then stepped back to regard the black wolf.
“I don’t think you’re unholy. Some of you are a little brainless, but that just proves it, in my opinion. And even if you were, I don’t like talking to people,” he told it. Then he turned on his heel and went back to the smithy.
A few howls started up behind him, but almost instantly ceased. Other than that, he wasn’t disturbed at all on his return walk. He was a little surprised at that, but after some thought, he decided it was a boon.
The fire had gone out and it was chilly inside the smithy, so Jens built up a small blaze before he rolled back onto his cot. He closed his eyes, then turned on his back. Then onto his other side. And then he sat up again, cursing Michael, and was about to get his cloak when there came a brutal pounding on the door. They were heavy hammer blows and they didn’t stop till Jens flung open the door.
Not quite even then, since Michael fell in just as Jens was asking, harsh and low, “What do you want--”
A snarl squeezed its way out from between them before Michael’s mouth smashed into his own. Michael forced them back, then jerked himself away, but before he could look at Jens, Jens grabbed his shoulder and pulled.
They fell onto the floor, Michael clawing till he could get at Jens’ skin, his teeth scraping over the stubble on Jens’ cheeks and then down over Jens’ throat. A breeze slipped through the open door and over them, and Michael arched as if someone had run a hand down his back, his head lifting so Jens could see the glow of his eyes. Then he came down again—Jens twisted so his heel struck the door and slammed it into its frame, and so Michael’s mouth landed on his jaw instead of his lips.
He kept one hand curled about Michael’s arm. Michael’s hands went everywhere, pushing and scratching till he could get to skin, rolling up Jens’ cross in his shirt so Jens was nearly strangled before he reached up and bundled the rosary into his other hand, and his mouth and nose pressed hard into the hollows of Jens’ throat just below the chin. He snarled and gasped, twisting over Jens, and Jens dug the fingers of his other hand into the floor till the dirt forced itself up beneath his nails. Jens stared up at the ceiling. He let his body move against Michael’s and once or twice his sight narrowed as he grimaced in pain, but he never quite shut his eyes. Or looked down, or had more than that hand on Michael, though Michael’s hands and then his prick went where he pleased.
He watched the smoke from the fire swirl madly above them, whipping its tendrils about the dust that they made rise from the floor, and he smelled the damp that their heels and toes raked out of the earth their rutting had warmed. His breath came shorter and shorter, and that restless coiling in his chest wrenched itself about till finally it gave, and he saw the room waver around them.
Michael’s sweat-sodden head dropped onto Jens’ shoulder. His back shuddered and the bicep of his arm tensed beneath Jens’ fingers, and then he went slack, boneless as a child’s rag doll. His breath trickled out in small, shallow puffs that tickled Jens’ ear and neck as gently as a feather.
“That was quicker than taking a walk in the woods,” Jens said, soft and quiet and toneless. He didn’t mean it to stiffen Michael’s shoulders and make the other man lift his head so quickly, but he knew the man would do that. The truth tended to. “If that bothers you so much, then next time don’t make me stand there and call you out.”
Michael started to speak, then thought the better of it. He shifted up on his elbows, his hair stuck damply to his brow and his eyes dark and questioning. He looked much younger, less certain, and something about the curl of black hair over his left eye spoke to Jens’ hand, made it clench into a fist. But then he merely tossed his head, and rolled off, his smooth naked back a very lordlike dismissal.
After he left, Jens surprised himself by falling asleep. But his rest was dreamless and in the end, merely that, and not true sleep.
* * *
The winter held many more blizzards, but none were severe enough, apparently, to trouble the village overmuch. The goats and sheep and cattle they lost to the cold, they were more than able to make up in fur and meat and feathers from the game they took from the woods. In the inn a few of them even took to discussing, as Per or Philipp once again tried to talk Jens into staying a little longer, the wisdom of sending some of their bounty in the spring to one of the larger towns.
Sometimes Bastian and sometimes Timo and the girl, Nicola, brought up bread to Jens on the days he didn’t go down to the inn. Once Philipp’s ankle had mended, Bastian came less often, but he and Lukas occasionally would swing by on their way back from a hunting trip. Lukas in particular had too much of a gift for accidents with red-hot metal, so Jens was more than happy to let them continue to stay outside, but Timo’s difficulty in shaking his initial hostility amused Jens enough to always invite him and Philipp and Nicola in. None of them mentioned the old smith anymore, and Jens kept the wolfsbane hanging on the outside peg.
And Michael would come, but now only at night. Once in a while he would knock but more often he’d wait till Jens got tired of it and opened the door to find him on the step. He wasn’t a bad guesser himself, and also had more perception than sometimes his habit of command would let him display, since he came mostly on the nights when Jens wasn’t welcome company to himself and would otherwise have gone into the woods.
They fucked on the bed instead of the floor, but that was the only concession to comfort. Jens was fine with it that way, and would have been even more content if Michael had always left directly afterward, like the first time, but Michael seemed to prefer not to play to Jens’ likes.
“If you want to talk, why don’t you bring me some work?” Jens finally said, turning over. He grunted when Michael shifted his perch on the bed to lean against his back, but ignored the hand that dropped onto his shoulder.
“Then we’re doing business and it gets a little awkward, I’d think.” Michael swung up his leg so his foot now lay against Jens’ shoulderblade. He leaned further so his face was just on the edge of Jens’ vision. “Why do you dislike people so much? At first I thought—and because you guessed about us—that maybe you were—or one of those ‘odder’ things you’ve seen was…”
Jens sighed, and then turned back. The rosary slithered over his chest, beads clicking. “I’m not, and I’ve never seen anything like you before. Which should please you.”
The corner of Michael’s mouth lifted, but his eyes had fallen to the silver cross. He plucked up his shirt and wrapped some of it around his two fingers, then poked the cross so it slid into Jens’ nipple. Then he shook his hand free of the cloth and picked up the beads, lifting them till the cross hung a few inches over Jens’ heart. “Then why? And why do you wear this? Some of us still go to church, though there’s no priest now and back when we had one, if they’d known they would have killed us.”
“I have my—” Jens snatched Michael’s wrist, then twisted it so the other man had to drop the rosary “—leave that alone.”
Michael had let go of the beads, but though Jens pushed quite hard at his arm, he didn’t let it be moved. He looked at Jens over it, curiosity sparking his eyes. “You know, if you want to know you’re safe, you’ve still got the wolfsbane. You could crush it around the door, or slip it into my food so I’m too sick to change.”
“You’ve found ways around the cross so far,” Jens snapped. He uncurled his fingers from Michael’s wrist and pushed himself up to lean against the wall. “Let it be.”
No words from the other man. Instead Michael simply looked at Jens, guesses openly floating about in his eyes as if he’d already learned enough about Jens for that.
Jens took off the rosary and wrapped the string around his hand. He started to put it under the covers, but then rethought that. He couldn’t count the beads so instead he ran his thumb over the cross, feeling the occasional groove that was all that was left of its engraving.
“It’s not yours,” Michael said. “You never go to church and you never pray, though you mark off when you should.”
“Your lips don’t have to move for you to pray.” But Jens knew he sounded too sharp and felt a flash of irritation at himself. Then he felt another, stronger one at the way Michael nodded knowingly. Even though he was too worn out to even get up and walk to the other room, the old barb curled in his chest. He clenched his teeth and the canines clicked, and then he looked at Michael. “It was my wife’s. She was very devout, and I wear them to remember her.”
Michael flinched, and the look on his face said he wished he hadn’t. But he kept his chin up and met Jens’ gaze. “What happened to her?”
“She and my children all died when the plague reached us,” Jens said. He lifted his hand and pressed his lips to the cross while watching Michael, watching what flicked through Michael’s eyes, before lying down again. This time he stayed on his side. “When I tell the beads I’m saying their names in my head.”
For a long time Michael sat next to him and didn’t move or speak. Jens didn’t look to see what was happening.
A wolf howled, and Michael started. Then he inhaled sharply, and swung his leg down. “So what are their names?” he asked, quiet and heavy.
“Conny.” The beads in Jens’ clenched hand rolled a little against his palm. He looked at the top of the cross, and then at the three points as he told Michael the names of his children.
“They’re beautiful names,” Michael said after Jens was done. His tone was flat and unreadable, and he left only a few minutes later so Jens wasn’t tempted to ask what he meant.
* * *
The cemetery, Bastian had said, had been filled to overflowing, and it looked like it. Jens could walk among the rows and follow the dates till he reached two years ago, and then the markers were jammed up against each other and the names on them filled the wood or stone from edge to edge.
He read a few as an odd last name or bit of carving caught his eye, but otherwise ignored the inscriptions. Someone cared enough to keep the graveyard relatively free of snow, which hurt more than it helped since it’d cleared out any footprints or tracks of visitors before Jens. Once he thought he’d found scratches on a headstone, but when he stooped and looked closer, he saw that they were far too small and at all angles: a crow’s pecking or a squirrel’s gnawing, maybe. Nothing bigger than that.
Jens came to the other side of the cemetery without having seen anything noteworthy, which would have fit fairly well with Michael’s blitheness. But somehow he thought that he should have found something, and so he stopped to lean against the little fence that surrounded the yard, looking back over the markers. He even lifted his head into the wind and inhaled deeply, but all that came to him was dirt and maybe an old trace of quicklime.
He was turning to go when something moved in the corner of his sight. Small, stuttering—Jens stopped again, standing very still, and soon the hare had eased its way out from behind a tombstone. It panicked and hopped back into hiding when he reached up, but after he’d taken off the rosary, its quivering nose peeked out again. He stared hard at it, letting the rosary dangle as loosely as possible from his fingers.
His head began to hurt, the throb starting behind his eyes and then swiftly spreading stabbing talons into his skull. The whiteness of the snow glittered brighter and brighter, till he’d nearly shut his eyes against it in order to be able to see at least a darkish sliver of the hare, and then it abruptly extinguished. Jens’ eyes snapped open, and then he winced as the daylight stung his eyes. He blinked a few times.
The blackness had been the hare, suddenly leaping forward. Little puffs of snow rose up from its feet as it zigzagged quickly out of sight.
When the pain in his head had gone, Jens pushed himself off the fence and slowly traced the hare’s darting prints back through the yard. The animal had stopped twice, whirling a hollow into the snow before two different markers, before its tracks arrowed off towards the woods.
A year apart, and a man and a woman’s names. Jens got down and ran his finger over the incised lines, melting the rime that filled them till he was sure he’d spelled them out properly. He mouthed them once to get the weight of the name. Then he stood up and went back to the smithy to finish up the day’s work.
* * *
It was a few days, but Michael came again. He was late and met Jens when Jens had just reached the treeline, and he likely wouldn’t have caught Jens at all if the damn snowshoes hadn’t jammed up against a half-buried snag.
“Well, you’ve managed to get Bastian to like you, too. He’s only ever given one other pair as a gift,” Michael said.
Jens finally kicked the snowshoe free of the crooked branch, then knelt to retighten the bindings around his foot. “Is that who they’re from? I should have guessed, since they didn’t knock but just left these to fall on me when I opened the door.”
Michael turned quickly away, but not quickly enough to hide his smile. Then he sighed quietly, sobering as he stared at the tops of the trees. He let Jens go a few paces before he abruptly followed, a little less graceful than usual in his haste. Though he still managed the snow better than Jens, despite the lack of anything like snowshoes.
“Everyone lost people in the great death,” he eventually said. He spoke softly and still watched the sky, the brush, the high mounds of snow instead of looking at Jens. “But it’s over and if you’re still living, doesn’t it make sense to look to that? Who wouldn’t have had their fill of death by now?”
“Maybe somebody who thinks death didn’t have its fill of them, wrongly.” A chilly breeze tickled the back of Jens’ neck. He lifted his hand to adjust his scarf and Michael finally did look over.
But only to shake himself angrily and glower away at the blameless trees. “I don’t believe it’s a punishment for your sins. I don’t think I even believe in God now. I think it just was a horror and random luck what saved the survivors, and—”
“Well, you found out you could still do something about it,” Jens remarked. He didn’t bother to correct Michael’s mistake about what he’d meant to do and simply wrapped his scarf more tightly around his head.
“A little late for some. Not everyone—we don’t force people into it. It takes so long, and afterward it’s still not Eden so it doesn’t make sense to. That’s why we’re not the whole village.” Michael exhaled a long thin stream of misty breath that split as he then walked into it. He frowned, then waved it away. “It’s why it took us a while to figure out only a little blood will do, will keep the plague away. At first we thought you have to turn all the way, and some—some people didn’t want it, not at that cost. And I couldn’t understand why—I don’t think the drawbacks are that bad—but that’s what they wanted and I couldn’t do anything about that. I still…wish it’d been different, but I did all that I could.”
“Which is why you don’t lose sleep over it.” Jens started back as his right foot began to drop too quickly into the snow. Then he went around the sinkhole.
And then he had to stop, because Michael had moved the quicker and now blocked his way. The other man pushed sharply at Jens, then stepped forward before suddenly swerving away. He looked more than a little shocked at himself, rubbing at the side of his face and then dragging his hand through his hair. “I—you weren’t here yet and you wouldn’t know. I lost plenty of sleep. But you know, the whole world didn’t die, and what’s left can’t just be let to go mad. And…you heal, eventually. You learn how to sleep again.”
“Well, that’s you,” Jens muttered. He stepped to the side and Michael stepped with him. Then he went back, and when Michael followed Jens seized him by the arm. “Look—”
Michael kissed him, hard and hot with the heel of one hand pressing into Jens’ cheek. Then he moved away a little to stare at Jens, bright-eyed first with hope and then anger. He started to speak, but the violence of his words apparently was too great and instead he jerked away. His arm slipped out of Jens’ hand and he went off a few feet, and kicked at a half-buried sapling like a frustrated boy.
Jens exhaled sharply, briefly closing his eyes. Then he opened them and dug the base of his own hand into his temple, wishing for once that he knew how to speak gently. But no, all he’d ever had was the hard, sharp words, like the steel he pounded and honed at the forge. “Where do you live? You’re always out here—the only one that I know about. The others have at least somewhere in town to sleep.”
“I’ve got a cave,” Michael said tightly. His words sang so much with the tension that Jens couldn’t take it and snorted, and Michael’s head and hand both went up. For a moment he stared disbelievingly at Jens, but then he sighed. His shoulders didn’t slacken from their pose of stiff rage, but he managed a sour smile. “It’s clean and warm, with less drafts than a lot of houses. And roomier than that place you’re so attached to. If you saw it you’d wish you had it instead.”
“You can say that now without worrying because I haven’t seen it.” After a moment, Jens started forward again and Michael slowly fell back into step.
They went on a few yards, the silence still tainted because for all its soft weight, snow couldn’t muffle human anger. Then Michael coughed into his hand, and nodded to the left so they turned. He glanced at Jens and the passion in his eyes was more tempered, but still asking, still demanding.
“I used to have a place in town, but I didn’t like sleeping there after they’d carried the bodies from it. The cave was better.” Michael’s gaze pressed at Jens like a hand constantly shaking the shoulder. “Eventually I’ll get another. The town is part of my life too, and I know I can’t wall it away forever. I don’t want to. I’d lose the good memories with the bad.”
“Where was it?” Jens asked, choosing his words very deliberately.
It took a while for Michael to answer, and when he did, his voice was rough with irritation. “I’ll tell you once you’ve taken back your laughter. And I’ll tell you my names, too.”
To which Jens said nothing, and tried to think of nothing as well, though that was less successful.
* * *
The next time, and the times after, Michael came up to Jens’ door. He hinted more than once that he’d be happy to go from there back to the cave, which was decent enough. But Jens ignored the man then, and any other time Michael tried to introduce more personal talk, and he found that Michael usually would respect his silence. But always to try again later; it wasn’t long before Jens reluctantly acknowledged that despite the lack of talking, they’d still managed to form habits of conversation.
Jens was sleeping more and reaching for the beads less. But he still had moments where he hated the fire in the hearth and the work of human hands all around him, where the chatter of other people grated on his ear and the smell of bread and cooked meat made him sick. Sometimes he looked at the snow and thought he could make it boil away simply by pressing his hands into it.
And because he looked at it, he marked the change in its level from knee-high to waist-high and then, little by little, day after day, it fell. Windowsills and then front steps revealed themselves in the town, and in the forest, the waterfall thawed till now at night Jens could watch the wolves stalking the deer that came to drink there.
In between the woods and the town, the roads cleared. Timo came one day and asked to borrow one of Jens’ oxen, so he could take a wagon to the next village to trade and hear the news. At the time Jens had been working long on a plowshare and the heat made him strip off his shirt. He’d taken off the rosary as well, not wanting it to swing down and accidentally melt to the red-hot iron, and it was hanging on the wall.
As Jens looked at the other man, a coal popped apart in the furnace and the flames leaped, throwing a bloody light over the whole room except for where Timo stood. There, a shadow like a huge cross fell and Jens glanced to the rosary, but it was across the room and beside Timo, not opposing him.
“Who else is going?” he asked.
“Me, Lukas. Philipp would have come, but Nicola’s not feeling well.” Timo moved a little and the shadow vanished. “So?”
Jens looked over his shoulder, but saw nothing cross-shaped behind him. For a moment he thought of asking also if Timo had seen it. Then he remembered the way they’d used the story of the old smith, and his body buried beneath Jens’ feet, and he simply nodded.
He barely heard Timo’s thanks, and after the other man had left, Jens put down his tools and went over to the rosary. For a long time he looked at it, and for the first time since he’d started traveling he remembered not Conny’s fever-flushed face, not the buboes on her white thighs. Not even the children, but afterward. The pits in the cemetery with their naked corpses like stacked firewood. The priest who’d fled, the shovel Jens had had to take up to dig a separate, proper grave. The lines of Flagellants who’d wound around the place, wailing and screaming, leaving behind them gobbets of flesh and bloody dirt like there wasn’t already enough of that, and the bishop who’d not come out except to chase those madmen away with soldiers when they raided his cathedral.
All that Jens remembered, and then the memories were done and he yanked the rosary off the wall, a snarl rising in him. But then the pictures of what would come came into his head, and he stood there and squeezed his eyes shut, but still he saw. His hand curled around the cross till suddenly a sharp pain made his eyes spring open and his fingers jerk straight, and before the room came back into view, a flash of green went across in front of him.
Then he was watching the shadows flicker around the familiar tools pegged to the wall, the rosary in the dust at his feet and a bitter taste in his mouth and a pounding in his head.
Jens made himself breathe. He knew how it’d be like, he’d seen horror equal to it before, and so he breathed and picked up the rosary. And after he’d slung it back around his neck, he went back to work.
Seven days later, the day Timo and Lukas should have returned, Jens went down into the village.
* * *
Per’s head went up and he frowned, then turned rather abruptly to go into the common room. The stomping boots and harsh voices grew louder and louder, and then the sounds of jingling bridles and neighing slowly began to filter through the walls.
Jens looked back down at the broken lantern Per had just handed him. He carefully ran his fingers around the crack in the top, then tested the little door in the side to see how well it still worked.
“Who’s all that? Those are horses out—” Philipp stopped. He stared blindly before himself as his nostrils flared, the basket of onions he’d been about to hand to Nicola hanging in the air.
A sliver had been struck off the edge of the door so it sliced into Jens’ thumb as he pressed on it. He inhaled sharply, then looked up just as the basket dropped to the ground. The rattling of the onions was echoed in the thump of Philipp’s heels as he ran out into the other room.
Nicola jerked up from where she’d been examining the pots on the hearth, frowning. Then she saw the onions rolling on the floor and she gasped. Jens barely had time to toss the lantern aside and grab her before the girl had lunged past him; he slammed a hand over her mouth, then yanked them to the side of the doorway. Her hands came up and she raked her nails over his arm, trying to scream.
He shook her hard, then pushed her up against the wall. “Quiet,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Per said almost in the same moment. He spoke very loudly and his voice was straining for the unusual volume.
Two deliberate thumps. “I am Felix Magath, a prelate of Wilhelm von Gennep, Archbishop of Cologne. I am here to investigate allegations of witchcraft.”
There was a scuffle of some sort that ended in a pained moan and a half-stifled, fearful noise from Philipp. Teeth and nails attacked Jens’ hand again and he nearly hit Nicola before he caught himself; he looked into her wide, terrified eyes and willed her to stop. And she did, but because Magath was talking again.
“Do you know this man?” Pause. Then in a softer, more coldly commanding voice: “He’s turned pale. Take him as well.”
“What are—there’s no witchcraft here!” Per snapped. “Who told you these lies? We’re—”
Magath’s cough carried over the noises of a fierce struggle, and Jens could very clearly see in his mind this prelate standing aloof, distastefully pulling back his cloak as his men jerked Philipp from Per and whoever else from the village was in the room, forcing the others back with swords and spearbutts. “My own eyes. I was in the next town and one of my men got in a dispute with that boy—” Lukas swore, then hissed in pain “—and he turned into a wolf. We saw him. And this other one tried to get him away. I want to know what evil you’re hiding here. Christoph?”
Nicola made a whimpering, strangled sound and pulled at Jens’ arm again, but this time so she could stay on her feet. He shook her off, and then, as the heavy tread of Magath’s men stormed near, shoved them both out the back door and into the snow. She briefly resisted before nearly tearing away, and so suddenly that Jens almost lost her. “Oh, God, I have to go. I have to—”
“Tell Michael,” Jens said, and she stopped. “Tell him to come see me. At the smithy.”
Then he let her go. Like a cow, she stared at him and he had to snap his fingers; Nicola started, then spun and went for the edge of the town. She was quick and kept close to the shadows, and he didn’t doubt that she could make good use of the hidden paths that let her follow Philipp into the woods. So he didn’t bother watching her, but instead dusted himself off and pulled the rosary out from his shirt. Jens gave it a rub, then let it drop and turned just as a tall man in Church livery came out the back door.
His sword was drawn and Jens stepped back before it, then stopped when told to. “I’m the blacksmith. Jens. I…Per—he’s the innkeeper—he wanted an order and I came to see about it. Who are you?”
“That’s not something you need to—” snarled another soldier. He started to push by the first, but was held back by a raised hand.
“Go back and check the rest of the place.” The first man had a quiet voice, but it sent the second one away as surely as death would have. He looked at Jens, and his jaw was set firmly but his eyes were strangely gentle. “I am Christoph, man-at-arms to the prelate Felix Magath, who’s been charged with regulating these outlying towns now that the plague is gone. We’re looking into a charge of witchcraft here.”
Jens pretended to start. “Witchcraft? What kind?”
“The kind where men become beasts, and walk on four legs at night to attack others,” Christoph said. There was horror and disgust in his face, but he maintained his civil tone. “Do you know anything about this?”
“I’m new here, just arrived a few months ago. But…” Jens started. He glanced over his shoulder as he nervously fingered the cross. “…my lord, I don’t know…”
“Don’t have any fear. The Church is here and you have its protection.” Christoph believed his words, clearly, and yet he grimaced slightly as another cry of pain came from within the inn. “What do you know?”
After another long look, Jens reluctantly walked up to the other man. He held tightly onto the cross and didn’t touch the beads.
* * *
That night Jens had barely risen from the cot when a fist slammed into his door. He hastened across to it, then threw it open to find Michael standing there like a brewing storm.
“Not so loud,” Jens hissed.
Michael barely looked at him as he shoved past Jens and into the room. His feet thudded angrily into the ground, and he went once around the room before turning and replying. “There’s no one up here. They’re all down—they’re keeping everyone in the old church. My God, can’t you hear the screaming?”
Jens had no answer to that, and so simply shut the door.
“How did you get away?” Michael asked. Harshly, but he was spinning about to kick at the wall, and was not watching Jens.
“I told them I’d only come recently and didn’t know anything, and then I offered to do some work for them for free,” Jens said. He waved off Michael’s sharp look as he walked over to the hearth. On it the leftover stew from the night before was just coming to a boil. “So I could get away. That was in the morning, and if you want you can go into the other room and see the broken manacles that I haven’t touched since.”
“Manacles—” The blood in Michael’s face drained away, but the green of his eyes was brilliant with fury. His throat seemed to swell and he jerked forward, then abruptly jerked away, moving over to throw himself on the cot. He fell back, hands going up to his face, and then sat up and looked at Jens with sudden but sincere apology. “I—I just can’t believe it. I didn’t mean…Nicola’s fine. She’s with the ones who were in the woods, and the villagers we could get word to in time. But—that damn priest. I’ll kill him.”
Jens took the pot off the fire and set it on the ground to cool while he got down a pair of bowls. Then he spooned up equal helpings into them. The stew smelt fine—like every other batch Philipp brought him—but tonight the aroma turned Jens’ stomach. He stayed on the floor for a moment, staring into the bowls. “You might want to get the ones in the church out first. Magath’s men are the kind who’ll be worse without him than with him, except for that captain of his. But he’s just one man, and they’re scared.”
“They should be,” Michael snarled. When Jens came over to him, he lifted his hand and started to grimace, but then controlled himself and instead moved aside to let Jens sit. Then he took the bowl Jens offered him, but didn’t touch the food. “How?”
The flames in the hearth went a little redder. “What do you mean? You have to get them out, and that means you have to fight the soldiers,” Jens said after a moment.
Michael made a frustrated, impatient noise in his throat, and squeezed the bowl till the wood began to creak. He jammed his heels into the floor and almost looked about to explode again, but then the anger drained suddenly and he sighed. His lashes fluttered nearly shut. He pressed his lips together, then glanced up at Jens.
It was one of those strange, strange moments where he was too young and hesitant, where all the hard brutal knowledge that should have been there, that the plague if not the woods and the winters should have beaten into his bones…was not. Instead he stared at Jens with only pride keeping the questions from flying from his mouth, and Jens wondered, briefly, what he looked like to Michael then.
But Michael turned away first. “I know. But…hiding always worked before. Even during the great death, when it came close—the plague killed for us. For—I’ve never done that to another man before, and now I have to.”
Jens drew in a surprised breath, though he should have known. He should have.
Michael inhaled, then looked out at the room and set his shoulders. “Well,” he said, trying to sound sure, “I’ll learn—”
When Jens caught him by the jaw and turned his head, Michael made one soft, startled sound. Then his hands came up, and it was Jens who had to get their bowls to the safety of the ground because Michael already had his fingers beneath Jens’ shirt, scratching and desperate and clinging.
He yielded for the first time, and then more than that; his hand pushed Jens’ wrist down so Jens felt Michael’s belly and then his groin, and then behind that so Michael’s head went back, the cords of his neck straining into Jens’ mouth. His knees bruised Jens’ ribs with their grip and his hands Jens’ shoulders, and his eyes were open to Jens long before his body had overcame its natural resistance. He pushed his throat up again and again, each press of Jens’ teeth against it drawing a long shivering whine from him, and stayed wrapped around Jens long after they’d finished coupling.
“I’ll be there,” Jens whispered to him. “When you go to them. But eat first, so you’ll be ready.”
Michael turned up exhausted, unquestioning, believing eyes to him, and then let Jens press the bowl and spoon into his hands. He laid on the bed and ate nearly all of the stew as Jens walked around neatening up, then held out the bowl when he was done.
Jens reached out for it, but before his fingers had closed around it, the bowl had fallen from Michael’s suddenly convulsing hand. The other man stared at his shaking arm, then tried to get up and fell; Jens stepped back, and then back again. He moved away the one time Michael’s hand weakly swiped his way, but stayed in the room and watched as the spasms spread through the man’s body and grew in violence. As they peaked and then lessened, as the shock in Michael’s eyes became understanding and then raw pain, as Michael’s limbs finally fell slack and only his head moved, turning a little because Jens was pulling the rosary off and the light caught on the silver cross.
Then Jens went into the next room, and came back with the manacles, which he’d mended. He put them on Michael, ignoring the other man’s gasping breaths, and after that he emptied his untouched bowl—outside in the snow, still mindful about Per’s warning about burning wolfsbane. And then he went down to the village to fetch Christoph.
* * *
“The whole village,” Magath said. His voice marveled but his face remained set in its perpetual expression of faintly smug satisfaction. Then he sighed and set down his knife and spoon. “Well, with your help we’ve managed to get them all in the first sweep, and now there’s only to send them back to their master in Hell. Speaking of which…”
“It’ll be another day before I’m done. Alloying sword steel is difficult and I don’t want the blade to shatter on you.” Jens calmly met Magath’s gaze till the other man gave up on his attempts to find a falsehood. He answered a few more questions in the same way, and when the other man finally left, settled down to finish his meal in peace.
He only had a few minutes before the bench across from him creaked; the inn had been taken over by Magath’s men and that was to be expected, but nevertheless irritation soured the taste of his mouthful. Swallowing it, Jens prepared himself to take yet another insolent order and looked up.
Christoph was sitting there, dark circles beneath his hands and a curious strain in his face. He’d folded his hands together on the table but they were restless and didn’t stay that way, instead twisting ceaselessly about each other. “I’m sorry but I couldn’t help overhearing…you said you’re almost ready?”
“A day. I need to temper the blade carefully so the silver doesn’t crack it, and then you’ll have your werewolf-killer,” Jens said, watching the other man.
No relief came into Christoph’s face, though he nodded as he was expected to. He looked as if he had more to say, but for the next few minutes they sat in silence. Once there was a rough call from outside and Christoph started, but then settled. Deliberately, since it’d been his name said.
“Are there going to be any left for it to deal with?” Jens resumed eating.
He didn’t miss the hard, revolted look with which Christoph met that, or the way the other man hid it when Jens glanced up. “We stopped hurting them after you told us where to find the rest. Now they’re only imprisoned.”
“So they can all walk to their death,” Jens remarked. He left it to the other man to determine whether he met it as a question or a statement. “There aren’t any babies, but there are some young children. Them, too?”
“They were just as much a part of it,” Christoph replied. He was too loud, too forceful, and in counterpoint he slumped back on the bench. That disgust went through his eyes again, but this time it wasn’t for Jens. “They…we’ve separated them from their parents.”
Nodding, Jens picked up his mug and washed down another mouthful. “I can hear the crying when I go by.”
Christoph glanced down at his hands. His nails were digging into his palms and white under the pressure. He opened his mouth, and then jerked his head aside to look up and about. “It’s a nice inn. Per—the innkeeper, he doesn’t blame you even when the others do. Him and—but that one, the leader, he just says nothing. The innkeeper says they never welcomed you like they should have.”
“They’re monsters, so what would they know about welcomes?” Jens said. He watched Christoph jerk up and stare at him, long and hard, and then abruptly leave. Then he dipped his spoon back into his food, only to have the plate rattle away as someone thumped into the spot Christoph had left.
“I want my dagger sharpened, smith,” grunted the soldier.
Jens lowered his gaze and nodded as he got up, abandoning his meal. He took the dagger and looked at it, then tucked it under his arm. The beads of the rosary clicked softly beneath his shirt. “I’ll get on it right away.”
* * *
They tore down a house and made a pile of the wood, for burning the bodies afterward, and with some of it they built cages so they could take their time while the villagers watched their fellows go before them. And then they brought them out, a pale, tight-lipped Christoph overseeing it, while Magath stood to the side with Jens and looked at the sword. The little stiff-mouthed prelate hemmed and hawed, but his eyes gave away his awe at the shining blade Jens presented to him.
“Bastard,” someone shouted.
Jens looked up, but only saw Per falling before a soldier’s blow, awkward because of the chains on his hands and feet. He glimpsed a regretful face behind Per before Christoph jerked forward and snapped at his men to keep order. Then Christoph was helping Per to his feet, and also whichever idiot Per had been protecting, and then Jens was no longer watching them because Michael was being marched over.
He was pale and ill-looking from the wolfsbane they had made him eat, in nothing but trousers and a torn shirt, its ripped collar hanging open to show the dark marks on his breast and ribs. More bruises showed beneath the irons on his ankles and wrists, and his lip was cut. They forced him to his knees before Magath, but he was looking at Jens.
It darkened a little, and a light snow began to fall. The delicate flakes dusted his hair and collected on his eyelashes like pearls.
“Do you want to?” Magath was saying, and Jens realized the man was talking to him. “To pay them back for their deception?”
Jens looked at him, then shook his head. “I’m just a blacksmith, my lord. They’re such evil—I’d feel better if a holy man like yourself did it. Besides, I’ve never held a sword but to fix it.”
It was true enough.
Christoph was standing by the cages, one hand on the top bars, and Jens thought he saw the other man move a little. But if Christoph did, it wasn’t out of understanding, and anyway Magath was nodding in agreement. “Yes…yes, that’s more proper.”
He told a man to get the pyre lit before the snow made the wood too wet, and a torch was thrown on. The fire grew with startling quickness and soon even Jens, who was standing two yards away, was squinting against the heat. But he didn’t move, though the soldiers all did.
Magath signaled to his men. Two of them stood to either side of Michael and made him bow his head. Only then did his eyes leave Jens.
In the bonfire, a piece of wood suddenly popped. Jens reached up and pulled at his collar, then lifted the rosary over his head. He pressed the beads to his mouth.
Some Latin prayer was said by Magath before he squared his feet and lifted the sword over his head. He measured Michael’s bare neck with his eyes, then sucked in his breath.
Jens tossed the rosary onto the fire.
He heard the crackle as the flames took it, and then a wet, slicing sound. Somebody’s scream. His head burned, and the world went violently white. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t breathe, he knew only pain and more pain. He might have screamed himself, though his body was frozen and not an inch of it moved.
And then it stopped, as if a knife had cut him away from all of it. He looked, blinking, at the village square with the cages of people and the huge blaze. And Magath’s headless corpse on the ground, with the red stain spreading between it and the fallen sword, and the writhing bodies of the prelate’s men, all of them with their own daggers or swords or spears stuck in them. Christoph staggered against the cage, staring in disbelieving horror. Michael lying on his side, just now kicking away the chains that had dropped off of him. He stared at Jens, eyes wide.
“That’s how you kill people,” Jens said to him. He paused, then slowly walked around Michael. A speck of brown caught his eye and he stooped to pull Timo’s knife from one soldier’s neck.
A hiss from the cage, and when Jens looked over, Timo was gaping at him in belated understanding. “I—you can have that.”
Jens snorted, then smiled. He tossed the knife down. “It doesn’t last that long—only a few weeks after I’ve touched them. A month and you don’t have to worry about this happening to you. I…I’m sorry I had to do it this way, with everyone. But I needed the time. I’m not that strong, so you don’t need to stare like that.”
“I was—always too busy to see you. Trying to understand why they seemed so like people,” Christoph stammered.
He flinched when Jens looked at him, then straightened up, as if that made a difference. “Well, that’s fortunate. Look, if I were you I’d forget about the witchcraft and just say bandits attacked. All right?”
What Christoph thought of that idea, Jens didn’t stay to hear. He walked on to where one of the horses Magath had brought was rearing and plunging, maddened by the heavy stench of blood. Jens snapped his fingers at it and a pang went through his head, but the horse came quietly over and let him mount.
It’d been a long, long time and he needed a moment to remember, to settle himself. Then he started to turn the horse towards the road out of town.
Something seized the stirrup, and then his calf. Michael yanked so hard at the rein that the leather tore through Jens’ hand and the horse jerked its head way over. It would have spun in a circle if Jens hadn’t driven his heels into its sides.
“Wait—what—what--why?” Michael gasped.
“Your eyes.” Jens kicked at him and Michael fell back, then stumbled; imprisonment and the poison of wolfsbane had made him weak. “They’re green, like mine, like my kind. I thought you were one…but you’re something else and this isn’t it.”
He made it a few yards before Michael ran up again and dragged at the saddle. “What isn’t?”
“The way—I fell in love with Conny, and left my land. And now she’s dead and I’ve been too long in this world anyway. I’m changing, I get sick, I used to be able to make great, magical things in my forge but now I’m a commonplace smith,” Jens snarled. He reached back and pushed at Michael, but that only let the other man grab his hand and he had a time shaking it free. “And I can’t find my way back. The hills won’t let me pass, the woods…I thought I might be able to here, when I saw you, but they’re closed, too. I don’t know. I’m beginning to think the damn plague scared even us and so all the doors are shut now.”
This time he spurred the horse and the nag finally leaped forward. It chawed at the bit and raced out of town before it dropped back to a slow walk. Jens cursed it, slapped the reins against his neck. Then he lifted his hand to hit its flank, but it reared up as something black cut in front of it.
It’d been a very long time and he nearly fell out of the saddle. And even when he managed to hang on, the wolf snapped and snarled till finally Jens had to jump off the horse.
The moment he did, it bolted and was gone too far for him to recall in any way. He bit his lip, then spun on his heel. Then he stopped, the words dying on his lips, and watched as the wolf writhed and twisted, so hard he was shocked he didn’t hear bones snapping. Fur peeled away to skin and cloth and hair, legs stretched long and straight, paws forced themselves into hands.
It did take a good while—longer than it should have, Jens guessed, and with more pain, because of the wolfsbane still in Michael’s blood. But finally he was lying there in the snow, so tired he couldn’t lift his head so he had to stare at Jens’ feet. “Weyland,” he wheezed.
Jens closed his eyes. “It doesn’t even seem to fit now, that name.”
“Stay.” Michael coughed and Jens opened his eyes. “Stay.”
“Why? Because I can kill?” Jens demanded, voice rough. “Because I have killed? Because I killed for you?”
Michael went white in the face in doing it, but he lifted himself and crawled over the ground till he could collapse on Jens’ feet. His head rested against Jens’ right shin, then slipped down. “No, because…because you can have a home here, where the doors won’t shut. Because there’s something…is there nothing you’ve liked here?” He breathed raggedly, his fingers pressing at Jens’ ankle. “Can I ever be nothing to you but those dead men?”
“You don’t even know what I am. I told you and you’ve seen some, but you don’t know.” Jens tried to lift his foot, but Michael’s fingers closed over it.
They squeezed like a vise, then fell slack as Michael’s whole body shuddered. His head slid a little lower. “But I want to. If you…I want to, but I don’t care if I never do know, if you stay. Do I have to know for that?”
He laid there, half-curled around Jens. The snow was falling more thickly now and Michael was shivering in his thin clothes, his bare feet now a raw red. He looked half-dead, and still he wrapped himself to Jens.
Jens’ head hurt again. He pressed his hands to his temples, but that only seemed to worsen the throb, and in the end the pain made him stoop down. Michael nearly made him lose his balance and he put out a hand to steady himself, and beneath it Michael’s shoulder moved. The other man pressed his face harder against Jens’ leg.
“You’re black fur and green eyes, and musk and heat in the wind, and a voice in my bed and a cave where I can leave everything behind to sleep,” Jens said, very quietly. He watched his fingers curve to fit Michael’s shoulder. “And I wasn’t talking about those men. I don’t give a damn about them. I had to burn Conny’s rosary to do that for you, Michael.”
Michael drew in a breath, then lifted his head. His face was shining. “I’ll give you a new one. Or something—whatever it is that’ll take its place.”
For a long time Jens looked into the other man’s eyes and saw. And then he closed his eyes, and reached up. He pulled off his cloak and tucked it around Michael. “First get up so we can get back before you lose any toes. You’re all so damn young…”
“I’ll get older. With you,” Michael said, and reached for Jens.