Reuben sharpened his sword on a whetstone; a broadsword which shone argent in the dim morning light, while Wulfrik turned a spit over the fire. Impaled on the skewer was a dead northern horned marten, and drying out beside the fire was the animal’s flea-ridden mottled fur.
It was a deathly quiet morning, and Wulfrik mused, the birds must still be sleeping, for there was no chirping yet.
“Awful,” complained Reuben, who looked on with disgust, that Wulfrik was preparing rodent for breakfast.
“I killed the first thing I could find. And I had no intention of wandering far off… lest you go a day without me.” As he continued with the hand crank; his eyes glazed over he added, “I thought you of all people would appreciate rotisserie.” And he gestured to the marten spinning on the miniature lance.
“Not by my hands, Wulf. And you should have held out for a hog. More meat on its bones. You may as well have caught a skunk. They smell and taste just the same.” And he took a step back after inhaling another whiff of the creature’s musk.
Wulfrik grinned, “Don’t be so picky, little brother. In the winter months, my people oft went for days, sometimes weeks deprived of food, let alone pork or venison. So when all we could find were voles or rats, we ate without hesitation.”
“So you’ve told me before. But I’m not that desperate.”
Satisfied that his quarry had cooked fully through, he began to carve off strips of meat. As he did, Wulfrik replied, “Well, at the very least eat the berries. I was lucky to find those so early in the year. But do hurry up, we should move on soon.”
“What did you say they were called, again?”
Reuben looked at the dozen unappetising red and grey fruits. They were bulbous, mushy, and smelled rancid. Reluctantly he downed the handful, and chewed. Its slimy texture, and its bitter and savoury juices amalgamated into little more than a runny paste that made Reuben want to vomit, yet he swallowed. But after a few moments, his tongue felt as though it were on fire.
“Oh fuck!” cried Reuben.
Sitting by the coals and embers was Wulfrik stifling a laugh, and by then Reuben realised he’d been duped. “Oh, you son of a bitch!”
Frantically, Reuben reached for his canteen to cool off his mouth and rinse out the aftertaste therein. All the while, Wulfrik began to roll on the ground, raucous with laughter.
“What the hell was that!?” Reuben groaned, “Were those poisonous?”
Wulfrik roared gleefully. So much so, that his next words were all but decipherable.
“What did you just make me eat?”
“Fireberries! It’s a rite of passage, Reuben,” chuckled Wulfrik.
“It’s revolting!” spat Reuben. “It feels as though my tongue and gums and the inside of my cheeks were put to the torch.”
By then the overtures of Wulfrik’s laughter had subsided and he explained, “When I was a boy, no more than four or five at the time, my older brothers took me hunting for hog and great-elk…”
And at the mention of Wulfrik’s brothers, Reuben eased his mind; the burning sensation in his mouth lessened to the point he no longer cared, and he was eager to know more about his dear friend’s earlier years. So he sat down and listened.
“Wulf, Ælfgar, Ælfrid, and Wuldred,” said Wulfrik listing off his brother’s names. “A few days we were gone from the village, but we didn’t catch anything in that time since it was so cold. The frost had driven our quarry south. In any case, my brothers convinced me to eat the fireberries to keep my strength up. Unappealing as they were, I ate them because they told me they had already eaten their share without my noticing, and that they would stave off my pangs of hunger.”
Wulfrik smiled, and stared into the fire, a look of nostalgia spread across his face.
“And?” Reuben begged go on.
“And it did. The taste in my mouth was fetid, and it burned, and I was put off from eating for the whole next day and night. Of course I didn’t swallow the shit like you just did. They laughed so hard; I think Wuldred may have pissed himself. They had all eaten fireberries like I had in years past. A tradition they said.”
Through with his anecdote, Wulfrik looked up and saw Reuben grinning. And he asked gruffly, “What?”
“So you have four brothers?”
“Five, actually. My little brother Ældred was still too young to go hunting,” corrected Wulfrik, “but no longer. Those days are long gone. Why?”
“You never talk about your brothers, Wulfrik. Nor any part of your life.”
“Yes, well… that’s for the best I think.”
Suddenly, the hunters heard something in the woods. Most likely the snap of a twig.
“Oh, I will be so annoyed if that turns out to be a proper game animal,” said Reuben.
“Then let’s hope the witch has found her way to us.”
Both Wulfrik and Reuben had their swords already drawn. Held out; poised to kill.
Though capable with a broadsword just as Reuben, (in fact one of a larger stock like those used in his homeland) Wulfrik wielded a different sort of blade. One he picked up on his travels in a southern realm called Qøthaal. Where the people were renowned for their swordplay, and where he was taught to fight just like them.
The single-edged, single-handled sabre was especially sharp, and curved in such a way that made it ideal for both slashing and thrusting. It’s black handle was carved with ancient runes which ran all the way up the length of the silver-blue blade. And as it passed through the air, the sword sung a song of death.
Both Reuben and Wulfrik searched wildly through the thicket for whatever creature made the sound. Until their eyes fell upon a tall shadowy figure. Perhaps a cloaked man. Perhaps worse. Slightly taller than either man, and blacker than night, the faceless being stood motionless and but a hundred yards to the east. Wulfrik thought there was something inhuman and sinister about it. Yet something which seemed familiar. It made a chill go up his spine.
The longer Wulfrik stared at it, the more unsettled it made him feel. As he stared, a ringing sound like no other filled his ears, and his alone. Not even truly ringing however, but a low rumbling, as if the earth, and the trees and the æther all around him vibrated; droned loudly, drowning out all other sounds, sucking up all the light so he couldn’t see, and all the air so he couldn’t breathe.
Surely it has been watching us. Following us. Perhaps since we stepped foot inside the forest. Wulfrik thought, it must move when the trees do.
“Wulf? What is it?” Reuben finally asked, breaking Wulfrik’s trance, “a monster? a spirit?”
Wulfrik replied with frost in his bite, “it does not have a name in your language… and I dare not say its name in any other.”
“What is the best translation?”
“Nightfall… Shadow… Evil… it is a dæmon, Reuben.”
Stepping back, Reuben sighed and thence took up another more defensive stance. Whilst Wulfrik sheathed his sword, and drew his bow and a bolt from his quiver instead.
And as quickly as it had come, the shadow disappeared, like clouds departing in the wind. But the following word echoed out like a whisper supposedly uttered by that dark entity: Soooon…
Neither of the mercenaries moved. Not even after the shadow had gone for several minutes, they held their positions, ready to flail or fire within seconds.
But at last, the sounds of birds and other forestlings returned, and thin, weak rays of sunlight managed to penetrate the thick canopy. So Wulfrik lowered his weapon and Reuben did likewise.
Reuben exhaled sharply, “Now, I know you and I are both rather imposing, but something tells me that we didn’t frighten that dæmon off. And you know its name. What is it?”
“I told you, I cannot say it. To do so would summon it back here, and it would be ten times as powerful. And believe me, we don’t want that.”
“Then write it down. Tell me what it is,” insisted Reuben.
“There’s no name for it in writing, either. I will tell you about it…” Wulfrik looked around the woods suspiciously, certain someone or something was listening. The trees themselves may be listening.
“… but on the way. Gather your things.”