Authors: Kevin Hardman
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Horror, #Coming of Age, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #Paranormal & Urban
The wind subtly changed directions, and Errol now found himself upwind of the manticore. The creature had opened its mouth, presumably preparing to roar again, when it suddenly sniffed the air. It sniffed again, then looked towards Errol once more. This time, he had no doubt that it knew where he was.
The beast’s brow furrowed and it bared its teeth as a low rumbling growl came from its throat. Errol saw the muscles and tendons in its legs tense as it squatted slightly before taking a powerful leap into the air. Spreading its wings, the monster was able to cover a tremendous amount of distance and was coming straight at Errol.
On his part, Errol almost soiled his pants as he suddenly had a vision of himself getting stung by that scorpion tail, and then gobbled up whole for supper. Raising his crossbow, he fired - almost out of instinct. After years of training, he was proficient enough that he should have been able to put a bolt through the manticore’s eye. As it was, the shot went wide right. The creature was about halfway to him when his legs seemed to develop a mind of their own, and a few seconds later he was running helter-skelter through the forest as fast as he could go. Behind him, crashing through the underbrush with predatory snarls, came the manticore.
Errol knew the monster was close behind him, and he fought every instinct to avoid glancing back. To do so would probably cost him precious seconds, and he would need every advantage if he was to survive this encounter.
Thankfully, the density of the trees and shrubs in the woods meant that the monster couldn’t use its wings. However, it was still fairly fleet on the ground, and could clear a lot of shrubbery with its leaping ability. Moreover, it had his scent, so there was little chance of shaking it off.
All of this flashed through Errol’s brain as he ran, literally, for his life. Because of his training, he had great stamina - he could run for miles at a stretch - but he didn’t kid himself; there was no way that he could outrun this monster. Soon, he would start to tire, slow down. Latching on to the thought unintentionally, he suddenly felt as though the manticore was right on his heels, hot breath blowing on his neck as that tail poised to strike…
Ahead of him, he saw two large boulders in close proximity to each other - maybe two feet apart. He ran for the gap between them. As he got nearer, he realized that the space between them was smaller than he thought. Nevertheless, he leaped between them, turning his body to the side as he went through and clearing the gap with barely an inch to spare on either side.
Errol hit the ground and rolled as a thunderous impact sounded behind him. He came up and glanced back. The manticore had indeed been right behind him, but had been too large to fit between the gap in the boulders. In fact, it had practically wedged itself between them. It clawed the ground ferociously, growling in frustration. For good measure, the creature’s tail stabbed one of the boulders - which all of a sudden let out a blaring screech of its own and began to move. In blatant alarm, Errol suddenly realized these weren’t boulders that he had squeezed through; they were trundlers!
Trundlers were creatures that seemed to be a cross between a giant pig and a mutated elephant. They grew to be the size of a small house, and - while mainly herbivorous - they were known to eat just about anything (including dirt and rocks) and would consume and void their own body weight in food several times per day.
Errol had been running so hard and so fast that he hadn’t even noticed the smell. Neither had the manticore, which suddenly began squinting almost spasmodically and scratching its nose with a paw, as if there were some irritant inside that it couldn’t get out.
Although still in mortal danger, Errol grinned and began looking around.
A fragrant (to put it nicely) mound of manure half again as tall as he was and six times as big around. He spared a glance back at the manticore - it still appeared disconcerted by both the trundlers and the smell of their bodily wastes - then raced for the dung pile.
Errol didn’t hesitate; he dove in, turned back around, and then crouched. The disturbed mound of manure, still soft and fresh, shifted and dung cascaded down around Errol, effectively covering him.
It was this position that Errol now found himself in as he reflected, once more, on how insane a person must be to want to be a Warden. His concentration, however, was constantly broken by the smell surrounding him, which was intense. Little wonder, then, that the manticore had seemingly lost his scent. Small slivers of light came through tiny gaps in the mound, and the darkening of these - by a body blocking the light, as well as the occasional growl - let him know when the manticore was right outside.
Thus, it seemed to Errol that hours had passed. He didn’t know how patient manticores were, but he wasn’t going to suffer through the indignity of becoming a human turd just to end up in some monster’s gullet. He would stay there as long as he had to.
However, if he didn’t end up a meal, it seemed just as likely that he would suffocate. The trundler stench was almost unbearable. Errol had tried breathing through his mouth, but that had made it feel as though he were eating the dung (a thought which nearly made him gag) rather than just hiding in it.
Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the chuckling voice of his brother said, “It’s okay, Errol; you can come out now. I’ve taken care of the manticore.”
Errol was just about to move when it suddenly occurred to him that it may not be Tom. The manticore had a human face; could it mimic human voices? Certain monsters in the Badlands could. He decided to stay still.
“Come on,” the voice said. “I don’t plan to be out here all day. Let’s go.”
When Errol still didn’t move, the voice continued. “Look, I followed your tracks right to this mound and they disappear. If I were the manticore - which can’t copy human voices, by the way - and I knew you were in there, I’d just dig you out. Now come on. The quicker you step out, the quicker you can get cleaned up.”
Still wary, Errol stayed put.
“Alright,” said the voice, “you’re making me pull out the big gun. When you were seven years old, Dad and I left you alone to take a bath for a few minutes. You thought we’d be gone for a while, and when we came back you were-”
“Okay!” Errol screamed, bursting from the dung heap like some hellish babe being born. “That’s enough!”
Tom took one look at his younger brother and broke out into a fit of laughter. As did Fancy Dever, who was with him. Errol ignored them both and, looking around and at the sun to get his bearings, began walking in the direction of the Dever farm.
Tom was still laughing as they made their way home. Errol was out of his uniform and wearing some clothes borrowed from one of Fancy’s sons. After arriving back at the Dever farm, Fancy had been kind enough to let Errol take a bath in the family’s tub.
“He needs to get that manure off him now,” Fancy had said, “while it’s still fresh. If it dries on him, he’ll reek of it for weeks.”
The Devers had also taken his uniform, promising to wash it thoroughly and send it to him in a few days. Finally, they had lent him the clothes he was currently wearing.
As it turned out, he hadn’t been in the dung heap for hours. It was, at most, about thirty minutes.
“It’s the fear,” Tom said, as he had mentioned numerous times before. “It distorts your perception of time, among other things.”
Tom and Fancy had come racing through the forest just as soon as they heard the manticore’s howl - probably when it first stepped on the ward. They had tracked Errol and the monster to the dung heap, where Tom had immobilized the still-present manticore and then placed an impulse on it, driving it away. On their way back to the Devers’, Tom had taken a moment to examine the ward Errol had etched, although he had reserved comment until now.
“Take your ward, for instance,” Tom said. “It looks like you started out fine, but towards the end, it became kind of a mess. I’m not sure that would have immobilized a flea, let alone a manticore.”
Errol silently fumed. He had told Tom what had happened - the whole sordid mess - and now it was lecture time. It was clear that, as the manticore started waking up in the tunnel, he had indeed panicked and screwed up the ward.
“Likewise with your crossbow shot,” Tom continued. “From what you tell me, you should have been able to nail that thing with your eyes closed. Plus, you could have fired at him with your warding wand. Did you forget you had it or something?”
Errol suddenly lashed out, unable to take any more criticism. “Well, I’m sorry that everybody can’t be as strong and brave as Warden Tom!”
“It’s not about being brave,” Tom countered. “It’s about keeping your head. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid; I’m afraid just about every time I come up against something from the Badlands. But you can’t let the fear control you. Do that, and you’re as good as dead.”
“Which is exactly why ‘becoming a Warden’ doesn’t rank very high on anyone’s bucket list - especially mine!”
They rode the rest of the way home in silence.
They arrived back home - at the Warden Station - late in the afternoon. Although his brother insisted that he smelled just fine, Errol was convinced that some trace of the trundler aroma still lingered. That being the case, he decided to take another bath while Tom went to check on the ravens.
As he bathed, scrubbing himself vigorously with lye soap, Errol reflected on the day’s events. Everything that had happened neatly summed up the exact reasons why he thought anyone wanting to be a Warden was an idiot.
Stupid, boring, and dangerous!
If it wasn’t manticores, then it was ghouls or griffins or some other kind of walking nightmare. Bearing all that in mind, it wasn’t hard to believe that there had once been a time when there were no Wardens.
According to the old stories, there were other worlds out there - dark realms where all these monsters came from - that co-existed with the world of men. However, there were once strong barriers in place that kept the weirdlings on their side of the fence - although occasionally one would somehow slip through. But human beings, in their arrogance, had experimented with forces they didn’t understand (and certainly couldn’t control), resulting in the demolition of the walls between worlds. Monsters of every ilk, creatures that at one point were only the stuff of legend, came pouring through. Now mankind fought tooth and nail for survival on a daily basis.
In addition, men now found themselves living in a world bereft of many of the conveniences they had once taken for granted, like automobiles. (Errol, however, found it hard to believe that the rusting metal hulks that he and Tom often passed on the road had, centuries earlier, served as the primary form of transportation.) Purportedly, when the walls between the worlds collapsed, some kind of invisible force - Tom called it an EMP - had washed over the planet, causing all kinds of devices to stop functioning. Still, it was rumored that - in the cities - men were learning how to reclaim mastery over the old sciences and technologies.
All of this went through Errol’s mind as he thoroughly washed his hair and attentively scrubbed almost every pore raw in an effort to convince himself that he was as clean as possible. As he stepped out of the bath and began to dry himself, he wrestled with the idea of whether or not to have another discussion with Tom about his desire to move to the city.
“Discussion” was, of course, a euphemism for a heated and angry war of words. Tom always said that Errol wasn’t ready - that he had no idea of what life in a city would be like. As if Tom did. Although he had indeed taken a few such trips to various cities in the past, Tom had - for the most part - lived his entire life in Stanchion.
Theirs was a small township of about two thousand people - mostly farmers. However, many of the farms, like that of the Dever family, pushed right up to the edge of the Badlands, where all kinds of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night lurked. When Errol had been younger, he had once asked his father why people chose to live so close to the monsters as opposed to somewhere else.
“Because,” his father had said, “at some point you just have to make a stand. For a long time, we let the monsters push us, make us move, give up the places we’d called home for generations. But there’s only so much arable land. There’s only so much potable water. We’re at the point where human beings have to fight to hold on to what we have left, or we’re doomed. That’s why the Wardens are so important.”
Errol thought lovingly of his father as he dressed, but didn’t care much for his philosophy of life. Errol thought it best to reside as far away from the Badlands as possible. In his mind, the people of Stanchion (and all other similarly situated communities) should let the monsters have the farms and move on.
After getting dressed and putting on one of his spare uniforms, Errol headed to the dining room for supper. Tom was already there, waiting for him with the table set. The meal had apparently come while he was in the bath. After a short prayer by Tom, they dove into the food, which consisted of bread, cheese, and a delicious beef stew. There was even apple pie for dessert. For breakfast the next day - which was typically delivered with the evening meal - there would be bacon and biscuits.
This was about the only good thing about being a Warden: the food. In addition to a place to live and a stipend, the people in the various wards were expected to provide the food for their Wardens. Some Wardens took full advantage of this, requiring elaborate meals to be cooked for them every day.
Tom, however, followed the precedent of the previous Wardens of Stanchion. He let the people of the ward decide and rotate amongst themselves the duty of providing the food. Moreover, he didn’t even demand that every meal be cooked. (“We need to know how to cook for ourselves,” he’d always say when someone delivered a raw leg of mutton, a bushel of corn, or such.) His only requirements in this department were (1) that he be informed in advance whether the food being delivered would be cooked or not, and (2) that a certain amount of dry meat, cheese, salt, bread, and other nonperishable foodstuffs be delivered every week. The former item advised Tom of whether he needed to make time to cook; the latter requirement usually served as lunch when they made their daily rounds.
After finishing dinner and clearing the table, they both set about recording the day’s events in their respective daily logs. It was one of the things Errol hated; having to jot down everything that happened every day just served as an additional reminder after every close encounter of how likely it was he was going to die young. Even more, he’d also have to cite it in the reference manual under “Manticore.”
Complaining about it, however, would do no good. Documenting daily events was one of the many traditions Tom insisted on perpetuating. In fact, the library shelves in his office were filled with the logs of all the previous Wardens of Stanchion, as well as the reference manuals and other odd books.
“You may not realize it,” Tom had said on numerous occasions, “but the information in those books has saved my life, yours - just about everybody in this town at one time or another. What we learn today can save somebody’s life tomorrow.”
Needless to say, Tom took his role as Warden very seriously. Although not really an inherited post, being Warden, much like other professions, was a trade that tended to be handed down from father to son. Tom had come into the job seven years ago, at age fourteen, after their father died.
It was unusual for someone so young to take on the role, and there were many who felt he was
young at the time. In fact, Mayor Sterillo had even written the High Warden about appointing someone new to serve in the position. All such talk came to an end when, less than a week after their father’s death, Tom faced down and warded off a griffin that had killed three people before he got to it. After that, no one questioned Tom’s age, abilities, or fitness, and the mayor had quickly and quietly withdrawn his request.
As usual, Tom finished logging his entry and reference citation well before Errol (who, on this occasion, was concerned with wording his log in such a way that any future reader would not consider him a buffoon.)
“I have to go out,” Tom said, as Errol continued writing. “I need to go see Dorsey Carroll.”
Errol’s ears perked up at this. Although Tom usually allowed - actually
- that Errol accompany him on most outings and when he made his rounds, he had never allowed his younger brother to come with him to see the mysterious Dorsey Carroll. All that Errol knew about Dorsey was that he lived by himself somewhere in the Badlands (which was either brave, crazy, or both), and that Tom usually went to see him about every two weeks. It was the same routine that their late father had maintained with respect to Dorsey, which made the mystery surrounding the man that much more intriguing.
“And no, you can’t come,” Tom said before Errol could even ask the question.
“I didn’t even say anything,” Errol complained.
“You didn’t have to. Now come on out to the barn so I can remind you of a few things before I go.”
With that, Tom had walked out the door, with Errol trailing behind him. He listened absentmindedly as Tom ran through a litany of things to do that Errol was already aware of: fresh water for the horses, check the ravens, blah, blah, blah.
Tom appeared to already be prepared for the trip. In fact, it seemed that he hadn’t unloaded a single thing from earlier; his travel kit still appeared to be fully packed. (The only additional item Errol saw was a sack of salt - something Tom always took when he went to see Dorsey.) That being the case, Tom simply swung his saddle onto a fresh horse, cinched it, and began leading the horse out of the barn. It was then that Errol noticed that he had his log with him - something that only occurred when Tom expected to be gone for an extended period of time.
“Will you be back tonight?” he asked as he closed the barn door.
“I plan on it,” Tom said as he climbed into the saddle. Then he followed Errol’s eyes to the log. “This is just for me to refresh my memory on a couple of things.”
With that, he rode off into the fading twilight.