Authors: Kevin Hardman
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Horror, #Coming of Age, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #Paranormal & Urban
Tom hadn’t returned by the time Errol woke up the next day. It wasn’t the first time that Tom had stayed away all night, so Errol saw no need to worry as he went about his daily routine.
On occasions like this, when he was left to his own devices, Errol always faced the temptation of slacking off: skipping morning exercises, weapons training, or the like. However, he recalled quite vividly how close the manticore had come to catching him the day before (not to mention his miss with the crossbow) and ultimately decided that it was best not to vary from his daily custom.
Having settled his internal debate, Errol began his day, as usual, with a run. Generations of runner Wardens had created a well-worn path around the Warden Station, which was a multi-acre property containing a number of buildings: in addition to the barn, there was a wagonshed, a grain silo, a henhouse/aviary, and several others.
The primary structure was, of course, the Station House. Not only did it contain the Warden’s office, but it also served as living quarters with a kitchen, bedrooms, and so on. Errol had lived there his entire life, as had multiple generations of the Magnus family before him.
His run was followed by a quick set of calisthenics: push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and more. Then it was on to weapons training.
As the descendant of Wardens (not to mention the brother of one), Errol had more than a passing familiarity with weapons. He had been handling them for as long as he could remember, although his proficiency with them really took off after Tom took over his training following their father’s death.
Most Wardens were rumored to have an arsenal at their disposal, and Tom was no different. They had an abundance of various types of weapons: longswords, shortswords, daggers, longbows, crossbows, bolos, what have you. Moreover, Tom had made sure that his little brother had at least proficiency - if not mastery - of them all. To that end, Errol had to practice with at least five weapons per day.
On this morning, with the previous day’s debacle still fresh in his mind, Errol decided to work with his ranged weapons. With that understanding, he set up the archery target on its usual spot on a huge oak tree out by the station’s corral. Then, starting with the longbow, he practiced his shooting. As he had for the past two years, he placed all five practice arrows in the bull’s-eye. Likewise with the full-sized crossbow. And the one-hand crossbow, the blowgun, and his throwing knife.
Finally, he took out his warding wand. He picked out a leaf on the oak tree, focused, and pointed the wand. A bright spark flew from it towards the leaf in question, which disintegrated upon contact with the light. He did this four more times, with four different leaves, before stopping, satisfied with his accuracy in using both conventional weapons and the mystic one.
Of course, it was easy to hit a target that was sitting still and not trying to gobble you up for dinner. Still, he recognized the truth of what Tom had said: he had panicked the day before - both in sketching the ward and in firing his crossbow. (Not to mention completely forgetting about his wand.)
After finishing with the weapons and putting them away, Errol had a light breakfast of the bacon and biscuits that had been delivered the night before, remembering to leave some for Tom. Then he turned to studying.
Of course, he had long ago mastered the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. These days he spent his time studying the various denizens of the Badlands and the wards to fend them off. Normally, Tom would have given him the topics of study (upon which Errol would be tested later), but in this instance he was left to choose his own subjects.
Of course, the very first ward he looked up was that for the manticore. Looking at it, he could see exactly where he had gone wrong in drawing the symbol - and why it had failed. He sighed despondently, noting that he had made a simple error (albeit one that almost cost him his life.) If there were a silver lining to be found, it was the fact that - like most students who miss an easy problem on an exam - he was unlikely to ever make that same mistake again.
He finished his studies (including practicing his wards) and then attacked his chores around the station. He let the horses out into the corral to graze and made sure they had fresh water. He scattered feed for the chickens before collecting eggs from the henhouse. While there, he also checked the aviary, which was in the same structure. A raven had come in - probably during the night - from the Beverly farm.
The message - as all such notes carried by birds - was brief and to the point:
TROUBLE IN FIELDS - COME
Errol crafted a short reply, stating that Tom was not present but that he’d pass along the message upon his return. He attached it to the proper bird’s leg and released it. The bird would arrive at the Beverly place in short order. They hadn’t identified the specific problem, so he assumed it wasn’t an emergency. And even if it was, he wasn’t about to attempt anything without his brother. In fact, it was with that thought in mind that Errol clung close to the Station House for the entire day, doing little or nothing besides daydreaming of life in the cities.
Near evening, Chad Sterillo, the mayor’s son, showed up with food - a salad, sandwiches, and fried potatoes for dinner, and baked ham and bread for breakfast. He took away the pots and pans from the previous day’s meal, which Errol had thoughtlessly forgotten to wash - something that Tom would undoubtedly admonish him for.
As to Tom, Errol’s brother had not yet returned, which was not totally unheard of. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he hadn’t sent word. Outside of one of Tom’s lengthy city excursions, Errol couldn’t recall a single day in the past seven years when he hadn’t received some kind of communication from his brother.
Errol ate dinner in unaccustomed solitude, then made a short entry in his log before going to bed.
Tom hadn’t returned by the next morning, nor had he appeared by the day after that. Errol, untroubled on the first day at his brother’s absence, grew increasingly worried. Tom had a reputation for being one of the most competent Wardens around, so any concern about him was probably silly. Still, Errol found himself going through his daily routine like an automaton, as anxiety over Tom gradually occupied more and more of his thoughts.
Moreover, in addition to his normal chores, he found himself forming another habit: responding to messages from the Beverlys. Each morning a new note came from them for Tom to come by their farm, and each day Errol replied that Tom was not there, but he would inform him of their request as soon as he returned. However, on the fourth morning of Tom’s disappearance (for lack of a better term), there was no such message waiting for him.
This actually came as a bit of a relief to Errol. The Beverlys, like most farmers in Stanchion, were decent, hardworking folk. However, whereas the patriarch, Dennis, had a tendency to be soft-spoken and restrained, his wife was the total opposite. A mail-order bride from a far-removed province, she was not the shy and demure spouse Dennis had been promised when he paid his marital fee. She was a brash and outspoken firebrand who spoke with a weird brogue, and she could administer as severe a tongue-lashing as Errol had ever heard.
Somehow, though, this marriage of opposites had worked, producing three boys and six girls. Moreover, while the boys all seemed to inherit the gentle demeanor of their father, the girls, unfortunately, took after their mother. In short, the Beverly women were a clan of shrill harpies, and Errol had always been of the opinion that it would be the girls this time around ordering spouses, because no man with knowledge of them would willingly marry into that family. Shockingly, however, the three eldest girls had all managed to snare local grooms, a turn of events that Errol attributed to the fact that the Beverly women never took “no” for an answer.
Thus, it should have come as no great surprise to him that - around dusk of that fourth day - a horse and rider came trotting determinedly up the path to the Station House just as he was about to have dinner. The dining table actually sat in front of a window that gave a clear view of the path approaching the house. Although the sun was setting fast, there was still enough light left for him to make out that the rider was female, wearing a light blue blouse and brown trousers. As she got closer, he could see that she had red hair, a telltale indicator that the rider was one of the Beverly girls.
, Errol thought, suddenly all too aware of how his messages had probably been received by the Beverlys.
The rider stopped her horse at the front porch and swung out of the saddle with practiced ease. It was Gale, one of the middle daughters (although the eldest still at home since her older sisters had married). At seventeen, she was a year older than Errol and rather tall for a girl - just a few inches shy of Errol’s own six-foot frame - with a shapely figure and clear, smooth skin. The fiery red of her hair (another thing inherited from her mother) was offset by the calm, clear blue of her eyes. All in all, she would have been quite pretty - perhaps even beautiful - if her features were not permanently marked by a perpetual scowl.
Surprisingly, that scowl was not on her face as she burst into the room, without knocking, like a tempest in search of something to destroy.
“Good evening,” she said, smiling sweetly as she closed the door. “I take it the Warden still hasn’t returned yet?”
Errol, in the midst of raising his fork to his mouth, paused to answer. “No, not yet. Like I said, I’ll tell him to come as soon as he gets back.” He then went back to eating, barely sparing Gale a glance.
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “I see now that I’ve obviously interrupted your supper. What exactly are you having this evening?”
“Chicken in broth,” he responded irritably, “with wild rice and bread.”
“Sounds delicious,” she said. Then, without warning, she leaned forward and snatched the plate off the table.
“Hey!” Errol screamed, jumping up. Gale, paying him no mind, turned around and opened the door - and flung the plate outside into the dirt.
“Are you crazy???!!” Errol exploded. “What the hell is wrong with you???!!!”
“Me?!” Gale retorted, slamming the door shut. “You’re the one sitting there gorging yourself like a hog instead of doing your duty!”
“What duty? I’m not the Warden. Riding out to your farm is Tom’s job, not mine.”
“Not your job? Well, you sure do act like it’s your job when it suits you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you live in the house
for the Warden. You ride horses
for the Warden. You eat the food
for the Warden. It sounds like you want all of the perks of the job but none of the responsibility.”
Her words stung Errol somewhat. He had never considered the possibility that people would actually want
taking action when Tom wasn’t around. The ramifications shocked him.
“So,” Gale continued, “if you aren’t going to take the post seriously, you should move on to something else, and the people of this town can go to supporting a single person at this Station House - cooking for just one, providing necessities for just one…Good Lord!!!”
Her sudden change of tone snapped Errol out of his reverie. Gale had gone pale and bug-eyed, as well as placing a hand over her heart. Errol followed her gaze to the window, where he caught a quick glimpse of something…horrid. Ruinous, desiccated flesh clung lazily to a nightmarish, skeletal face. Small wisps of gray-white hair hung in random clumps from a dome-shaped skull that housed two lidless eyes.
It was only in the window for a second, and then the…thing…was gone, its footsteps clumping audibly as it apparently walked down the porch towards the edge of the house.
Barely wasting a second, Errol grabbed his crossbow, already cocked and loaded, and raced out onto the porch. The skeletal thing was almost at the corner of the house when he fired. The bolt took it in the upper right shoulder, sinking in deep. The momentum of the shot also spun the creature around, knocking it off-balance and causing it to fall off the porch and into the dirt.
Errol stood still, breathing heavily, with Gale behind him. When she made a move to step forward, he instinctively put out his arm to keep her back. All the while, he never took his eyes off the creature, which sat up and then calmly came to its feet before turning towards them. Errol could now see that the bolt hadn’t just gone in deep; the head had travelled all the way through to the other side and was actually sticking out of the monster’s chest.
The thing reached up with a gloved hand and gripped the arrowhead. With a grunt, it yanked the bolt out, spewing an arc of green ichor from the wound. Still gripping the arrow, it began walking towards them.
Belatedly, Errol recalled that he hadn’t brought any more bolts outside with him (not that he would have had time to cock and load the crossbow anyway). Reaching down, he pulled his throwing knife free of its sheath and threw it in one smooth, seamless motion.
The knife flew true, straight at the monster’s throat. Almost absentmindedly, the creature batted the blade aside with the arrow it still held. The knife went into one of the porch’s supporting posts with a metallic twang, vibrating.
The thing closed the distance between them in surprisingly quick fashion, so fast in fact that Errol only had time to place himself protectively between Gale and the monster before it was standing right in front of him. It thrust the arrow out to Errol.
“You need to be more careful with this thing, boy,” it said nonchalantly. “You could have killed somebody.”