Golden summer grain waved its hello to the blazing azure sky as a breeze swept across the land. The grain was growing in a square plot, just large enough to supply a small family. Somewhere an insect chirped. Then, as sudden as the changing of wind, a group of small birds burst from a flowering berry bush. They flitted to a lone giant tree in the front yard of a homey cottage. Crack! Someone was chopping wood in the back yard.
Winter was several months away, but it never hurt to be prepared. As Wert stacked another short log on the chopping block, he couldn’t agree more.
He swung his ax again. The log cracked in two and flew apart. He picked up one of the halves and placed it on the chopping block. Behind him, two giggling children appeared in the back doorway of the house. One was a small seven-year-old girl, dressed in a simple homespun frock. Shandie. The other was a nine-year-old boy in clothes just a little too big for him. Renn. Both of them were two of Wert’s siblings.
“Wert! Time for breakfast!” the little girl said in her squeaky young voice.
“Alright, in uh,” Wert began and swung his ax, “in uh minute.”
“Mothah says now,” the boy said. “we’re having company over and she wants you cleaned up before then.”
“Alright, I’ll be there. Let me finish this up though.”
“Oh, and that Ferrent girl is already here,” the boy teased.
Wert spun around to face them. “What?”
The two children began to giggle and ran back into the house.
“Oh, the little devils,” Wert grumbled. On any other occasion he would’ve dismissed their mischievous behavior and resume the task at hand, but this wasn’t a regular occasion. He returned to the house to get a shirt. The one he had on before, he clumsily ripped nearly in two. His mother would have his hide for it, but he figured they could come to a compromise if he offered to fix it himself.
Before going up the stairs to his room, he peeked into the kitchen. Right after he gasped. Malena, the Ferrent family’s daughter, sat at the dining table laughing with Wert’s mother who was pouring a glass of milk. Her deep red curls bounced gently as she laughed, as did the white bow in her hair. Wert could’ve watched her forever, but then she looked up and spotted him peeking in at her. She waved at him, but he almost missed it because he had turned to hightail up to his room.
How embarrassing it was for her to see him without a shirt. He should’ve put on the torn one. It would’ve been better for her to see him that way than as he was…
As he searched through the chest containing his belongings, he wondered why Malena had chose to visit. His pondering vanished once he realized his shirts were nowhere to be found. He only had three of them, well two disregarding the torn one. Where were they? He always put them in his chest. It was a household rule to keep your clean clothes put up and away. Then it struck him. He just remembered seeing Shandie waving a white cloth over her head as she had run back into the house.
“Oh, the devils!” Wert exclaimed. They most likely had raided him of his shirts and the only way to find his shirts was to find them. And the only way to find them was to… go to the kitchen. That was the one place they would always hide.
Wert sighed to himself. Why did he have to have such mischievous siblings? He smiled. They were genius troublemakers though. He had to give them that. He could’ve tried to squeeze into one of the shirts of his brother Edwin, but he knew that was impossible.
‘Oh, well,’ he thought, ‘looks like I have to call those two up here to return my things.’
Screaming in the house was also forbidden, but this was a dire situation.
The moment he filled his lungs with air, he heard a knock on the jamb of his doorframe. To his very unfortunate surprise, it was Malena.
“M-Malena,” he stammered, “What are you doing up here?”
“Coming to give you your shirts, silly,” she said with a giggle. That giggle made something in Wert’s stomach flutter, it did. “Shandie and Renn gave them to me. I thought they may have been up to some trouble when they did. Then your mother told me the shirts were yours, and all my conclusions were proven correct.”
“Yeah, that’s Shandie and Renn for ya. Mainly Renn. Shandi just follows after him. Thanks for bringing them.”
“Oh, you think you’re going to get off so easy?” Malena asked and grinned impishly. She began backing from the doorway. “You forget, I’m the troublemaker in my family.” He heard her dash off down the stairs in a fit of giggles.
“Alright you asked for it!” he called after her and broke into a sprint. Now he was breaking another household rule. No running in the house. His mother was probably going to have a fit!
Up ahead, he saw Malena’s dress flit around the corner as she turned down the hall leading to the kitchen. How did she get down there so fast, when Wert was only halfway down? Suddenly a stench hit him. He instantly stopped in his tracks. That stench was the same he had smelt when their beloved family dog, Wolfie, had died in the storeroom. It was the stench of death and rotting corpses. A terror filled him. Tentatively, he stepped down another step.
A scream tore through the air. It had been Malena! Wert heard a thud on the floor and saw her hand fall from behind the corner. Wert stopped and stared, frozen in shock and fear. He wanted to run to her aid, but there had been something else he saw. A looming shadow was creeping across the floor and walls. Where it touched, veins of black spread. Paint peeled, wood rotted, and all became as black as the shadow.
Wert watched as it began to creep up the stairs. He wanted to move, but his muscles refuse to obey his command. The shadow continued to inch up and up and up. Over and over, Wert willed himself to move or maybe just advert his eyes, so he wouldn’t have to watch the shadow coming to devour him, but he could do nothing. Finally, the shadow was upon him, but it didn’t engulf him. Instead, it began to solidify into a figure. First he saw a pair of deep mauve eyes, the same color as his, and then a grinning mouth.
“All will fall to the Shadow of War,” it said. “All will succumb to the fear. There is no salvation.”
The mouth open and stretched in the most unnatural way, becoming a gaping oval of black. It consumed Wert all at once, plunging him into a cold dark.
Wert winced awake. It took a moment for him to realize it had just been a dream, and when he did, he sighed softly. For a time, he was thankful he was anywhere but where his dream was leading him…
But then his blanket was snatched off him. Intuitively, he scrunched into a ball and looked back at the snatcher of his blanket. Unsurprisingly, it was Jude.
“What are you doing?” he mumbled.
“Oh, good,” Jude said with indifference, “you’re already awake. Now up.”
Wert took a quick glance at the other bunks.
“Everyone else is sleeping.”
“That’s everyone else.”
Wert sat up and slung his legs over the side of the bed, suddenly in a grouch.
“Of all the people I could bunk with,” he muttered and reached down for his boots. Remembering they wouldn’t be there, he stood and painfully hit his head against the top bunk.
“I do hope you realize we don’t have all morning,” Jude said standing near the door of the sleeping quarters.
“I’m coming!” Wert snapped. Usually, he would never show such amounts of disrespect, but he was annoyed after all.
Jude didn’t seem to notice his annoyance. “Keep your voice down. You might wake the others.”
‘Oh, I might wake the others, but it’s perfectly fine for me to be awoken in such a rude manner,” Wert complained in thought.
“Hurry, we might be late,” Jude said and left through the door.
“Late for what?” Wert asked following after him. “Wait, what about my boots?”
“But where are we going?”
Jude didn’t answer. Wert continued to follow him, but couldn’t help the growing amount of reluctance creeping upon him…
“It’s just through here,” Jude said coming to a door. After sneaking through several halls and doorways, Wert wasn’t so sure he wanted to know about the “where” he had been asking about. A certain curiosity made him keep his thoughts to himself, however. The moment Jude cracked the door open, Wert was bombarded by the mouthwatering smells of cookery. Next he had to squint at the bright lantern light that came spewing out once Jude opened the door wider.
“Ah, ha-ha!” someone said from inside. “I told you he would return.”
“Hmph, they usually don’t,” someone else said.
“Come on in. Come, come. Did you bring the help you promised?” the first voice asked.
“Of course, I did,” Jude replied politely.
Once Wert’s eyes had adjusted somewhat, he noticed he was surrounded by shelves of vegetables and spices. So, Jude had led him to a kitchen! But for what?
“This is the help you promised?” one of the voices he heard earlier asked. Wert looked around for were the voice may have come from but didn’t see anyone.
“Down here,” they said. Wert looked down at his feet and nearly gasped. Standing up just past his knees was a Dwarvin.
Dwarvins were a race of pint-sized non-magical creatures. They were slightly different from their cousins the dwarves. They tended to have a liking to expanding their communities high and vertically and lived in the cliffside and forests rather than mountains. However, they similarly were secretive and seclusive. It was also rumored that the Dwarvins were much more hospitable and good mannered than the dwarves, but it was best not to try their patience.
The Dwarvin Wert happened to be staring at wore a leather skin outfit with a stained apron over it all. Though squab, he was muscular and from the scars on his arms and face, it looked like he had seen several battles of war.
“He doesn’t look like much,” the Dwarvin said stroking his coarse beard.
“No, he doesn’t,” a second Dwarvin said. He was walking up to look at Wert himself, wiping his hands on his apron. This Dwarvin didn’t have as many scars as the first and looked about a decade younger.
“Gotta name there boy?” the older Dwarvin asked.
“Oh, ah, it’s Wert,” Wert replied.
“Wart you say?”
“No, no Wert.”
“Wert? Wart would have been bettah. Oh, well then. I’m Pieg and this is muh nephew Singer. He doesn’t blow one note right, but what Dwarvin does, eh? Jude here tells me you were willing to lend a hand or two. We were looking for the help and would think it’ll be awful helpful if ya could.”
“Yeah… sure. What do you need me to do?”
“Wash the dishes for now. Our hands are a little too small to wash the plates ya humans eat off of to fill those gaping holes ya call mouths. Takes us forever you see.”
“Oh, I can understand that.”
“Glad that ya can. Once you’re done with that, we’ll see what else there is for you to do.”
Pieg pointed him to the sink and Singer tossed him a towel, which he caught at almost the last minute. The two Dwarvins walked off chuckling to each other.
Wert sighed glumly. His second day at camp and he is put to work as a kitchen aid.
“Wait, before you start,” Jude began. He pointed over to a corner containing a broom, mop, scrubbing brushes and other cleaning supplies. “I believe you need footwear and an apron.”
“An apron?” Wert asked. “I’ll be doing some cooking also?”
“Maybe, maybe not, but an apron isn’t only for cooks. It’s for any who are cautious of spills.” He motioned for him to continue.
After a frown, Wert shuffled over to the corner and slipped the apron from its hook. Next, he pulled it over his head while slipping on the wooden clogs also present. He slouched over to the sink hearing the Dwarvins break out into boisterous laughter. He cut his eyes over their way, expecting them to be shirking or something of the sort. However, they were doing the opposite; they were peeling potatoes.
Well, he couldn’t feel so bad about that. At least they weren’t getting him to do all of their work. At first that’s what he thought Jude had brought him to do. But if Jude had brought him here to work, didn’t he plan to work himself? It wouldn’t be quite fair if he didn’t.
Just as he was thinking this, Jude stepped up and placed a basket of vegetables on the kitchen’s long countertop. Wert began to feel a little better. At least everyone was working and not just him.
After washing the dishes, Wert had to gather wood. This was as easy a task as any and was finished in no time. He simply had to get a few logs from outside the kitchen, chop them, and make his return. Of course, chopping wood made him think of his dream. He really couldn’t tell what terrified him the most. What had become of his family and Malena, the terror that had immobilized him, or the shadow and its message. As he lugged the wood in for the stoves, he reminded himself that it had just been a dream, and therefore wasn’t real.
By now, the Dwarvins were finished peeling their potatoes and had even chopped them into slices. Jude had finished his task with the vegetables and was cooking at the moment. It looked as if he wasn’t needed, so Wert shuffled over to a stool to sit. Just when he was about to ease onto the stool, Singer stomped over.
“Aye, wha’ are ya doin’?” he said. “Get up and help with the cooking!”
“But I really don’t know how–”
“Well, ya will today.” The grumpy Dwarvin turned and waddled off grumbling something about a “beanstalk of a freeloader”.
With a sigh, Wert shuffled back over to lend a hand.
About an hour later, Wert finally got his chance to take a seat. Pieg and Singer were almost done with the breakfast and dismissed Wert from his volunteering duty. However, he wasn’t allowed to take his seat on the stool of earlier. Singer was using it to stand upon. This explained why Wert was sitting on the floor that very moment. Didn’t matter to him. As long as he could rest his feet.
A little later, Jude was approaching carrying a small cloth bundle, two handcrafted clay cups, and a kettle.
“Our compensation,” he said and sat on the floor as Wert had. Wert watched as he opened the bundle and began arranging the food within. There were some delicious looking tarts, half a bread loaf, dried fruits, and two hunks of cheese.
“Before we are to eat,” Jude began, “We will say our gratitude.”
He bowed his head and Wert followed his example.
“We are grateful for this opportunity to work and receive the rewards of labor this day. May there be many times like this.”
After that, the two men began to eat. They didn’t say anything, but the entire time, Wert wondered, why had Jude chosen him to help volunteer? And he made it seem so necessary when clearly, it wasn’t. Was it that he needed someone to feel the absence of Mason? Possibly, but he wasn’t so sure.
Eventually he was unable to keep his question pent up inside.
“How come you chose me to come along?” Wert asked placing his cup of tea beside him.
“Why wouldn’t I have?” Jude asked sounding as elusive as ever.
“Well, You could’ve have chosen anyone else, but instead you picked me. I am as any other stranger to you.”
“As it would seem.” Jude sipped his tea but didn’t reply any more than he had.
Wert frowned on the inside. How could Mason live with someone like this?
“Mason chose you,” Jude said. Wert was mystified at this.
“What do you mean?”
“She chose you to befriend. Those she tends to befriend easily generally have good hearts and balanced minds. As she sees it, you and Rebekka are good people. That is why I chose you.”
“Oh… thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Mason. You still have yet to win my favor.” Jude sipped more of his tea. “Finish eating. We’ll have to return soon. Training awaits us.”
Wert didn’t comment as he picked up the last of his tarts.
(to be continued…)
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© 2020 Alison Bankroft