“Ah, the buzzards are going out to Hyslop Forest to roost,” mutters a peasant looking up at the autumn sky. True, simple peasant, quite true, and soon when cold comes in force they will leave altogether, giving up on their search for immobile carrion.
The peasant’s black beard, speckled with gray, juts from his jaw, his hide cap drapes low upon his brow, and his ragged trousers sag about his waist. Behind this ratty peasant is a cart carrying wood ready for the fire and his most valuable tool: his axe. He goes to lift his foot and carry on his way only to find his furry boots to be sunk fast into the mud as if the earth is trying to reclaim him. “Damn it,” he says. “It will be nice when the ground hardens and winter is here.” With a loud squish, he frees his boots and sets off down the road.
Small clay huts rest along both sides of the road, or perhaps a better word for them is ‘hovels.’ The sodden roofs sprout stone chimneys that spew up clouds of wood smoke to mingle with the smell of manure. Our peasant, once moving, finds it no trouble at all to slosh his wood cart through the mud until he finally stops outside one of the clay hovels, the only one from which no smoke rises. The red of the sky has darkened to maroon; a chilly wind whips up and carries in yellow oak leaves from the forest; the buzzards have vanished from the sky leaving the peasant alone on the road before the hovel. He wheels the cart up beside the wall and takes up a bundle of wood. Placing his shoulder against the wooden door, he gives it a shove and disappears into dimness.
The innards of the hovel do not greet him with warmth, coziness, and friendship. It is instead cold and dark. A woman aged beyond her years sits at the table mending a sock by candle light. She offers him no hello, and when she does not look up from the sock, her sewing takes on hostility as her needle stabs the fabric and binds it with thread.
The peasant looks at her for a moment then slams the door shut with his boot. He walks over to the hearth and sets the wood down. He adds a layer of kindling to the coals that dimly glow red in the dark little room. Upon the kindling he piles some of the wood from his bundle. He begins fanning the coals until the kindling catches fire and bright orange light plays across the walls of the hovel. The peasant crouches before the maw of flames. When the fire claims the energy from within the kindling, the peasant adds more, and the flames revive from their slow death and again light the room. Finally the wood catches, and a steady glow illuminates the single room abode. The peasant rises and removes his heavy coat, revealing a gaunt and wiry body draped in a coarse once-white shirt. Sweat stains the peasant beneath his arms and down his chest. After warming himself beside the profits of his labor, he looks to the woman. She too is thin beyond preference, and what little beauty she had possessed has fled years ago. She continues violently stabbing at the sock with her needle.
“The fire’s ready,” the peasant says to the woman.
She turns to him, one eye is sunken and closed for eternity. A scowl deforms her face. “Why should we not be the first? I am freezing,” the woman growls at the man. “Must I always freeze?”
The peasant takes no offense to the woman’s tone yet sighs with pity for her plight. “I serve those who depend on me before myself.”
“Lazarus,” the woman moans. “Should you not also serve me?”
Lazarus saunters over to the table, takes a small purse from his belt, and sets it on the table with a jingle and a clank. “I do serve you,” he responds. “Everyone in this village is always cold. The longer they wait the less they pay. And the priest is always first. You know that.”
“That is not much,” she comments, eyeing the small purse.
“When I am dead I will prefer to have been a good man instead of a rich man.”
“And dead you will remain regardless,” the woman mumbles. “I’ll fetch the pot and get started.”
“It’s heavy,” Lazarus says. “Let me get it.” He walks over to the wall and lifts the iron pot and takes it over to the hearth, where the woman meets him. There before the fire she adds water, potatoes, and cabbage to the pot, and places it upon the fire.
“Still no meat?” she asks.
The peasant chuckles. “Should today be any different than any in the past? There is no more game in the woods.”
Outside in the night, autumn finally yields to winter’s assault and snow dances down to the forlorn earth and sodden roofs.
The sun rises to no ovation in the morn. Gray clouds shield the land from the warmth of light, and the fiery disc is already sinking in the afternoon when a loud rapping disturbs the peasant’s abode—preventing a peaceful rest. The peasant throws off his blanket and climbs to his feet, leaving his wife still and alone before the fire. The snow has stormed the earth the entire night and most of the day. Who would go out in such weather? Who would leave the warmth of a fire to rap on a hovel’s door?
With some effort the wooden door opens. Even before the visitor can be identified, mischievous snow tumbles down from the snow bank residing outside. It begins to melt into the earth.
“Lazarus,” a voice moans from outside. “Hurry up!”
Shivering and hugging himself outside in the dimming light slouches the innkeeper, another gaunt specimen. His withered and chapped face wears fright. His cheeks sink deep into his face and his mummified lips can’t fully cover his yellow teeth. “There are travelers at the inn.”
“Close the door,” the wife snarls from the floor.
The innkeeper peers around Lazarus to the source of the snarl and then ignores the woman. “There is no wood,” he goes on. “We are out of wood. They ask for fire. Help me.”
Lazarus nods. “I understand. I will bring some of mine.”
“You mustn’t!” screams his wife. “We will freeze!”
Lazarus motions for the innkeeper to leave then closes the door. Turning to the inanimate lump before the fire, he stands motionless for a moment then says, “Travelers are our guests.”
A snort arises from the earthen floor, but no more argument is made. The wife knows Lazarus will be hospitable to a fault and sometimes resents him for it. She goes back to sleep with the sunken eye shut and the other open and reflecting the fire.
The peasant takes a step towards the stack of firewood in the corner of the hovel. His left foot drags lifelessly on the dirt. He looks curiously at his foot and then shakes his leg and stamps his foot. “I’m getting old,” he thinks to himself with a small smirk. The natural stages of life charm and amuse our little peasant. He takes another step, and his foot works properly. He separates a fair amount of wood from his personal stash and sticks it in a sack. Three logs remain. He looks back to the lump before the fire, smiles, unslings his satchel, removes two logs, and adds them to wood he is leaving behind. Without saying a word, not wanting to disturb his wife, the peasant departs the hovel, closing the door as silently as possible.
The streets are deserted. The villagers have forsaken them on this first heavy snow of the winter. They need time to adjust. They are not yet willing to admit that fall is gone and that the temporary death of winter is upon them. They stay inside next to their hearths, clinging to the lively memory of fall and summer, but eventually they will accept winter for what it is, and the longing for the past will disappear from them, and all that will remain is the peaceful quiet of winter.
The inn is on the opposite side of town from Yarmouth Cathedral and trudging through the snow makes for slow going. Faint candlelight escapes from the inn’s windows, and a torch flickers beside the door. Sitting at the table nearest the dead hearth, is a noble looking group. They drink mead and speak in rowdy voices. Two broad and powerful men clad in armor, a long bearded dwarf in chainmail, an Amazon archer, and a stealthy looking fellow in a cloak comprise the company of travelers. “What a fascinating bunch,” Lazarus thinks.
A cheer arises from the table. “The wood is here,” bellows one of the large men. He has long golden hair and commands the respect of the others. Lazarus quickly sets about starting the fire. The innkeeper emerges from the kitchen with a steaming pot of stew made from the same recipe that Lazarus’s wife had used the night before.
“I’m sorry for the delay,” he says nervously. “We don’t get many travelers these days, so it’s just me doing everything.” He sets the pot in the center of the table. “Let me get the bowls. I’ll be right back.” He scampers back to the kitchen.
The two large men begin stirring the stew to examine its ingredients. “We should have stayed in the woods,” the dark haired one, who is obviously the brother of the blonde-haired man, mumbles as quietly as his brutish voice will allow. Lazarus still over hears him.
“How do these people survive,” the man in the cloak adds in a whisper.
The innkeeper returns balancing a stack of bowls in one hand and holding spoons in the other. When he reaches the table, Lazarus rises. Several logs burn steadily in the fireplace.
“It’s about damn time. It was colder than death in here,” bellows the blonde warrior.
Bowls and spoons clank on the oak table. Lazarus turns to the travelers and smiles. The innkeeper mutters apologies as he distributes the dishes.
“Christ,” the big blonde man shouts as the innkeeper moves past him. “Does no one in this town bathe?” The man gives Lazarus a few sniffs and scowls. “You people smell corpses. Hurry up and get away from me before I lose my appetite.” The others in his company burst out in alcohol enhanced laughs. Only the woman remains quiet and glares at the rude man. The firelight casts deep shadows over every face present.
“What a beauty,” Lazarus thinks. He hasn’t seen a woman this young in many seasons. “Oddly dressed,” he muses. Indeed she is oddly dressed. She sits shivering in scanty armor which barely covers her breasts and reveals her midriff. Her long supple thighs are exposed and pair of knee-high boots protects her feet.
After the bowls are distributed and the innkeeper has left, the party of adventurers sits around the table drinking and talking and telling stories. The Amazon finally sighs, stands up, and serves stew to herself and all the others. She sits back down and begins to eat ignoring her companions. Lazarus walks over to her. Her eyes dart to him and then return to her bowl. The peasant looks at her bare shoulders and cleavage.
“Oh my,” he says as he slides out of his overcoat. “I’m sorry that it is such an old and worn out thing, but I’d like you to take this,” he tells the woman as he drapes the coat over her shoulders.
The Amazon flinches, and instinctively reaches towards the dagger strapped to her thigh. She stops and crinkles her nose at the odor of the coat. The others laugh.
“Hey,” the raspy voiced dwarf slurs. “Look who made a friend!”
The Amazon glares at the dwarf. “Thank you,” she says to Lazarus.
“One shouldn’t be dressed so scantily in this country,” the peasant scolded her.
“I had little choice,” she grumbles. “This is the only female armor the blacksmith makes.”
“He’s a damn good man, that blacksmith,” the blonde man chimes in eyeing the Amazon’s breasts. “That armor keeps our morale high!” All the others laugh and also eye the woman. Her face shows no emotion as her hand once again falls upon the hilt of her dagger. Her eyes flash around the table taking note of all those laughing and, reluctantly, her hand moves away from the dagger.
“Your morale would not be an issue had you not led us on a wild goose chase after fairytale monsters,” she points out to the leader.
Laughs die away into graves of silence. The leader, finally turning serious, says, “You will see. The necromancer is no fairytale.” The others nodded. “Our strength,” he says, indicating himself, his brother, and the dwarf, “his stealth,” he continues pointing at the cloaked man (he pauses for a moment and cannot suppress a smile), “and your breasts will fell the villain.” All the others laughed.
“Bow,” the Amazon corrects before eating a potato from her bowl.
“Be gone, peasant,” the leader says to Lazarus. “We have no more need of you, and I will take care of her tonight.”
“Take your coat,” the Amazon says as Lazarus turns to leave. “You’ll freeze.”
“Keep it. I’ll make it home just fine,” Lazarus insists as he leaves the travelers to their raucous dinner.
The next day there comes more rapping on Lazarus’s door, and once again the innkeeper stands outside. Over one arm hangs the old overcoat. “The woman says, ‘Thank you very much,’” the innkeeper says with musty breath. Lazarus takes the coat.
“Yes. A few hours ago. They made a mess of their rooms and refused to pay for the food because there was no meat. Your lady friend slipped me a silver piece. She was the only decent one in the lot. That fellow in the cloak is a straight up thief. He nicked the blanket off his bed.” Shaking his head the innkeeper turns and leaves.
In the evening, the buzzards make their last tour over the village before heading south for the winter and all is quiet. The wind creaks the door on its hinges. Then from edge of the village a scream awakens the evening.
“What was that?” Lazarus’s wife asked.
“Stay here by the fire,” Lazarus tells her, “I’ll go find out.”
Outside is not as dark as it should be. An ominous glow rises from edge of the town. Shadows of villagers are rushing down the street, and Lazarus follows them as fast as he can without seeing where he is going and stumbling in the high powdery snow.
As he nears Yarmouth Cathedral he can see orange flames pouring from the windows and licking at the stars from the roof. In the middle of the street the dwarf, the golden-haired warrior and the Amazon stand shoulder to shoulder with weapons at the ready. They are lit by the burning cathedral. Running along the street with torches and setting fire to every roof are the cloaked man and the dark-haired warrior. A crowd of villagers gathers and stands in shock as their Yarmouth Cathedral burns and their homes soon follow.
“All of them!” the lead warrior shouts. “My God…It’s all of them!” With those words the group of adventurers set to the villagers with their swords and axes, decapitating anyone unfortunate enough to get close to them. It takes a moment for the villagers to react and try to flee, but the poor undernourished souls, tripping over themselves, cannot make an effective retreat. Heads are split, bellies slit, and limbs are hacked asunder.
Lazarus flees pursued by the blonde haired warrior who remembers him from the night before. The warrior laughs as he pursues the peasant. Reaching his home, Lazarus rushes in and grabs his wife by the wrist and drags her to the door.
“We must flee!” he shouts at the confused woman. Just as they step out the door a gleaming blade of a broad sword narrowly misses Lazarus but splits his wife’s head like a melon. Both Lazarus and the corpse fall into a snow drift.
He blinks up at the stars still holding his wife’s dead hand.
He smells the burning village.
Eclipsing the stars is the bulk of the blonde warrior. He pants out clouds of steamy breath. The warrior looks at the peasant in disgust. “You abomination,” he mutters as he raises his sword to the heavens, preparing to cleave the peasant in two.
Suddenly the warrior’s head jerks back, and his face grimaces. A dagger plunges deep into the warrior’s throat and wretches clear across his neck with strength denoting true hatred and nearly decapitating the man. The giant muscle-bound adventurer collapses into the snow, where his hot blood melts its way towards the earth.
Standing over the body, the Amazon looks down on the peasant. Her expression belies uncertainty and suspicion. As Lazarus gets to his feet, she takes a step backwards, readying her blade. “You should run,” she says in a distrustful voice.
Lazarus does nothing but blink dumbly.
“Go north. We will be going south,” she says.
Lazarus looks at what remains of his wife. The flames of the adventurers are spreading ever closer to his home. Soon it will be aflame and then gone.
He looks at the Amazon.
What should he say? Why is this happening?
The Amazon takes another step backwards.
Finally, unable to speak or even think Lazarus turns and runs down the dark deserted street and into Hyslop Forest.
In the darkness, he knows not where he goes. Behind him the raised village glows a deep red in the night, revealing the dark trunks and branches of the trees. He trips. He stumbles. He does not stop. The woods make running hard, but they also shelter him from any pursuit.
Is there anyone pursuing him?
He can see nothing.
How long has he been running?
Suddenly the ground disappears from beneath his feet, and he falls. There he stays, unable to see anything in the dark of night, swaddled in his overcoat, and unable to process what has befallen his existence. He cannot sleep; he is too scared to move; he waits.
In the grayish light of dawn, Lazarus stiffly climbs out of the pit. He is in a clearing in the forest. All around him stand Hyslop’s scraggly evergreens frosted with white snow. He turns about, shivering and in shock. To his right and to his left, in front and behind him, everywhere in the small clearing the sacred earth is pocked with empty gaping black graves. Bewildered and confused, he limps past the old crosses and tombstones and into the trees of Hyslop Forest leaving Yarmouth Cemetery behind forever.
About the AuthorNathan Henderson was born in Texas and now lives in Boston. In between he lived all over the world. He has been writing fiction for ten years and has completed one novel and started work on another.
©2012 Nathan Henderson