Sorry I’m late guys… It’s a sleepy Monday. Here’s a continuation of last week’s story. In case you missed the first bit, it is here:
The village was not so large that strangers could go unnoticed for long. Not that this particular one tried.
The young woman walked straight into town, head held high. Not that there was so very much to walk into. Some houses. A blacksmith’s forge. A small tavern. A small marketplace. Nothing so very unexpected or difficult to identify.
And people, out and about for their business of the day, stared openly as she walked by. She knew where she was going. There was no doubt about it.
And when she walked into the mayor’s office, a forest of whispers erupted in her wake, like the wind through the trees on a stormy night.
Who was she?
Where had she come from?
Why was she here?
And what did she want with the mayor?
She shed the dusty red cloak upon entering the small wooden building, hanging it and her satchel on the hooks by the door. The day had been chill. It was officially Spring, of course, but it seemed that Winter had not quite gotten in its’ last bite.
Inside, a fire burned merrily, crunching and crackling in the silence and the heat hit her almost like a wall.
“Whoever you are,” a voice called from the inner office. “I am very busy. Kindly make an appointment and return at a better time.”
He was not, in fact, very busy. He was never very busy. But he had managed to maintain the illusion thus far and had great interest in maintaining it further. It is, after all, quite nice to have one’s days to oneself. He had a half-dozen children and a put-upon wife at home, comfortably supported by the mayoral salary. He had grown to appreciate the silence of his days.
And that silence was broken as the young woman walked quietly into his office and sat down.
“How dare you?” he said. “I’m very busy.”
She smiled at him.
“No, you’re not,” she said. “And you can make a little time for me.”
He had, previous to her arrival, been intently supervising a spider, industrious in its’ construction of a web in the upper right corner of his office. He almost felt as though his supervision made the web better, made the spider a bit more attentive in its’ work…. But he wasn’t going to admit this to the young woman in front of him.
“Very well, then,” he said, huffily. “What do you want?”
“I was summoned here,” she told him, those blue eyes giving him a once-over and finding his portly person wanting. “I believe you called for a wolf hunter?”
“I – no,” he said, spluttering over his words. “I mean, yes, we did. But…. you?”
“Me,” she answered, leaning back in the chair and settling herself comfortably. “I assure you, I’m very good at what I do.”
“But ….,” his round cheeks began to turn an unpleasant shade of red. “You’re a girl.”
“How very perceptive of you,” she said, a frown darkening her features. “Nevertheless, I am a hunter. And you are in need of one, as far as I’ve been told.”
“If you choose to wait for another one,” she added. “It will be quite a long wait.”
He stared at her, mildly agog.
“My profession,” she told him, examining her fingernails in a bored way. “Is not a particularly common one. Nor a safe one. We don’t exactly have many retirees.”
“I see,” he said, swallowing hard and trying to pull himself together.
“We have summoned a wolf hunter,” he continued, sitting up a bit taller in his chair, with the attempt to look professional. “And if you can fulfill that task, we are more than happy to have you here, whatever, erm, form you have.”
She nodded, scooting slightly forward.
“Grand,” she said. “Now tell me.”
“Tell you what?” he asked.
“Tell me about the wolf,” she said.
“Ah,” he said, shuffling some papers on his desk unnecessarily. “Right to business, I see. I admire that very much.”
He looked back up at her.
“I should mention,” he continued. “That it’s not a wolf… it’s wolves. There are at least two of them, we think.”
She glared at him.
“It started,” he said. “In winter…. in the real, bone-biting, frozen chill of winter. This winter has not been kind. A starving winter, some have called it. Wolf winter. The wolves, like us, began to starve. Food was scarce. And a few of them, it seems, decided that hunting humans seemed like the better alternative. It started with chickens and lambs, not properly secured for the night, but we’ve come to expect that from wolves – folk who don’t keep their hens properly cooped half-deserve to lose them, I say. Then small children started to go missing. Once they develop a taste for humans, they don’t go back. And they’re getting bolder – now they’ll attack any straggler – anyone left alone on the road after dark, sometimes before.”
“I see,” she said, a grim look on her face. “You’re right. Once they develop a taste for it, they never go back. They need to be … dealt with. But unfortunately, that also means that my price just went up.”
“Price?” he asked, warily. “How much?”
With a heavy sigh, she reached for a scrap of paper and a bit of pencil on his desk. Swiftly, she wrote down two numbers and pushed the piece of paper towards him.
“The first is my price for one,” she said. “The second is for two.”
He gulped heavily on a dry throat.
“But it’s so expensive!” he said. “You couldn’t…. you couldn’t drop your prices a bit for a town in need?”
She shook her head, long dark strands of hair shifting across her shoulders.
“I think your villagers, of all people, know how dangerous these creatures can be,” she said. “I think my prices are justified.”
He looked down at the numbers on the piece of paper, willing them to change. They had, of course, expected to pay. But not nearly this much. After the long winter, the town coffers were nearly empty. He’d have to scrounge to find even half of her fee.
“You couldn’t, perhaps,” he wondered. “Just kill one of them? Maybe that would lessen the severity of our situation at least?”
Her grim expression darkened.
“I can’t ‘just kill one’, as you so aptly put it,” she said. “If you have two, that means you have a mated pair, hunting together. That makes it exponentially more difficult to ‘just kill one.’ If I kill one, then his mate will attack me. Even if it fails to kill me, it will go on a rampage. It will kill twice as many villagers as you have already lost. It will not care about darkness, or its’ own safety. It will avenge. It will not merely be a hungry wolf, but a mad one as well.”
She took a breath and took her time letting it out before continuing.
“It stands to reason,” she said. “After all, would you not go mad with rage if you lost your mate? Would you not want to avenge your wife, if you lost her so suddenly and cruelly, in front of your very eyes?”
He gulped again, and she watched his Adams’ apple as it made the journey up and down his throat.
“I – I suppose I would,” he said. He had never given the matter much thought. He hoped he would never have to.
He looked at the paper again, trying to bully his brain into working, into doing the math that would allow them to pay her.
“We will pay, then,” he said. “Lord knows how. But we’ll figure something out. We have a great need.”
She simply nodded.
“How soon can you…. erm… get to work?” he asked.
“This might take me a few days,” she answered. “I will, of course, need a place to stay.”
He nodded now.
“That can be easily arranged.”
She stood up first, reaching forward to shake his hand.
He stood to meet her, brushing suddenly sweaty palms against his trousers before reaching out his hand.
“We have a deal,” she said.
“We have a deal,” he confirmed nervously, feeling for all the world as though he was making a deal with the Devil.