Too Cold a Trail
I’m an Old Dwarf now, settled in these here lands for near thirty years. I’ve sired four children and have seen more winters than most couples will see between them. In my youth though, my life was different. Things were more exciting, every day was an adventure. The problem is, looking back you tend to remember all the good things that have happened, and you tend to block out the bad. This story is just one of those tales.
I remember years ago when I was just a couple of years in the scouts. We were based about two miles from a small mining town called Othgud. We’d been camped out and were being given a refresher in survival training. You’ve got to remember that the Dwarven armies are an organized and disciplined lot. Not a great bunch of rabble like the Gobs or the Elves.
About a week into it, a messenger arrives; a cotton beard from the town. The boy had been riding hard and his pony was near its last legs. Captain Henrig had me and a good friend of mine, Dorvin Himmelik out on patrol. Just dumb luck, our two days were up and we’d walked in right as the boy was catching his breath. After some water and a shot of spirits for tonic, he started to talk. A wagon had been waylaid on the road from Othgud. The driver, his wife and their child were dead. Because nothing ever happened in that backwater town, the killings were enough to scare them into getting outside help. The mountains had been clear of Gobs for years now but once and a while you got a wandering band of them coming through, making a couple of swift raids and getting out.
Now you have to remember that we were the only crown troops in the area. Othgud was a town of a few hundred, so the constabulary consisted of a toothless old badger and his son, who turned out to be the one that brought us the message. Capt. Henrig listened to the boy’s story and then saw us coming in. The bastard immediately told us to get a couple of hours sleep, clean up and set off. No chance to say anything about it. The boy passed out and the pony was left to rest. When we got up it was afternoon. We put a days worth of provisions together and even managed to get a hand on some of the Capt’s sausage. He was pissed out of his mind most nights so he wouldn’t miss a few.
During the journey to Othgud the boy, a nice lad by the name of Gilaim, couldn’t tell us much more than he already had. Apparently the wagon was found overturned in the brush on the south road. The driver was headed to the ferry post at Kelthaven, on the Mitherial, a tributary of the Haketh. Gilaim said that the person who found the wagon was taken home immediately from the shock and his father, the constable, would not let anybody get near it. Dorvin and I were not much older than the lad, so we decided that the old coot was just soft in the head and whatever it was we could take care of easily. Anyhow, it took a few hours to finally get insight of the town, but all thoughts of a nice warm pint and a little slap and tickle with the local girls were dashed by the fact that we were to go directly to the wagon. With the warm houses with their smoking chimneys in plain sight, we veered south and headed for the ferry road. Not more than a mile down the road we spotted the tracks of the wagon cutting through the embankment. It had rained the day before and the mud had hardened. Now, the wagon itself was the covered kind, wood and steel, kind of like a prison car.
As we approached, the constable got up from a log. He’d been sitting there, just staring at his hands. Gillaim was almost a spitting image of him, with the same flaming hair and generous girth. We’d met him earlier when passing through with the troop and had ridiculed the clack of his wooden teeth. I don’t think I’ll ever laugh at wooden teeth again.
"Well met…" He said, though there was no joy in his voice.
"The wagon doors are open. We’ve covered the bodies with sheets. You’ll notice that some things have been disturbed, but that was the doing of the smith. She’s only just left. Other than that nothing of value was taken."
Dorvin and I approached the wagon door and walked up the three steps. There was no smell as such. No flies. The insides were roomy and comfortable. A central dining / work table, a window on each side; Pretty drapes on ‘em too. Chests full of tools piled up on the sides. This was a working wagon, with a woman’s touch thrown in. The two bodies were on the floor, covered with canvas. The blood had soaked the wooden floor black beneath them. We came in and stupidly pulled the sheets away from the bodies. The constable tried to warn us from the door but he was too late. Dorvin collapsed next me with the dry heaves. I ran out the door myself, and pushed the old Dwarf out of the way. I remember very clearly what we saw, even though for the life of me, I’ve tried to forget. Any fighting man has seen his share of ugly corpses, but this was unnatural. I would not wish such butchery on my worst enemy.
"There’s another one but we’ve taken him outside" Gilaim said from out by the road. I looked up and saw him pointing toward a small covered bundle lying by the wagon’s front wheels. I straightened myself out and walked toward it.
"Is it the same?" I asked.
"No….just the lips are blue……and..."
I pulled the sheet back to reveal a fine faced Dwarven toddler. The little boy was still dressed in his dungarees. Gilaim was right. The lad hadn’t a hair out of place. His face was blue though. He’d died for want of air. I pulled the sheet back out over his face and walked back toward the wagon. Othgud town is in more of a valley than the mountains. The soil is rich and fertile and the weather though wet does not get so bitter cold as where I’m from. I remember it feeling a little surreal such a terrible thing happening in such idyllic surroundings.
"The smith got him out" The old constable had sat back down on the log and was tugging at his ginger beard.
"Got him out of where?"
"The safe. There was a small safe under the table. The victim was Master Meschersfeldt, master locksmith. He used to build safes, locks. He has settled here in Othgud. His wife was guildfellow to my daughter! The Meschersfeldt’s must of had some warning; Before whatever got them got them, they’d bundled the bairn into the safe and locked it. The poor thing suffocated hearing his parent’s screams!!"
The old man was doing all he could to stop himself from sobbing in front of me and his son. I turned around and went back into the wagon to get Dorvin. He was on his knees looking at the inside of his shield. Now the wagon stank. The shield was covered in his last meal.
"Get up, we have to get going before the trail grows any colder" I told him.
"I don’t know Bel. I don’t know, lets just go back and say we did’nt find anything, someone else’ll come along and.."
"There is nobody else!! It’s just us."
Dorvin looked up at me with his grey piercing eyes, and looked back his black shield. The symbol of the wayfinder that he’d just vomited into.
"Let me clean up."
Truth be told, Dorvin was the real tracker of the bunch. Had the eye (or nose) of a sleuthhound. How he did it was really quite uncanny at times and came in handy when looking for fresh meat to bolster our subsistance rations. This time round though, he didn’t even have to try.
"The trail is as clear as day." Dorvin was standing by the road, looking east. "The tracks are narrow, soled feet, I’d say a good quality boot or shoe. Funny though…."
"What is?" I asked him, leaning down in the dirt next to him, but not seeing a thing.
"Well, the size of the print. Its big but its narrow, not like a dwarf or a Gob. I’d say it was a human…."
"A human? What in the nine hells would a human be doing here?"
Dorvin just smiled and stood up. It had taken him a good while to clean his shield, but he’d kept the soap we’d found in the wagon and had polished up the ringlets in his beard. The shine was annoying.
"Damned if I know. Don’t get snappy at me, just because we’re going after some kind of monster all on our own. You’re lucky anyway. Since you’re master blueblood they’ll pull you out if it get’s hairy. I’m the poor bugger that’ll be…."
"Sod off! Let’s just get a move on before the sun goes down entirely…"
We set off right then and their. The tracks followed the road east, so we just followed it. I got one last look at the wagon before it disapeared behind us. An ox drawn straw cart had just pulled up to take the bodies away. Even at that distance I could see the old constable get up and go to the wagon again. He motioned for Gilaim to stay where he was.
In order for the Meschersfeldt’s to get to Kelthaven, they’d have to take the south fork on the road that we were on. The tracks continued straight ahead until another fork that headed north came into view. Whoever we were following decided to take that north fork and leave the main road; this lead to Tozrik’s Fist, a range of four mountains. As we went higher, the vegetation got sparser. The forest on both sides of the road thinned out until when the mountains came into view and we were flanked by craggy scrubland. Tiredness was not really an issue for us but as the hours passed the light faded. With that so did the tracks.
"Dorvin! Let’s hold up a little. We can’t see a damned thing now!" I’d stopped and was looking at the sun go behind the four steep peaks. The wind was picking up and I felt it was going to get worse.
"We’re catching up to him. You saw where he stopped at the side of the road, near the cave? His tracks went straight in and straight out! He’s not trying to hide, he’ll be on the road and if he rested, we’ll have made some time on him. I’m gonna keep going. You stay if you want!"
My fist tightened around my hammer, but I decided he was right. The killer, if he was the killer, was not hiding or even trying to run away. He HAD rested and we hadn’t. We’d only been on the road for a few hours, so we could go on longer, and go on we did. We had entered the foothills around the fist, when the road started to wind. The moon was up but it was not full so provided prescious little light. Our footfalls filled our thoughts as we pushed on, staring expectantly up ahead. And then, as Dorvin had promised, we saw him. At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, but he was there. A tall spindly human by the looks of him. He was dressed in a long coat and was wearing a wide brimmed hat. He had a walking staff and seemed to use it to help climb uphill as the path got steeper. Those human’s can fall down a mountain no problem. It’s just the climbing up that gives them trouble! He was walking ahead of us, seemingly hunched over fighting the now audible gust that surrounded. It was cold but we knew we had to keep going.
It was at this point that Dorvin and I slowed down a mite and drew our weapons. Dorvin carried a short sword at the time, but I reached for my trusty hammer. I could crack a melon at twenty yards, but decided to keep it close for the time being. That is when it all becomes a blur.
As far I remember, Dorvin and I were both facing him on the road but were at least fifteen feet apart. We were going to approach from his left and right sides. Now the man was a good fifty away from us. We were coming at him as quietly as possible, which for a dwarven scout is pretty damned quiet, when he stopped. He tapped his staff once on the ground. The next thing I know my head is rammed into something hard but covered in hair! Crack! I’m on the floor! I could’nt move, or speak and to be honest I could barely see. I looked up at the "man" now. Standing over us. I’ll never forget that face! It was hairless and gaunt, like the skin was stretched over his skull. His eyes were burning coals in his face. He seemed to be a hundred feet tall. The man looked at me and next to me and then he spoke. He had the strangest voice, like it was thunder, it boomed so and till today, I’m not sure if I’d heard it, or if it was in my head, but I remember him saying.
"I hope the boy did not die….."
I remember trying to get up then, but the effort was too much. I must have passed out.
When I awoke the sun was shining on my face. I was still on the ground and when I got up my head hurt something terrible. I looked down next to me and saw Dorvin laying there in the road. We were exactly where we were when we fell, and other than the bumps on our heads, totally unharmed. It was funny because I had a bump on the left side of my head and Dorvin had one on the right! He’d bumped our heads together even though we were miles apart! I don’t know how to explain it to you. I nudged Dorvin with my foot, and he started to whimper. I kicked him and he got up.
"Oooh, my head" He sat up and took in his surroundings.
"Nobody is going to believe this! They’re gonna say we skived and hid out drinking again!" I looked at the road ahead and behind us. The fist was still ahead. Othgud was a long walk back the way we came.
I can’t tell you how long we just stayed where we were. We were upset but we both knew we were lucky to be alive. REALLY lucky to be alive!
It was when Dorv tried to stand up that he saw it first.
"Hey, Bel, what’s that in your belt?"
I looked down and saw an old piece of paper folded delicately and placed under my belt. I took it carefully and started to open it up when Dorvin noticed something too.
"Hey, I got some parchement under my belt as well……."
Now, I can’t remember what Dorvin’s parchement said exactly but it was something out of a ledger book that the bookkeepers maintain, the entry read;
‘2000 Crowns paid to Sir Moylin of Utrecht in reward for dispatch of Ailila, known vampyr and witch, for murder, bloodletting, covorting with devils and other ungodly sins. Half paid, half retained until job completed.’
I took out the paper in my belt and unfolded it. I could not read common like Dorvin could, so was happy to see it was written in our familiar Dwarven script. It said;
‘Receipt of payment. Completion of crypt door and tri-fulcrum locking system. 100 shillings received in full payment.’
It was signed with the mark of one, Toryk Meschersfeldt, Master Locksmith………………..
Dorvin and I sat on that mountain road in silence. When we felt that we could get up without falling over, we begin our journey back to Othgud. In our reports we decided to say that we found nothing, and that whoever the killer was had escaped into the wilderness. The funeral was a sombre affair but mercifully quick. Within four days of leaving, we were back at camp. Captain Henrig complained about his missing supply of sausages, but we did’nt find it funny. It was tough not to tell anyone what happened. Truth be told, it took me a few years to figure out what had happened.
Within a year, Dorvin washed out and as far as I know, moved to a new stronghold up north where he has a successful trading post. I have not heard from him since he left the scouts though. I myself stayed in the service before moving on myself. For many years I had not idea what happened until much later. That’s a tale for another time.
Anyway, I’ve kept all of you up long enough. Time for me to get some shuteye! Have a good night all.
© 2007 by Sohrab Koohpaima
Bio: Sohrab Koohpaima lives in Dubai with his wife (but no kids -- yet!), and spends his spare time reading, playing football (soccer to us North American types), and writing music and short stories. He has recently taken up Yoshinkai karate (again with the kicking, but with screaming and punching, too). Sohrab's most recent appearance in Aphelion was Too Much Information, October, 2005.
E-mail: Sohrab Koohpaima
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.