A Breath Through Silver
by Daniel Stride
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The madman led me to his home. My mind was clearer now, and I had a thousand questions on my tongue, but all I got from him were grunts and “it’s getting dark.”
The shack looked smaller than I remembered: a squat, ugly thing, more stable than house. An overhanging cliff and a grove of pines kept it protected and hidden. Once inside, Kustata lit a lantern, and pointed me to a raised plank used for seating. Then he checked my head wound.
“It’s a scratch,” he muttered. “I’ll find you a cloth to clean it. You’ll want dinner too?”
“If it’s not too much.”
Kustata nodded. “Rabbit broth is what you’ll get.” He eyed a cauldron in the corner.
My wound attended to, I drank the broth straight from the bowl. Cold and thin though it was, I devoured it, famished from the fight. Kustata did not eat, but sat on the floor watching me. He did not blink once.
I wiped my mouth with my coat sleeve. “I need your help,” I said, putting down the empty bowl.
“You’ve had my help.”
“Thank you for the broth and shelter, but...”
“My quarrels warned you what a fool you were for coming here.”
This was too much. “Those quarrels could’ve killed me!”
“But they didn’t,” said Kustata. “I’d have killed you had I wanted.”
He pointed a thumb. “Every evening, I wander down the path, lest some fool decides to visit the hills. If I see one, I make warning shots. So it was tonight, before I saw you were fleeing pursuit. I aided you there too: I’ve little time for mismatched fights.”
I decided to strike at the heart of things. “What do you know of the Black Huldo?”
“Enough to stay away from Them.”
“They’ve taken my father.”
“Be thankful They haven’t taken you.”
“My father is Olomo the Shaman. You knew him, and me. I’m Manfred.”
For the first time, that wrinkled face registered surprise. “Olomo...” He frowned. “You can’t be Manfred. He’s a little boy.”
I held out my fire-wine. “I grew.”
“A little boy.” Kustata took the flask, unsmiling. “Tell me, little Manfred. Tell me everything.”
* * *
I told him most of it. I didn’t tell him about the silver pipe; after my run-in with the merchant, the fewer people who knew I owned it, the better. Kustata listened in silence, taking the occasional swig of fire-wine. When I had finished, he drew a deep breath.
“I don’t know about this Arrow of Time,” Kustata said, slowly. “I do know Black Huldo.” He paused, as if lost in thought. “They’re cursed.”
“Cursed?” I spluttered. “When? Who?”
“Ask Them yourself. But, yes, cursed. Tied to this plane, unable to go invisible or walk above ground in daylight: the Sun turns Them to stone. Normal Huldo hunted the creatures centuries ago, till the Black Huldo passed out of legend. But They weren’t gone. Blended in, biding Their time. Waiting and watching. Ever been out at night, and felt eyes on you? Bet your best boots it’s a Black Huldo. Now They’re back. More powerful. These hills aren’t safe after sunset anymore. There’s even a place They perform ceremonies...” He shuddered.
I leant forward. “This place. Would my father be there?”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“Can you take me? Now, before the Sun drives Them back underground?”
“You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you, pretty boy?”
I leapt to my feet, refreshed by food, rest, and mockery. “I’ve heard you, Kustata. But I’m not here for stories, I’m here for a rescue.” I patted my sword. “I mean to find my father, or die trying.”
The madman cackled. “Some men would rather be cowards than fools. Others, it’s the other way around. I think I know which you are, little Manfred.” He grinned, his teeth yellow and cracked. “I’ll show you the place. On your head be it.”
* * *
The clouds had parted, letting in the cold light of an autumn moon. My hand hovered near my sword-hilt; I imagined Black Huldo behind every rock. Kustata led me south and around, keeping always to the shadows of trees, or otherwise crawling through bushes, braving thorns without murmur. Snow drifts he shunned.
The wilds are strange at night. Quiet, for there are no men about, yet never silent, because the things that fear men have their own domain. I heard the flutter of wings, the scratching and scurrying of lurking vermin, the rustle of grasses. A breeze caressed my cheeks with chill fingers. But I neither heard nor saw sign of the Black Huldo. I was both frustrated and relieved.
At last, Kustata held up his palm to halt. We stood beneath an upwards slope. Bereft of bushes, it was home to little save grass; grey beneath the Moon, the stalks waved gently in the wind. My guide turned and looked at me. Do you wish to go on, his face said without words. I nodded. We sank to our knees, and crawled up the slope, inch by silent inch.
The top overlooked a small cliff of some nine feet; from here, one could gaze out at the moonlit hills. But something closer drew my attention as I peered through the grass: barely twenty feet from the bottom of the cliff lay a dell, ringed by dead trees. There burned a mighty bonfire, if burned is the word, for even from here, I knew those dancing blue and white flames gave no heat. Rather, they sucked the warmth from the air itself, until earth and branch alike froze beneath their flickering spell. I shivered in my furs. Half a dozen figures paraded around this cold fire, inhumanly graceful, clad in silver chains, and each chanting in the musical tongue of a lost age.
The Black Huldo.
Much like Their surface kin, They looked slender and bearded, not quite man-high. But even in the strange fire-glow, I saw the skin was paler, and the hair darker. If the Black Huldo held my father here, I could not see it. Heart sinking, and fighting every moment against the unnatural cold, all I could do was watch.
I don’t know how long Kustata and I lay there, but it felt hours. The madman didn’t move a muscle. Then, just as I was wondering when the Sun was going to rise, I heard a human voice. I winced at its ugliness: when you’ve been listening to Them, mortal voices are as barnyard screeches and grunts. Moments later, not one but two humans came into view. I rubbed my eyes and peered closer: I knew them both. But they could not see us. Kustata had chosen this hiding place well.
“I’ve brought him,” said the younger newcomer. Big, curly haired, and warty, I’d have recognised Young Anders anywhere. He held a knife to the back of Snorri the Smith. Hands tied and mouth gagged, Snorri was visibly quaking and shivering. I did not blame him. His bald head glistened with bumps and bruises.
The Black Huldo ceased Their chant. One stepped forward, silver chains not even clinking.
“This is the Smith.” Young Anders thrust his prisoner towards the fire. “I clubbed him last night, and spent today softening him up, but I assure you, he’s still fresh.”
The Black Huldo glided over to Snorri, and encircled him slowly. “It smells of iron.”
“He’s a bloody blacksmith. Now what about that reward?”
“One moment. The fear, it is delicious. Verily, Dnosti provides.”
The Black Huldo stretched a pale hand towards Snorri, long fingers grasping like talons. Then it began to sing.
I knew what songs of lore could do, having watched my father heal sick cattle and such. But I’d never seen anything like this. Blue light burst from the Black Huldo’s fingertips, and hit the blacksmith square in the chest. He staggered back, but only for a moment, because, as I watched, Snorri froze. There’s no other word: one moment a man stood there, the next an ice statue, shining and translucent, with raw terror still engraved upon its face.
“With the Smith gone, and the Shaman our prisoner,” said the Black Huldo, “we shall be free to search the town. Is there any word on the Arrow of Time? It is close.”
“I know nothing,” snapped Young Anders. “If anyone does, it’s the man you nabbed last night. Now, I’ve stood freezing my balls off while you’ve had your fun. So I’ll ask again, you eldritch bastard. Where’s my sacks of silver? Three, as I recall.”
“Silence, mortal, or you will taste our wrath.”
Young Anders strode towards the blue bonfire, heedless of the chill. “You promised you wouldn’t use magic against me. Everyone knows the Huldo can’t break Their word.”
One of the other Black Huldo rounded the fire. “We promised you three sacks of silver if you brought us the Smith.”
“We did not specify when we were to give you these sacks. We shall gift them after your death.”
Young Anders drew his longsword, and levelled it at the Black Huldo’s face. “Cheats. Lying little cheats. I’ll cut your throats for this, with good, honest iron. Then I’ll take your heads down to Dnosti’s lair in a sack. You can’t stop me either: no magic, remember?”
The creature glided back effortlessly. “We promised our kind would not harm you with magic... but we have other methods.” It drew its own sword, a thin blade with a sheen like palest moonlight. “Now you shall die.”
Its brethren drew identical swords and closed in.
I had little love for Young Anders, who always seemed to be counting down the days until he inherited the tavern. He could hang for selling out Snorri, and I’d piss on his grave. But he knew where the Black Huldo’s lair lay. He, alone of mortals, might help me find my father. Which is why I had to save his worthless hide.
I stumbled to my feet, and pulled out the silver pipe.
“Hey!” I love taunting foes to their face, the deadlier the better. “Listen to...”
Kustata threw me down, and pinned me to the grass. He was stronger than he looked.
“What are you doing?” he hissed. Blue light streamed above my head. “You’ve killed us both!”
“No!” I shouted. “You don’t understand. This pipe makes Huldo...”
“Bugger your pipe!” In a fluid motion, he ripped it from my hand, and flung it down the slope behind us. It bounced off a rock, and vanished into the night.
“No!” I heaved him off me. “I need to find it! It’s the only thing that can save us!”
Kustata slapped me, hard, across the cheek. “Get running!” he snapped. “Or I’ll kill you before They do!”
By the time I’d found the pipe, we’d all be dead. There was only one thing for it. Pushing myself clear of the man, I drew my sword, and leapt down to fight the Black Huldo blade-to-blade.
The last thing I heard before I went over the cliff was Kustata muttering:
“And they call me mad.”
* * *
I landed like a cat, just as I had with my last nine-foot leap. Sweet memories flooded back: angry guards or no, that mayor’s daughter had been worth it.
My smile vanished when I saw Young Anders. He was bigger than me, with a longer reach, but he looked hard pressed against six Black Huldo, even without magic. He was bleeding from his shoulder, and They had him up against one of the dead trees, fending off attack after attack. From where I stood, They were almost toying with him. Never strike deals with these bastards.
One of the Black Huldo turned to face me. I heard its deadly song, and leapt to my left; the blue bolt passed harmlessly. I cursed: these creatures could not use magic against Young Anders, but They had free rein against Manfred. The bonfire too sucked warmth from my veins, even as the other man ignored it. I had to lure some of Them away, to reduce the pressure on Young Anders, yet if I could only get close, Black Huldo were vulnerable to a longsword in the gut...
Another song, another leap. This one anticipated my counter, and nearly hit; only ducking at the last moment saved me. I needed to put something between us. Poor Snorri still stood five feet away, shining like a glass sculpture in the moonlight. I darted behind him, even as two blue bolts passed either side. That left the tree trunks. I ran to the nearest one, wishing it were more sturdy than a stunted birch. Meanwhile, Young Anders was fading fast.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Over here! I’ve got your Arrow of Time!”
Too clever by half. The Black Huldo turned as one, and sang a storm of deadly blue. I threw myself to the ground behind the birch, and felt the cruel and bitter cold pass an inch from my head. I looked up, expecting the next moment to be my last.
Then I heard the thud of a crossbow quarrel and a cry of inhuman anguish, and my heart rejoiced.
“No!” shouted Kustata from the cliff-top. “Your Arrow of Time is here!” He shot another quarrel at the Black Huldo — wooden not iron — and sent Them screaming across the dell. Leaping to my feet, I saw five of the creatures race over to confront Kustata; the glassy-eyed sixth lay with Young Anders’ sword through its throat. The man himself had slunk to the ground, blood gushing from a dozen chest and shoulder wounds.
Time was running out, but there was something I still needed to know. Sword in hand, I dashed to Young Anders. His eyes were glazed, but, thank the ancestors, he was still breathing.
“Run,” he coughed. Blood erupted from his mouth. “He’s buying time for you. Run.”
I looked over my shoulder. Kustata danced like a true madman atop that cliff, hurling insults and quarrels, and dodging whatever magic the Black Huldo threw back. But Young Anders was right: it was only a matter of time before They caught him.
I leant in close to the dying man. “Listen,” I whispered. “There’s a lair. Dnosti’s lair. Do They have my father?”
Young Anders nodded, wincing. Every breath must have been agony.
“The old silver mine,” he croaked. “Last night. Now run. Run, damn you.”
I did not need to be told again. With a glance at the cliff battle, I dashed through the trees and into the night. By all the ancestors, give Kustata time. But I had barely gone a hundred feet when I heard a sound that will forever haunt my dreams.
The Black Huldo’s howl of triumph.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Stride