The ride up the lake shore was quiet. Wyatt could swear the other three were watching him. He kept his eyes on the trail. The mood of the riding party seemed to have a chill.
About midday, sun high over the lake, they noticed a column of smoke to the north. The thick black smoke struck upward into the sky like a dark tower.
“Welbourne,” O’Hare muttered.
It was dusk when they reached Welbourne. Wyatt was sore and his horse held its head low. The path had led them into the woods to the west of the village. At the top of a hill where the tree-line offered a striking view to the heart of the village the trail veered sharply downhill.
The four men led their horses into a square. Wisps of smoke and the sharp stench of fire filled their nostrils and burned their eyes. In the center of the square was a fountain in the image of the water bearer. Its cherubic face blackened by soot a steady flow of water streamed from a flask it held in its pudgy hands to a pool. The water was dark and cloudy. On the other side of the square stood the charred framework of three buildings. The center looked to be an inn and the two to either side could have been the town hall or maybe a mercantile. Wyatt and the others walked their horses slowly toward the dozen or so villagers milling about. As they passed the fountain Wyatt saw a long row of bodies shrouded in white, men, women, and children. A soot covered figure walked among them. Wyatt flinched as the man used a hatchet to chop through the neck of what appeared to be a small child.
“What the hell?” he blurted out. The man with the hatchet looked at him through red and watering eyes, they were dull, empty.
“Leave it be Wyatt,” said O’Hare.
Several of them were looking at them, hands on swords.
O’Hare approached a large man in front of the burned-out inn, “What happened here?”
“Wargs,” he spat. “three monstrous beasts attacked us las’ night just after dark. Tore through our town meetin’ like the dark one incarnate.” the man’s voice quivered.
Wyatt felt Fynn staring at him. When he looked to the older man, there was an unveiled malevolence that made Wyatt’s spine tingle.
“There was nothin we could do. They’re all claw and fang, they tore our people apart.”
“Were they stopped?” O’Hare asked.
The big man could only shake his head.
“Which way did they flee?”
He looked up at O’Hare, “Who cares.” he looked over the four of them, “They’re monsters straight out a hell.”
“Yes,” O’Hare said, “but in what direction did they flee?”
The big man kicked the debris at his feet and flicked a thumb up the main street, north, “Straight outta town near as we can tell. If yer chasin them yer outta yer mind.”
O’Hare ignored the man. His face was sad as he thanked him, “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said quietly.
Turning his horse North, the others followed. The villagers quickly formed to question the big man as they left.
Looking for any sign of tracks in the well beaten street Wyatt’s eyes drifted to the row of bodies covered in white. His stomach dropped as he passed the body of a brown haired girl. Her face was pale and peaceful in death. A crimson stain covered the white cloth at her neck. He knew her throat had been ripped out. He didn’t realize he’d stopped until the man with the hatchet croaked,
“Ya alright, boy.”
Wyatt was shaking, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t tear his eyes away from that still, peaceful face. The face from his dream. Though in his memory her beautiful features were contorted in a in a primal terror.
“No,” Wyatt whispered. Looking at the man Wyatt immediately keyed in on a dark figure over the man’s shoulder. The darkness seemed a hole, a void. He couldn’t see his face but he knew the dark man was leering at him.
“Wyatt!” O’Hare shouted his iron hands wrapping around his bicep. Snapping too Wyatt noticed the man with the hatchet watching him.
“It’s for her own good, lad.” he said, nodding to the red-brown stained hatchet. “Otherwise she would return as one of the cursed.” His voice was a barely controlled rasp.
Wyatt was startled, he nodded, “Of course,” Looking over the man’s shoulder again there was nothing but a sapling growing in a small yard between two buildings. “I’m sorry,” he told the man and turned away. The others followed, Fynn mumbled something to O’Hare.
An hour before the sun set they stopped for camp. They were near a bloated creek at the base of a cliff leading to high bluffs above the lake. Once camp was set Wyatt and Lemn went scrounging for firewood. Lemn had long finished and was helping his father with rations when O’Hare noticed Wyatt missing.
Following the narrow path along the stream he broke through the wood line to see the younger man perched on a boulder staring out across the lake. The horizon a mix of orange, red, and violet. Wyatt didn’t move as he approached. O’Hare noted the teens vacant stare across the water.
“What you saw in the village today bothers you doesn’t?”
Wyatt sniffed hard and nodded.
“They said wargs did it. That we are chasing wargs, shape-shifters. If they attacked our village is that what happened to my family. We’re their…” Wyatt choked back something deep within, “Did they…?”
O’Hare kicked a loose stone, orange and gray and black into the small tide lapping at the shore. After a long moment he said, “I was the one ta do it. Theirs, my own, Annie, and others. That task fell to me.”
Oh God, “I…” Wyatt tried to say but O’Hare waved him off.
A long silence hung between the two men until Wyatt said in a low voice, “I saw them,”
O’Hare didn’t understand, “Saw who?”
“I saw them, the Wargs.” he said quietly. “They were in my dream. They were at the village. I saw…I ran with them in the woods and there was a man. He wore black, and hid his face, but I knew it was a man. He led us, the pack. Led us through the woods to the edge of the village then…” Wyatt’s voice was a quivering whisper. The rest wouldn’t come out. He could see her face, hear her scream cut off as he tore her throat out. He felt sick. “I saw them, the girl at the village. I saw her die.” Taking his eyes from the boulder, he stopped tracing the crack and looked up. “I think I killed her. I think I’m one of the cursed.” Wyatt wiped at his eyes.
O’Hare stared grimly at the shoreline. To hear a boy, he’d known since birth say so rationally, that he was one of the cursed? Strangely, O’Hare couldn’t bring himself to be surprised. He was the one to pull the monster off him. The monster’s blood that had run over him like a fountain. It was a miracle he survived at all, much less to rise from the bed unscathed. O’Hare hated himself the minute he saw him on the stairs at the inn. He’d hoped for his own sake the boy would die. He’d known then what needed to be done yet he stopped Fynn and the others. The boy was touched by the beast. Shared blood with the beast. He closed his eyes and could see their faces, the whole crowd. He was squeezing the pommel of his sword.
“What am I to do?”
The simple question snapped him back. In the growing darkness the two men stared at each other. Finally, O’Hare opened his mouth to speak…
To be continued…
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