A Breath Through Silver
by Daniel Stride
I threw down my cards. “I win again, sir.”
My opponent bit his lip; his eyes darted towards the door. Fat chance, fat man. The Bouncer here tossed welchers back in head-first. My merchant friend was not escaping.
My smile turned to broad grin. “We made it double or nothing.”
He shrugged. “We did.”
“Be a good fellow and empty your pockets.”
“You beggar me.”
He unloaded a pile of coppers and junk onto the table. I evaluated the coinage. Unclipped: very nice. I wasn’t interested in letters of credit: too many ways to shaft a man who can’t read. But something else caught my eye. A small, hollow tube, with holes drilled into the side. A musical pipe.
I held it up to the light. Silver.
The merchant scratched his chin. “Something I picked up from an ale-addled sailor on the way here. It’s broken. Doesn’t play a note, not even for dogs.”
I set the pipe to my lips, and blew. Nothing.
The merchant smirked. “See?”
I blew again, harder, and tried fingerings. Still nothing... then I heard a cry of anguish, and a clatter of boot heels on wood. I spun around, and saw a slender bearded creature dancing maniacally atop the neighbouring table. With its all-blue eyes, devoid of whites or pupils, this was no human. It was a Huldo, one of Them. I’d seen Huldo before — courtesy of my father’s interests — but generally They keep to Themselves. Both races prefer it that way.
The creature struggled to stop its feet and arms; panic spread across its ageless face. I burst into laughter. But no sooner had I ceased blowing than the Huldo stopped dancing. For a moment, it glared at me with those inhuman eyes.
Then it vanished.
“Well.” I turned back to the merchant, flicking the instrument between thumb and forefinger. “I got more than I bargained for. I’ll keep this.”
The other man had grown pale. He shook his head. “No. Take all my coin...”
I grinned. “That was the plan.”
“Leave the pipe with me,” he hissed. “You do not know these things.”
I swept his money into my purse, and rose to my feet. “I’m the son of the town Shaman. I think I do.”
His mouth hung open, and his hands gestured wildly, as though some piper controlled him too. I mock-bowed, blond hair curtaining my eyes.
“Better luck next time, sir.”
I pushed back through the common room, and went to collect my gear. Removing my coat from the hook, I saw I’d caught the barkeep’s attention.
Dishcloth in hand, Old Anders waved me over. “What was that, Manfred?”
I shrugged. “Just a card game.”
“The dancing Huldo?”
Old Anders scowled. “Yes, I suppose it does. Listen. Your father had a chat with me recently. He’s unhappy with you spending so much time here.”
“I’m a grown man. I can spend my time — and others’ money — as I please. So what if I passed out on the floor last night? Your fireside is the warmest in Lillivert.”
“One day you’ll become town Shaman. You don’t learn songs of lore sitting in my tavern, drinking, gambling, and wenching. By the ancestors, what kind of Shaman can’t even read?!”
“Not my fault, as you well know,” I said. It was true enough: whenever I held a parchment before me, the words would dance until they gave me a headache. “As for my other pursuits, my father still has many years left. What’s youth for if not to enjoy yourself?”
Old Anders’ scowl deepened. He’d never had a youth; he’d just been less old. Even his wife had only married him for money. The townspeople gossiped that Young Anders was another man’s get.
“And what of duty?” he asked.
“What of it? Duty is for serfs, and I serve no man.” I smiled. “Including my father. Old men are all the same: envious of youth, and morose over the years they have lost.”
“Manfred, at this rate, a youth is all you’ll have. You make enemies.”
I glanced back at the table. Red-faced and sweating, the merchant sat in animated conversation with a couple of others. Rough sorts, with scars.
I flicked my knife into the air, and caught it. “I’ll back myself over anyone. Or anything. I’ve dealt with enemies before, you know.”
Old Anders shook his head. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
He resumed wiping the bar.
* * *
I strode home in the coat I’d won six months earlier. Taking the garment from the drunkard soldier had been easy; I hadn’t even needed to cheat. But today late-autumn snows had come early to Lillivert, and icy winds raced down from the western hills, keen and sharp enough to shave with. Today, clad from neck to ankles in thick rabbit fur, I thanked the shades of my ancestors for that coat.
I mulled my latest acquisition. According to legend, a Huldo granted reward if you cornered it. How to capture the creature while still playing the instrument...? I paused opposite the blacksmith’s forge, and drew out the pipe. Small and silver, it gleamed in my gloved hand.
The streets of Lillivert lay deserted. Even Snorri the Smith had shut his shop for the day. I wondered if the merchant had spoken truly, if I ought to have left the pipe with him. No, of course not. Besides, I can always ask my father, the man who knows everything. I idly put the pipe to my lips. Were any Huldo lurking?
Not near blacksmith’s iron. I returned the pipe to my pocket.
* * *
My grandparents built this house from timber they’d cut and dragged from Lillivert Forest. As a child, its two rooms were my world: one to sleep in, the other for food and play. As a man I lived there still, and one day I would inherit it, along with the Shamanship. Such was the law, a thing worshipped by the old, and tolerated by the young.
That evening, the front door stood ajar. Odd: my father thought autumnal draughts bad for his joints. I shook my head. The wind must have blown the door open while he napped. Still, if he were asleep, it delayed another warning about spending the night with loose women. Not a woman last night, father. Just ale. Cheaper, but more pain in the morning. Then I peered inside, and my jaw dropped.
The table lay overturned, all three chairs broken. Ancient parchments, collected over years, had been knocked from the shelves and now littered the floor.
“Father!” I shouted. There was no answer.
Knife in hand, I searched the bedroom. No blood, or even evidence of struggle, just wanton destruction. Curiously, the family’s ancestral longsword — which had slain a great serpent in its day-still stood in the corner, untouched.
I returned to the front door, and stood, scratching my head. What had happened? If only I had been home last night. Then I looked closer at the door. Someone had carved runes into the wood.
“He is gone,” said a musical voice. I sprang around, ready to plunge my blade into the attacker.
A Huldo. Just like the one I’d seen in Old Anders’ tavern.
“What have you done with him?” I snapped. “Quickly, before I lodge this knife in your gullet. It’s iron, so it’ll hurt.”
The Huldo blinked its pupil-less eyes. “They left a message.”
I frowned. “Who? What message?”
The Huldo glided past me, and ran a long-fingered hand over the door. The runes glowed with an unearthly light. I shivered, and not from cold.
“If any should wish the return of Olomo the Shaman, know that the Black Huldo have him,” read the Huldo. “They will trade him for the Arrow of Time. It is close.”
“By the ancestors, what is the Arrow of Time?” I shouted. “Who are—”
“The Black Huldo.” A note of fear entered its voice. “Our dark kin have returned.”
The Huldo vanished.
There was nothing for it: I had to go after Them. Stuffing strips of salted horse-meat and a flask of Lillivert fire-wine — also untouched — into a leather bag, I considered the sword. I’d held it several times, but my father never let me train with it. Until I proved myself, it was hunting knives and ash-wood swords. Well, worthy or not, I needed the blade now. So I took it.
There was just one thing left. The Madman of the Hills.
* * *
Kustata the Hermit, Kustata the Mad, Kustata the Hunter. He was all that, and more. He’d lived amid the western hills as long as anyone could remember, and rarely ventured into Lillivert, preferring to stalk elk and scavenge fire-berries. The man was the best tracker alive, and according to my father, still clung to folk-wisdom everyone else had forgotten. If anyone could help me find these Black Huldo, he could.
The Sun was setting, pale and feeble, as I trudged up the winding path. I knew where Kustata’s shack lay; my father had even taken me there once, when I was a boy, and his hair had been less grey. Still, the wind, and the cold, and the snow flurries, made it difficult. I must keep moving, I told myself, or it would be all the worse.
I was being followed too.
They’d trailed me since I left town, a steady pursuit that lurked behind boulders and lone pines. They weren’t gaining, but neither could I shake them. Looking down from a ridge, I counted four, cloaked in grey. One thing consoled me: these were mortal bandits, not Huldo. I grimaced, and licked my wind-cracked lips.
Let them try and take me: I had sword and knife, and some skill with both. I had trained with ash-wood blades since boyhood. And as for the knife dance... though my father never learned of it, I had once killed a man in the long shadows behind Old Anders’ tavern. My boast to the barkeep had not been idle.
Something hissed past my ear — not from below, but from the rocks above. Cursing, I dived behind the nearest boulder. Just in time, as a crossbow quarrel thudded into the dirt to my left. Knowing I couldn’t touch that one, I sank to the ground, and wormed around to view my other pursuers. One lagged far behind, but the other three were rushing up the slope: they’d seen me hide. My heart hammered, but I felt no panic, only thrill. This was the moment of truth, the moment of steel. And if my father were right, the shades of my ancestors were watching. Myself, I’d have better things to do in the afterlife than watching a distant descendant, but I resolved to put on a show.
The first one had a familiar, scarred face.
“My merchant friend does not take no for an answer.” I muttered. I weighed my knife in my off-hand. Closer, closer... when the rogue came within range, I darted up, and let fly with a flick of the wrist. The trick with knives is to not try too hard, and I made no mistake today. A six-inch blade in the eye left the bandit screaming like a wounded boar. Blood streamed down his face.
The next two wielded clubs with nails protruding from the ends. I didn’t recognise either man, but at least I knew who paid their wages. Clearly, the merchant considered the silver pipe a great prize.
One of them aimed a blow at my head. I ducked the swing, and rammed my sword into his unprotected belly. A painful way to go, or so I’m told. But before I could withdraw my blade, the man stumbled, pulling the sword from my hand. I instinctively ducked, avoiding the other man’s swing by mere inches. I was without weapons now, with at least two bandits left to fight before I could even think about that bloody crossbow.
Cursing loudly, I threw myself forward, out the way of another blow. The first bandit’s body lay within reach, blood still pooling from the pierced eye. Somehow I evaded my attacker for long enough to rush across and regain my knife. As I spun around, a club clipped my head, just above the ear, and time skipped a beat. There was blood too, I knew, and my mind grew groggy with pain, but I still found it in me to lash out with the knife.
Fortune smiled. The blade caught the club-wielding bandit under the chin, and left him choking on his own blood. As for me, my head was still spinning. Slapping a hand over the wound, I stumbled back, and lay blinking at the darkening clouds.
Next I knew, I felt a sword at my throat. The fourth man stood over me, hooded and cloaked.
“Make it quick, you bastard,” I muttered.
But the bandit only laughed. He pulled back the hood.
“You came yourself?” I spat.
The merchant shrugged. “If you want a job done properly, do it yourself, and I couldn’t trust my friends with my prize. I watched you fight on the way up. I swear, in another time or place, I’d have hired you as a bodyguard. Not that I strictly need one, but I like to lower people’s expectations.”
“You want the pipe.”
“Of course. The power...” His tone turned almost apologetic. “You have no idea what danger it represents.”
“I live dangerously.”
“Not now, you won’t. I’ll have to kill you, but it’s for your own good.” He smiled. “Consider it double or nothing.”
I heard a thud, and then choking. The merchant staggered back. I sat up, in time to see a second crossbow quarrel hit him square in the mouth. He collapsed to the ground with a grunt.
I climbed to my feet. I was in no state to fight the crossbowman, but he had saved me from death — perhaps I wouldn’t need to. At least my head had stopped bleeding.
“You can come out, sir,” I called. “Or kill me, if that is your wish.”
“If it were my wish,” growled a voice like sandpaper, “I wouldn’t waste quarrels. I’d leave you here and let Them have you.”
I turned slowly. A wiry, weather-beaten man in furs pointed a crossbow at my heart. With that unkempt hair, and that beard as white as winter snow, it could only be Kustata.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Stride