The Legend of Iveswood

Where hope hides in shadow.

LOI Vol.1 ‘The Dragon’s Curse’: Chapter 6

A Trick of the Eye

“I’m telling ya, it’s true! There I was, mindin’ my own business, freshening up at the wash basin—when the figure of a tiny, stooped-o’er man comes scrambling out of my back door, my purse in hand—and shape-shifts into a bird, and flies away! I’ll admit, I’m wise enough not to put all my money in one place, mind, but he made off with a hefty chunk of my livelihood! That’s why I say the price is too steep, see?”
“I wouldn’t accept a pittance of six measly amethyst pieces if I’d done half as a good a job as that, Larolus! You owe me five and ten pieces, loony shape-shifters or no, or that newly shod horse is mine!” Heolstor roared at the gangly, bearded man before him.
Clara peered around her hefty basket of worn-out tools at the commotion surreptitiously. It was always something to see the slippery, superstitious tinker be made to make good on a bargain by the fair-minded, less-than-patient blacksmith. Few others in the village had the gumption to hold their ground with him.
“Five and ten amethysts! You can’t do this! I’ll go to Dreng!”
“The Keeper does not listen to cheapskates,” Heolstor growled.
It was the village Peace-Keeper’s duty to protect the village, lead them in times of strife, settle disputes between villagers, and to keep a lookout for outlaws and ruffians, should they chance upon them, and report them to the nearest town or city.
As the two men bickered, Clara’s eyes traveled over hammers and tongs, and other implements hung on the wall, and her thoughts strayed again to the fleeting, muddied stranger she had come across a few hours ago. It was such a peculiar occurrence, she’d briefly considered telling the Peace-Keeper about it, then wondered whether she had imagined some of it.
Emestine did say I get too caught up in stories, she thought, glancing at the cattle-horn window pane. And to be fair, sometimes the mist, and the darkness under the trees, and the sleepy time of day can play tricks on your eyes, as Larolus ought to know by now…but it couldn’t simply have been a remnant of a dream, because I have the black arrow in the bottom of my pack to prove it, and there is no denying that.
Whoever it was probably went to another village over the way, and won’t be back. And in that case, it would be foolish to say anything to anyone at all.
…I wonder who it was?

“My horse is worth a bucket of amethyst! Who says I have ten pieces on me? Do you think a smith from a neck of the woods like Wergian would charge that much?”
“Five and ten pieces on this counter, or else!” the blacksmith barked.
Larolus glared sullenly at him.
At last, he slapped fifteen pieces on the counter, and was already on his way out as he groused, “Don’t expect any help when you’re short on funds from me, smith.”
Heolstor looked down at the pieces and heaved a sigh, scratching his head. “Nyxus, what’s it take to earn an honest living these days, off of cheapskates…I hate cheapskates…. Now, what can I do for you, Miss Higden?”
Clara snapped out of her internal questioning, smiled, and marched smartly up to the counter, tipping the tools out of the basket. “My father and I need these repaired. Will twelve Nocs do?”
He examined a few and grinned. “Heh, for you two, I could make brand new ones at that price. Good man, your father. So, how’s your apprenticeship with the Old Forester himself been going? Smooth sailing, as always?”
Clara’s smile evaporated. Her eyes lowered as she placed the coins next to the basket. “…I’m not his apprentice anymore. I quit.”
His jaw dropped.
“You—but how come? You were so good! Curing Willon, when he was ill last winter… Your mother said you were doing great, a couple o’ months ago.”
“Master Heolstor, I simply cannot do it anymore, all right? I changed my mind.”
“Oh…alright, then…be seeing you then, Miss Higden, and merry Twiligan.”
“Same to you,” she murmured, her earlier cheer dampened, and shuffled out of the forge.
Bright sunlight made her shield her eyes. She almost bumped into several villagers carrying tools and arm-loads of evergreen branches from the lumber mill, probably for decorating the entrances of houses. Small though it was for a woodland village, and one of the most removed from the world outside the wood, all of Kennfirth was as busy as an anthill. Twiligan was coming.
Tomorrow, her best friend Solae Dinsmoor was throwing her annual celebration in her magnificent garden. Clara had tried to explain she was in no mood to go—which accomplished nothing, of course. Where social gatherings were concerned, Solae never took no for an answer. But since Clara had ended her apprenticeship with the Old Forester—and she’d had to—even Twiligan didn’t lift her spirits much anymore.
As she passed the master carpenter’s large log house, Corben appeared, rolling a few wagon wheels through the doorway of his workshop. He paused to wave cheerfully.
“Merry Twiligan, Clara! Gramm will be coming to the gathering tomorrow! Hope your father is ready for the Lorsek games—I have a good feeling I’ll beat him this year.”
Clara grinned. “Ha! Good luck with that, Master Corben. Merry Twiligan.”
He chuckled and nodded, turning his attention back to the wheel as it rolled away.
Gramm…he’s not been much fun anymore either, now that he’s too concerned with being ‘grown-up’ to do anything adventurous. Why does no one in this place appreciate them anymore?
Most of the buildings in Kennfirth were long, sturdy, and squat, built of logs, with thatched roofs of oracynth reeds. The tiniest houses clustered around important buildings like the lumber mill and the inn, and were more cube-shaped with lofts above, like barns. Clara lived in one such little house on the north-eastern edge of the village, back in the trees. It had been abandoned for some time before she and her father had fixed it up, and on the edge of the clearing behind it there lay a dirt path to the Old Forester’s house.
Clara was so engrossed in her thoughts, she didn’t realize she was heading the wrong way until she saw Thelda’s cabin ahead, and halted.
A tall, narrow structure built entirely out of wood, mostly walnut, of a darker stain than the rest of the buildings, stood off to the side, encircled by what could barely be called a fence of wooden posts with single slats between them. That was not what kept most people away. The only occupant of the strange cabin was an unusually tall, stoic, muscular woman, wearing a black veil such as mourners wore to a burial draped over her head. She was known to all simply as Thelda.
She hardly ever said a word to anybody, and it seemed as if she was always standing on the side of her cabin at a chopping block, splitting wood with a formidable double-bladed axe. Everyone in Kennfirth was afraid of her or suspicious of her, except for Master Bergrender, the owner of the lumber mill. He was one of the few people she did business with. Some people whispered she had murdered her husband with his own axe, and still mourned him while practicing the killing stroke on wood.
Solae had dared Clara to go in Thelda’s yard once, when they were younger. She was not eager to repeat the experience.
And there was Thelda now, trudging through her muddy circle of land, adding firewood to the mountain stacked beside her house.
Larolus was so afraid of her, he had once gone to the Peace-Keeper and insisted he arrest her or make her move on to some other village, with no proof she had done something wrong. Naturally, Dreng had refused.
He would probably dismiss the muddy figure I saw this morning, too, she reflected, And I still can’t say he would be wrong.
As Clara turned and doubled back, skirting the lumber mill, she noticed the three ladies gathered at the well too late to avoid them.
Her aunt Willa broke off mid conversation to call out to her.
“Clara, darling! Tell us you’re going to the Twiligan gathering at the Dinsmoor’s tomorrow?”
Before she could answer, the inn-keeper’s wife giggled, “A better question would be, who isn’t?”
The others laughed, and Clara’s smile turned brittle as she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Nope, no sense of adventure at all.
“And, I assume you’re bringing the roasted oracynth seeds?” she replied sweetly.
Willa raised her eyebrows. “Oh! Oh, goodness, I forgot that was my job this year! You’re sure your mother isn’t bringing them?”
“Well, you see, she has her hands full with the twins, lately, so she was hoping you would be kind enough to take care of it, since you were saying what a wonderful cook you are,” Clara said matter-of-factly.
“Oh, I do see…well—”
“Clara! You are coming!” burst a voice.
Skipping around the bend in a whirl of ash-blond curls, Solae Dinsmoor grabbed Clara’s hands and spun her around, still bouncing up and down. “I knew you would, I knew you wouldn’t be a curmudgeon about it once Twiligan was here! I knew it!”
“Solae,” Clara huffed, laughing in spite of herself.
“It’s just the sort of thing you need to take your mind off the apprenticeship-thing. I told Emestine that you needed this, but she just said, ‘Calm down, Solae, not everyone has the energy for garden parties the way you do’—and that’s plain ridiculous! Who needs energy to stand around and talk and eat, surrounded by flowers just beginning to pop?”
“Plainly, you don’t,” muttered a deeper voice.
And Emestine appeared behind her, in more muted dress and manner.
Clara bit her lip, then smiled sadly. “Hello, Emestine…”
“Morning, Clara.”
Solae bobbed impatiently. “Now, then…”
And chose that moment to inundate her with details and questions about what to bring to her house the next day, and what decorations still needed to be put up, and, won’t someone help make sure everyone in the village knows they should come, and many more things Clara was not in the mood to discuss, till at last, Emestine distracted Solae with promises of assistance, and Clara was able to escape across the way, and off the more beaten path through the village to her house.
She had work to do in her own garden.
Unlike the Dinsmoors’, Clara’s was a modest-sized patch of land surrounded by a short, sturdy fence hammered deep into the ground, and consisted mainly of vegetables, herbs, and a variety of medicinal plants the average Skylian was unfamiliar with. Beyond this plot was a small slope and a clearing; Clara’s fire-pit lay at the bottom. A trail leading past the old stone well to the Old Forester’s house could be found on the other side, back in the trees.
How many times had she wiped the sweat from her brow, rested her arms on that same fence railing, and gazed down at the trees hemming the clearing, wishing she had already penetrated them, uncovering the secrets held deep within the wood? How often had she snuck off from the watchful eyes of her mother to go exploring, once in a while dragging Solae along with her, to return home hours later with her pockets full of flowers, snakes, and frogs? Or, after her fateful chancing upon the Old Forester, and becoming his apprentice, how many days had she spent glancing over her shoulder from here at the mouth of the path, raring for the work to be done so she could accompany him on a trip to tend the sick in the next village over?
The only time the forest had ever frightened her was the day she had wandered too far from the path and stream, many years ago, and lost her way, to be discovered after night fell by a search party. Even that event had not been enough to deter her forever.
She sighed as she straightened, swung the shovel over her shoulder, and went to stow it in the tool shed.
During the hard hours of purging dead bracken, sowing seeds, shoveling fertilizer, watering, chopping wood, and sharpening her axe, she tried not to dwell on her continued inability to find Moonsilk, and what it would mean for her if she never did.
I’ll ford that river when I come to it.
The sun sank late into the afternoon, and Clara scooped up a couple buckets, and tromped back into the village proper to fetch more water.
By this time, she had nearly forgotten about the incident from the morning in the mist.
As she was passing the Black Donkey, the only inn for miles, however, she saw a flicker of movement in the doorway of the stable, and slowed.
Not a lot of folk in Kennfirth owned a horse, rather than some other beast of burden. And even fewer bothered to bring them over and stable them at the inn when dropping in for a drink or a meal. Odds were, when someone brought a horse into the stable of the Black Donkey, it meant a stranger was passing through.
Naturally, that made Clara curious.
Leaving the buckets out by the well, she approached the stable, poking her head in through the doorway.
It was awfully quiet. Two horses stirred in their stalls, munching hay—those would be Naginmar and Bergrender’s beasts, permanent residents here. There might have been a third one, snorting and shifting in the stall in the far corner.
But where was Rawlyn, the innkeeper’s son? He was the one Naginmar sent out to tend to travelers’ mounts. If he had just brought a new horse in, he should be here rubbing it down for the night.
Clara raised an eyebrow. She considered calling out for him, but she didn’t want to spook the animals…or talk to Rawlyn much if she didn’t have to. He was the sort to brag and drone on about all the things he was good at, and was going to do, and was often in a surly mood when doing work for his father that he considered ‘not worth his time.’
Then, the stall door at the end of the row next to her inched open.
Clara twitched, and said in relief, “-Oh, I was just wondering where—”
The words died in her throat.
For the person who had emerged from the stall was not Rawlyn.
It was a stranger in dark, mud-stained clothes, swathed in a long gray cloak, his face hidden under a hood, weapons hung from his belt. He stood stock still, one hand on the door of the stall, the other hovering near the handle of a dagger almost a foot long.
Clara stared.
All the fires that had gleamed in the cool night air before Kennfirth’s storyteller as she wove nightmares out of tones and gestures flashed before her eyes. ‘And from the towers of Arosticus, to the lowly cottages of Westvane, the people shook, as they witnessed the Shadow steal away what they held most dear, be it gold, be it lives, and vanish like a wisp of smoke before the dawn of flames devoured them.’
The Shadow was here. Here, in Kennfirth, in this very stable! He was probably the last thing she would see before he killed her with a well-placed knife.
…She had just decided this, when he bounced onto the railing of the wall, vaulted out of the stable, and took off in the opposite direction.
Clara jolted, unnerved, too baffled to register what to do for a moment.
Then, she sprinted to the wall and boosted herself high enough to see outside.
At first, it seemed he had indeed vanished. She scanned the greenery behind the inn, past the stable…
There. He was pressed against the corner of the inn near the water barrels, his cloak the same shade as the shadowed wall, so it was difficult to spot him. But he was there all right.
Without really considering what she was doing, Clara used an upside-down bucket as a step-stool, swung herself over the wall of the stable, dropped on the other side, and looked straight at him.
Seeming to realize his hiding place had been compromised, the Shadow bolted again, holding his hood on. Clara followed, some twenty paces behind.
He dove into the thickets and vanished within the tree line. Panting and frowning, Clara stopped. If it had been foolish to risk chasing him, it would’ve been madness to follow him in there.
Questions burned in Clara’s throat. She spun around, heading back to the road with many a glance over her shoulder.
Was that the Shadow? It looked exactly like him, and looked like he was trying to steal a horse. But, if he is the Shadow…why didn’t he attack me? What could he be doing in some small woodland village removed from the rest of the world? Does his presence here mean Kennfirth is in danger?

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