In the times of darkness, between the visions, before the hunger had become too severe, Junia thought about how she had ended up here. She thought of the journey, of her brothers, of the committed. Thought of the green eyes that still filled her with horror.
She had fought so hard to be allowed to go. For how could she have know what was to come?
The events she remembered started to play out in front of her eyes, as they had so many times before.
She was back, back at Dohr’s manor. Back where everything started.
[What’s this? Read more here.]
“In the unknown name of the Most High!”
“Please, Junia, no cursing at the committed.”
Dokaius of Dohr’s manor looked at his sister with annoyance. She grunted as a reply. He knew how hard it was to put socks and shoes on the large young man that Junia tried to help, especially if he had decided to do everything himself. But that was no excuse to curse at him.
Dokaius didn’t have time to give Junia a hand, he was fully busy keeping an eye on the five committed that was already out in the yard. If he went to help her, there was always a risk that conflicts broke out, or that one of them wandered off and disappeared into the forrests around the manor.
It was a beautiful day in the end of summer. Insects was buzzing and small birds were flying between the trees. Junia, their brother Antonius and some assistants let out the others, while Dokaius kept an eye on the ones already out in the garden. Dokaius breathed deeply for a couple of seconds before raising his voice.
“Gather around me, please.”
The committed came to him, some of them with a lot of help from the assistants or his siblings.
“It looks like we’re going to have another nice day, and I hope we can get more done than yesterday”. He looked at his brother and the people around him. “Antonius group, you can continue where you left off.”
Antonius nodded. He and a third of the committed left the gathering.
“The rest of you are with me today. There are a lot of things to do in the garden, so everyone will have an assignent.”
He looked out at the committed. Few of the needed as much practical help as the young man Junia had cursed at before – he was stuck at the level of a five year old and would never be older than that. Most of them had problems at another level. But it was always a challenge finding tasks that fitted their capacity; that challenged them without overwhelming them, and at the same time wasn’t so easy they got bored.
Dokaius started to divide the committed into smaller groups and put them to work. Everything floated along nicely, and after a while Junia walked up to him.
“You seem to have everything under control here. Can I leave for the post office?”
“Do so. Have you update the list of what needs to be purchased?” said Dokaius.
“I did it this morning.”
Junia was never so thorough and well prepared as when she got the opportunity to leave the manor for a time, even if it was just a couple of hours to travel to the closest village.
“Good. Don’t take too long”, said Dokaius.
“I won’t, big brother.”
Junia kissed Dokaius on the cheek and went to the stables where their only horse was waiting. She was tall, just as her brothers, and had dark blond hair in a pony tail. She and Dokaius looked more alike than they did Antonius, who was both quite a bit taller and quite a bit heavier than his bigger brother, with tight cropped hair not to give a committed anything to grap hold of. And while Antonius was so diligent in his duties that Dokaius basically had to force him to ever stop working, Junia usually took all opportunities to get away from the manor. Because of this, she was usually the one that did the supply runs to the village, and the one picking up the money that the crown sent every month so that the manor could continue to function and pay the assistants that worked there.
Ten minutes later the horse and carriage was off towards the village with Junia at the reins. Dokaius would have preferred that she brought one or two of the more stable committed on her trips, but he knew she needed these breaks.
The wagon disappeared into the forrest and Dokaius went back to supervising the activities in the garden. Antonius hade made four of the committed tear up weeds in the vegetable patch. Three committed were picking berries, and eating quite a few of them while they were working. Others were climbing trees to bring down apples and pears to baskets on the ground. Several were just standing around and enjoying the late summer heat.
At moments like this, life at the manor was as good as it could be, and it almost compensated for the chaos that sooner or later erupted, and that Dokaius usually had to handle.
Junia breathed easier as soon as Doh’rs manor was no longer visible and she could no longer hear the voices from the jokes, fights and discussions of the committed. Dokaius was right, of course, that she shouldn’t loose her temper. But it was harder and harder as the months and years passed to find the inner peace that was needed to not let all the setbacks and accidents that a life with the committed brought with it get to her.
Maybe it would have been easier if Junia had chosen this life for herself, but the responsibility for the manors was passed down from parents to children and very few were able to break from that tradition. Junia had tried, but the pressure had eventually been to great. And now here she was, just where her parents had wanted.
The distance to the village Rylander was not great, and earlier than Junia wanted the first buildings appeared. She passed the general store and stopped the wagon outside the post office. She wished that she would have time to stop in at the Cat and the Pig, the only inn in town, but she knew that Dokaius expected her back at dinner time at the latest. She would at least get to spend some time at the general store, but first she needed to visit the post office to see if any of the committed had gotten any mail, and – mainly – gather the money from the crown. At this time in the end of summer, before the harvest that gave them both their own food supply and enough crops to sell at the fall market, they were completely dependent on what the royal administration sent.
As usual at this time of day, the post office was empty apart from the woman behind the counter. Junia didn’t remember her name, but they had met many times before.
“Post for Dohr’s manor, right? Coming right up”, the woman said and disappeared in to the back room where only staff were allowed. She came back a short while later with a small pile of letters, a thin package … and nothing more.
“Where’s the money chest?” said Junia surprised.
“This was all I could find for you back there”, said the woman.
This is how it starts. Ignore the money and just leave.
Junia ignored the strange thought, because how could she ignore the money? Without them Dohr’s manor would soon stop functioning.
“Didn’t the delivery from Harir arrive yesterday?”
“Yes, it did. It is strange, now that you mention it. We here at the post office got our salaries, but there were no chest for you.”
Junia didn’t know what to say. Strange wasn’t cutting it – if the money didn’t come it would be a disaster. It wasn’t unheard of for the delivery cart to be late, but never before had their money not been a part of it when it arrived.
“I can write a report if you want, send it back to the regional head office in Vent to see if something went wrong there”, the clerk continued when Junia didn’t say anything. “But probably the error is all the way back in Harir.”
“Yes please. How long will that take?”
“At least a week. If they need to send it on to the capital quite a bit longer.”
“And what do we do in the meantime?”
The woman looked confused.
“I don’t understand.”
“How do we pay our assistants and buy our groceries?”
“Oh! I can’t answer that. If it’s the post office that have lost your chest then we will of course reimburse you, but not until the matter has been investigated.”
“And in the mean time we have thirteen hungry committed to take care of”, said Junia, more to herself than to the clerk.
“Maybe you can get credit from mister Rylander?” said the woman.
Junia shrugged. It seemed unlikely, but was worth a try. The next royal delivery wouldn’t come for a month, and if it also didn’t contain any money then she didn’t know what the would do – it would be hard enough to survive until then.
She left the post office after making sure that the clerk would send a messenger as soon as she got word, or if the money somehow turned up.
Out on the street Junia wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t have money to shop what they needed, her plan had been to use the new delivery for that. But even if it wasn’t that far back to Dohr’s manor, she didn’t want to return empty handed, so she drove over to the general store and entered to try to convince mister Rylander to give them food even though they had no way to pay for it.
“Hi loonkeeper, what should I do now?”
Dokaius turned around from the pots on the stove to answer Linuto, today’s helper in the kitchen.
“You know I don’t like that expression, Linuto.”
“Keeper?” said Linuto. “But you are a keeper.”
“Loon. It’s derogative”, said Dokaius.
It sometimes happened that a child was left at one of the manors. Linuto had been such a child. He was left at Dohr’s manor when Dokaius himself was just a teenager and his father was running the place. Dokaius had never been able to get his father to tell him who it was that had left the baby or why he hadn’t been sent to the church’s orphanage in Vent.
“Everybody says loon”, said Linuto. “It’s just you loonkeepers that talk about ‘the committed’.”
“And we should be the ones that know best, shouldn’t we?” said Dokaius. “You can chop up the tomatoes now.”
“Okay”, said Linuto and started.
It was not the first time they had had this discussion, and Linuto was mostly right – almost everyone called the committed loons, or even worse things, and the noblemen and women that took care of them were called loonkeepers. But that did not mean that Dokaius had to like it, and he especially didn’t like that the committed talked about themselves like that. Even worse was when he had to remind the assistants working at the manor to stay away from that kind of language.
Linuto came back with the chopped up tomatoes and Dokaius stirred them into the boiling pot. The food would be done soon, and he put LInuto to set the table and then tell Antonius that it was time to gather everyone in the dining hall.
Junia was not back yet, which annoyed Dokaius. He had specifically told her not to take too long. But just as they had all sat down to eat, and Dokaius and Linuto had passed around food and bread, she entered the door.
Dokaius was about to let her know she was late, when her face made him pause – it was clear that something was the matter. She came over to him.
“We have a major problem”, sa said quietly, so that the committed wouldn’t hear.
“Can it wait until after the meal?”
After a second Junia nodded. The committed needed their routines, and if Dokaius and Junia suddenly left just before dinner then some of them would be worried and restless for the rest of the evening, maybe longer.
All through the meal Dokaius tried to keep himself from trying to figure out what was wrong, but his brain insisted on making up scenarios, each worse and more unlikely than the previous.
As soon as they had finished eating he left Antonius to supervise the washing up and brought Junia to his office. Quickly she told him that their money had not come with the royal delivery wagon, that she had been able after much arguing to convince mister Rylander to sell them groceries for credit (they were his biggest customers, so Dokaius didn’t thing that should have taken so long) and how she had been able to find the delivery driver and questioned him but not gotten any more answers.
That’s as far as they got before it was time to lock up the committed in their rooms for the night, but as soon as that was done they met again in Dokaius’ office, now with Antonius present as well.
Junia told her story a second time, and Dokaius saw the worry he felt reflected in Antonius’ eys as well. His brother disliked change almost as much as some of the committed. Junia on the other hand was almost excited at this point.
“You have a plan Junia, I can see it”, he said.
Junia hesitated for a second, and then started talking very fast, as if she wanted to get through what she had to say before someone could interrupt.
“I don’t trust that the post office will investigate this fast enough, and if they are the ones that have messed up they might not even admit it. We need to bring this up ourselves with the royal administration in Harir.”
Harir, the capital city, was located in the center of the country, while Dohr’s manor was far to the south east, almost at the border. Even during the best of circumstances it would take ten days to travel to Harir with the wagon – and that was if the manor could even spare the wagon for that long.
“And how would this be possible?” said Dokaius, even though he already knew the answer.
“I’ll travel there and talk to them”, said Junia.
“Out of the question”, said Dokaius immediately.
“You are needed here. We are too few as it is.”
Three noblemen could at most be responsible for fifteen committed, according to manor ethics, and Dohr’s manor currently housed thirteen. To compensate for being so close to the cut of point Dokaius had hired extra assistants, but an assistant could never measure up to one of the nobles that had grown up at the manor – they did not have the training, the experience and mainly not the loyalty to the manor and the task that someone of the family had.
“Without money there will soon not be any ‘here’ to look after”, said Junia. “And we can’t trust anyone else to speek for us and really come back with the money.”
“Don’t be so dramatic”, said Dokaius. “I’m sure it’s just an oversight that will be corrected quickly.”
“All the more reason to make the crown aware of the problem”, said Junia.
“I don’t want you to go”, said Dokaius. “A woman by herself on the high road, who knows what could happen?”
Junia looked at him angrily.
“What kind of argument is that? Who is it that brings back committed that have escaped, you or me? Do you really think I can’t look after myself?”
She was right of course. When a committed escaped, or when a law man sent a report to the manor that a person that probably needed to be committed had hidden in the forrest, it was always Junia that found him or her and brought them back to the manor. All the siblings were trained in neutralising a violent committed by force if necessary, if possible without doing any harm. But even though Antonius were the strongest of them, it was Junia that quickest got a threatening committed under control.
“No, of course I don’t think that, but …”
“Good”, said Junia. “Well then.”
“It still doesn’t mean that I think you should go by yourself”, said Dokaius.
“Do you have another solution?” said Junia.
Dokaius shook his head.
“Not yet. I need to think further on this. And we should give it a couple of days. Hopefully it’s just a delay or misunderstanding after all.”
Dokaius could see that Junia wanted to continue the argument, but she knew that it was better to hold back rather than forcing Dokaius to make a final decision that she didn’t want. She and Antonius, who had followed the discussion without saying anything, left Dokaius alone in his office. Antonius went to relieve the only remaining assistant. Junia had the morning shift the following day, so should go to bed – but Dokaius suspected that it would take many hours before his sister fell asleep.
It was a hard situation they had ended up in. Dokaius hoped that it would sort itself out without them having to do more than wait, but he was afraid that Junia was right and they would have to act in some way to solve this problem.
Dokaius stayed in his office a long time trying to find a road out of this, without any success. He did not look forward to continuing this discussion with Junia without any new arguments.
Dokaius went to Rylander himself the following morning to see if he could get any more information at the post office. Junia watched him leave. She was not surprised that he resisted the decision that needed to be made, even if it was frustrating. It was so obvious what they needed to do. Waiting would only make the situation harder to resolve.
“Didn’t you go to Rylander yesterday?”
Junia turned around. Linuto was watching her. She nodded.
“So why does Dokaius have to go back today? Did you forget something?”
“No, I didn’t forget anything.”
Linuto kept looking at her attentively, not satisfied with getting an answer to only one of his questions. Junia usually enjoyed the sharp wit and questioning mind of the young committed, but now she didn’t know what to answer.
“It’s complicated, Linuto. Nothing you need to worry about.”
“I’m not worried, I just want to know.”
“You can’t always get what you want.”
“That’s true. But sometimes you get exactly what you want as well, right?”
With that cryptic response Linuto turned to go and talk to his friends instead.
Did Linuto know something all the way back then? But how could he have known?”
Junia considered calling him back and asking him what he meant, but the strange thought that had come from nowhere confused her and before she was able to she got a question from one of the assistants that she needed to answer, and the rest of the morning passed quickly dealing with all the tasks a young noblewoman of a manor had to be responsible for.
She made lunch together with two committed that was not so affected by the sickness, and as the finished up Dokaius returned. He shook his head before she could ask him anything – obviously he hadn’t been more successful than her. She knew the discussion would have to wait until evening, and she looked forward to hearing any new arguments he might have found to hold of on the thing he actually knew needed to be done.
In the afternoon Junia brought Linuto and two of the other committed to check her traps that were set up in the forrests surrounding Dohr’s manor. The catch was three wild rabbits and one pheasant that were still alive. Junia broke it’s neck quickly.
Back home she skinned the rabbits and prepared them to be used for dinner, the pheasant were saved for later.
“Good with ingredients that doesn’t cost any money”, she told Dokaius when he came by to check how she was doing. He didn’t respond.
“Why is that good?” said Linuto, who was still hanging around but was avoiding to look at the skinned rabbits.
“It’s always good to be frugal, Linuto”, said Dokaius.
Junia suspected that Linuto did not buy that explanation.
A short while later the smell of roasted rabbit spread through the manor, and dinner was calmer than normal as most committed focused on their food.
“Can’t we send a messenger?” said Antonius later in Dokaius’ office, after their big brother had told them of his failed trip to the post office.
“Good idea!”, said Junia. “I’m volunteering.”
“I mean a professional messenger”, said Antonius.
“She knows what you mean”, said Dokaius. “She’s just trying to be funny.”
“I’m trying to make a point”, said Junia. “But we can talk about professional messengers for a while if you want.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea”, said Dokaius. “They are honor bound to deliver the messages we give them, and return with both word and hopefully payment.”
“Do any of you know how much a professional messenger costs?” Junia asked.
“We would of course need to find that out …” Dokaius began.
“For the time it would take to travel to Harir, deliver our message and return: a fifth of what the crown pays us for a month”, said Junia.
“A fifth!” said Antonius. “Forget I said anything.”
“And that is under the assumption that it is solved with one trip”, said Junia. “What happens if the messenger get’s a question that we haven’t predicted? Then he or she needs to return here, which for a fast messenger that can change horses along the route takes at least four to five days. If we then have to send it back again …”
“You have made your point”, said Dokaius. “I still don’t want you to go.”
“Why?” said Junia. “For real now, big brother. Why are you so against this?”
Did Dokaius know what would happen? Is that why he didn’t want me to go?
Annoyed, Junia waved at the strange thought.
“I’m the one responsible for this manor. Only I can make any binding decisions in it’s name. If you get a question we haven’t planned for it will take a lot longer than four to five days for you to make it back here”, said Dokaius.
Junia had not seen that argument coming. She knew it wasn’t the real reason he didn’t want her to go, but hadn’t been ready for her big brother to turn her argument against her. He had apparently predicted what she would respond if Antonius brought up the idea of a messenger.
“So you’re saying the only one that could go is you?” she asked. She didn’t believe for one second that he would ever leave Dohr’s manor for several weeks.
“It is the best alternative for getting this solved quickly”, said Dokaius.
“You’re serious?” said Junia.
“I’m serious”, said Dokaius. “The two of you can keep this place running while I’m away. It will be a good exercise for you. I will need a couple of days to prepare everything, then I’m going. If I take the wagon I shouldn’t be gone bore than three, four weeks.”
“Wait a minute”, said Junia. “You can’t just leave like that.”
“You’re the one arguing that we need to do something quickly”, said Dokaius. “Have you changed your mind?”
For a moment Junia didn’t know what to say. But she wasn’t flummoxed for long.
“We’ll both go. You can hold down the fort here by yourself, right Antonius?”
“Sure I can”, said Antonius.
“But …” said Dokaius, but Junia talked over him.
“We don’t know what to expect, right? If we are two, then we will be more flexible to meet any challenges, both along the road and when we reach. And if it turns out that things drag out in the capital, which honestly is quite likely, we can borrow money from the Bayardian trade bank and I can bring it home while you stay.”
She suspected it wasn’t as easy to borrow money as she made it seem, but she needed to keep the pressure up now.
“We can travel faster as well. There is less risk of an accident if two people share the reins each day”, she said.
“That is true”, said Antonius.
“Are you sure you can make it by yourself, Antonius?” said Dokaius.
“He won’t be by himself, he’ll have the assistants”, said Junia.
“It’s not the same”, said Dokaius. “And I didn’t ask you.”
“Sure”, said Antonius. “It will be fine.”
Dokaius still looked very sceptical.
“You can trust your siblings, Dokaius. You don’t have to do everything yourself”, said Junia.
“Okay”, said Dokaius. “Okay.
Junia had to pinch her thigh not to cheer. It hadn’t gone exactly as she had hoped, but she would be travelling, and that was the important bit. But then another of those strange thoughts she had had the last couple of days, and she was straight away in a worse mood.
I will never reach my destination.
After a few intensive days of preparations it was time to leave. Dokaius was still far from certain that this was the right decision. Mostly he worried about how Antonius would do. But Junia had tricked him into a corner, and now he couldn’t abort the trip without making it look like he didn’t trust that Antonius could do his job.
While Junia prepared everything for the trip, Dokaius spent most of his time with Antonius, so that they would be able to go through everything that could possibly go wrong and what Antonius should then do. He hoped nothing that he prepared Antonius for would happen, but wanted to go through every little detail – once they had left his brother would not have anyone to ask for advice.
The last thing Dokaius did before they left was to bring Linuto to the side.
“Can I trust you, Linuto?”
The young man looked at him with surprise. That was not a question that a nobleman put to a committed, and Linuto took almost a minute before he answered.
“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“You know that Junia and me will be gone for some time ahead.”
“Yes, that have been hard to not figure out. I haven’t understood why.”
“During the time we’re away, can I trust you to help Antonius to keep the others calm? The ones that listens to you, that is.”
Linuto was silent a long while again. Dokaius thought that he might have gone too far, this was most definitely not something his parents had taught him, and most definitely not something from the guidelines written by Dohr Heli, the founder of the manor system and Dokaius’ distant ancestor.
“Okay”, said Linuto. “I’ll look after the others.”
“Thank you”, said Dokaius and offered his hand. Linuto took it and they shook.
“Good luck”, Linuto said.
“You too”, said Dokaius.
Junia brought out the wagon, and Dokaius climbed aboard. Antonius and Linuto stood and watched them leave, but when Dokaius turned around to look back at Dohr’s manor they were already gone.
Dokaius held the reins. Junia was resting in the back of the cart. They had just passed Rylander, the village with the post office. Dokaius had insisted once again to stop and make sure the money had not arrived. Junia said it was a waste of time, which turned out to be true: they were still not there.
Their wagon was open with high edges. They usually used it to transport food from Rylander, to bring the committed on the few excursions that they dared to do, and to drive fruit and vegetables to Vent to sell at the fall market. Vent was the closest town to Dohr’s manor, and they would arrive there the day after tomorrow. Around the wagon the forrest spread out, forrest that would soon give way to newly harvested fields, followed by more forests and fields until they reached the town. So far everything was very well known.
“Can you take over for a it?” said Dokaius. “She knows where she’s going, so it’s mainly just holding the reins.”
Junia carefully climbed up and sat down. Dokaius gave her the reins but didn’t move.
“How do you think Antonius is doing?”
“It’s probably no problems yet. But it will be hard on him in the long run.”
“If you have changed your mind you can always get down and walk back”, Junia said.
Dokaius just snorted.
Nothing else happened that day. When the sun went down Junia found a meadow at the side of the road and turned into it. Dokaius made the fire while Junia brought the horse to water. They ate one rasion of bread and dried fruits and finished the meal by grilling some wild apples that Junia had found.
It didn’t look like rain, so they rolled out their sleeping mats by the fire and fell asleep while it burned out.
Junia would have rather just gone back to sleep, but Dokaius kept talking to her so finally she had to sit up and admit that she was awake. Dokaius was of course already dressed and looked to have been up for hours.
“Late last night?” he said.
“Couldn’t fall asleep.”
Dokaius walked off. Junia got dressed quickly. Summer was almost over, and the nights were not as warm as they had been. A pot of porrige was standing by the fire. Junia picked up a bowl and filled it. They had brought a couple of litres of milk, but no jam or mashed apple, and Junia ate quickly not to have to taste the foul thing.
Dokaius came back and rolled up his sleeping mat.
“You’re doing the dishes?” he said.
“Not my day today. I’ll get the horse”, Junia replied.
Dokaius sighed, but Junia was to tired to care. She was not going to be grateful that the brother had made food that she didn’t want to eat in the first place.
She watched the sky. The sun was still just a few degrees above the horizon, it must be very early. No wonder she was so tired. The horse was grazing at the side of the road. Junia brought it back and tied it to the wagon. Dokaius came walking with his sleeping mat and the pot.
“Can you get the rest?”
“Already on the way.”
Junias bad mood was tawing with the warm sun, and when they resumed the trip towards Vent and the world she wasn’t even feeling tired anymore. The weather was fine, if a bit cool. If nothing unexpected happened they would reach the capital Harir in ten days, just as planned.
Junia smiled. Her whole life had been constant vigilance, work around the clock. She knew the situation was serious, and she felt bad for Antonius that had to stay behind, but for her this trip was like her prayers being answered.
She was driving the wagon again. Just a short while later they left the forrest that covered most of south eastern Ireus, the country they lived in, and continued through billowing fields. Dokaius was sitting next to her, mostly asleep, and she considered poking him to get back at him for waking her up so early both mornings so far. Obviously his plan was to make sure then traveled long days to reach their destination as soon as possible.
Before she could however, her big brother suddenly looked up. He scanned the fields so intently that Junia couldn’t help but laugh
“What are you looking for?”
“Oh … nothing really. I just thought I heard something. But I was probably dreaming.”
Turn around now, before it’s too late.
Junia ignored the annoying thought, she had hoped not to have any more after they left home.
“Yes, you did look quite sleepy. Not as chipper as this morning, I must say. What did you hear?”
Dokaius didn’t answer at first.
“It was a dream. Should I drive for a bit?”
Dokaius took over the reins and Junia, quite sleepy herself, went back into the wagon and lay down. She wondered about what Dokaius could have imagined that he heard to make him react like that.
Whatever it was, it was probably a dream, because the day passed with as little incident as the day before and Junia was bored. As a keeper you were never without something to do, and the monotony of the trip made her fingers itch. She soon took back control from Dokaius and drove the rest of the way to Vent.
Junia would have liked to get a room at one of the inns in town, but it was her job to make sure their money lasted the whole trip. And she was going to do just that, even if it meant sleeping under open skies every night until they arrived. Because of this they continued through Vent and stopped on the other side, in a spot very similar to where they had stayed the night before.
As they were unloading the wagon, Dokaius started to look around again. He still didn’t want to tell Junia what he was looking for, but admitted that he had heard something this time too. Junia started to get worried about her brother. Was it the stress of leaving the manor that was affecting him already?
After eating Dokaius gathered fire wood and Junia unpacked the sleeping mats. It was another cold night, and in the middle of it Junia was woken by Dokaius stomping around the camp.
“What?” she mumbled.
“Nothing, go back to sleep”, Dokaius said.
Junia did just that, she was hardly awake in the first place, and was soon fast asleep. When she woke up the following morning she had forgotten what had happened, until Dokaius brought it up.
“When I first heard it I really thought it was a dream, because it felt just as when you’ve woken up from a really bad nightmare. I was cold all over. The second time I was sure that I was awake, and when it happened a third time tonight … either I’m losing it, or a wolf is following us.”
It’s not a wolf.
They were sitting in the front of the wagon again, and it was late in the day.
“It sounds strange, I know, but it must be it. Although, I don’t understand that I haven’t seen it. Yesterday morning it was just a growl. It sounded really close.”
“We were in the middle of the fields then, we would have seen if there was a wolf around”, said Junia.
It is not a wolf.
“I know, I’ve been thinking about this all night. The second time it was also a growl, but further away. And last night I heard howling.”
“I might have heard something at night too, maybe that woke me up rather than you. But it’s strange I didn’t hear anything yesterday. The first time I was much more alert than you”, said Junia.
It is not a wolf!
“I know, it’s all very odd. I don’t like it at all”, said Dokaius.
“You haven’t heard anything today?”
They had left the fields and were back in the forrest now for an hour or so, and the close growing trees closed out most of the sun. Junia was still far from convinced they were stalked by a wolf, they were very rare in these parts and stayed away from humans, but the previously quite homy forrest now felt a little darker.
But at least something was happening. They had passed the parts of the world that was known to them and had entered new territories. Junia couldn’t help to feel excited.
Let the wolf come, she thought. I have my bow.
Hunting was one of the few things that Junia actually liked to do together with the committed. The family owned most of the forrests around the manor, and Linuto and some of his friends were stable enough to be taken hunting, but of course not armed.
Usually they hunted with traps, as she had done just a couple of days before leaving for the trip. But sometimes they brought down bigger animals, like deer. At those times the committed ran through the forrest to drive the animal towards Junia, who were ready with the Bow. She was an accomplished marksman who had won some lokal competitions in Rylander, and was proud to never need more than one arrow to bring down an animal. A wolf would not be a problem.
Dokaius jumped. So did Junia. This time she had heard it. The growl was deep, and sounded quite close. The horse snorted and flipped it’s ears. Junia reached back for the bow, and when she turned around she saw to shining green eyes staring at her from the edge of the forrest.
After that everything happened very fast.
Junia got hold of her bow.
The wolf howled, which made the horse bolt. Dokaius did everything he could to calm the horse, but he was not an experienced driver.
It is not a wolf!
Junia managed to get the string to her bow. She couldn’t stop looking at the creature hunting them. It didn’t seem to be gaining on them, but the fear Junia felt looking into those green eyes did not let up.
Her brain kept insisting that it was a wolf, but her eyes did not agree. When it ran it looked like it could just as well had done it on two legs rather than four, and it was more black than gray or brown, the normal colors for the wolfs that did exist in this part of the world.
And did wolfs really have green eyes?
But it had to be a wolf, what else could it be, and Junia very much wanted to shoot it full of arrows. Her hands shook as she tried to get her bow ready to shoot.
IT IS NOT A WOLF!
Then one of the wheels of the wagon hit the trunk of a tree and the world turned upside down.
When Junia came to her senses she was lying upside down in a thorny bush. She got up and got rid of most of the thorns, but was bleeding in several places and had a splitting headache. The horse was galloping away, still pulling the front half of the wagon behind it. The rest was lying upside down next to her.
Behind the horse she could see the wolf. It still hadn’t gained any on the horse. They turned around a corner of the road and out of her line of sight at the same point as Dokaius climbed out of the broken wagon.
“Ouch”, he said.
“Yes, that’s what I said too.”
“This is not good at all.”
“I wish I had the time to get my bow ready.” Junia still held the string in one hand and the bow in the other. They had survived the fall better than her. “Meishur-damned wolf!”
“Junia! Don’t curse!”
“I’ll curse if I want to!”