• Newton Webb

Alfreid // Novel // WIP

Updated: Feb 3

His father's head looked back at him. The rest of the body was slumped in the corner wreathed in black smoke like a funeral shroud. The partially collapsed roof exposed a sky filled with rolling dark thunderheads. Alfreid shook with terror under a pew. The oak shielding him from the sight of the flames licking at the building walls. The hideous keening sound of the villages inhuman attackers seemed to be coming from everywhere. A thud drew his attention and he shrunk further back into the corner. The broken door collapsed in and his sister Liza appeared wielding a woodsman's axe. She shouted for him and Alfreid uttered a shriek of pure terror in response. Wrapping her shawl across her mouth she ran in and grabbed his arm. Dragging him through the burning building they emerged into a scene from hell. The village he had grown up in surrounded him but now it was a twisted parody. Some buildings had crumbled, exposed timbers clawing at the dark sky like grasping fingers. Flames tore through others, revealing the dead. Family, friends, even animals lay dead across the streets in twisted poses. Small brown creatures the size of children with giant bulbous heads and emaciated bodies gnawed on raw flesh. One of them looked up and the keening sound began again. Picked up by the other monsters they dropped what they were eating and ran at the pair. Liza grabbed his wrist. "With me" she ordered. Together they tore through the dirt roads trying to escape to the woods. Alfreid was shaking with exertion. His sister had always been the strong one. She would be out in the woods when he'd been the one at home studying.

"Leave me." He panted. In response, she clipped him round the back of his head. Then gripped his shoulder when he threatened to tumble. He raised his mouth to protest when she grabbed his shirt and pulled him through a pair of bay trees.

She pushed him down into the undergrowth. "Stay" she commanded and ran at a tangent out through the woodland. He burrowed down and froze as he heard the massed pounding of tiny feet. The keening sound he'd heard before was everywhere. He wept silently and cowered.

He didn't know when he eventually fell asleep, but his dreams were haunted by his burning family. He awoke in the dark exhausted from terror. The village still burned behind him and he turned his back on it. He had to escape. The nearest village was half a days walk away. He crept as quietly as he could through the night. He was in his novitiate robes and sandals. The cold air cut straight through them, his toes felt like ice. Branches whipped in the darkness at his face, clawing like dead fingers. Thorns tore his flesh and clothes. As the journey passed he was almost in a trance. Thirsty, he waded through a stream without remembering to drink. Hungry, he pushed aside bushes ripe with fruit. It was dawn as he stumbled into the village square and people were already up and about preparing for the day.

A shout went up and all of a sudden he was in the arms of two women. He fell to his knees and cried.

His next memory was a bed. A proper bed not like the reeds on a wooden cot that he was used too. A priestess sat next to him. He looked around at the furnished room. Everything was well put together and practical. He could hear a strange whirring sound in the background. "Where?" She stopped him and gave him some water. Alfreid gulped it down thirstily. She took it away and checked his forehead. "Not too much, you haven't picked up a fever but you aren't well." She spooned some meat broth into his mouth and his stomach remembering it was alive gurgled. She dipped some crustless bread into the broth and ordered him to chew on it. He chewed rapidly, he could feel the warmth spreading through his body. Then he saw the fire burning in the corner of the room and cried out retreating to the corner of the bed and pulling the sheets tight.

"What is it?" A man growled. "Is he scared of me?"

The woman stroked Alfreids shoulder. "Look at me. Don't look at the fire. Look at me." Then gently pulled his face by his cheek so he was looking at her. "That's better. I'm Sister Ophelia. You and I are two servants of Lemnos. The brute over there is Squire Sepp. He means well. This is his house you are staying in." She offered Alfreid another spoon of broth. He shook his head.

"Monsters. They sacked Holzrin.

The Sepp stirred. "What monsters? Bandits?"

Alfreid shook his head. "No, tiny demon creatures. Little bodies, big heads. So many teeth."

"Nightmares boy?" Sepp scoffed.

"Silence Sepp." Ophelia snapped. "How is Holzrin now?"

Alfreid looked up. "It's all gone. It was burning when I left. Everyone was dead." His eyes cleared and he blinked at her. "My sister. She led the monsters away from me. Has she made it here?"

Ophelia shared a look with Sepp. "Not yet dear," she said to Alfreid. She stroked his forehead. "Have some more broth and then get some rest."

Sepp left the room. "I'll be getting my bow then."

“Be careful Squire.” Ophelia said over her shoulder. Sepp responded with a grunt. Looking down at Alfreid she patted him gently. “He’ll bring your sister here if he finds her and we’ll put out the word to the other local villages.” Alfreid felt himself falling back into a deep sleep and when he next awoke he was alone in the dark chamber, only the light from the fire to provide light. He shivered despite the warmth and stared into the shadows seeing monsters cavort in the corners of the room.

When dawn came Sister Ophelia returned and pulled open the curtains filling the room with sunlight. Alfreid sat watching the dust swirling in the sunlight. Ophelia put down a tray with a hot herbal tisane and a bowl of oats mixed with tiny pieces of roasted pork. The scent of the breakfast stirred him and he spooned the hot mixture into his mouth. When he had finished he got out of bed and found a woollen shirt and linen trousers waiting for him. He rapidly dressed and opened the door to find himself in a large house. The Squires wife was outside his room. She had a watching seven of the local women as they worked spinning wheels converting wool into thread. He had finally found the source of the constant whirring sound.

The Squires wife came over to him, brushing her hands on an apron. "You are up. Good. We'll have no idle hands in this house." She pointed at three buckets in the corner. "Fill them from the well just outside." Alfreid hurried to comply. She looked at his skinny arms as he hefted the wooden buckets. "Like willow reeds" she muttered. Outside the village was bustling with excitement. He quickly found himself surrounded by people pestering him for news. He was saved by the Squires wife who bellowed from her doorstep. "I take it you gossipping hens are looking for work to do?" A chorus of "Sorry Agnes" and "No Agnes" sounded as people scattered as quickly as they had appeared. Struggling with the filled buckets, Alfreid quickly devised a system where he would half fill a bucket and then fill it to the brim with the next bucket. This resulted in two and a half buckets. He was pondering on how to fill the last bucket when Agnes swooped by with a sack of carrots and a basket of watercress. "Wash these and throw them into these baskets when you are done." As he cleaned the vegetables, a bit burly teenage girl took them off him and chopped them up for the village pottage. A huge stewing pot outside that the locals were served from. Alfreids stomach gurgled as the scent reached him from outside. Agnes caught him looking. "Not till noon." She said, pointing at a fresh sack of roots a villager had brought in. The rest of the day followed in the same vein, a constant stream of work to keep him occupied until that night after a supper of pottage and thick black bread he collapsed into bed.

He awoke to hear voices, throwing back the sheets he ran out to Squire Sepp talking to his wife in hushed tones. He looked up at Alfreid as he stood staring still like a statue in his white bed linen.

"You should be in bed," Sepp said gruffly. Agnes shook her head at Alfreid.

"My sister." Alfreid erupted.

Sepp shook his head. "Nobody. Not even bodies. There is blood and ash. I'm sorry, we found no survivors."

Alfreid dropped to his knees. Tears running freely. Sepp scowled. "Get up. People die. You think she is crying? She is part of the light now."

"Go to your room," Agnes said sternly. As he left he heard Agnes complaining. "He is weak and unskilled Sepp. We don't need another mouth to feed." He went to bed scared. Uncertain as to what his future if he had one would be.

As he pulled the sheets up to hide behind he didn't hear Squire Sepp arguing with Agnes. If he had he might have taken a different route in life. But as it was he felt worthless, discarded, friendless and alone. He knew that he had an uncle in the city of Konigdorf, but didn't know where he lived. Only that he was a blacksmith and family. In the middle of the night, he rose and swiftly dressed. He filled a sack with bread and stood looking at a pair of silver candlesticks. They were the only ostentatious items in the house and had to be worth a few crowns. He took several breaths and then refusing to sully his honour any more left them where they were.

Once more he walked out into the night. This time he walked on the road. The well-travelled dirt road was thick with prints and he figured they would cover his tracks for a time. After a couple of hours, he felt the pitter-patter of rain. He sighed. That seemed to set off a full rainstorm and he sheltered under a beech tree whilst the ground was pounded by the relentless weather. He munched on a hunk of soggy bread. The rain slowed after half an hour and he emerged to continue. The muddy road sucking at his feet. He pulled his wet shirt closer as the wind picked up. An owl hooted as it watched him walk. He stretched out his thin legs and fell into a rhythm. As the light started to rise, he left the road and walked into the woods. After a while found an oak tree that offered him shelter and leaning on the damp roots he drifted in and out of sleep in a carpet of cold, dead leaves. He woke with eyes that itched with grit. He felt his energy partially returned but was shaking with cold. His legs felt like stone weights. Thirst caused him to rise and he returned so he was close enough to see the road but couldn't be seen from it. Then walked parallel to it. After a while, his conversation drifted. He imagined his sister was living with his uncle. They had a house like Squire Sepp and would tell stories, laugh and dance. He imagined great feasts, roast swan, stuffed mice, fried pike, honey cakes and kegs of ale. More importantly, though he was lost. He started. As darkness started to fall, he realized that he was hopelessly lost. The road was no longer nearby, he must have lost sight of it and continued apace. He turned around. The woods were a bewildering maze. He could have been turned around in any direction. He bit his lip. Two choices. Stay still and remain lost or pray to the light and keep walking. He still had plenty of bread. He munched on a chunk and set off. By now his throat was sore was lack of water and he could taste blood. He found a muddy lake and drank eagerly from that for a while and then continued to walk. He could no longer feel his legs when he smelt it. Woodsmoke. At first, he backpedalled, but then hope overcame fear and he advanced until he found three men and a strange-looking, squat, muscular albino camped around a fire. A spit was planted by there was no food on it. As he approached the camp he felt a cold knife on his throat. A hand grabbed him and lifted him up from behind.

A roar of laughter burst from the albino. "A manling? That is what was making all that noise? Hah!" A hand pushed Alfreid in the small of his back and he was forced into the circle. He looked back and the largest man he'd ever seen was looking back at him. Thick furs covered his frame. The man must have been well over six foot and was broad to boot.

He snatched the sack from Alfreid and peered inside, a grin crossing his filthy face. "Well lads, this here whelp wants to rent a space at our table. He offers us a week's worth of." He paused to sniff appreciatively. "Day-old bread." The others nodded happily.

A hatchet-faced man with pox scars clapped. "Well done Leo, he'll be welcome to share our fare." He slapped the fallen tree trunk that served as his throne magnanimously. "My name is the right honourable Konrad. My noble friends here." The others laughed at the description. "are gentlemen of the forest. He pointed at Alfreids captor. That their man is Leopold. Leo to his friends." He pointed at a weasely looking man with the greasiest hair Alfreid had ever seen. "Tregor or Treggers." He swung his finger to a short, fat man who was sweating as his flexed his chunky fingers. "Goswin, or Gos and finally."

Before he could speak the squat, albino creature croaked with a rumbling voice like granite. "And my name doesn't matter." He was scowling and sticking out a forked beard, greased with animal fat.

Leo shrugged. "Just call him Dwarf then. He can be a bit prickly."

Dwarf sneered at him and Alfreid quickly averted his eyes. Konrad chucked Leo a leather skin and he drank heavily from it before passing it onto Alfreid. Alfreid took a swig and then spat it on the floor, coughing and retching. Dwarf was on his feet, a shining steel blade in his hand. Leo and Konrad were trying to calm him down whilst Treggers ripped the skin off Alfreid. "No more birch wine for you." He sat drinking whilst the others argued.

"Please, I'm so awfully sorry. I didn't know what it was. I'm sure it is ambrosia for you." Alfreid managed. The others looked at him. Leo smirked. "He is fresh-faced as well as educated boys. Ambrosia? Magnificent. He may be of some use after all." He passed a different skin to Alfreid. "Here, stick to water." Alfreid gratefully accepted. "Now where did you learn such fancy speak?"

Alfreids face dropped. "My father was a priest of Illum. I was meant to take over from him."

The group looked

The group settled back to laughing and joking. Despite the dirt and grime ingrained on their faces they spat on whetstones and sharpened shining, clean blades whilst bantering. They passed around dried venison and slices of apple. Gos was gnawing on a pigeon leg he'd had hidden somewhere. Treggers began to sing bawdy songs about tavern wenches, milkmaids and courtesans. The others joined in. Alfreid felt the heat of the fire soak into his tired bones and he started nodding. Leo threw a bearskin over him and patted him on the shoulder. His eyelids heavy, he quickly dropped off and slept soundly. For the first time in days, he felt safe.

He woke just before dawn. Dwarf was snoring, it sounded like two granite slabs grinding against each other. Treggers was gone. Leo was in the distance gathering firewood and Gos was laying a small lattice of animal bones in front of a yew tree. He watched Gos curiously. Gos looked over and puffed. He sat down and smiled at Alfreid. "This yew tree is old enough that it predates man's arrival on Haven. It must have been torn away from old Earth in the cataclysm." He pointed at the small shrine he had built. "The forest here sustains us, keeps us healthy." He slapped his fat belly. "So we thank it."

Dwarf laughed, a deep, baritone laugh. "The forest sustains us?" He picked up an axe, runes glowing in the half-light. "Then why do we carry these around?"

Gos snarled. "Enough of that." He tossed the last of the logs onto the fire.

Leo came back to dump more wood into a pile. "On that note though Gos, perhaps you could head into town and see if there is any business heading our way?"

Gos struggled to his feet smiling. "I reckon I could at that. I fancy a stroll. Chuck me some of that bread." Catching a heel of bread, he grabbed a skin and set out.

Leo walked to the woodpile and selected a suitable stave. Throwing it to Alfreid, he told him to follow his lead. For an hour, they went through simple movements under the dappled shade of the trees. Leo kept snarling "Feet" and then roughly kicking Alfreids feet into the right position until he was able to do basic movements. Afterwards, they sat down and shared breakfast. Treggers had found a hare in one of his traps and they roasted it over a fire, eating its flesh with some of Alfreids bread. Leo confided with a full mouth that he had been in the Konigdorf militia for sometime before leaving over a disagreement. Alfreid pointed at a pile of equipment and asked if that was where it had come from.

"Sort of," Leo said. "A handful of the militia came through the forest and we disagreed with them a bit more." Dwarf laughed. He was piling small rocks of different types at the forest shrine.

"This forest is built on stone. Stone is the foundation of everything." He tossed Alfreid a small chunk of polished Jasper and showed him how to tie leather cords around it to make an amulet. "Never forget. You rise and fall on stone." Alfreid smiled. He was amazed at how quickly the men had taken him in. He decided to tell them about his ordeals. He described the attack on his village and how he'd lost his sister, his eyes tearing up. They listened sagely. "Goblins." Dwarf said. Anger audible in his voice. "They are voracious eaters. When they run out of food they expand in a ring consuming everything in front of them. My kind first encountered them a century ago, they've been spreading since." Alfreid then described the village he ended up in. They nodded politely until he spoke of stealing the bread and his dilemma over the silver candlesticks. At the mention of the precious metal, their eyes lit up.

"And you say you just left them? Taking bread instead?" Leo said aghast. Alfreid nodded. "Boy, you are all kinds of stupid." They sat back chatting for a while trying to identify the village and its location. "Gos, will know where a Squire Sepp lives." He is a travelling merchant when he isn't slumming in the forest with us.

Leo bade Alfreid stand up and tossed him his stave again. "Now you are one of us Alfie boy. You had better keep training." He ran through the patterns again hissing "Feet" repeatedly until he was satisfied. Then they moved onto a different pattern and the cycle continued. Gos and Dwarf headed off to attend to business whilst Leo continued to train with Alfreid. By the end of the day, he was able to do the basic steps whilst Leo watched critically. He collapsed exhausted accepting a waterskin gratefully. "You've done well today, keep it up and we'll make a man out of you."

"Will I be as good as you one day?" Alfreid asked.

Leo snorted. "Oh, I'm no master swordsman. I'm big, I'm strong, but I wasn't in the militia long enough to pick up much more than the basics. Strength, power and my favourite surprise get me through."

As the shadows lengthened. Gos came back with a swagger. He whispered to Leo who looked across and Alfreid and then nodded at Gos.

Alfreid pointed at the pile of equipment. "Do I get a sword?"

The men laughed. "Not after one day of training," Leo said. You have to show you aren't going to cut your feet off by accident first. Or worse, one of our feet by accident."

Gos had his boots off and was airing his feet by the fire. "He can cut mine off, they aren't up to much at the moment." He winced and flexed his toes whilst munching on a dried garlic sausage.

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