- 9a (Argentum’s Song – PG)
It felt good to be on the hunt again. The goat’s remains had been easy enough to find, despite the carcass having been dragged away and shallowly buried. The local birds and scavengers had uncovered it for them and picked it nearly clean. It was after they found the goat that Franklin figured out Earl was testing him. Clearly, while the necklace and Ladin’s praises about him had earned Franklin the benefit of the doubt, Earl wasn’t planning to fully trust him until he had proved himself. He just sort of hung back, glancing at Franklin every once in a while, waiting for him to pick up the trail. It hadn’t taken long, the predator had been a large creature who wasn’t too concerned about smashing any vegetation in its way. Franklin pointed it out and Earl nodded.
“Pretty large beastie. Might even be a weir. Ya wanna pull Bart and Arny out of the mines for backup?”
Franklin gave a brief smile and then backed up a step before turning to face the foreman. He deliberately obliterated the bear print out of Earl’s line of sight with his left foot as he did so.
“Na, I can handle it even if it is a weir. Still you may want to prep your crossbow, just in case it gets the jump on us or has friends.”
Earl unslung the weapon, put his foot through the stirrup, and pulled back the string with both hands. Once it was locked in place he loaded a silver tipped bolt and then motioned for Franklin to take the lead. Franklin moved his sabre to his left hand, withdrew the short throwing spear from the sling on his back and started following the trail. Franklin loved to hunt. Falcon, hound, bow or spear it had always been one of his favourite pastimes. The thrill of the chase and the prize at the end.
Franklin moved quickly so he could stay far enough ahead to wipe out any clear paw prints in advance of Earl being able to see them. Then, after enough time had gone by that Franklin was pretty sure he had passed any bravery test that Earl was posing, he bent low over a print and called back to Earl.
“Huh, looks like it’s not a weir after all, just a black bear.”
Earl huffed up beside him in a sort of jog and looked down,
“Yer right. How’d ya know what it was?”
“I love to hunt and my Father loves displaying my hunting trophies. He’d import exotic animals and then release them for me in the bush on our landholding. I brought down a black bear that left larger tracks than this less than a year ago.”
Earl carefully replaced the silver bolt in the crossbow with a larger one with a barbed metal tip.
“Well don’t be getting cocky. This one’s on its home turf and might be mad or sick if it’s out of hibernation so early.”
Sick or not it was still just a regular creature and Franklin wasn’t too concerned. He slowed down enough that Earl could keep up, though keeping the pace uncomfortable for his companion’s shorter legs.
So far so good.
- 9b (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Soon Earl called a halt for a noon meal. Franklin pulled out the tin of fried potatoes he’d packed and Earl groaned.
“And now we’re supposed to eat cold the festerin’ swill I couldn’t stomach for breakfast hot. At least one of you seem to be an asset to the camp, though I still can’t see how Walt parted with nine weight for ya.”
Franklin took the backhanded compliment as a sign he was passing the tests and grinned.
“Well, even if Martha doesn’t manage to spice up a decent potato broth, I figure we’ll have better fare than this for dinner. That is one of the benefits of being on the hunt.”
“True. Bear flank never did sound quite so good.”
Earl chewed down a mouthful of potatoes and then threw the rest of his share away.
“Ah forget it. I can go hungry a little longer if it means getting that bear faster. After all hunger is the greatest spice.”
Franklin wasn’t sure he wanted his meal quite as spicy as Earl seemed to, and besides he knew he’d need his strength if anything unexpected happened on the hunt. Trying to think of a way to delay the short foreman long enough to finish his potatoes, Franklin’s gaze fell on the short sword strapped to the other man’s belt.
“Is there a story behind your blade?”
“What this here darning needle? I guess ya could say so. Not a pretty one though. Used to belong to the fellow what held yer post when we first staked this mine years ago. I know she’s not much to look at, but she’s got a silver lining and that’s what matters. Plus she’s been put to the test against weir hide.”
Franklin couldn’t keep the surprise from showing on his face.
“You’ve killed a weir?”
“Not me personal like. But this blade has. Rusty managed to force it far enough into the rib cage of the infected what attacked him that he ended its run. He got roughed up pretty bad in the process, but he was so excited that he didn’t care.”
“Where is he now?”
Earl’s gaze was steady as he replied.
“Didn’t ya here me say he got roughed up? We were lucky though. Rusty was so proud over his first weir kill that he didn’t even think about what we’d have to do. None of the rest of us had silver weapons but I was able to get the jump on him and take his head out with a pickaxe before he turned. Even infected can’t come back from that. Walt thanked me for my quick thinking and gave me the blade for a reward.”
The potato in Franklin’s throat went down like a stone. He pushed the rest onto the ground and stood up looking away from his companion. Rusty hadn’t even turned yet. Franklin knew he was in danger up here, but he’d not considered that he might face violence at the hands of his own camp because they thought he ‘might’ turn. He had a new desire to find out just how good Earl really was with that short sword.
- 9c (Argentum’s Song – PG)
“Hmm, I don’t suppose you’d be up for a fencing match before we press on. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to really exercise my blade skills.”
Earl’s yellow teeth showed through a cruel grin and Franklin wondered how many of his thoughts and secrets the man was able to guess.
“Well, you and me must have differin’ definitions of ‘a while’ then. Unless ya stumbled upon the two weirs hibernating, I don’t see how ya could have earned them claws without exercising yer skills.”
“I meant with an armed opponent.”
“Yer the first I’ve met who walked away from a weir fight and called the enemy unarmed, and that’s a fact! Nuff yammerin. I’m mighty anxious to get dinner on the fire. If yer bored once it’s cookin, I might be willing to teach ya a lesson or two.”
As they pushed further up the mountain, the terrain got rockier and more bare, leaving less definite signs to track. However, even without a clear paw print in more than an hour, Franklin was still confident he had the trail. There was one point when he was afraid he may have lost it, but soon after there were signs of a struggle where it had tracked down prey of some sort and wounded it, leaving a clear path of blood spatter over the next ridge.
“Like I said, this bear might be sick. It’s clearly hungry and attacking anything it thinks might be food.”
Franklin glared back at Earl and motioned for silence. They could philosophize about the bear’s motivation later. This spore was fresh enough that the kill could have been quite recent and they might very well find the bear nearby. There was certainly no reason to announce their presence and give away the element of surprise.
Earl seemed to grudgingly understand and crept slowly behind. As they neared the ridge, Franklin dropped to his stomach and crawled up silently, while Earl stayed put. Peering between the branches of a snowy briar patch, Franklin saw the black hide of the bears hindquarters. It’s head and forelimbs were hidden by a rocky outcropping. A couple seconds later he heard the crunch of a bone being ground by powerful jaws. Franklin nodded back at Earl, waited to make sure the foreman’s bow was at the ready, and started creeping down the slope.
As soon as he was close enough to have a clear double lung shot, he let loose and charged. The spear struck true and sank deep into the bear’s side. There was no expected reaction however, no death spasm or angry yell. Just a menacing growl that wasn’t coming from the bear.
Franklin skidded to a stop mere feet from a large grey weir raising itself up from chewing on the black bear’s skull.
- 9d (Argentum’s Song – PG)
Man and beast stared at one another. Franklin was frozen in surprise as the true nature of the predator and prey he had been tracking was revealed and the weir was standing in apparent confusion that anything could have the gall to interrupt its dinner. Franklin was the first to recover and he lunged, bringing all of his weight into a downward slash across the grey beast’s chest. The blow rattled his joints and if his eyes hadn’t been telling him differently, Franklin would have assumed he had missed the beast and hit the solid rock behind it. However, he saw the reinforced blade bend against the weir hide before it sprang partially back, ripping the hilt from his hands. The blow hadn’t even made the monster bleed. The only effect of his attack was a little shaved hair and an angry opponent.
Franklin scrabbled backward over the bear’s remains as the howling beast lunged toward him. A crossbow bolt came whizzing from above and shattered into splinters on the monster’s shoulder. The blow knocked the weir off balance and caused it to miss gutting Franklin. It had to settle for sending the bear’s bulk tumbling into him instead.
Franklin’s rolled in a heap with the corpse. He felt pain tear down the back of his left shoulder but all he could see was black fur matted with blood. His right hand closed around his spear shaft and he pulled on it with the strength of desperation. He stopped when he felt the snap that meant that the silver spear head had broken off in the bear’s ribs. He was unarmed and helpless.
“Cookie! You remember this toy now don’t ya. Some part of ya has got to remember what happened to the last weir what saw it.”
There was a snarl and Franklin felt the weight on top of him lessen somewhat.
“That’s right. You jist back off and run away long enough for yer buddy Earl to reload his crossbow with a bolt that will actually do something to ya the next time ya show yer ugly mug.”
Franklin heaved and the bear rolled far enough that he could see again. Earl stood on the rock above them brandishing his short sword and the weir was glaring at him and gnashing its teeth but slowly backing away. Franklin wormed the rest of the way out and backed up against the stone, ready to sprint if the weir changed its direction. It glanced once more at Franklin, anger burning in its semi-human eyes, and then turned and stalked off down the hill and out of sight.
“Everything O.K. there Frank?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Ya sure? Ya got blood all over ya. Ya better check closer. I’ll be right down.”
Franklin felt himself over and winced slightly as he touched his left shoulder. He wasn’t bad, in fact he felt more alive than he had in a long time. That was the closest he had ever come to death, and the rush from surviving hadn’t dissipated yet.
“It’s just the bear’s blood, mostly. My shoulder got mashed up a bit when I fell but I’ll be fine.”
Franklin was trying to force his bent blade back into his scabbard as Earl rounded the boulder beside him.
“Good, good. Thought he had ya there, glad that ya were just a bit roughed up.”
Franklin settled for sliding the ruined weapon through his belt. It was amazing that Earl was in such a great mood. He’d fully expected him to burst into rage when it had become evident Franklin hadn’t the experience to take down a weir on his own. Earl handed him the short sword.
“Here keep a lookout for Cookie while I load the crossbow with a silver quarrel.”
Franklin turned his attention downhill and held the sword at the ready in case the creature returned.
- 9e (Argentum’s Song – PG)
“Earl? Thanks. You know … for everything.”
The sound of the crossbow being cocked paused for a moment as Earl responded.
“Forget it. I ain’t doing nothing you wouldn’t do.”
Franklin knew for a fact that wasn’t true. Franklin never would have risked his life if Earl were the one down with the weir and he were the one up in relative safety. Certainly not after learning what Earl had done to Rusty. He may even have helped the weir finish him off –
Franklin spun back toward his companion just in time. The short sword sprang toward the raised crossbow and managed to deflect it enough that the bolt went tearing through the outside flesh of his sword arm instead of his heart. The pain lanced through him, causing him to drop the weapon and take three steps back.
“Well yer quicker than Rusty that’s for sure. Ya might even have made a better sword for hire than him in the long run. Earned yer nine weight and all. If things had worked out slightly different that is.”
Earl picked up his short sword and advance toward Franklin.
“Please stop. You don’t have to do this. I wasn’t bit! I was just scratched up by the bear and the rocks.”
“I can’t know that for sure. In the rush of what happened you can’t even know it for sure. Even if ya did know, it’s not like ya’d tell me if ya had been bit.”
Franklin stopped arguing. It was pointless and they both knew it. He drew his ruined sabre and held it in front of him with both hands, taking a defensive stance. Earl nodded in appreciation and grinned sadly.
“Guess it’s time for that fencing match.”
Franklin grimaced, “Rain check? Some idiot shot my arm. Maybe I’ll feel up to it later this week.”
“I’m sorry I said anything to tip ya off. I really was hoping to make it quick and painless.”
“I’ll do my best to return the favour.”
They both knew it was empty posturing. Between the shoulder and arm wounds, there was no way Franklin could win the duel. The only things He had going for him were stride length and speed. Franklin edged his way toward the trail the weir had taken. Earl saw what he was trying to do and moved to cut him off.
“Don’t even try it. Believe me if ya have been bit ya want me to finish ya. It’s a mercy. If ya haven’t, ya won’t last alone out here, wounded, with weirs around. I can respect ya wanting to go out in a duel, like a man. But don’t try running. Yer faster than me but ya ain’t faster than my crossbow.”
Franklin tried backing away, but Earl kept pace continuing, “The only thing that will come of wasting my time is severely hampering the likelihood that the rest of us will make it out of this predicament in one piece. Cookie’s likely finding the weir what turned him so they can attack the rest of us together. Now jist do yer duty and stand down so I have a fighting chance at saving the others. If I survive, I swear yer dad will hear about yer hero’s death.”
Franklin’s eyes started tearing up and he lowered his blade a bit.
“There ya go, now just close yer eyes and I’ll make it nice and quick.”
Franklin dropped his blade tip to the ground. Earl walked in slowly and raised his blade. As it started to descend Franklin swung a desperate parry eight and ran toward Earl closing the distance between them. His hilt deflected the blow before being torn from his grasp and his unexpected rush tumbled the stocky man to the ground. He heard a second slash just miss his heels as he sprinted away.
“Ah, come on! Can’t ya, festerin’ blue bloods think of anyone but yerselves?”