Fiction: Totem Cycle, part 1

‘They’re vintage,’ the trader held up a yellowed bundle of papers, ‘newspapers from the World That Ended. You won’t see anything like them. Not here. Maybe on the other side. But here…? I can see that you’re interested. Look at them. See that headline? It’s from 4 years before the War.’

‘I don’t know…’

The trader smiled knowingly. ‘This is knowledge, right here. I’ve already read it. But I don’t know anyone else who has. Come on; you only know the stories people tell you. This here,’ he tapped the newspaper, ‘is the truth. The absolute, unvarnished truth. In fact, it’s priceless…’ he frowned, ‘…but I can’t carry them anymore. See, my father entrusted them to me, but I’ve already lost so many of them. Half of them were stolen by Red Robert’s people…’

‘You survived an attack by Red Robert?’

‘I was traveling with a caravan. Me and one other survived, a blacksmith living down near Arizona Bay. He could tell you. I lost 3 more in the rain last season. You remember it? So I’ll give you the rest for a good deal. I’m telling you, this is a last-chance opportunity here.’

‘I don’t know that I have anything to trade…’

The trader scanned the old hunter quickly, assessing what he could see, guessing at what he could not. A hunting rifle, and not one of those made since the War. No, this was an antique even older than his newspapers, kept in impeccable condition. The old hunter wouldn’t want to part with it, or with any ammunition he carried for it. His clothes were soiled and torn in places, but the belts that held his knives and tools were fairly new.

‘I’ll take one of your knives. I’ve only got an old hunting one, but it’s in bad shape.’

The hunter frowned. ‘A knife for a few pieces of old paper?’ He shook his head. ‘The knife is more useful, whatever those papers say. What can I do with them? Stories are better than the truth. Who is ever going to ask me for the truth?’

‘Alright then, you tell me.’

‘Tell you what. You come back with me, break bread at my table, and we’ll talk. You can tell me the latest word, and we can trade over those newspapers.’

‘How do I know you won’t just kill me?’

The hunter snorted. ‘This would have been a better place for it. There’s no one living in these woods for miles.’

The trader considered the offer for a moment, but his stomach had already decided the matter for him: ‘Sure, sure. Why not? It is as you say. How far is your home?’

‘Not far. You’re lucky I was on my way back. These woods aren’t safe after dark.’

Their footsteps shuffled through wet brown leaves, thick on the trail and sodden with last night’s heavy rain. The late afternoon sun dipped behind the trees, shimmering between leaves the color of sunset. The air was cold and crisp, but not yet biting with winter’s harshness.

The two men did not speak again while they walked. The trail had been level beneath a ridge of small, rocky peaks; now it fell suddenly, cutting deeper into the forest below and winding through the western foothills of the Appalachians. The smoke of cookfires rose into the still air and deepening blue of the cloudless sky.

‘What do you call this settlement?’ the trader asked, breaking the silence.

‘Forthright,’ the hunter answered.

‘I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the largest settlements in these parts, isn’t it?’

‘Shouldn’t you know? Where were you going?’

‘To the District Barony,’ the trader answered after a moment.

The hunter glanced at him over his shoulder. ‘The Barony? Are you a fool, or a liar?’ he stopped and looked hard at the trader.  ‘You couldn’t get within fifteen miles of the Barony. The whole city’s surrounded by a ring of marauders, scavengers, and butchers that would kill you in a heartbeat and trade your wares between themselves…and make no mistake: your organs, whether they’re healthy or not, can still fetch a bargain.’

The trader met the hunter’s eyes steadily. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘When I was young and stupid.’

‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ the trader said. ‘I’ve haven’t anywhere else to go. Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ he added enigmatically. ‘There are places even the marauders, scavengers, and butchers won’t go.’

The hunter chuckled derisively. ‘You mean the swamps? That’s been tried. There’s a reason no one goes there. There’s just no way to make it through the swamps alive. No way. No one’s been in or out of the District Barony in thirty years.’

The trader shrugged and lapsed into silence. The trail widened into a small, shadowed clearing. A sentry tower stood in the center, a scaffolding of wooden beams topped by a small shed. The guard standing watch leaned over the railing, an arrow notched and pointed at the trader. When he saw the hunter he nodded but did not lower the bow. ‘Devin!’ he called out. ‘How was the hunting today?’

Devin looked up and waved. ‘Some rabbits is all.’ He motioned to the trader. ‘Met a trader on the trail. Invited him to break bread with my family.’

The watchman lowered the bow but kept the arrow notched. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Says he was headed here, to Forthright,’ Devin lied. ‘He’s got some old newspapers to trade.’

‘Newspapers?’ the watchman thought about this for a moment. ‘From when?’

‘I have a series from 2100 to 2115,’ the trader called out, ‘in good condition.’

‘Let me take a look at them,’ the watchman said. ‘Come up.’

The trader smiled and ascended the tall ladder, followed by Devin. The watchman shook hands with them both. ‘Good to see you, Nick,’ Devin said warmly. ‘How’s Sam?’

‘She’s fine,’ Nick answered, ‘healer’s looking after her. How about Annie and Winn? They getting on?’

‘I would have taken them with me, but Annie’s been feeling out of sorts for the past couple of days.’

‘Want me to tell the healer to pay a visit?’

Devin shook his head. ‘No, it’s nothing serious. Really. You know those kids have always been sensitive. It’s just the winter coming on. They’ve always been able to feel it.’

Nick looked as if to press the point of the healer, then relented. He nodded towards the trader and said, ‘Alright. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got there. 2100 you said? That when the War started?’

‘No, no,’ the trader replied, ‘the Third World War started in 2110. But, see, a great many things happened in the decade preceding the War. Scandals and court cases, skirmishes and embargos, revolutions and invasions. It’s the truth of what really happened!’

Nick smiled. ‘Does it make for a good story?’

The trader looked bewildered for a second. ‘Of course!’ he answered at last. ‘It’s the best story there is!’

Nick nodded to a woolen cloak hung from a nail in the corner. ‘I’m sold. I can’t read all that well, but my grandfather used to tell me stories about history. Said he used to read books. Imagine that! Well, since he died I miss those stories…if these newspapers of yours are anything like that, I’ll trade you that cloak there for a few of them. How about it? Winter’s coming on, and it comes down hard in these parts.’

The trader looked over the cloak, rubbed the material between his fingers, examined the seams. ‘Fine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s got a few years on it, but it’ll hold for another season. Go on—look them over and take a few that you like. October 14, 2103 is a good one. That’s a nail in the coffin for sure.’

Silence hung in the shed, broken only by the rustle of old paper and muttered exclamations of interest from Nick. Devin had taken the rifle from his back and laid it on the knotted wooden railing; his hunter’s eyes scanned the trees. The sun was going down behind the hills in the west. A few minutes and it would be gone.

The season was turning, and the leaves were changing in that bittersweet pageantry of color that marked the end of summer. The mountains stretched out on either side to the north and south, fading into shades of deepening blue. The birds had stopped chattering among the trees. A blanket of cold wind settled with a whistle of harsh breath over the sentry tower. Devin shivered…

…and heard a series of howls rising up from the forest.

They washed over the treetops like a wave of sound, lapping softly up against the wooden frame of the tower. Everyone looked sharply up. Devin readied his rifle. He glanced at the trader; the man did not appear in the least bit afraid. He was looking out over the forest as if he knew exactly where they were coming from. Devin leveled the rifle’s sight in that direction.

‘How many?’

‘It’s been at least 15 for the past three nights,’ Nick answered. ‘They came past Darwin’s post last night, and he killed one and clipped another. It was 17 that night. Joey swears that 20 of them came past his tower two nights before that, and that was the night we lost Tom’s kids and 5 heads of cattle. I’m telling you, if we don’t figure out a way to stop them, we’ll be left hungry for the winter…already they’re starting to talk, saying that our stores won’t make it into February.’

Devin grunted.

‘You won’t be able to stop them,’ the trader said softly.

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘Don’t say that,’ he growled. He glared at the trader contemplatively and said, ‘Where did you sleep last night? They would have eaten you alive anywhere in these woods…’

‘They’re big woods,’ the trader snapped, then pointed. ‘Pay attention; here they come.’

They broke out of the gloom, loping towards the tower. There were 16 of them. It was the largest pack Devin had ever seen. Their yellow eyes gleamed, lips curled in snarls of rapacious frenzy. Their rust and soot colored coats tangled behind their ears and gathered in thick manes behind their jaws. Others were the color of iron and midnight, and several were pitch black.

The elders said that the old wolves had been different; more like to avoid a man than attack him outright. Things changed. Hearing howls in the woods was a death-knell to any group of travelers few in number, armed only with knives and tools—even guns were no guarantee. The wolves had plenty of game to eat, to be sure; but they preferred the blood of men.

Devin waited and aimed with patient precision. Only when he was sure of the shot, he fired. The rifle thundered out across the canopy and the muzzle flash was bright in the twilight. There was a cry as one of the animals was thrown against its side. The echo of the shot struck the mountains. Devin was already reloading.

Nick released an arrow, but the shaft thudded into the soft ground. He notched and loosed another, just missing one of the wolves. They spoke in growled utterances and sharp yips, coordinating a predator’s strategy. Circling the tower, an overzealous wolf made an attempt to scale the scaffolding and tumbled down, glaring up at them in cold spite.

‘We can’t possibly get them all before they reach Forthright,’ Nick said through clenched teeth. ‘What are they going to take this time? Our children?’ He hissed in desperate frustration, notched another arrow, and let it fly. It struck through the wolf that had tried to scale the tower. Devin fired the rifle again, taking another wolf down.

The pack gathered and started off towards the town. Nick cursed and rang the sentry bell. The old iron clanged and Devin listened for the reply; another bell answered, in the east tower beside the city walls. Whoever was in the fields outside the walls would be running in; the stragglers and those too far away to make it in time would have to rely on luck and the aim of the guardsmen. Others, living in the houses and shacks outside the settlement, would bolt their frail doors and wait it out—but the wolves were known to break into homes, and God help anyone with a wailing infant among them.

‘I’m gone,’ Devin said, hastening down the ladder. When he reached the ground he broke into a sprint towards the settlement. If the guards were able to scatter them, he might have a shot at one of two of them.

He underestimated his vigor—he’d been trekking all day, and his legs were not the legs of a young athlete anymore. He had to stop within sight of the settlement; the wolves were barely visible as dark shapes moving quickly toward the gray face of the city wall. It would be a wasted shot, most likely, but it was the only shot he had. By the time he gathered his strength to run again the wolves would have scattered, each smaller pack looking for a kill. He propped the rifle against the crook of his elbow, got down on his belly, and followed one of the darting shapes. The sentry on the east tower fired, and a small cloud of dust shot up next to one of the wolves; it paused, momentarily distracted, and Devin fired. The bullet took it in the head.

The pack scattered. Every shot now was wasted; they stayed out of the spheres of light cast by the lanterns atop the wall, groups of two or three moving quickly through fields and outlying houses. Annie and Winn…! Devin rose and charged forward with renewed energy; he knew his grandchildren. They wouldn’t have gone in behind the wall without him. Winn was good with a shotgun, and he would keep it loaded and handy; but against three wolves…! He increased his pace, fueling his aching muscles with panic and desperation.

Devin finally saw the red brick of his small house, the green door, the herb garden; he listened for any sound of struggle or pain. It was quiet. The wolves were around here somewhere, he had seen those three heading in this direction…he readied his rifle and slowed his pace, approaching the house cautiously. He had rushed to defend his grandchildren, but he was a likelier kill than anyone behind closed doors.

The thought occurred to him just in time; one of them had been watching him from behind the house. It charged at him, moving faster than he could possibly hope to point and shoot. He dropped the rifle, drew one of his hunting knives, and braced himself. He anticipated that the wolf would lunge; he would bring up his forearm, let it try and bite through his coat, and stab it through the heart—but he anticipated wrong. The wolf came in under his arm, turned its head, and tried for his hamstring. He twisted his leg out of the way, but it cost him: he was on the ground, scrambling to get up. Too slow, too slow…

The wolf came over him, its jaws snapping over his face, its wild yellow eyes glowing against its charcoal fur. It was near 180 pounds of snarling wolf, but Devin managed to push up and throw it off him for the split of a second he would have before it came up again—just enough to grab the knife, and follow through with a hasty stab on his hands and knees.

He was lucky; the knife went into its throat and it bit down on the empty air, whining in sudden pain and drawing hastily away. It loped quickly off, shaking its head and losing blood. Devin panted tiredly and got up. Where were the other two?

‘Winn!’ he shouted, ‘Annie! The wolves are here…!’ Devin stumbled towards the house. Why haven’t they responded? He slammed himself against the door and threw it open.

They were sitting at the table, looking at him as if he were raving. Annie, Winn, and the trader. Annie was putting down a tray of fresh bread and Winn was looking over the newspapers; the trader was smiling at him as if passing a secret between them. Devin took a moment to process the scene, his heart thudding in his chest, his knife clutched in his hand, his torn pant leg trailing blood over the floor.

‘What happened?’ Winn cried, rising from the table and moving forward.

‘Wolves…’ Devin answered, slowly trying to come to his senses. He stared at the trader. ‘How did you get here so quickly? You were still at the tower…’ he focused on his grandson. ‘When did he get here? Didn’t you hear the bells? There are wolves in the camp!’

Winn stared at him, then glanced back at the trader. ‘Bells?’ he asked wonderingly. ‘I didn’t hear any…wolves? Are you sure?’ he looked again at his grandfather and moved quickly to take up the shotgun beside the door. ‘I know this man—he’s traded here before. He told us you were with Nick at the tower, and that you were on your way.’

‘Grandfather…?’ Annie set the tray down and moved towards the sound of their voices.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, moving forward, ‘step away from him.’ Annie backed away from the trader. Winn looked at him questioningly, but Devin didn’t have time for explanations; as far as he was concerned, this man was dangerous. He would have seen the man moving toward his home; how did he get here so quickly…?

He started with the basics. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘You’re no trader. You said you were for the District Barony…why? You knew where the wolves were coming from; you had no fear of them. What’s your business here? Answer me!’

The trader put up his hands. ‘I come with a warning,’ he said. ‘I should have gone about it differently…but if I had told you the truth from the beginning, you would have shot me in the woods and left me for dead.’

Devin smiled dangerously. ‘I’m like to shoot you right here. You’re a stranger. No one would question a man defending his family against an intruder. You’ve nothing to lose by telling me the truth now. I guarantee that it will go poorly with you unless your explanation satisfies me.’

‘Very well,’ the trader put down his hands. ‘They’re coming for your granddaughter.’

Winn and Annie both started talking at once; Devin stared at the old trader, trying to make sense of what he was saying. With another ear he listened for the wolves, prowling around the grounds outside.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, ‘open the door.’

Outside, there were two men standing naked in the cold and dark. There was no shame in their nakedness; only a quiet, subtle danger that shone in eyes the color of gold. Still, Devin was momentarily grateful that his granddaughter could not see. Winn leveled the shotgun on them, as did he; they were often of a common mind, he and his grandson. He hoped that was enough to get them through this alive.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, wondering why he didn’t just shoot them. Winn was waiting on his signal.

The men said nothing. They simply stood outside, waiting for a signal of their own. From the trader, no doubt. Devin turned, another question ready on his lips…

The old wolf stood on the wooden table, its hackles bristling in threat, lips curled over the feral horror of its exposed gums and vicious teeth.

The naked men bowed their heads in submission.

‘The Totem has chosen your granddaughter,’ one of them growled. ‘She will come with us.’

‘The hell you say,’ Devin replied. He turned and fired on the old wolf…