Lord Shiram Reuben blinked at the room that surrounded him as though it were a new and unexpected thing. Somehow it was, though he’d been sleeping there for years.

More to the point, he’d been dramatically failing to sleep there for years, which was all the more reason the chamber should seem familiar.

   He sighed, sitting up and trying to pinch the last vestiges of the dream from the bridge of his nose.

   “Lord Reuben?” A cautious scuff of feet in the doorway accompanied a cautious voice. He looked up to find one of the housemaids squinting sleepily at him past the glare of the candle she held. “Are ye all right?”

   Shiram stared at her a second, tried to remember her name. Failing, he shook his head.

   “I’m fine.”

   His own yelling. That was what had woken him–and evidently others, as well. The household staff should be used enough to these nightmares to stop checking on him.

   The maid yawned, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders.

   “All right, m’lord. Is there anything else ye need, long as I’m here? Cook’s got cakes cooled in the kitchen.”

   Cakes were not the furthest thing from Shiram’s mind, but they were near it. He stared for another moment, mustering a reply.

   “No…Madalena, you can go.”

   He hoped he’d gotten her name right. Not that she’d feel free to tell him if he hadn’t.

   Possibly-Madalena nodded, barely keeping her eyes open, but managing a sleep-soaked smile.

   “Ye’ve the bell to ring should ye need anythin’, then. Wishin’ ye good rest.”

   She turned, plodding down the hall by the light of the single, slightly guttering, candle.

   “Thank you,” Shiram told the open air, unsure she’d hear him. The faint flickering of candlelight in the hall receded, leaving him alone in the equally uncertain light of a dying fire.

   The dream had coiled around Shiram’s insides, pulling death-tight and jolting him awake. Even now, shifting tendrils of it seemed to lurk in the shadows. He closed his eyes, aware both of how tired he was and how impossible sleep would be.

   It had not exactly been a dream if remembering–though those were bad too. Shards of memory, rather, disconnected and slice-sharp. The scarlet smile of a queen and the scarlet spills she smiled at; the curiously wet scent of iron-tainted air and the odd heaviness of a knife in his palm. It had left his stomach sick and his mind reeling with things he would rather have forgotten.

   He took a deep breath, opening his eyes in a cautious attempt to draw comfort from the solid, warm-lit stone of the walls around him and the tattered tapestries that adorned them.

   Shadows shifted rhythmically in the firelight, and a bed, a great feather-stuffed thing Shiram had never quite got the hang of, sat in the middle of the room, casting the biggest shadow of them all.         

   Shiram, surrounded by perfectly comfortable furs, lay on the floor.

   The warmth of the fire was slowly ebbing, allowing the biting midwinter chill to leach in though the stone walls.  Not caring to freeze, Shiram rose achingly to feed it.

   Orange flame rose, sparking, until it licked at the new wood with tongues of white. Shiram kicked a log, watching sparks dance up the soot-choked chimney, then flick out as the cold killed them.

   He’d have to tell James, the steward, that the chimneys needed cleaning.

The thought came uninvited, from a world so very far from his late dream that it made him laugh. There had been a time, before the scarlet-smiling queen, when Shiram would have scoffed at the thought of commanding a castle. He still scoffed at it, so strange it seemed.

   It wasn’t as though he hadn’t earned it. His Queen was not one for superfluous generosity; he had earned this–earned it in ways that gave him screaming knife-blade nightmares, ways that made him see a fire and expect the scent of burning flesh.

   Survival, he’d called it. Loyalty. He’d wanted very much to survive, when the world was a cruel place.

   He thought of Madalena and the cakes cooled in the kitchen.

   The world was kind now; but he was not.

   He closed his eyes, more tired than anything, and the nightmare crept eagerly into the dark behind his lids, snapping him awake.

   The firelight was bright enough to hurt, but he stared into it anyway, wondering if survival was worth all that much after all.

*     *     *

   The next morning, the Lord of Oboro-Teh informed his steward that the chimneys needed cleaning, and announced his own intentions to go riding. James took both facts in stride, assuring his lord that the fires would be kept burning to await his return.

   If the steward noticed the oddly quirked smile that was Shiram’s only response to this declaration, he did not mention it.

*     *     *

   

   The air was bitter. Shiram halted for the third time in the past half-hour, keeping his horse from sweating, and the beast pawed at the snow, frustrated by their slow progress. Leaning forward, Shiram gave its shoulder an absent pat. Though his eyes were glazed over by cold and carelessness, he couldn’t keep them off of the thick pine wood ahead–his goal, if this ride had a goal. There was something about the darkness, the twisting branches, that seemed like a comfort in comparison to the age-blemished expanse of powdery white that surrounded him now.

   Without the dull whuff and scrunch of the horse plowing through snow, another sound–just as quiet–was vaguely audible in the clear air. Voices. Some distance away. Shiram blinked, trying to make out what they said; frowned when he found he couldn’t.

   Noting that the horse had cooled down, he turned it in the direction of the sound. The beast shook its head in disapproval at his indecision, but swung obediently aside.

*     *     *

   As they grew closer, Shiram realized that the voices were shouting. Cresting the slight hill that lay between himself and the voices, he saw–but did not understand–what they were shouting about. 

   The scene was a wild amalgamation of people, sheep, and piled brushwood. Shiram halted, watching in confusion as some of the people rounded the sheep into one great wool-ridden, bleating mass, while others handed out weapons of all kinds–makeshift weapons, rakes and pruning tools and one rusty sword that must have belonged to someone’s great-grandfather.

The brushwood was being pulled into great heaps that might have served either as fortifications or a battlefield funeral pyre. They were working themselves harder than Shiram had dared work his horse, and Shiram felt the faintest twinge of guilt as he wondered why.

   A few of the peasants noticed the newcomer, glancing and nodding to one another without ceasing their work. Eventually the glancing and the nodding reached a white-haired man with work-hardened hands and a work-crooked back, who gave Shiram a long and calculating look before brushing his hands to approach him.

   “M’lord.” he said, giving a respectful nod. Shiram returned it.

   “Goodman.”

   “Thaddeus,” The man supplied. Shiram nodded again, this time towards the general turmoil.

   “Are you preparing for a festival of some kind?”

   The man named Thaddeus shook his head.

   “Would it were something that friendly, M’lord. It’s wolves we’re preparing for–or a wolf, rather.” The shepherd shrugged his shoulders, a slight involuntary movement protesting the cold. “It’s been stealing the sheep–not many, but there in’t much to go around in the first place, what with the taxes and the–ah–” he looked at Shiram, realizing he may not have picked the best person to complain about taxes to, and attempted to amend.  “Not that I won’t give my sheep to feed our queen in a heartbeat–but there’s none left for wolf-fodder.”

   The implied comparison was as unfortunate as it was unintentional. Shiram concealed a smile and gestured to the brushwood barricade.

   “You’re setting up a fire ring,” he noted. Set alight, the wood would burn long and bright–and wolves cared little for fire. 

   “Ay, and a night watch.”

   “No hunting parties?” Shiram asked, realizing the question was idiotic even before Thaddeus shook his head in denial. Hunting bows were not common among shepherds; the Queen discouraged them. Still, they could have come to the keep and asked for a band of Shiram’s men-at-arms. 

   If it came to that, there was no need for them to go to the keep at all.

“One wolf, you said?” Shiram had learned his hunting chasing fugitives and traitors–the queen’s enemies, and occasionally his own. A wolf would be a welcome change.

   Thaddeus was nodding, but without enthusiasm.

   “It’s said…and this may just be peasant’s talk, M’lord…but ‘tis said that it’s no normal wolf. More like a demon, according to the few who’ve seen it. Glowing red eyes and a cry like a banshee.”

   “A demon wolf?” Shiram raised his eyebrows, and Thaddeus gave a half-ashamed gesture, shrugging off the warning. “As I said. It may be the fear talking, and not good sense.”

   Reuben frowned.

   “It may also be poachers, or a clever thief. I’ve known a few to do the like–act the monster or the demon, scare people off their scent.”

   The horse shifted under him, tossing its head, and Thaddeus set an unthinking hand on the beast’s shoulder, calming it.

   “Of the two, M’lord, I’d rather have the demon.”

   “Less destructive?”

   “Less pitiable. I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.”

   There was a small fire in Thaddeus’s eyes, though it died quickly again. Shiram suppressed a grimace–he’d carried out the Queen’s laws often enough to know how unforgiving they were. Necessary, from a political perspective. But in the eyes of human beings who knew what it was to be hungry…cruel.

   “Well, there’s a good chance it’s only a lone wolf. Lost its pack, maybe, and turning to easier game,” Shiram said. “Has it left its tracks anywhere?”

   Thaddeus looked surprised.

   “Everywhere.”

   “Show me.” 

*     *     *

   The old shepherd led him to a place where the wolf had made its kill. The tracks were muddled and indecisive, mixed with blood and the plundering hoofprints of a panicked herd, but there was a clear enough path out of the mess.  A trail of blood led up and into the woods; he intended to follow it.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, hunting it,” Thaddeus said, as Shiram remounted his horse. The statement held an inquisitive twist that Shiram did not particularly like, and he shrugged.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, living in these hills,” He returned, indicating the blood-patched snow and still-shouting melee of shepherds. 

   “Ah,” Thaddeus said with a slight chuckle. “We cast our fortunes on the will of the holies, for sure. ‘Course, it’s hard to tell how completely we cast them, for we always expect ‘em back again–but the holies, they come through.”

   He returned his gaze to the snow-frozen blood.

   “Sometimes,” He amended.

   Satisfied, Shiram set to evening his reins.

   “If you ask me, M’lord, any man who goes to fight even a single wolf alone is hell-bent on suicide.”

   Shiram looked down to see the old man giving him a piercing gaze, which lowered as Thaddeus reassumed his place.

   “If you ask me,” he said quietly, with the implication that of course no one would ask him, and that his words were of no import. Shiram only nodded, letting the old man return to his work.

   It was not suicide, he thought in belated self-defense. He was simply…casting his life on the will of the holies.

   He did not expect it back again.

*     *     *

   The woods deepened and the clouds grew darker as they plodded on. Lowering his head, the horse huffed a soft breath at the snow–more warning than frustration–and Shiram found himself reaching for his sword more than once.

   Five minutes–or perhaps it had been half an hour–later, the mouth of a cave gaped before them, darkly visible against the pale-glowing snow. The blood trail spattered in frozen drops over its threshold.

   Snow flew up in a gust of cold as Shiram leapt off the horse, absently looping its reins around a flimsy branch. The horse could make its own way home; Shiram would not be needing it much longer. The beast snorted, a cloud of white in the still air–the dark air. It was near the end of evening, and he would be missed soon–but not for long. Oboro-Teh would find another lord, in time. Perhaps a better lord.

   And this cave would be the grave of at least one monster tonight. Two, if Shiram’s blade held true. With a lightly pounding heart, he drew it and stepped into the dark.

Something cracked under his foot. Looking down, he saw the tiny skull of a rat, crushed under his weight. The cave floor was strewn liberally with other tiny bones, stripped clean and sucked of their marrow, and Shiram frowned.

   This did not look like the work of a wolf.

   There was a shifting, almost a scuttling, in the dark; Shiram jumped back, half-believing he’d heard a whisper of a voice in the biting air.

   He held his sword close and ready, listening as well as he could past the beat of his own heart. The things moving in the dark sounded…small. His mind conjured a horde of rattle-boned ghouls, a contingent of bat-size demons.

   Something pattered past him, brushing his leg. It was out of reach before he could even see it. The thing was followed by another–who was not so lucky.

   Shiram moved like lightning to snatch a handful of hide, jerking the scuttler-in-the-dark backwards and into the light, twisting his sword to run it through.

   He stopped just short of killing it. The thing staring up at him with terrified eyes was a child.

   Shiram stared back, too shocked to lower the sword, and the boy bit him. He dropped it with a surprised yelp; scrambling to his feet, the boy began to run.

   “Stop!” he shouted, but of course the boy didn’t. Shiram, used to hunting men with much longer legs, caught up with him quickly. The child stumbled, and he grabbed the back of the boy’s neck–holding him tight and gingerly, as he would a snake. With a wild-man yell, the boy pulled a knife, opening a stinging cut on Shiram’s arm.

   “I’m not going to hurt you,” Shiram growled as he wrested the little weapon away. He was not very convincing, and the boy tried to bite him again.

   “I’m not going to–ow.” something hard bounced off of Shiram’s back, and he spun to face the new attack.

   If the boy was wild, this girl looked wilder. Her grease-grey hair contrasted with her tiny stature, and her knuckles had gone white around the slingshot she held. A tiny bird-skull was looped inside it, as ammunition.

   “Jess, just run! Get out of here!” the boy struggled as he spoke, evidently wanting to follow his own advice. Jess turned a steely frown, originally meant for Shiram, on him.   

   “I in’t leaving you, stupid,” she said, as yet another child–a tiny, wide-eyed thing in a tattered dress–peered out from behind her skirts. Shiram found her–and indeed everything–unsettling.

   This was not a wolf, not a demon, and it was not death. He felt cheated.

   Another bird skull bounced off his shoulder, doing nothing to improve his mood. He swung the boy around to act as a shield from any further missiles, and ignored the warm trickle of blood dripping down his arm.

   It was poachers, then, as he had feared. What had Thaddeus said?

   I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.

   But these were not demons. The boy in Shiram’s grip felt brittle enough to shatter from cold alone.

   “Let him go!” the girl shouted, fingers fisting tighter on a sling they both knew was useless.

Shiram wished he could.

   “I was expecting to find a demon wolf up here,” he ventured. “It’s a good ruse. I’m curious to know how you carried it out.”

   There was silence.

   “Whose idea was it?” Shiram watched the girl’s face, but it was the boy who spoke.

   “Mine,” He snapped, twisting in Shiram’s grip, trying to face him. “Just mine. We all needed the meat–but I’m the one who took it.”

    He sounded as though he was admitting to treason. Given the laws on poaching, he might as well have been.

   The laws of the scarlet-smile queen were just, from her own perspective, but in the eyes of those who knew what hunger was…Shiram had known hunger, once. Had he forgotten that?

   “And blamed it on a red-eyed demon,” he said, watching the boy’s face. “How’d you manage that?”

    The boy clenched his jaw.

   “None of your business.”

   Shiram raised his eyebrows, recognizing the hardness in the boy’s voice. Men became hard, when the world was cruel–and the world was cruel, unless someone bothered to make it kind.

    Glancing at Jess, he countered her frightened scowl with a small smile.

   “Well then,” he said, thinking things through. He looked back the cave mouth, to the set of tracks in the snow–thought back to the shepherds, all convinced of what they’d seen–a demon-wolf with glowing eyes. “There’s no sheep here. No wolf either.”

   He eased his grip on the boy, and the child dropped, scrambling out of reach to stand between Shiram and Jess–but he didn’t run, and the suspicion on his face was beginning to show eggshell-thin cracks.

   “Perhaps the wolf’s dead,” Shiram ventured, sheathing the sword.

   Slowly he realized that Shiram was not here to bring him to the law. He took another step back, suspicious again.

   “Thank you, sir,” he managed. “The wolf’s dead–and he won’t be stealing any more of your sheep.”

    Jess nodded in agreement. “Bless your heart, sir,” she added.

   The boy turned with cold-stiff shoulders to lead them away; and Shiram found, quite suddenly, that he did not want his heart to be blessed.

   “Wait,” he said to the trio of retreating backs.  “Do you expect I’ll leave you out here to freeze to death?”

    Kindness was as soul-seizing as cruelty, once given into. He shook his head.

   “Come back with me. I’ll see you fed, at least.”

   He would feed them for as long as they cared to stay. Perhaps it would not make up for the lives he’d ended, the laws he’d carried out. He did not much care; there were three lives, at least, that need not be snuffed out today–and that was enough. 

   None of the children moved, and even in the deepening dark he could see disbelief twisting across the boy’s face.

   “And in return for all this?” he asked, his voice tinged with something like sarcasm. It sounded ugly, coming from one so young.

   Shiram had asked the Queen the same thing once. ‘Loyalty,’ she’d said. She had meant his soul.

   Shiram shook his head.

   “Nothing.”

   Just his own soul.

Epilogue:

   The boy’s name was Steven, Shiram learned; and the little wordless girl hanging off of Jess’s skirt was called Hanna. The ride home was long, but they were met by friendly kitchen fires and Cook’s cakes. Madalena–for her name was Madalena, as Shiram was proud to discover–was the one who finally made Steven smile. It was a small, brief smile, but it was a beginning.

   Shiram sat farthest from the fire, keeping the nightmare shadows away from the now-happy group. The cold had wearied him to the bone, and he was almost considering going to sleep. 

   A tiny hand seizing his sleeve stirred him, and he looked down to find Hanna giving him a mostly toothless grin. He was too surprised to protest as she pulled herself onto his lap and curled up like a cat, falling asleep in matter of minutes. 

  Shiram blinked–first at her, then at the stone walls. No nightmares lurked there, for once. Just firelight, and kindness, and home. A kind world, in which he hardly seemed to belong. He would have gotten up to leave, but for the lightweight anchor asleep on his chest.

   Lord Shiram Reuben of Oboro-Teh dared a smile.

   Cast your life on the will of the holies.

   For maybe, just maybe, they would give it back again.

Enjoy this story?

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The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar 

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