There was once a province to the far north called Angrebosh, where the snow would dust over the land once every frost-fall and leave only at the time of the first seeding. The rugged land bred rugged people, distinct in their way. Some called them passionate; others still called them proud and stubborn.
Amongst the plains of Angrebosh were an indulgent keep and an indigent village, held safe by the good Lord Gerard. The walls erected protected the people of the hold from the outside beasts that stalked the night, sired by the devils themselves. Yet, the walls were unable to keep out the plagues and diseases of the world, and many of the less fortunate found themselves victims of sickness. To them, it often seemed as though they were far from the mind of Lord Gerard when he indulged in his fantasies and visions for the future—left by the wayside. Left to rot.
The guardsmen of the keep and village were without pity for such outcast creatures as them. Rather, the poorest village folk, wrought with effluvial, festering disease in their homes and their slums, were the greatest source of contempt for the armored fellows who patrolled the town. Most merely surveyed the lowly slum district from above—from the hill atop which sat Lord Gerard’s palace—never daring to tread below unless necessity dictated it.
Necessity did not do so often, and the poor folk were oft left to fend for themselves.
It is here that the young soldier named Hugo had been raised as a squire and drafted into the brotherhood of Lord Gerard’s knights. He was a brash man, stuck in his ways and built from the very stereotypes of his people, but he was not without merit. To his duties, he was steadfast. The stoic entity made his rounds twice—once in the morning and again in the dusk without fail. He even dared to descend to the lower realms of the slums and patrol there, but just as the other guards, he was not without contempt for those who lived there.
During his early jaunt around the village, Hugo marched to the edges of the keep of the Lord Gerard, separated from the village by bars of iron jutting out of stone carefully and artfully stacked to protect the property from any unwanted intruders. Occasionally, the destitute would take to squatting there, for many had no homes or families left and were too ill to walk, and would try to seek alms from the Lord—to catch a glimpse of him and hope he might pity them. The watch would often pry their skeletal hands from the stone wall and “encourage” them to relocate away from the grounds.
Today ought to have been no different.
And yet, on this particular day, Hugo was not greeted with the stomach-wrenching sight of decrepit bodies clinging to the stones of the property’s wall. Rather, he saw but a single elderly man lying with his back on the stone.
For a moment, he was surprised, both by the lack of squatters and the oddity of this elder. The man was layered in a thick, olive mantle that covered his lanky, wrinkled limbs and body; Hugo could not offer up a guess as to the man’s health or sanity, but as he drew closer, there was an awful stench, as if something had died and been left to rot there. Hugo wanted nothing more than to turn and leave this wretch for some other guard to deal with, but he did not. That was not his way, after all.
So, with a disgusted grimace, he shook off the curiosity as best he could and resumed what duties he had, for all the trespassers required removal. This pathetic creature was no exception.
“Oi,” Hugo shouted, hailing the elderly figure. The man lifted his chin and swayed his head so as to see Hugo in the corner of his eye. The young guard could see frailty in his pale, droopy blue eyes, and when he saw Hugo had waved to him, he smiled a grin of yellow, rotting teeth that sent a chill down Hugo’s spine. “You there,” Hugo continued, shaking off the disgusting smell of the man’s body as he approached. “This is Lord Gerard’s land. Clear out right away.” Hugo waved him away, and the man’s smile turned to a disappointed frown.
“But sir,” the man’s hands were produced from the folds of his mantle in a welcoming gesture, skeletal and veiny as they were. Pale skin was stretched over a thin layer of muscle, and his webby, veiny fingers were almost transparent. “This is public space, is it not? I promise there will be no trouble caused by my hand, gentle Sir.” His quivering voice was not one of superiority; it was sincere and innocent with no misplaced sarcasm.
Still, it was an offensive, rebellious answer, and Hugo took exception to it immediately—to defiance of his authority by this leech—and he quickly produced his sword.
“Lord Gerard says no squatters, so there will be no squatters! Clear out, old man. I won’t be warnin’ ya twice!” Hugo threatened, brandishing his sword. There was a hint of fear in the elderly man’s eyes, but he calmed himself and sunk beneath his wrappings so as not to appear hostile, as if he were a turtle retreating into his shell.
“I understand, but I have traveled very far, you see. I need only a moment to rest these old bones before departing once more. Surely, you can offer me a brief moment of respite?” he asked, nodding his head and raising his brow expectantly.
“Respite? When you continue to defy the Lord’s wishes and squat on land that does not belong to you? You are not even from this village, Foreigner!” Hugo threw down his blade into the mantle of the old man, tearing some of the cloth away as the aged figure crawled away. The man let out a weak, high-pitched cry of fear, and Hugo laughed. “Come now, old man! You are no beggar! Get up.” He taunted as he kneeled down to inspect the man closer. “Surely you must have something to offer up to your hard working military men, eh?” he murmured lowly. The elderly man’s mantle gave way to thin scraps of clothing sewn together, covering his disheveled body in a patchwork fashion. There was little glamour or shine to his person, save one bejeweled dagger resting upon his hip. “What have we here?” Hugo smiled, reaching for the spoils.
“No! You mustn’t touch that!” the elderly man swatted Hugo away from the blade and it cut a small slice into the flesh of the guard’s reaching palm.
“Dammit, old man!” Hugo exclaimed. The man continued to protest, but a mere shove of Hugo’s muscular arm silenced the struggles. He went limp as the force struck him back to the stone wall at the edge of the property, though his chest still moved up and down.
Hugo took his treasure from the elderly squatter’s hip and placed it onto his, turning his attention to his injured palm. It was small enough and bled very little, though the flesh about the cut puffed up in an irritated, red manner. The pain was dull but very much bearable, so Hugo wrapped the palm in some old cloth he tore from the man’s mantle and continued on his rounds in order to return across the threshold of the keep’s stone wall, concerned mainly by the dinner selection this evening rather than his injury or the disheveled body of the elderly man he left behind.
It was not until midday that Hugo’s attention returned to the dagger he had collected from the elderly man. He sat himself at a wooden table within the guards’ barracks, producing it from his waist and holding it in his hands.
The dagger was jagged yet ornate, made from an unusual and unidentifiable metal of an odd, green hue. It was short enough to be not much longer than the length of his hand, but it weighed heavily in his grasp despite its small size. Perhaps most impressive were the symbols lovingly carved into the side of the twisted, forest green blade, though they were not of a tongue Hugo knew. The blade itself was blunt—rather useless as a weapon—and so he thought it might have had some sentimental value to the old man. He chuckled a bit; how such a pathetic piece could have harmed him in any way was far beyond his comprehension.
As Hugo inspected the blade, a sharp pain extended from his palm into his wrist, burning the veins beneath his skin. He dropped the dagger onto the wooden table and squeezed what he could of his arm, hoping it would numb the pain of the injury. Blinding, burning, horrid pain—it did not leave him any time to think.
And then, all of a sudden, it stopped—as if it had never been.
Hugo ripped the bandages from his palm to inspect the injury—the source of the pounding, excruciating sensation that he had just been forced to experience. He tore away the old cloth—shredded it with haste and fervor he did not know he had.
And yet, when the wound laid bare before him, it was no worse than it had been but a few hours ago. All the more so, not a drop of blood did stain the old cloth that protected it. Hugo rubbed it gently but felt nothing—neither pain nor relief—and decided to ignore it. Tis nothing, he said to himself. Nothing at all.
He did not have time to worry about some simple cut, anyways. The time had come for dinner and then after, the nightly rounds. Not once had he been late for his rounds, after all, and he intended to keep it that way—dagger be damned.
The evening was cold, as it was most days of the year, yet Hugo felt particularly hot as he set out to inspect the village. The first thing he looked for as he passed the stone wall at the edge of the keep’s property was the elderly man, but the figure was no longer there and had left no trace of his existence save for the dagger at Hugo’s side. He hovered there for longer than he intended to, looking into the distance for something he did not know he wanted to see.
But, in time, he came back to his senses. There was nothing to be done about it, after all, so Hugo continued on his rounds into the village.
As Hugo finished reaching the outer edges of the village walls, he began to return to the keep for a warm soak and bedding. He felt a burning pain in his ring finger, extending along his veins into his chest, and he coughed rather vigorously as he trudged onwards to the keep.
Tis nothing, he said, shrugging off the pain, and he continued onwards. He never missed his rounds after all. He would not start now.
In time, he reached the center of the town, and by then, he felt the burning pain extend into his throat and stomach, as if the digestive juices were splashing about amongst his organs—choking them. Curdling and corroding them. He coughed violently and sprayed bloody sputum onto his bandaged hand; his eyes were widened with horror at such a ghastly sight, and his pace homebound accelerated as fast as his exhausted, wobbling legs would carry him.
The threshold from village to keep drew so close—so, so close. He could almost reach out and touch it, but before he could, the pain extended to his legs, and he dropped to a crawl.
Yet, he pressed on—struggling and struggling towards the stone wall, eyes watering and snot pouring from his nostrils in a pitiful display. More blood poured from his mouth as he crawled, greedily grabbing at the dirt between his fingertips.
So much pain.
And yet, he continued—stroke by stroke—striding in the dirt towards his destination. A single hand reached out for the wall of Lord Gerard’s castle, and yet…that can’t be my hand, can it? The thin, shaking thing before him was pale, stripped of any muscle and near-translucent, as if he himself were the old man from the day before.
But he did not have time to care. It was as if some force possessed him and drove him onwards, whispering sweetly into his ear that all he needed to do was cross that line. Just cross that threshold and this will all be over, it said. Just get back.
Some other guards were patrolling the length of the wall; it was the last thing he saw before his vision failed him. He tried to call out for help, but his throat burned and all that came out was dust and blood. Even his breath was stolen from him.
He thought the guards might have noticed him; he could feel a cold, looming presence over top of him—cold and dark. Cold and dark. Something hit him—hit him hard—and yet he could barely feel it above the aching, screaming pain of his body—of this burning awfulness that seethed just beneath his thin, ghastly flesh.
The pitiful man had little life left in him as he neared the stone wall—or what he thought it might have been. Fingertips eagerly grasping for line between the diseased village and the regal, safe keep. It had to be but a step away—a step to freedom. To safety. To warmth.
His arms and legs gave way.
His hearing followed soon after, and the only taste left on the tip of his tongue was that of bile and blood. He felt himself fall to the ground completely, as if the force of gravity had tripled in an instant, and he would not get up again.
As he drew a few harsher breaths, his eyes sparkled back to life—vision restored if only for a moment—and spied upon the ground a small, putrid dagger next to him. It was but an arm’s reach away, sitting there—mocking him, as if it had a face to do so. He spat at it, but all that came out with dust.
And then, he took one last breath, having put not a single limb across the threshold, and died.