By EM Malachi
The Devilish Drover
The wind howled, promising snow. Iolo limped into the poorhouse and dropped his crutch, shutting the door. He moved the heavy pack off his back and leaned against the wall to catch his breath.
Little Merideth ran over to pick up the crutch and hand it back to him. Under her arm was an old doll with mismatched button eyes; Iolo had found the blue one during a supply run into Britain proper. “Can you tell us a story?”
“Of course.” Iolo pulled a chair closer to the fire. “What would everyone like to hear?”
An orphaned mudlark named Finn bounded over. “I want a scary story. With monsters!”
A little girl named Cassie whispered something to her mother Alina who passed it on, “We’d love to hear a winter story.”
Merideth sat on the rug in front of Iolo, her doll sitting in her lap. “Can it be a true story? Something real?”
Iolo smiled as he tuned his lute. “I think I have just the story. This happened to me a few years ago, during the coldest winter I’ve ever seen.” Iolo started playing a series of deeper and deeper chords.
“I was making my way to Cove, when my horse threw a shoe. While walking through the deep snow and trying to guide my poor steed, I heard howls that chilled my blood cold. They got louder and closer!
Looking around, I found the source on the top of a nearby hill: four giant wolves, bound by iron chains. The chains lead to a bloodwood sleigh, driven by a beast-man of fur and fang. He had giant goat horns and was holding a cruel whip. He gave a terrible grin when he saw me. Then that wolf-drover lashed the team forward, with a sound like a great tree being snapped in half!
With the daemon after us, my horse was in a frenzy to flee. Terrified myself, I let go of the reins and started running. My horse disappeared into the woods. The snow slowed me down, and the sleigh never lost ground, smashing through brush and small trees. The fiend was gaining on me!
The monster would have caught this poor bard, but on the road ahead, a rider appeared, racing toward the source of the calamity. The horse stopped, rearing up before me, and I saw the rider was a woman with ginger hair. She yelled for me to hurry and get on, which I did without hesitation. Then we were off!
The horse was strong and knew the way, but with the weight of two riders, the noble steed was struggling to stay ahead of the sleigh. With my wits back, I fired my crossbow at the drover, but when the bolt struck, he just gave a terrible laugh and cracked his whip again!
I couldn’t let this kind soul die for trying to help me, so I offered to jump down and face the beast. She was focused on the path ahead and pointed to a snowdrift we would have to go around. If I jumped down there and hid, she could lead our pursuers off.
It was a dangerous and desperate plan, but I didn’t have one better! She slowed the horse down a little, and I prepared to jump. The leap went well, but the landing did not. I fell hard despite the snow. I managed to crawl behind the snow pile. Still, my bow was broken, and my ankle twisted.
Those were the longest moments of my life, not knowing which way the sleigh would come and with no means to fight back. Then I heard a loud whoop from in front of me. The rider started taunting the monster, daring him to catch her.
The drover shouted back in a foul daemonic tongue and cracked his whip three times. The wolves grew frenzied and chased after my rescuer. The last thing I saw was the fire of her hair as she raced to escape that horrible sleigh.”
As the story ended, Iolo looked to his audience. Cassie was asleep in her mother’s arms. Finn gave a small yawn. “Not enough blood, but I liked the wolves.”
Merideth had questions. “Did the woman on the horse get away? What happened to the drover?”
Iolo smiled. “Don’t worry. I met her again in Minoc years later, but that is another story. As for the monster, there will always be good people around to deal with such fiends.”
Later, after most of the house’s residents were asleep, Iolo sat by the window, watching the heavy snowfall. The days were grey and short, and it would be a cold winter. Iolo gave a heavy sigh. The world was troubled. The ruins of the shrines were silent. The Fellowship was entrenched in Britannian life. His friend Shamino was still missing. What was an old bard to do?
Iolo heard the sleeping murmuring of one of the children behind him. He dimmed the lamp and turned to look at the displaced families crowded in the poorhouse. These people were his responsibility. It didn’t matter how dark things got. There was still work to be done.