“Horseshoes? Simple enough job, sure, but can’t it wait ‘til morning?” the aging smith sounded fed up with life.
“There’ll be extra coin in it for you if you do it now,” The voice was gruff, gravelly.
The smith, though done for the day, nodded in agreement and set about finding a fresh set that would fit the newcomer’s horse. The younger man, clad in studded leather and well-wrapped in a fur-lined cloak, shut the hood on his lantern and looked about for a seat.
“Been travelling long?” asked the smith.
“No. Yes. A few weeks.” The traveller spoke. “Does it matter?”
“I don’t suppose it does, sir, no.” the smith said. “I only make small talk so’s I can focus on my work. Listening to people talk seems to make the time pass by faster, somehow.”
“I’ve been on the road since the beginning of Spring.” The traveller considered a moment, then went on. “War is brewing in the North. I’m an envoy, sent for aid from the neighbouring lands. Three of us were sent out, a week ago I found one of my brothers dead in a field with an arrow through his chest. Then, two days after that, I found the other. What was left of him.”
The smith made a sign to ward off evil.
“What happened to him? Did you find out?” he held aloft a set of four horseshoes, then moved to the traveller’s horse standing in the stall nearby. He lifted the horse’s foreleg and began to pull out the nails securing it to the hoof.
“Something very powerful, with claws and teeth larger than any beast I’ve seen.” The smith repeated the gesture as the traveller spoke.
“I see why you needed fresh shoes,” the smith tossed a bent, mangled piece of iron at the traveller’s feet. “And why you’d want it done now.” He lined up the fresh shoe with the horse’s hoof and began tapping nails into place.
The traveller looked about the smith’s workshop. It was well-equipped for such a small smithy in such a tiny town. The traveller doubted whether this place appeared on many maps, if any at all. No sign announced any name for the town, barely a handful of small cottages surrounding a pub, with this smithy on the outskirts. A tanner had set up shop on the other side of the small collection of houses.
The rest of the horse’s shoes were not as badly mangled as the first, but in short order they were all replaced with fresh ones.
“Did you see any trail? From your friend’s body I mean?” Something in the smith’s voice tugged at the traveller.
“Just a lot of blood. I followed it a short way, but there was a stream. Whatever killed him, or whoever, must have washed the blood off there.” The traveller told him.
“So it could be anywhere?” the smith sounded concerned now.
“No. If it’s a wild beast, it’s in its lair. If it is something a little smarter, now? Then, sure, it could be anywhere.” The traveller smiled through his month-old beard. His teeth were scraggly and filthy. “Have you got any weapons for sale?”
“Not really, sir, just what you see here.” Said the smith. “Not a lot of call for swords and maces around here, you know? We’re a farming community, if it’s a blade someone wants it’s for a scythe. For wheat.”
The traveller nodded.
The smith had turned away from the traveller after finishing shoeing the final hoof. Something in his voice, the way the words sounded…
“You should have come back in the morning.” The smith growled. “You should really have come back in the morning…”
The traveller drew his sword as the smith turned to face him. The aging face, covered in patchy, white beard, was stretching and bulging, changing its shape into something inhuman.
Jaws stretched, teeth elongated and sharpened before the traveller’s eyes. Dark brown fur sprung through the skin in patches and a guttural howl erupted from the smith’s throat.
The traveller removed his cloak smoothly and settled into a defensive stance. Firelight from the banked forge gleamed off his blade.
The smith leaped upon him, swiping at him with claws that belonged to no natural beast, and the traveller lashed out with his blade. A cry of pain, a thud sounded, the traveller didn’t need to look down to know that he’d sliced off one of the smith-creature’s hands.
What surprised the traveller was that hand gripping his ankle and attempting to claw its way up his trouser leg. Removing his left hand from his sword’s hilt briefly he grabbed the severed, taloned hand and flung it into the fire.
The smith howled in agony as his hand burned. The stench of scorched fur choked the traveller’s nostrils and he backed away as the severed hand smoked and smoldered for a moment before being entirely consumed by the fire.
Then, he lunged forward. His blade sought flesh, struck home and bit deep. The traveller leaned into the strike with his entire body-weight, all his strength and might, pinning the creature to the wall behind him.
“Just… just stay there for a second, alright?” He huffed, out of breath already. Had it been that long since he’d seen battle? Was he that out of shape?
He forced such thoughts out of his mind as he scooped up his lantern, removed the hood, and hurled it at the smith-creature just as the thing was clawing its way along the blade to the hilt. The lantern hit the smith’s face, enveloping it in flame in an instant.
The traveller walked over to his horse as the smith died screaming, holding a hand out to calm the animal.
Moments later the traveller left the town, heading south. He still had a job to do. Lightning flashed in his wake, the sound of thunder at his horse’s freshly shod hooves.
He could always find a new sword.
About the Creator
Author and Creator of Anno Zombus, but don't let that worry you; I write more than just zombie stories.
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