Autumn’s bite was crisp this year. Sharp winds blew in from the northern sea, forcing people inside. Whole fields of crops were lost to the pre-winter freeze that gripped the land. It should have been a time for celebration, a time to pay tribute to the gods for their generosity bestowed. As winter drew closer the people prepared for the worst. Not everyone chose to hide in the safety and warmth. Two friends sat on a porch, staring off into the surrounding fields. Light mist clung to ground, curling up the porch and around their ankles. Frost kissed the few leaves that had not yet fallen.
“I cannot stay here much longer,” Mollock Bolle whispered.
An angry wind blew his stringy gray hair across his face, forcing him to push it aside with a frown. Deep lines creased his face; the bags beneath his eyes were dark and haunting. He’d lost much weight over the past year. Sleep did not come easily anymore. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, though Mollock did not believe in premonition or any such devilry.
Fenrin shook his head. “What are you talking about? You just arrived a few days ago.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mollock distractedly replied. His dark brown eyes focused on the night. A glint of fear danced around the corners of his eyes.
The wind howled; the cry of a thousand wolves. Fenrin shivered. His small plot of land on one of the surrounding hilltops overlooking the small farming village of Parnus was one of the larger vineyards in the region. Fields of grape vines filled the gentle slope off his back porch. Frost covered those vines now, frost and the first hints of winter. A half-moon hung high in the early night sky, shying behind the stratus clouds.
“Something is going on, tell me,” Fenrin persisted. “This doesn’t sound like you.”
Mollock eyed his friend. They’d known each other for almost four decades; childhood friends in a way that no amount of time could threaten. This made Mollock more uneasy. He didn’t know how to tell Fenrin something he himself couldn’t explain.
“It is a feeling. Perhaps just a dream,” he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Fenrin narrowed his eyes. His curiosity peaked. “What do you dream of?”
“Do you have nightmares, Fenrin?”
He wasn’t sure he liked the direction of conversation; the menace behind Mollock’s tone. “No, not really.”
Mollock rose and went and stood at the rail of the porch. His eyes scanned the nearby tree line, watching for things that his mind screamed couldn’t exist. Every shadow haunted him, threatened his life in a special way known only to the lords of darkness.
Fenrin rocked uneasily in his chair. The strained squeak echoed in the empty night. Dried leaves scrapped across the porch.
“If I didn’t know you better I would say that you are starting to frighten me, old friend.”
Mollock grimaced. Not even his long years of military service prepared him for this. “You should be frightened. I am.”
His heart skipped. Fenrin felt his mouth water. Hands shaking, he reached into a pouch and drew out a long stem pipe. He packed in the tobacco and lit it, drawing deep on the soothing smoke. Fenrin wasn’t scared. If anything he was confused.
“Mollock, I never heard you speak like this. We’ve been through wars together. How many times have we stood against the enemy and come out alive?” He exhaled a thick plume of bluish smoke. “None of what you are saying is making any sense. Come back over here and have a seat. I have some wine inside. It will ease your mind some.”
Mollock Bolle smiled softly. “You have been a good friend to me, Fenrin and I have wronged you. I shouldn’t have come here. I cannot say why, but I feel that every moment I stay here threatens you with danger. I must leave soon.”
“You still haven’t told me why.”
Mollock stared at his friend, his face drawn and severe. “They are coming for me.”
Fenrin’s face paled. He leaned forward. “Who?”
“I don’t know.”
The darkness erupted. A flock of birds fled from the nearby stand of pine trees. Fenrin opened his mouth in shock, the pipe spilling embers on the old wooden porch. Mollock spun and drew his sword. His breath came quickly. They watched as a monstrous shadow crashed through the trees, coming closer to the house. There was no subtlety, no stealth. The creature was unafraid.
Mollock fought the urge to piss on himself. He closed his eyes tight. Not again. The beast roared; a dreadful wail that withered every tree and plant around it. Its massive bulk easily batted aside trees that had grown for over a hundred years. Their thickness meant nothing to the raw power exhibited. His mighty head rose higher than the tallest tree. The air grew rank, fetid. The beast was death, and nothing on the face of the world could withstand its awesome power.
“What in the name of the gods is that?” Fenrin stammered. His words were pregnant with slowly realized fear.
Mollock shook his head in denial. He couldn’t believe he had been found so easily. He quickly regained composure. There would be time enough for chastisement in the future, hopefully. Mollock sheathed his sword. The weapon would be of no use against a creature of shadow.
“Get back inside and lock your door. Douse the lanterns. This thing won’t bother with you once I am gone. It is me it’s after.” His voice was hurried, urgent.
Fenrin rose, hand scrambling for his sword as the beast drew closer.
“Damn it man, if you ever listened to me do it now. You cannot fight this. I must run,” Mollock insisted. The harsh tone of his words broke the beast’s grip on Fenrin. “Gods willing, I will be able to come back and explain what is happening.”
“And if you don’t?” Fenrin asked.
Mollock grimaced. “Then I am dead.”
Gathering up his back and walking stick, Mollock Bolle moved to the edge of the stairs. He turned and looked back at his friend. There was much to be said, but he had not the words for it. Instead he gave a haphazard smile and said, “Winter.”
Fenrin was confused. “What does that mean?
“You asked me what I dream of. I have dreams of winter.”
And with that he was gone, just another shadow in the growing darkness. Fenrin thought to call after him, to demand an explanation. The beast in the forest cautioned otherwise. Instead Fenrin ran inside and bolted the door. Every footstep of the beast shook dust from the rafters and threatened to bring the house down around his head. He hurried to extinguish all the lanterns and candles, silently thankful he hadn’t built a fire yet. The beast stalked closer. The ground trembled. The air became fetid and rank with the odors of death. Fenrin vomited in his chamber pot. His heart raced. His hands became sweaty.
And then it too was gone. The nightmare creature of shadow was gone. Fenrin struggled to his feet and, on shaky legs, ran outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the terror. Rather than finding the beast he saw a wide swath of destruction from the forest through his vine yards. The world had turned to death and decay. Fenrin murmured a quick prayer to Aris, goddess of protection and wisdom, for his friend. He knew Mollock Bolle was a dead man without the help of the gods.