Dawn came but brought little light to the land of Chalcodin. Rain clouds, dark and heavy, hid the rising sun. They had taken occupancy above Chalcodin some days ago and ever since had spilled forth their waters. Rivers burst their banks. Paths became streams. In the village of Knos, all who could avoid leaving their homes remained inside, enjoying the warmth of their fires and willing the winter rains to pass quickly, for they knew the weather heralded spring.
Of all the homes in Knos, only one’s door stood ajar that damp morning. It was the home of Hamsten Ogarthos, the beekeeper. Sounds could be heard coming from within, or would have been, were anyone else foolish enough to brave the weather. There was the clink of glass. The stomp of booted feet. And, it must be said, the occasional curse. Then the door swung open and out marched Hamsten, dressed in thick wools and a waxed leather cloak. On his back he carried a bulging backpack.
Hamsten squinted at the sky. “Blast,” he said and shook his head. “And to think I’d hoped the gods would smile upon me, that this poxed rain would have blown over before today.” He tucked his long beard into his woollen jumper, tightened the straps on his backpack, and set off on the Eastern road.
Soon Knos was left behind, then the outlying farms. Hamsten’s clothes were wet and his feet already numb. Worst of all was the weight of the pack. It was filled with jars of honey. The best honey. They were a wedding gift for his friends Andirion and Djohan. Great friends, but they lived the other side of Virundus Woods, and so today Hamsten cursed them and his generosity. “Why did I make friends with people from Larkon?” he asked himself. “Why did I promise enough honey to feed every guest?” But, really, he knew why he had done both of those things. Despite his craggy face and craggier demeanour, Hamsten was a kind man who valued good people, and Andirion and Djohan were good people.
He did wish now, however, that he had not left it till the day of the wedding to set out for Larkon. He had hoped the rain would pass, but instead he had muddy tracks and flooded fords to deal with. He grumbled, but he walked on, ignoring the ache in his shoulders and the soddenness of his cloths. Hamsten was stubborn. He would make it to Larkon that evening, and make everyone happy with his honey.
Noon came and went, but Hamsten did not pause to eat a meal. He knew if he stopped, he would not want to move again. Besides, the wedding would be at sundown. There was no time for dallying. Hamsten walked, his teeth gritted against the rising pains and cold.
The late winter light was already dimming when he reached the edge of Virundus Woods. He was not making his usual time. The poor weather and water-logged road had made it slow going. Still, Larkon was not far now. And there would be good whisky at the wedding. And stewed chicken. And his friends too, of course. They would all sooth his aches and warm his bones.
A pounding noise rose above the sounds of the rain and wind. For a moment Hamsten feared thunder had come. Then the sound resolved into galloping hooves. A horse emerged from the forest, moving at great speed, its eyes wild, flying past Hamsten and into the gloom of the grey afternoon.
He had not time nor strength to worry about a horse. Everything ached, but Hamsten willed his muscles onward; he had made a promise. He lit his lantern and trudged along under the trees, looking for the fork in the trail. One branch would lead him to Larkon, the other to Urn, a village which housed another of Hamsten’s friends, a healer named Old Nan. Hamsten made a mental note to pay her a visit soon. But today his goal only goal was Larkon, the wedding. He needed to focus on that, to blot out the wet and pain and keep his feet moving.
Soon the lantern light picked out the pile of stones that marked the fork. Just beyond them, it showed another, unexpected shape. Hamsten could just make out a person lying in the mud. A dark shape moved upon the body.
Hamsten frowned. He set down the lantern and from his belt he drew his hatchet. Things lived in the forest, not all of them pleasant. He crept closer and saw that a fat spider sat upon the chest of an unconscious woman; the creature was busy weaving its web over its prey, so busy it had not noticed Hamsten nor even his light.
Hamsten moved with as much speed as his tiredness allowed. The hatchet blade buried itself into the spider’s abdomen and with a hiss the creature fell dead.
Hamsten knelt over the woman, cursing as his knees protested. She, perhaps, was the rider of the panicked horse that had fled past him earlier. He pulled away the spider’s web and checked for signs of life. A pulse! Hamsten grunted in relief. But the two pinpricks at her neck still spoke of danger. She needed help. Help he had not the skill for.
Larkon and the wedding were perhaps an hour’s walk along the northern fork, Urn and Old Nan perhaps two hours along the eastern. It was not even a choice. Andirion and Djohan would understand. Hamsten loathed to break a promise, but he loathed suffering more. With further grunts and curses, Hamsten unslung his honey-filled pack and set it down in the mud, forgotten. He picked up the injured woman, positioned her crosswise across his shoulders and, with a final grunt, set off along the trail to Urn. His pains were nothing compared to a life in need of saving, and save it he would, with some help from a friend.
— George Jacobs