“When will the travelers get here, gramma?” Patyr asked.
“Soon,” his grandmother replied from her place in her rocking chair. The wooden floor of their small home creaked as she leaned back.
“Will they bring more salt this time from Saypish?”
“Will they bring gems from Diamort?”
“Will they bring something from Tespajet and the deserts and—”
“Patyr, please!” his grandmother said with a laugh. The chair thudded when she leaned forward. “I don’t know for sure what they will bring, but you will certainly have plenty of new things to choose from. Now, let me focus on my knitting, or we won’t have pretty things to trade for all those things you’ll want! Go outside and play!”
“Yes, gramma,” Patyr said. He stood from his spot by his small sleeping pallet, careful not to knock over the uneven wooden table that held their jar of water that he had fetched from the well this morning. As he opened the door to head out, a rush of air rustled the red and blue colorful tapestry that blocked the doorway to what had used to be his parent’s room. He hadn’t been in that room for a long time.
He hoped that he would hear the sounds of singing and hoofbeats that marked the traveler’s caravans, but outside the house there was nothing but the familiar sights of his small village. Each home was small, three rooms at most. thatched roofs dotted the land in between dusty roads, and Mr. Aland’s roof was still damaged from the fire three weeks ago. Luckily the neighbors had noticed and put it out before the entire house was destroyed. He glanced at the charred markings on the roof, wondering how the straw hadn’t all gone up at once. Fire was dangerous.
He followed the small winding dirt road that led around the village, pounded flat by many feet. The well sat at the center of the village, and he headed that way, pausing to let a group of ducks pass by. Across the square, Mrs Tisha’s chickens clucked from their wooden pen, and a pair of cows owned by her neighbor Faran lowed. Nearby, his neighbor Martin was pitching hay into the pen, the iron tongs of the pitchfork dull in the gray overcast light.
The village was so small and so boring. People kept leaving, too. There were no other kids but him. Patyr hoped the travelers got here soon. Maybe one day, when he was older, he would leave with them.
As the thought crossed his mind, he heard the familiar sound of hoofbeats. His heart leapt. They were here!
Then the chickens began screaming, the cows mooing louder. The ducks that had crossed the road suddenly flew. Ducks never flew in a panic like that unless…
Martin froze, then his eyes met Patyr’s.
“Run!” Martin shouted. “Get inside!” As he shouted, he ran to the side of the village, where a small iron bell had been hammered into the ground. It’s pealing toll rang out.
As it did, doors slammed. People hid in their houses. Everyone, including Patyr, knew what it meant.
“Get in here!” Martin shouted, running toward his house, waving his arm to direct Patyr into the nearest building. But Patyr was already running away. He had to get to Gramma.
She had already lost her children, his parents, to the unwritten. She couldn’t lose him. He couldn’t leave her alone!
The run back to his house felt like it took ages, his heart pounding in his chest as his feet slapped the dusty ground. He had to make it, had to get there before…
A bone-chilling howl split the air, one that made his skin crawl and urged his legs to move faster. He didn’t want to see them. Not again.
But he did. Horrible gray-furred slavering Vargr, with fangs as long as his fingers. The pack had returned to the village.
All he could do, all anyone could do, was hide. Only bell priests stood a chance, and there were no bell priests here. No weapon could kill an unwritten. His parents had taught him that. They had died to teach him that. None of their iron weapons had worked on the Vargr. Their village would simply hide and pray to the Vaki that the Vargr would spare them, would move through and limit their killing to the animals instead of people.
One Vargr looked up, its red eyes tracking him, its nose twitching. And then he was inside, slamming the door.
Gramma was already there, pulling him further into the house. “Quiet!” she hissed. “Just stay calm and quiet. They’ll just take the animals again, as long as we don’t make a sound to let them know we’re here. Just like every other time, right?” her fingers curled in his hair, her heart thudding as she hugged him.
The poor chickens. And cows.
“They’ll go, and we can wait for the travelers and restock,” she said. “Just stay calm.”
Patyr swallowed down his fear, just like every time. There was nothing they could do. There was nothing anyone could do. They just had to keep quiet and hide.
It felt wrong. But his parents had tried to fight back, with weapons made from the same iron as Martin’s pitchfork, and they had died. The wounds had just healed, the Vargr unstoppable.
He missed them. He wished they were here. They hadn’t seemed afraid.
But then again, they had died.
The door shuddered as something slammed into it. Patyr yelped and buried his face into his
Gramma’s apron as she held him.
“Shush,” she said, her voice a strained hiss. “It’s okay. They’ll go.”
The door shuddered again. The Vargr outside growled.
“It’s okay, Patyr,” his Gramma said. “We’ll be okay.”
The door shattered, and then Patyr fell.
No, his Gramma pushed him. Back into his parent’s old room behind the tapestry, while the dark shape of the Vargr leapt at her.
She only screamed once, and then the sounds met his ears. Patyr couldn’t scream, could only scuttle backwards into his parent’s old room, his legs kicking in terror as his back hit a dresser.
His parents had nice things once. Silver cutlery and plaster bowls. They had used to eat with them during special occasions, before they had died, faint memories of being so small his parents had always held him.
The tapestry moved, and the Vargr stuck its head into the room, its red eyes glowing. At its feet, blood slowly pooled from the other room, creeping forward.
Patyr threw one of the plaster dishes at the monster. It didn’t flinch, the plate shattering over its massive jowls.
Patyr grabbed one of the silver knives. At least he would die fighting, like his parents.
The Vargr leapt, and Patyr thrust the knife forward.
He didn’t move. Not when the hoofbeats and singing of the travelers met his ears, not when their shouts of concern came from outside the house. Not when someone shouted “by the vaki, she’s dead.”
“Where’s the boy?” That was Martin. “I told him to come inside. The poor lad.”
The tapestry moved, and then someone screamed.
Patyr finally stood, still gripping the silver knife. The Vargr lay dead at his feet.
He didn’t know how to feel. He didn’t feel anything. The blood from the beast on him reeked, and his head spun.
But he did know one thing.
Unwritten could be killed.
He just needed the right weapons.