by Jon Baron
Standing on tiptoes, Hurin could barely see over the wall. Even so, he desperately tried to drink in the sights from above as he gripped tightly onto the wall’s edge, which was braced with thick timbers even at its top. In the small fields to his left, he recognized his mother and aunt stooping close to the ground. He tried to wave, but needed to hold onto the wall for the extra height and balance it granted. To his right, meadows with stumps of trees felled to build the town wall sprawled into the distance. Straight ahead, though, was what he was really interested in. He had peeked outside town a few times when his mother and aunt left each morning through the gates, and had been contemplating these things for a while: stones that poked through the earth here and there. He was sure they looked like stones but with sharp corners, lined together in a pattern, leading into the distant hills.
“Gran, what’s that?” Hurin tried to point at the stones in the ground with a finger, still grasping onto the wall with his stubby fingers.
The elderly woman behind him cautiously peered into the distance before replying, “What’s that you say? Where?”
“Those stones there—why are they there?”
“Oh, those…” Gran sighed, “That is the old road.”
“What’s a road?” Hurin asked, trying to pull himself even higher to get a better look at the stones near the gate.
“A road is a path that goes somewhere else, but that road hasn’t been used in a long time,” Gran replied gloomily.
“Can we go outside to look at it?” Hurin anxiously asked after being given this new information.
“No!” Gran quickly replied in alarm. Hurin was so startled he released his grip on the wall and dropped back to his normal height as he peered up at her. “No,” she repeated a little more softly, giving him a hint of a smile, “Outside the town is not safe for children, there are Monsters out there. I’m only showing you the top of the wall because you are getting older, but you are still too young to work the outer fields and especially too young to hunt small game in the hills.”
Hurin’s gaze lowered to his feet as they shuffled nervously. “Where does the old road go, though?” he asked sheepishly. He knew prodding Gran too much was a bad idea, but decided to push his luck.
Gran gazed back over the wall, and contemplated its view for what seemed an eternity before looking back down at Hurin. “It once led to other villages and towns, and passed by great wonders and sights until it reached the old empire. But that city and all those sights have long since crumbled into ruin, long before you, and long before me. My grandmother’s grandmother was a baby when that road was lost, Hurin.” She looked towards the distant horizon, silently recounting the same story told to her by her father, long ago when she first saw the road. “Now those old stones only lead to one thing,” she finished ominously.
“W-what?” Hurin asked nervously, “what is the thing it leads to now?”
Gran slowly looked down and met his eyes. Her eyes bored into his and lingered there, intent on teaching him the lesson all children his age must learn. With a shaking voice she rasped, “Death, Hurin… death awaits those foolish enough to leave the safety of this wall. There are… things out there will hurt you, even a good lad like yourself. I know your mother has told you about the Monsters, Hurin, every day since your father died. That is where the Monsters are. That is where the road leads to. And that is why you must never venture beyond this wall.”
And with that, Hurin’s lesson for the day was finished. He stood perfectly still, as his grandmothers words took their place. Gran turned away, walking slowly down the steps of the wall walk, bracing against the rail to keep from falling.
As she hobbled down the steps, Hurin stood paralyzed by what she told him, thinking only of the Monsters and terrors that must wait along that road. His eyes half welled with tears at the thought of his father. He never knew the man, it was only explained to him that he was “taken by the Monsters.” But Hurin knew no Monsters, he had only the descriptions of them told to him by those who claimed to see them. Monster was a bad word. Mentioning them caused people in town to become angry, or very sad.
He had known people who had not come back after leaving the town gates. Recently there were whispers that one of the town’s huntsman was late in returning home. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, but each man or woman lost to mysteries beyond the wall blanketed the town with an uncomfortable feeling. Every time the townsfolk mentioned one of these disappearances, they would also utter the mysterious word, Monster.
Gran was nearly halfway down the wall walk, but instead of following her back down Hurin climbed back to his vantage point on the wall, peering intently into those distant trees and hills. Someday, he vowed, he would see these monsters, even if it took a life time of looking.
And so, Hurin took it upon himself to climb the wall and sit, and watch, each and every day. Each and every day he would see the laborers in the field, the hunters returning home with their game, and the guardsmen line up to take their posts. Some days he would sit for minutes before being staved off by boredom. Others he would wait hours, imagining the places the ancient road led to.
It was on such a day, as he looked out, lost in thought, dust on the horizon slowly started to appear. It wasn’t smoke, he didn’t think; it wasn’t dark enough. Is it some kind of storm? Hurin guessed. He looked up to a bright blue sky, then back to dust cloud. No, it was definitely dust, perhaps pushed along by a strong breeze. Hurin had hoped for a breeze to blow away the stale heat of the wall parapet.
He stopped in thoughts. The dust cloud was getting larger. It was moving, and it was coming right from where the road led.
Others were starting to take notice now. He saw his mother, gathering grain from the fields, look up at into the distance. In an instant she had dropped her basket, grabbed his aunt, and started running for the town gate. Further down the wall he heard a sentry call out “Monster approaching!”
Monster? Hurin thought. This was it. This was the thing that killed his father. But the cloud was too far off to make sense of.
Hurin was pushed aside as a sentry ran to the wall, putting his hand over his brow to block out the sun. Hurin turned around, facing the inside of the wall. By now, the town inside the perimeter, the townsfolk had become a flurry of running and screaming, parents grabbing young ones and rushing to their houses. Men were running to the armory, coming out with steal swords, leather shirts, and worried faces. All over town Hurin heard doors slamming, the confused mix of running and screaming, and bells ringing from each corner of the wall. The sentry again yelled “Monster approaching!”
Two guardsmen stood in front of him now, talking quickly in hushed tones as they looked beyond the wall. “What is that?” one guard said.
“A dusk devil?” the other offered.
“In the middle of the day?” the first guard said, still glaring over the wall. They were both so focused on what was over the wall that neither had noticed Hurin standing there.
“Maybe… maybe it’s something new,” the other one said, his voice full of concern. “It’s going fast whatever it is—maybe it’ll pass us by?”
“Like we’re that lucky,” the first guard said.
Something new, Hurin thought. This was exciting. He should be afraid. He should be angry. Everyone else was. But today he was going to see a Monster. He looked back at the dust cloud again, and noticed that the guards were right: it was moving fast. The cloud was easily three times as high as when he first noticed it and much, much closer. He could hear a thundering now, too, a patterned thudding that must be the sound of several feet rhythmically striking the hard earth. Was it more than one Monster, or just one with many feet? More men were pouring forth from the armory, each taking a spot on the wall.
Hurin needed a place to go where he could still see the Monster. The two sentries had come from a tower down the wall to his right, but there was one to his left that might be vacant. He started creeping towards it, trying not to get noticed. As he skulked across the wall he could hear men on the stairs. Hurin started running for the guard tower. He dashed inside and looked around frantically. There was a large barrel full of rainwater collected from the guard tower roof. He dashed behind it to hide.
Hurin could hear voices of men outside the tower door as he sat and waited for someone to open the door. Each second was an eternity, and every sound made him jump. Everything felt surreal. Each day he had waited passed in front of him, each long afternoon of gazing over the wall, imagining of what might be out there. Today he would see. Today he would know.
He crawled towards the window of the guard tower. Slowly, he climbed onto his knees towards the light of the outside. He could hear voices more clearly now.
“Who goes there?” a voice on the wall shouted. The window in the guard tower was lower than the wall outside. Hurin got to his full height on his knees and could just see over.
“A herald from the Capitol!” a distant voice yelled in reply. Hurin looked to see what was going on, spotting a man he had never seen before. When Hurin angled himself correctly, he could see that the man was dressed in odd clothes, with a colorful sheet draped over his front and back bearing an unknown symbol Hurin. The stranger’s sleeves were dull gray, made of many tiny interlocking rings, some of them reflecting the sun when he moved his arms.
But even more amazing was the fact that the stranger was on top of some kind of four legged beast. A Monster! He would have mistaken it for a horse in the darkness, but in the full light of day there could be no such mistake. Its great body was more than enough to support its rider. Its head was long and topped with green fur, or maybe…moss? Its nostrils were big and it seems to be breathing hard from running so fast. Its hide and tail ended in shaggy green and brown tangles, as if a mound of grass had grown legs and walked away. Its four legs danced back and forth as the rider talked to the men on the wall.
“I bring great tidings from the Capitol,” he said. “The new magic has worked! We have the magic that will protect you from Monsters!”
“Magic?” Hurin recognized the voice of the town elder, full of disdain and mistrust. “Magic is what created the Monsters in the first place. Magic is what tore the world apart centuries ago. Magic is the very reason this wall stands before you. If the texts can be believed, magic was given to heresy with fall of the old empire, hundreds of years ago, and now you boast it can perform great feats? Go back to where you came from—we don’t want any of your magic.”
The rider looked nonplussed. “I can forgive you fine folk your ignorance, living this far in the wild, but I assure you, times have changed. The great Emperor Zarasul has abolished the ban on magic these six years past. Since then his scholars and alchemists have worked tirelessly to create a new weapon to use against the threat that plagues all of us. Now that we have found a weapon the keep the Monsters at bay, the emperor wishes to welcome all settlements, villages, and towns back into his kingdom, a rebirth of the great empire! Your town is quite far from the Capitol, I must admit, but I have already spoken to the leaders of three villages along this road in the last fortnight, and they found what I had to say very interesting.”
“Aye,” the elder said, “Interesting.” Hurin could see him now, standing below the gate. The elder spoke to the traveler, but his attention stood firmly upon the horse of grass and soil he rode upon.
“I still say we don’t need any of your magic, and we don’t need your emperor either. We haven’t heard from a herald in at least three generations. There hasn’t been an emperor in ten times that. Now you say we are expected to swear fealty to an absent emperor at a moment’s notice? Just because he has an errand boy come tell us the threat of Monsters is over?”
“Errand boy?” The rider sputtered. His mount snorted in unison with his disgust, swaying the grassy mane. “I’ll have you know I am a knight of the empire.”
“Where was your empire the last hundred years? Your empire is naught but the text of scrolls and stories. Where was your emperor when our great grandparents barely survived a famine? Where was this magic when the Monster hoards attacked our walls? No, I think we’ve done quite well for ourselves and we don’t need you, your magic or your emperor. You’re welcome to spend the night within our walls since you must have traveled far, or you can just head back the way you came now.”
“Quite well for yourselves, you say? Don’t need the empire, you say?” The rider repeated. “I’ll admit that the empire has been in ruin, but you must also admit the Monsters are stronger than when our grandfathers fought them. The Monsters are have gotten so strong the Capitol could hardly fight them off ten years ago. That is why the ban on magic was lifted. How have you really fared this far from civilization? I don’t see many men up on that wall. How many people even live in this town? One hundred? Two? This town, if it even deserves the title, is even smaller than the last three I visited. The Monsters are slowly picking you off and you’ll either starve or be hunted to death. I am offering you life. Don’t you even want to know what the magic is?”
The rider waited for a response but none came. Hurin didn’t dare to poke his head out far enough to see what the elder was doing, lest he be discovered. Finally, the rider climbed off his mount.
“This! This is what you are too vain to even ask me about!” The rider pointed to the green and brown beast he had rode on. The beast snorted and shook its head, then sniffed the ground and started eating weeds growing from the road.
“A mosstang, yes,” the elder said, “You must be a truly great man to tame such a Monster. Is this your great magic at work?” The elder did not sound sincere and Hurin heard mild laughter from some of the other men on the wall. “Laugh if you want,” the rider replied, “This mosstang isn’t just tamed. I’ve formed a magic bond with this creature and it follows my commands. He protects me and I protect him. Mosstang!” The rider yelled in a commanding tone. The mosstang raised its head back up quickly and stiffened like a guard standing at attention. “Strike!” The rider yelled again in a commanding tone and pointed at a nearby tree stump.
The mosstang let out a great snort and started galloping towards the stump. Right before it reached it, the beast reared upon its hind legs and came down with a great two legged stomp. Hooves hit the wood and splinters exploded like shrapnel, creating clouds of dust that enveloped the Monster. As the dust cleared, the mosstang appeared again calmly chewing grass near where the stump had once been.
“What do you think of my mosstang now? That’s not the only trick he knows either” the rider said, walking back towards the mosstang. “It’s still early in the day, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your invitation to sleep in the shadow of you wall tonight.” The rider climbed back atop the Monster.
“In a month’s time a caravan should be here from the Capitol itself. I hope you give them a little warmer of a welcome then you gave me. They will have alchemists and scholars to teach you how to catch and train Monsters. I recommend you reconsider your position in the coming weeks. I think you’ll find fealty and life a better option than freedom and death.” The stranger started to trot off on mosstang. “I’m heading to the next town to spread the good news, assuming that town still exists.” He rode further off heading the long way around the town wall. “Think it over is all I’m saying,” he called as he rounded the bend.
Hurin sat down. His entire world had changed today. He hadn’t even known about an empire this morning, but then he learned they had most liked been killed off, only to find out they’re back moments later. And they could control Monsters! Fighting Monsters with Monsters seemed to make a certain sense to Hurin. And people were coming to town in a month’s time to teach the town how to do it. The elder had to reconsider, he just had to.
The door of the guard tower bust open with a bang. Hurin lost his footing and fell to the floor. The guardsmen standing over him looked upon him with blank, startled faces, and the next thing Hurin knew he was being lifted from the ground.
“Hurin!” His mother yelled. “Where have you been, young man? I thought you were with your grandmother and then I come to find out you’re on the wall during a panic, thinking you’d have the sense to go to one of the shelters. Not my hard-headed son, though.” She grabbed Hurin by the ear and dragged him through the door to his house.
“But momma! Did you see? The man! The knight! He had a Mon-”
“I overheard enough to know I don’t have any business meddling with that kind of thing, and neither do you!” Hurin’s further protests fell on deaf ears as he was scolded by his mother.
Hurin took a deep breath, still fixated on the road, the days he’d spent atop the wall, the stranger, and the Monsters. One month…