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Wumpus Breaking

Yerred wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. It came away dripping with sweat. Having been born and raised under Tauronon’s sweltering suns in the mountain region of Taureos’ Spine, he was more than accustomed to the heat. Today, however, he was boiling.

Act like you’ve done this before, he chided himself. He knew this breaking should be no different than any other, but he also knew if he netted a dumatose this month he’d be out on his ear. Tafari had made it clear there would be no more advances on his lodging. The village chief liked to accuse Yerred of laziness, but if he had ever tried to saddle-break a Wumpus, navigating every miniature earthquake as the behemoth bucked and jerked, he would know that Yerred was anything but.

“Now or never, youngster,” the grizzled voice called from the stablehouse. Yerred hadn’t noticed Nuur watching him. He’d always admired how well the old ranch owner had aged, noting that the hard-earned wrinkles that creased his brow didn’t quite mirror the sharp eyes he’d maintained throughout his many years. “First couple didn’t go your way, and I’d hate to be losing an asset again. Times are hard, y’know.”

Yerred didn’t need Nuur’s insight to appreciate the stakes involved. He’d either have his months pay, or lose the Wumpus entirely. That would be disastrous, as Yerred knew all too well. He tried to push the notion out of his mind.

He didn’t see the beast charge until it was almost too late, but instinct kicked in and he was just able to leap to the side and grab its left horn, swinging his leg atop the thrashing creature. He squeezed his thighs together with everything he could as he attempted to maintain his balance despite the relentless bucking. His hands were unable to assist him, as they were preoccupied with securing the saddle and thus the Wumpus itself. He threw the saddle clasp under the monster’s belly with one hand and, as the slack in the leather strap ran out, the weight of the heavy ring caused it to loop around the midsection of the Wumpus and came swinging back toward his other hand, which held the hook. His fingers barely brushed the clasp as the beast heaved with a sudden jerk to the side, throwing Yerred through the air and sending him crashing to the ground with a heavy thud and a sickening crack. Yerred knew he was defeated; the pain in his shoulder almost matched the disappointment he felt.

Yerred slowly pushed himself up with his still-good arm, and spouted a rain of curses into the muggy air. He was finished. It wasn’t enough that he couldn’t pay for a roof over his head, but with a dumatose Wumpus, he’d owe Nuur a substantial sum that, frankly, he didn’t have.

As he turned around, he noticed that the Wumpus hadn’t run off. In fact, it was standing docile a few feet away. It can’t be, thought Yerred, cautiously approaching the creature. Once he got close enough to get a proper view of the creature’s back, he was nearly overcome with joy and surprise: The clasp ring had somehow entwined itself around the hook on the opposite side of the saddle. It wasn’t elegant, and it wasn’t a conventional connection, but it had been enough. The Wumpus was broken. He let out a whoop and did a little dance. He could pay Tafari now, and cover this month at the very least, even if there would be precious little left over. Still, the radiating pain from his injured shoulder was all the evidence he needed that he had earned every eko.

As he led the broken Wumpus back over towards the stables, he once again saw Nuur standing there watching, although the elder’s nature seemed less prickly than before.

“She almost gotcha,” Nuur crooned, “but ye handled her well enough, I suppose.”

“‘Almost’ is a matter of perspective,” Yerred said. He lifted his dangling arm with his good hand and let it flop uselessly back to his side. “I’d say she got me, all right. I may have been the one who broke her, but I’m the one who is broken.”

“Aye,” nodded Nuur. “Tit for tat, and all that. Well, what’s done is done. You’ll be fine once you get over to see the asclep. Get that thing looked at.”

Yerred nodded. He’d have to have the shoulder reset for certain. Then, by the collective, he was going to get a stiff drink.

“Well, I thank ye for your efforts, and yer pay will be left with Tafari.” said Nuur. Then he put his hand on the Wumpus’s hindquarters. “But I can’t be lettin’ ya go without givin’ this girl here a name.”

“Every month is the same thing,” Yerred shook his head

“Aye,” said Nuur. “Every month I let ye off the hook. This time, she earned a name.”

“So why don’t you give he-”

“She earned a name from you.” Nuur’s tone carried a finality to it. Yerred sighed. I don’t have time for this, he thought. His shoulder throbbed, and the muscled beast in front of him was none the wiser for the damage it had caused. He paused for a moment, and then it came to him

“Awiti.”

Nuur smiled with appreciation. “‘Thrown from’. A fitting name. A good name. Awiti it is.”

He patted the Wumpus on its back and began leading it to the stables. As he walked, he turned his head and called over his shoulder.

“Now, ye best be gettin’ that arm fixed. I’ll be needin’ ye again next month.”

He didn’t say anything more, and Yerred watched as they disappeared around the corner of the stables. He felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder and hastened as much as he was able towards the asclep’s hut, where hopefully he could be seen quickly. Then, he fully intended to get that drink.

***

“That should hold.”

Yerred winced as the asclep pulled the sling tight. It hurt, but not as much as when the short, wiry woman had reset the damn thing. Yerred could still taste the leather from the strap he’d been biting on.

“I appreciate this, Lydia,” Yerred told her. “As soon as I speak with Tafari, I’ll be able to have you compensated.”

“I can collect from Tafari,” she said. “You had best get home and get some rest.”

Yerred thanked her, and left the asclep’s shop with a grateful goodbye. He did intend to get home and get some rest, but not before he made his way to the local watering hole.

The Zwambe village was one of dozens that dotted the mountain range and, while it wasn’t the biggest, it boasted one of the busiest taverns in all of Taureos’s Spine, The Strait and Arrow. Yerred could hear the voices from inside as he approached the faded sign. He’ always appreciated that sign. which depicted three arrowheads stacked upon one another passing through a serpentined river. It was simple and elegant, and anyone from one end of the Spine to another knew it on sight.

He walked into the place and was immediately accosted by a wave of aroma. Fresh and stale tobacco smoke intertwined and mixed with the smell of a roast from the kitchens. Battling with those for sensory dominance were the little bowls of incense strategically placed around the tavern so as not to be too offensive, but to add a slight hint of pleasantry to the atmosphere of the establishment. Yerred had even been around in the wee hours when they would add a small amount of ghostbark to the burners. Not enough to cause a man to see things that were not there, but a tiny dose. Enough so that the sharp edges of a stressful day might be feathered just enough to make anticipation of the next one more tolerable. Yerred reckoned that this was more for the benefit of the staff than the patrons, since The Strait and Arrow never closed and anyone under the influence of ghostbark would not be long for the waking world.

Yerred didn’t see anyone he knew well enough to want to sit and have a drink with, so he opted for a rough stool in front of the bar. There was a heated discussion around the bounty board in the corner, and Yerred peeked over to see what all the commotion was about.

“New bounty up, just posted today.”

Yerred looked back to see a stout, balding man standing across from him, mug in hand. His heavy mustache curled upwards as a smile split his features.

“Afternoon, Darb,” Yerred said, and gestured to the corner of the room “Let me guess, band of robbers needs a thrashing?”

“Nope. Monster bounty,” said the bartender. “By the decree of his Royal Lord Half-Legs.”

Yerred was a bit surprised at this, but chuckled anyway. “Not every day the Uppers ask for help, Especially not from us.”

“No, you got that right,” said Darb. He then nodded his head toward the group of men seated around the board. ”Got all the regulars worked up. All of them fancying themselves monster hunters. Boasting about how they’ll take down the beast and retire on that sweet Upper coin.”

Yerred smiled at that. Monster hunting was one of the worst ways to make a living. In his estimation, the risk rarely, if ever, outweighed the reward. Then there was the matter of consistency. One might be lucky if there were two postings a year. Most years there was one. Often enough, there was none. Still, he supposed the monotony of living on the Spine could cause a man to dream of adventure, and there wasn’t any harm in that.

“Anyway,” Darb cut into Yerred’s reverie. “It does cause them to drink, and that’s my business. Speaking of.”

“Oh yeah,” said Yerred, taking the hint. “I’ll take a mug of that delicious house amber.”

“You’ll have to figure out how you’re going to pay for it first.” a low voice boomed over Yerred’s shoulder. He turned around to see Tafari looking at him. His brow was furrowed and he stood there like an indomitable statue, arms crossed. Centered between his eyes was the long, curved beak of a raven headdress, the mark of his rank, which was so similar in color to his own hair that you’d swear he had feathers growing out of his head. Somehow, Yerred found this only added to the chief’s impressiveness.

“I just came from squaring up with Lydia,” Tafari said, taking deliberate notice of Yerred’s sling. “Between her costs and your board for this month, you haven’t two ekos to rub together.”

“You’ve been to see Nuur, then?”

“I have,” said Tafari. “He told me you had a spill and nearly netted a duma.”

Yerred raised his hands in protest, and winced as a spear of pain shot up his left arm. He let the pain recede before he looked dead into his chieftains eyes.

“I broke that beast, and that’s a fact.”

Tafari let the gaze linger.

“The fact is that old Nuur is worried about his business. A Wumpus made duma represents a significant loss to him. A significant loss to this village.”

“Well the beast is walking around, isn’t it?” Hints of indignation began to creep into Yerred’s voice. “It didn’t go lay in a corner, did it? It’s not refusing to eat but the bare minimum, ignoring orders, acting like it has no will to live, is it?”

“You’ll want to curb that tone with me,” Tafari’s voice was level and Yerred knew he meant it. He spoke again, “No, the beast isn’t a duma. In that, you’re absolutely right. You did your job, and were rightly compensated for it.”

“I’ve never lost a Wumpus before, and I don’t mean to start.” Yerred said

“Nuur isn’t so sure. He worries about your.. injury.” Tafari tugged at his sleeve before continuing. “Lydia confirmed to me that you won’t be able to wrangle for at least six weeks.”

Six weeks? Yerred thought to himself. The asclep had said nothing of it to him.

“Your pay today covers you until the end of the month,” Tafari said, “I’ll expect next month’s board on the first. Not a day later.”

Yerred absorbed the implications. In one fell swoop, he’d lost his source of income, been deemed medically unfit and all but left homeless.

“You planned this.” He shook his head with disbelief. Tafari didn’t shirk his gaze, but a knowing look flashed across his eyes. The chief was making a statement.

“I’ve taken you in. I’ve given you a roof over your head and respectable employment.” Tafari’s tone carried a finality to it that made Yerred’s heart sink. “Some villagers might argue, rightfully, that I’ve shown you preferential treatment. So I’ll not apologize for giving you a chance to stand on your own merits.” He paused, then added. “First of the month.”

Yerred knew any argument he could put forth at this point was destined for deaf ears. Tafari had made his mind up. When nothing more was said, the chief nodded and strode purposefully out of the tavern. Yerred watched him leave, then turned back to Darb, who had been standing there, empty mug in hand, while the entire conversation had taken place.

“I guess the drink’ll have to wait, then?”

Reluctantly, sadly, Yerred nodded. The bartender, seeing he’d be making no profit here, went to check on the other, coin-bearing patrons. Yerred sighed. It hadn’t been easy getting by as it was, but he’d always had a plan in mind. As long as he stayed one move ahead of the situation, he’d be fine. Now, he had no idea what his next move was.

He was startled out of his reverie by a commotion in the corner. One of the regulars stood over another, chest heaving.

“Who’s spineless now?!” The man roared. “Me? Or you, sittin there in a puddle of ale?”

Yerred was taken aback. There were few worse insults you could direct at a Spinekin than to call him spineless. He supposed the gent had gotten what he deserved, based on that. Just then, the sign on the wall behind the upright man caught Yerred’s attention. He let it register, and before long his mind had started working. Noticing he was being looked at, the upright man turned his attention to Yerred.

“And how about you?” He sneered. “Fancy a go?”

Yerred ignored the man, his brain doing calculations as he got up and moved toward the board. Darb had said a new bounty was posted today. Bounties were no way to earn a permanent living, but as a one-off? It might just be enough to get him out of the rut he was in. Buy him time. He could get back to wrangling in six weeks. His rent was due in four. Yeah, this could work. He read the board.

BOUNTY: GORFANG. SEE SALVIUS LORRA, LIAISON TO LORD BURMI, KING OF THE SPINE

Salvius Lorra? Yerred would have to ask around about how to get an audience with the man, but who would know that?

He was pulled out of his train of thought by a rough hand on his shoulder spinning him around.

“Ye’ll look at me when I’m talkin’ to you, boy!”

The drunken man’s breath smelled like bad beer and carried a repulsive hint of vomit on the underside. This fellow had obviously been drinking all day. I don’t have time for this, Yerred thought.

“Apologies, sir. I was just having a peek at this board, here. I heard you earlier say you might venture out to kill the beast?”

The man’s brow furrowed as his inebriated brain tried to process whether or not he would answer the question. Finally, he grunted out a reply.

“Aye, and don’t ye be thinkin’ about tryin’ to take my payday either. I’m off to see Sir Lorra first thing tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.” Yerred let his voice carry just enough respect to placate the man’s inflated ego. “An audience with Sir Lorra? Oh, aye, sir. That’s certainly no place for a lowly wrangler like myself. I’ll leave that to my elders and betters. By the collective, I will.”

The man smiled at the compliment, and let out a belly laugh.

“That’s right, the Assemblage Court is beyond your station, whelp. Now get out of my sight, or you’ll end up like this one.” He gestured to the man on the floor.

Yerred feigned demure and nodded his thanks at the man as he turned and left the tavern. Once through the doors, he smiled. That had been easier than he thought. Now, he just needed to wake up before dawn and intercept one Salvius Lorra. Hopefully, his unwitting informant would be nursing his head long into the morning, otherwise it could be an awkward encounter indeed. Well, that would have to be tomorrow’s worry. He headed home.

***

The Assemblage stairs were made of masoned stone, a fact that Yerred’s back was beginning to know all too well. He’d been up for hours, using the starcounter he usually relied on to wake him before his body deemed necessary. He’d made his way to the steps, trusting that his head would clear along the way. The trip had not been a linear one. Despite knowing the general vicinity, Yerred had never actually been to the Assemblage Court. It sat at the edge of the last village on the Spine, called Okra. The Court itself was an ironwood building on a masoned stone foundation, reserved mostly for when the stout mountain denizens of Taureos’ Spine, those he called Uppers, would entertain the diplomats from across Tauronon. The Lower Spinekin, Yerred’s people, had not much use for world politics. They held their village councils, sure. But they otherwise kept to themselves.

Yerred saw a small group of men making haste for the village gates and thought he caught a familiar glimpse of one of them, then decided it was probably just in his head, still foggy from being on his straw pillow less than an hour prior. Not long after, an entourage of Uppers arrived. They walked single file, so Yerred wasn’t able to presume the identity of any of them. Instead, he met their eyes as he stayed seated. He may not have much experience dealing with the Upper Spinekin, but he knew they took their stature seriously. Lording his height over them would do Yerred no favors. He cleared his throat.

“Morning to you sirs,” he grinned, “Could I ask, which of you is Sir Lorra?”

“You petulant little t’k’oso,” sneered the man in front, clicking his tongue as he spat the insult at Yerred. “If you don’t know Lorra, then you’ve no business here. Now be off with you!”

For a second, Yerred thought the man was fixing to cuff him upside the head, and it was all he could do to not smile at the comical sight of the small man waving his small arms, attempting to shoo Yerred away like he was a nosy Wumpus. He must not have done a very good job of hiding his amusement, as the little man’s eyes turned ice cold.

“Yield, Timma,” another Upper dressed in a blue robe and hat stepped out of the line a few spots back and rested his hand on the shoulders of the man in front. “Where are your manners?”

“Good sir,” the man in blue addressed Yerred directly, “you must forgive my colleague. The hour is early and I’m afraid it’s been a bit of a trek down from the mountains.”

Yerred shifted uncomfortably, but nodded. saying nothing.

“I am Salvius Lorra,” the man continued. “Liaison to Lord Burmi…”

“King of the Spine!” the entire line shouted in unison. Yerred was taken aback by the suddenness of the declaration, but collected himself. He swallowed hard, then spoke

“Sir Lorra,” he said, “I’m here about the bounty” Direct. To the point. So far so good.

Lorra looked mildly impressed, but quickly suppressed it and nodded in acknowledgement.

“But of course,” he said, “would you mind it if my colleagues and I were to get settled in the court before we discuss matters of business?”

Yerred felt stupid. You bombarded him on the steps, for Aeros’ sake. He stepped aside and let them pass, the man in front’s glare had not lost any of its ice. Once the entourage had entered the Court doors, the last man in line, clearly a soldier, stationed himself outside them. As Yerred attempted to enter, the man stuck his arm out, blocking him. Again, Yerred had to struggle to not smile, as the man’s shoulder was level with Yerred’s waist. Still, he figured if there was any sort of trouble, this soldier could likely dispatch him with ease. He thought better of trying anything foolish.

“You’ll be called upon when Sir Lorra is ready to see you.” The soldier said frankly. He said nothing more.

After what felt like an eternity, the door opened and a brown-bearded Upper stuck his head out and whispered in the door guard’s ear. After some back and forth, the guard nodded firmly, and the bearded fellow withdrew.

“Sir Lorra will see you now,” said the soldier. He held the door open, and Yerred entered the Court.

The inside of the building was basic, in a way that Yerred supposed suited the Uppers. Tidy, with banners strewn along the walls, the building was one large, square room dominated by a table at the center surrounded by chairs. At the head of the table, facing the door, sat Salvius Lorra. He was flanked by two others, the fellow with the ice-cold eyes, whom Lorra had called Timma, and the brown bearded fellow who Yerred had only seen briefly. The remaining two stood at attention, one on each wall to the left and right side of the rooms. Yerred approached the table and sat down. He noticed that the Uppers must have had specially elevated chairs, as they were sitting across the table but were level with him.

“Let’s discuss this bit of business,” said Lorra

“Yes sir,” Yerred began, “I saw your bounty board in the tavern, sir, about the Gorfang.”

“Nasty creature,” Lorra almost spat, “Attacked one of the King’s vassals, an old artificer and his wife. Broke right into their house.”

Yerred was mildly surprised at this. Wild animal attacks on habitations weren’t common in the grassy plains that surrounded Taureos’s Spine. Lorra continued

“Creature came in the dead of night. The old woman was up to get a drink of water when the beast fell upon her. She’d had no chance against its savagery.”

Yerred was fascinated. He never considered himself to be a particularly bloodthirsty person, but he found the morbid nature of the account to be a stark contrast to the monotony he was used to.

“The old man fared little better,” Lorra said, “he managed to put up a bit of a struggle, even managed to hack off one of the beast’s razor spines. That’s how we knew what kind of creature we were dealing with” He reached into his pocket and produced what looked like a massive green splinter. Jagged and pointed, Yerred had never seen the like.

“Now, Mr..?”

“Rantsho,” Yerred said, “Yerred Rantsho.”

“Mr. Rantsho,” Lorra tasted the name, the dialect of the Lower Spinekin requiring him to adjust his palate ever so slightly. “You have a token of proof for the beast’s death?”

Yerred paused. “Death? Sir, I’ve come to accept the bounty. I’ve not yet set out on my way.”

Salveos and his attendants looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Yerred’s face felt hot. What is going on? 

“My boy,” Lorra struggled to stop his laughter. “You don’t accept the bounty. You simply go and do the job, bring me proof, and receive your payment.”

Yerred felt ten times a fool. Of course, you idiot!  Then he realized what had happened. He hastily apologized and excused himself and could hear Lorra and his attendants’ laughter following him out of the court.

Yerred knew he’d been duped. His ‘unwitting informant’ had set him up to be delayed, likely so he could get a head start on the bounty while Yerred embarrassed himself. Then, he remembered the group of men from earlier. He’d thought one of them seemed familiar, but had dismissed it as morning mind and thought no further. He suspected that it was the man from the night before and his tracking party. Even if it wasn’t, Yerred had lost several hours of precious time, and was no closer to knowing where he’d need to go or how to go about killing a monster that cut down a couple in the dead of night with ease. He cursed himself for not thinking this through. Had he anticipated that Lorra would lay everything out for him? A simple set of instructions that Yerred had but to follow? Was that worth the significant reward awaiting him should he return with the dead monster? Stupid, stupid, stupid. He thought. He’d need to find someone who could help him. Someone who knew about animals and might have some insight into what he should do next.

He took off at a brisk jog, headed for Nuur’s ranch.

When he got there, Nuur was already up. He was nursing a mug of a warm, brown liquid. Kaffa, Yerred knew the stuff, though he never drank himself. He’d heard that it helped clear the head after a poor sleep, but had no first hand evidence of such. Nuur savored the steam coming off the mug and, as he drank, he watched the Wumpi grazing in the pasture. Despite Yerred’s need to be hasty, he couldn’t help but stop and take in the scene as well. There was a majestic quality to the Wumpi that had to be seen to be fully appreciated. The way they moved gracefully, despite being heavily muscled. The lithe power in their legs could be terrifying if one found themselves on the wrong end of things, but once broken, the creatures were among the most loyal and gentle you could find.

“I need your help,” Yerred said

“That so?”

“I can’t wrangle for a while, asclep’s orders.” Yerred gestured to his arm sling. “I need to pay Tafari next month’s rent in advance, or I’m out on the street.”

“I paid you what you’ve earned, boy.” Nuur took a sip of his kaffa. Yerred nodded in agreement

“And I wouldn’t dream of asking you for more.” he said, “I’m not interested in your charity, Nuur. I need your expertise.”

The rancher’s eyes lifted at that, his face betraying curiosity. Seeing that as an invitation to elaborate, Yerred continued.

“I’m going to hunt a bounty. Uppers have a price on a beast that has been terrorizing the countryside.”

Nuur seemed impressed. When it came to breaking Wumpi, Nuur knew as well as anyone the fortitude Yerred could show in the heat of the moment. Outside of that specific arena, Yerred had a bit of a reputation as skirting risk and avoiding anything that could moderately resemble danger.

“What’s the beast called?” Nuur asked as he took another sip of his kaffa

“Gorfang.”

Nuur spat half a mouthful of kaffa across the fence, while the other half choked him. He coughed for a few seconds before clearing his throat and getting himself stabilized.

“You’re going to hunt a Gorfang?!” He asked, “By yourself?”

Yerred nodded. He hadn’t considered the possibility of a companion for the trip.

“Can’t wrangle for six weeks, he says,” Nuur shook his head, “Boy, if you do this, you might not come back at all.”

Yerred swallowed hard. The bounty was intimidating enough after Lorra’s account, but having Nuur echo the sentiments made it seem downright foolish to even attempt. But there was no other way. Afraid as he might be, Yerred would do what he had to do to survive. In that, he had already made up his mind about it.

“I appreciate your concern,” he said, “but I really just need any information you have on the creature. Where I might look for it, that sort of thing.”

Nuur said nothing for a time, watching the Wumpi graze happily in the pasture. Finally, he spoke.

“What I know isn’t much. The beasts are vicious, as you seem to be aware of. They almost always live in caves. Unfortunately, there are many of those outside the Spine.”

Yerred noted the information, but couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. This was all trivial information, and didn’t provide any direction.

“There is a man,” Nuur continued, “an old trapper I ran with in my younger days. He traps all over Tauronon, but always carried a fondness for the wilds around the Spine. Your best bet might be to seek him out. If nothing else, he could give you more information than I can.”

“A man?” Yerred said. “Who may be somewhere in the wilds, or could be anywhere on Tauronon?”

Nuur nodded.

“Does this man have a name?”

“Roderick. Though it wouldn’t be surprising if he was going by something else.”

Yerred looked at him for a second before he let out a disappointed sigh.

“Thanks for your help,” he said. He started to leave, and Nuur stopped him.

“Now hold on, boy,” Nuur said, “now, I may not know much about the Gorfang itself, but I know a thing or two about travelling the wilds. Ye’ll not be wanting to do the trek on foot.”

Yerred thought about it for a second, then cursed. He hadn’t thought any of this through.

“I’ll let you take Awiti,” Nuur said, “she’s been in a mood ever since you left anyway.”

Yerred stood stunned. Nuur was going to let him take a Wumpus? Without any promise of return? He was flooded with emotion, and was about to express his thanks when Nuur waved him off.

“None of that mushy nonsense, yeah?” he said. “Now, go saddle her up while I pack you a care kit for her. I’ll not want her coming back disheveled and mangy.”

Yerred nodded in agreement, still not finding the words. Instead, he turned to go do as he was told. Nuur placed a hand on Yerred’s shoulder. Yerred looked at him. There was a kindness in the old man’s sharp, blue eyes that he didn’t show very often. Yerred accepted it, knowing full well how rare it was. Nuur spoke again.

“You will bring her back.” he said, leaving the last few words unspoken. And yourself.

Yerred left to grab his saddle, and realized he must have got some dust in his eyes.

Awiti was significantly calmer than the last time Yerred had been atop her. She moved at a cantor, the rhythmic thumping of her feet on the ground reminding him of a little drum he’d had as a child. It was a simple thing, cowhide stretched over a small loop on the end of a handle, with a leather string sewn in the direct center on the top edge of the drum. At the end of the string was a small glass bead. If you put your hands together like you were praying, and rubbed them back and forth at a steady rate, you could wallop each side of the drum with the bead. He’d loved trying to see how perfect he could make the hits. He’d practice and practice, and when he thought he was getting good at it, he’d go show his-

No, he ordered himself, and dismissed the thought. The addictive nature of nostalgia slowly faded. Yerred knew when to cut it off before it went too far, and became painful. Truth be told, he had let it go too far as it was, and he attributed that to letting himself become hypnotized by the Wumpus’s footfalls.

Awiti had slowed down as well. They had been riding for roughly two hours west out of the Zwambe village. Yerred figured it was probably best to turn northward, and keep the Spine at his right side. He was no ranger, and didn’t have the directional skills to keep from getting lost otherwise. Zwambe was the second from the southernmost village on the Spine. Yerred knew there was a small inn roughly two hours’ ride northwest of Riala, the northernmost village. He figured he’d cover all the ground in between, which would likely mean getting to the inn by duskfall.

“The way I see it,” Yerred said to Awiti, “either we’re going to run into the beast while we travel, in which case I kill it and we head back, or-”

Awiti snorted and did a little hopskip. Even holding his rein with one hand, Yerred was experienced enough to not be bothered by the sudden change in balance, but he found the Wumpus’ reaction amusing. She was young, unused to travel, and obviously looking forward to a meal and a warm bed of straw already.

“-or,” Yerred said, “you’ll get to sleep beside some other beasts, likely full on oats and apples, only to be wiped down and waited on hand and foot by whatever boy or girl they have working the stables today.”

Awiti breathed a quick burst of air out her mouth, letting her lips flap together at the point in between her lower mandibles. Yerred smiled. He’d been around the creatures enough to know it was the Wumpus’s equivalent of expressing laughter, or contentment. It had been so long since he’d had anything resembling a jovial conversation. He’d cracked some jokes with Nuur from time to time, but the old man was more like a mentor figure to him. Yerred had very few actual friends. He patted Awiti gently on the side of her neck as they continued to ride.

Around mid-afternoon, they eventually noticed the smoldering remains of a campfire off to their left. It hadn’t been properly doused, so Yerred figured it couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. The inn was still a few hours off, by his estimation, and they had been riding most of the day. He decided they would stop for a rest before tackling the final leg of the trip. He’d seen no trace of his quarry, which was disappointing. Granted, they had been on the dirt path that ran parallel to the west of the main road, but Yerred had figured if the Gorfang was brave enough to attack a farmhouse, it wouldn’t be scared of a moderately busy service road. He decided he had just been unlucky, and would keep a better lookout during the rest of the trip. He grabbed the collapsible wire bucket from his bag and opened it up. Once he had filled it with water from the canteen, he put it in front of Awiti and gave her a quick pat on her forehead. The beast drank happily. Yerred kicked dirt over the campfire remains. He had no food that needed to be cooked anyway, and there was no good reason to risk embers being blown into the dry grass to the east. In the distance, he could make out the villages that made up Taureos’s Spine. He seemed to be slightly north of Riala now, although it was hard to tell at this distance.

“Now, what d’ye want to be killin’ my fire fer?”

The voice startled Yerred, and Awiti began to kick up a fuss. She’d been caught just as unaware, distracted by her thirst. Now, she stomped the ground and snorted. A broken Wumpus wouldn’t ever become violent, but if spooked, they could do unintentional damage as they attempted to flee. Yerred laid a hand on her reassuringly and turned to face the man who had spoken. He noticed immediately that it was not one man, but three, and the one facing him was familiar. It was the drunkard from the tavern, with his hunting party. Yerred had a quick glance at their hands. The man in front carried a broadsword, its blade marred and chipped, a sign of disregard. One of the others had a dagger in each hand while the third carried a cudgel that he menacingly tapped in his free hand. The man in front spoke again.

“Well lookie here, boys. It’s Tafari’s whelp. Come to steal our bounty, are ye? Thought I told ye not to bother.”

Yerred had hoped the man would be too drunk to remember him. He knew he had no chance against three armed men, especially without a weapon of his own. His short sword was still packed away in the bags attached to Awiti’s saddle. Perhaps I can talk my way out of this, he thought.

“As you say,” Yerred tried to sound confident, taking his hand off Awiti’s flank and putting it on his own chest. “I am under Tafari’s care, and his protection. Harm me at your own peril.”

The men looked quizzically at each other before the one in front started laughing. The other two, following his lead, began laughing as well. The man looked at Yerred with a twisted grin on his face.

“Looked to me like the chief weren’t none too pleased with ye, last I saw,” he said, “Why, I reckon I’d be doin’ him a favor. One less mouth to feed.”

The three men began to spread out slowly, the drunkard not taking his eyes off Yerred. A cold fear ran up Yerred’s back. Even with two good arms, he’d be hard pressed to make it out of this one. Hobbled as he was, he may as well be dead already. Well, he thought. If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out fighting.

His charge caught the man unexpectedly, and as a result, he was unable to get his blade up in time. Yerred dropped his head and caught the man under his chin. He fell back and Yerred fell on top of him. With the forearm of his good arm, he pushed on the man’s throat. The man bucked and heaved beneath him, attempting to free himself, but Yerred was a Wumpus breaker, and this man’s pitiful thrashing was nothing compared to that. Yerred pushed harder, and the man’s flailing seemed to be growing weaker. Then Yerred felt his head rattle with pain. Red stars filled his sight, and he fell off the drunkard. His vision was swimming, but as he rolled on to his back, he looked up and could see the man with the cudgel standing over him. It was all he could do to not lose consciousness, for he knew if he did that, he’d surely be dead. The man with the daggers brandished them and slowly stepped toward Yerred. So this is it, he thought. He tried to do something, anything, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. His mind was foggy, and incapable of issuing commands to the rest of him.

“No,” rasped the leader, getting to his feet. He rubbed his throat and coughed a few times, then spit. “No, this one is mine alone.”

The man picked up his sword, clearing his throat again. He stepped toward Yerred’s prone form until he was standing over him. He raised his sword and looked into Yerred’s eyes.

“Ye were never gettin’ that bounty,” the man said, “but if ye hadn’t done what you done, we might’ve let ye live. No such luck now.”

Yerred closed his eyes, awaiting the end. He heard the air whistling and a ‘thunk’, followed by the sound of gargling. That’s not right. He opened his eyes and looked up to see the drunkard holding his throat. An arrow stuck out between his fingers and blood ran thick down his chest. The man staggered back two steps before falling to the ground dead. Before he’d even hit the ground, another arrow took the man with the daggers in the chest. He, too, staggered backwards, and tripped over the remains of the fire. His momentum launched him into a backwards roll, which carried him all the way to his knees. He looked at Yerred with confusion before his eyes glazed over and he fell face-first into the dirt.

The man with the cudgel turned and ran. Yerred watched him go until the strain on his eyes was too much. As he felt the edges of his vision starting to go black, he managed to catch a glimpse of Awiti dancing in place, puffing and snorting with fear and concern. The last thing Yerred saw before everything went dark was a black-robed figure attending to Awiti, trying to console her. Well, that’s nice. Everything went black

Pain. Yerred stirred and all he could feel was his shoulder and his head competing for which could hurt the most. He took his time opening his eyes, as the brightness of the sun made his head pound even more. Luckily, as he slowly opened his eyes into a squint, he could see that the sun was already on its way down. Night would come soon.. He looked around briefly and saw that he lay in a makeshift camp, though he couldn’t tell exactly where. A fire burned low a few feet in front of him and he tried not to look directly at it.

Suddenly, his memory came back to him. He remembered the fight, and then remembered Awiti being upset. This snapped him to attention, as he felt a surge of panic. If she was gone, he may as well not bother claiming a bounty, as he’d spend most of it paying Nuur off for a lost Wumpus. That, and maybe there was a possibility he was growing a bit fond of the creature as well. Maybe.

A snort from behind him caught his attention. He turned and saw Awiti standing there, pleased as anything, staked out and happily munching on the grass.

“Well at least one of us is having a good time,” Yerred said, rubbing the back of his head. He vowed to never view the cudgel as an inferior weapon ever again.

“I suspect it would take much to displease that one,” said a voice from the other side of the camp.

Yerred jumped. He looked back and saw the black-robed figure sitting across the camp. He glanced around, it was definitely not the same camp he had fallen unconscious in, and he knew the Wumpus hadn’t untied itself and brought him here. His brain-addled assessment of the situation in the face of these facts was that he was in no immediate danger.

“She’s got a jolly disposition, no mistake,” he said. Then he walked over to the fire and held out his good arm in a fist, a utilitarian gesture among the Lower Spinekin. “I suppose some thanks are in order.”

To the robed figure’s credit, he didn’t seem taken aback with the gesture. Obviously familiar with the kin. The man stood up, and Yerred realized that he was taller than Yerred, though not by much. He had a pale complexion and was well-groomed. A thin mustache sat above his mouth, consciously separate from the finely-trimmed beard below. He was certainly not from Taureos’s Spine, though Yerred didn’t know much of the world outside his own lands. He suspected the man might be Euphrian, or from the King’s City, Par Vollen. Again, he had no way to be sure. Regardless, the man stuck out his fist, returning the gesture in kind.

“I would hope any man in my position would see fit to intervene in a three-versus-one situation.” He said, then gestured to Yerred’s shoulder. “Especially when the one is more like a three-quarters.”

Yerred laughed. Right then, with his head throbbing and shoulder echoing the sentiment, he found himself suddenly needing to sit down. He took a few steps back, and plopped on the ground, a bit harder than he would have liked. The robed figure grabbed a canteen and brought it to him.

“Drink this,” he said, “ slowly now, you don’t want to upset your stomach.”

Yerred did as he was instructed and took small sips of the water. It was clean and cold, and he could feel it doing its work within. It was invigorating enough that the throbbing in his head subsided to a dull ache. Yerred realized that this stranger, who had saved his life, cared for his animal and continued to take care of him, was still unknown to him.

“My name is Yerred,” he said.

The man looked at him for a few seconds, as if testing the name against the face he saw, creating a link between the two. Finally, he replied.

“Well met, Yerred. The name is Roderick.”

“Roderick!” Yerred said

“That’s what I said.”

“No, I just..” Yerred started, “I mean, I needed.. argh why won’t my brain work? We need to talk.”

“We are talking.”

“No! I mean we need to discuss business. I need to ask you some questions.”

“Well, it’s going to have to wait,” Roderick said, as he rose and walked toward Awiti, “this gal here needs a proper resting spot, and this camp is no place to be discussing business.”

“But-” Yerred began, but Roderick cut him off

“There’s an inn only an hour away. I’m guessing you were heading there this morning when the.. incident occurred.”

Yerred nodded.

“Very well.” Roderick said. “Then we ride there and get the beast settled for the night, and we can discuss business first thing in the morning.”

Yerred agreed, and got up slowly, so as to not send his head spinning. Fortunately, it maintained it’s dull ache and nothing more. 

“Thank the collective,” he muttered as he walked over to Awiti. Roderick had already untied her and wrapped the rope she’d been tied to. He packed it in the saddle and then gestured for Yerred to mount up. He obliged, and then looked down on his unexpected companion.

“Will you be travelling on foot then?” he asked.

Roderick nodded. “As long as you keep her to a light cantor, I can keep up on foot.”

Yerred was impressed. That was an hour of jogging alongside them. He reckoned that if he were to attempt that, he’d be full of belly stitches and gasping for air before he’d made it a half mile. He chuckled at the thought of it, and kicked the Wumpus into a light trot. He’d prepared for the initial lurch as she got up to speed, but it still made his shoulder twinge with a shot of pain. He winced, but then as the steps became more rhythmic, the pain became less severe. He chanced a quick look over his right shoulder and noticed Roderick keeping pace. He shook his head with amazement as the little party made its way down the dirt path.

“So, let’s discuss this business you mentioned”

The two men currently sat waiting on the barmaid to bring them their supper and something to wet their palate. Yerred had first seen to Awiti’s care – she was stabled in a small yard behind the inn – then joined Roderick at the corner table. Initially, he had agreed with Roderick’s request for two large mugs of ale, but as the maid set it in front of him, the scent of it started making his head spin. Not wanting to risk it, he gave his to Roderick and asked for water instead. Dammit, I wanted that drink, too.

Disappointed, he sipped at his water as he contemplated how to approach the conversation. Eventually, he decided that being direct and to the point was his best bet.

“I need to find and kill a Gorfang.”

Roderick stared for a second, mouth agape, before cracking a smile, which then became a chuckle, and ended with him laughing as if that was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. After he’d regained his composure somewhat, he looked at Yerred and noticed that he didn’t share in the amusement. Roderick’s smile fled.

“Aeros’ breath, you’re serious!”

Yerred reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and set it on the table, pushing it across so his companion could have a look. Roderick read the bounty page, but his mind seemed to be working on something else while he did so. Yerred could see his mouth moving silently as he did some silent calculation before slapping his hand down on the table loud enough to give Yerred a start.

“Got it!” He said. “You can’t do this by yourself, and certainly not without two good arms. You’ll need help and I happen to be able to provide it. We’ll set out at dawn and hope to catch the monster napping.”

“Wait, so you know where the Gorfang is?” Yerred thought he should have probably mentioned it before now if it was going to be this easy.

“Likely is,” Roderick corrected. “I also know how to trap it.”

“Trap it?” Yerred couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice. “You mean kill it, right? “

Roderick shook his head. “I’m not a killer of beasts, unless it’s for food or to stop from being food.” He took a long sip of his ale. “I’ll help you trap the thing, and you can make up your mind how you want to handle it.”

Yerred seemed unsure of this, but after a few seconds to think it over, a resolve crossed his features. He looked up at Roderick and extended his hand. “Done.”

Roderick looked at the outstretched hand, then back at Yerred.

“Half.” he said

“Sorry, didn’t catch that.”

Roderick cleared his throat and added some boldness to his voice. “I’ll require half of the bounty for my expertise.”

Yerred let his hand slowly drop, as he looked back at Roderick with disbelief.

“Half?” he said. “You think I’m going to give you half?” He shook his head. “No, no way. I’ll figure this out on my own. I do value your expertise, but understand that this bounty is all I have.”

Roderick let the moment breathe before he spoke again. “Forty percent.”

Yerred shook his head. “Ten would be all I can afford, I’m afraid. I’m in a bit of a spot, you see, and this money gets me out of it.”

“Thirty, and you’re all but tossing me on the street at that point.” Roderick countered.

“Twenty, and you help me bring the creature back to Zwambe.” Yerred said. “Old Nuur will be happy to see you anyway.”

“Bah, you think I’ll let you gouge me with a promise of that old cod?” Roderick said, then he took a deep breath and stuck out his hand. “We have a deal.”

Yerred’s face was a mask of gratitude as he took the hand in his own, sealing the pact.

“Deal.”

The next morning, Yerred’s head and his shoulder were in significantly less pain. It was amazing what a good night’s sleep in a nice bed could do. The shoulder, while still achy and tender, was no longer sending shooting pains down his arm. It was enough that he felt he could forego the sling. Besides, if this Gorfang was a fraction as dangerous as everyone seemed to act, he would probably need the use of both arms. As he came out of the inn, he was pleased to see Roderick had saddled Awiti in preparation for the trip. The man seemed cheery this morning, and handed Yerred two hard-boiled eggs.

“Don’t have time for a proper sit-down breakfast.” He said. “These’ll let us eat as we ride.”

Yerred put one in his pocket for later. There was nothing to make a morning of travel more uncomfortable than an incessantly rumbling stomach. The other, he finished in two bites, washing it down with some kaffa that Roderick offered him. It was more watered-down than he preferred, but it still did the job and he could feel the warm liquid giving life to his waking insides. Feeling about as good as he had in a while, he finished the rest and handed the empty mug back to Roderick, who left it on the windowsill of the inn.

“Shall we go?” he said.

Yerred nodded and climbed up on Awiti’s back. The Wumpus snorted in annoyance, and Yerred realized he’d forgotten to say good morning to her. He patted her neck and scratched behind her ears, letting her know that he was happy to see her.

“I did some scouting of the area before you got up,” Roderick said, “I found some old tracks. It’s not much to go on, but I reckon if we follow their indicated direction, we’ll find something to tell us where to go next.” He pointed toward where the sun was rising on the horizon. “Our heading is going to be due west.“

Yerred nodded. Then he kicked off Awiti and they started down the road at a trot. It was enough to cover a reasonable amount of ground without tiring the beast too quickly. Yerred could see that the road only headed westerly for about a mile or so before veering off to the north. If they were going to travel across the Tauronon wilderness, he was glad he’d struck the deal with Roderick. Yerred fancied himself versatile, able to survive in a great many situations. Travelling unfamiliar territory while attempting to track a creature that killed people without provocation, well, that might just be more than even he could handle.

They trundled along and when the dirt road gave way to grassland, Awiti snorted with contentment. Yerred realized she had been walking on nothing but packed earth and cobblestones for the last two days. She clearly appreciated the soft grass under her feet. Yerred took a look back and couldn’t see Roderick, so he surveyed the grassland. The ranger had said to go due west, and Yerred hadn’t moved from that heading, but he still felt uneasy. Should they have an encounter with the Gorfang while Roderick was out of sight, Yerred was not confident he’d be able to hold off the creature himself. He was a wrangler, used to dealing with the relatively even temperament of the Wumpus. Sure, they got spirited ones like Awiti that could be dangerous if you were to get in the way of a charge or were otherwise careless in handling them, but a Wumpus had no savage instincts. They might knock you down in an attempt to flee, but wouldn’t attack any further. Yerred had been the lucky, or unlucky, recipient of one of the worst Wumpus injuries he’d ever seen. He didn’t blame Awiti for it, though. Anyone who wrangled knew that the beasts became more frantic with each failed attempt, and he’d had two of them with her. In a way, Yerred sympathized with her. Knowing what awaited a Wumpus after a third failed attempt, he’d likely be desperate to avoid it too.

Firsthand, there had only ever been one duma at the Zwambe ranch, though Nuur had claimed that he’d heard of it happening elsewhere. The Wumpus had retreated and become docile, finding a corner and laying there, refusing to budge. Attempts to lure it into motion using food and drink had proven unsuccessful. At first, Yerred had thought it dead, for how still it sat, but Nuur had checked and could feel the creature’s pulse. Because it refused to budge and go inside the stable, they had covered it with a thick wool blanket that night. When they woke up in the morning, the blanket lay atop a dried up mass of skin and fur, vaguely resembling a resting Wumpus. Nuur said it looked as though the beast had shrivelled to dust from the inside out. It was one of the most unsettling things Yerred had ever seen, and the fallout was even worse. Nuur had become furious. Yerred had been fired, and charged the cost of a new Wumpus, to be paid in full. Only Tafari’s intervention and suggestion that Yerred in fact pay off the debt by continuing to work at the stables for free had kept him in the same line of work. Eventually, Nuur had forgiven him for the incident – though not for the cost – and let him get back to wrangling, but Yerred had never forgotten the vision of that withered Wumpus corpse. It had haunted his dreams for months afterward.

He was snapped out of his reverie by Awiti’s sudden stop. Yerred cursed himself for letting himself drift off into memory like that. I should have had more kaffa. He looked ahead and saw why they had stopped. They had come to the edge of a small ridgeline. The drop couldn’t have been more than twenty feet, but it was enough to make the Wumpus wary. They’d need to find a way around and safely down to the low ground. To his left, Yerred could see the ridgeline extending as far as he could see. To his right, there was a small, wooded area about a half-mile down. As he looked down the ridge, he could see a clearing in the woods at the bottom. There must be a path in those woods that leads to that clearing. He turned Awiti to the right and they crossed the boreal threshold into the forest beyond.

Navigating the woods proved to be a great deal trickier than the grasslands had been. The ground was sloped downward, so the threat of losing your footing and sliding uncontrollably was ever-present. Yerred thought he might have been able to make his way down, using the trees to steady himself, but Awiti was far too cumbersome. Wumpus’s were certainly not known for their dextrous grace, and he knew one slip could have them tumbling down the hill, likely having their momentum stopped by some trees. He didn’t fancy having a go at that, so he continued to proceed cautiously, moving on foot while guiding Awiti alongside him, keeping a firm grip on her reins. They arrived at the section of the path that began the descent downward and Yerred’s stomach dropped. The path itself was almost straight down, with a small curve to the right, about halfway down. It ended in a clearing with the path leading south out of the woods and below the ridge plainly visible. Yerred didn’t think it would be that bad on his own, but attempting to lead Awiti down a path that steep could be precarious and, if she became spooked, even dangerous. He stopped to rest and think. He gave Awiti some water out of his canteen which she lapped gratefully.

As Yerred pondered what to do about the current circumstances, Awiti became unsettled. It didn’t seem to be nervousness or fear, but Yerred thought it looked like she’d caught a scent. One would never accuse a Wumpus of having a nose like a hound, but they could pick up on familiar smells, and from what Yerred had seen this was almost always food. Thinking this to be the case, he offered her an apple from his pack. She refused with a snort and resumed sniffing the ground. She kept looking back at Yerred as if seeking permission to follow the scent. A Wumpus wouldn’t leave its handler once broken, but if inspired enough, could be rather persistent in their desire to do so. Yerred weighed his options briefly and, seeing as the path proper wasn’t going to work without significant risk, he decided to let Awiti lead the way toward the evocateur of her mystery odor. Best case, maybe she led him straight to the Gorfang, Yerred could put a dagger in the monster’s neck and they could be on their way back to Zwambe before nightfall. Worst case, they get lost and have to make camp, relying on Roderick to find them eventually.

Where did the ranger disappear to, anyway? Never mind.

“Alright, have it your way,” Yerred said. “Lead on, my trusty steed.”

Awiti breathed deeply through her teeth, it came out as a whispering wheeze that Yerred recognized as the Wumpus equivalent to laughter. She stuck her nose to the ground, and began to follow the scent through the brush and undergrowth that made up the less-travelled sections of the woods. Still, it appeared that they hadn’t been the first to take this detour, on account of the broken twigs and flattened fauna they crossed over. Yerred thought they seemed to be moving downwards, although it was a much more gradual descent, to the point of almost being unnoticeable, although after the fourth or fifth sudden change of direction, he was finding it difficult to maintain his orientation. The trees overhead provided a canopy thick enough that he couldn’t see exactly where the sun was. It seemed to be overhead, though he couldn’t be sure. He finally gave up trying to get his bearings and, out of necessity, put all his faith in Awiti’s natural instincts.

She eventually stopped at a small descent and, before Yerred could interfere, she had stepped on the slope and begun to slide down. As she got to the bottom, she wheezed happily again, and pranced in place, as if beckoning Yerred to hop on the slide and come join her. He smiled as he realized that Awiti was coming to think of him as a companion, instead of a handler. For some reason he couldn’t explain, this brought a smile to his face and filled his heart with warmth. He was becoming fond of the beast as well.

His happiness was short-lived, as Awiti shrieked up at him. Yerred turned instinctively and saw a razor-tined paw heading straight for his face. At the same moment, he lost his footing and fell on his face. The swipe missed him by inches. He looked up and was staring into the face of death itself. He took a step back and the ground gave way beneath him. As he half-slid, half tumbled down the incline, he looked up and saw the spiked monster preparing to jump. Suddenly it stopped and glanced down at its foot. Yerred followed its gaze and saw that it had several lengths of cord wrapped around it. To his left, he saw Roderick tying the other end to a tree. After testing its hold, Roderick took off at a dead run straight at the monster. When he got within arm’s reach, he dropped to the ground, sliding across the slick leaves and dirt of the undergrowth and passing directly under the beast’s swiping claws. His momentum carried him to the incline, and he slid down the small hill, albeit much less gracefully, until he came to the landing where Yerred stood. He popped up to his feet and gave a boisterous bow.

“One Gorfang, my good sir, to do with as you wish.”

Yerred was in disbelief. “You..” He paused. “ But, then.” Again, he struggled to collect his thoughts. “ So how-?”

“Trade secrets.” Roderick smiled and walked past Yerred straight to Awiti, who he began to pet behind her ears and on her neck.

“And you, my widdle wumpy lump, did you miss me too?”

Yerred had heard the cute little dialect Roderick used when he spoke with the Wumpus, but it didn’t make it any less nauseating. Still, he was glad the ranger had returned, and he had delivered on his promise. The Gorfang was cap-.

He stopped in his tracks. “Uh, guys?” He called out.

Roderick turned and, seeing the look on Yerred’s face, glanced up toward the top of the hill.

To where the Gorfang no longer stood.

“Aeros’ breath, he must have cut through the cord!” Roderick said.

Yerred wanted to argue. Wanted to tell the scoundrel that he should have used something more hardy, but he knew that he wouldn’t have even had the chance he did if it wasn’t for Roderick’s timely reappearance.

“So what do we do now?”

Roderick stroked his chin. “Way I see it, the creature could have jumped down the hill after us. It didn’t, so it’s not likely we are in immediate danger.”

“Danger!” said Yerred, “I’m not worried about danger. I’m worried about how we are going to kill this bloody thing.”

“Right, yes. Well, there’s a few things we can try-”

His words were cut off by the sound of branches snapping from behind them. Yerred and the ranger shared a quick glance at each other. Roderick raised an eyebrow.

“Start by running?”

Without waiting for anything further, Roderick took off at a dead sprint toward the clearing. Yerred slapped Awiti on the hindquarters to spur her on after him. Yerred quickly drew his dagger before he, too, took off as fast as his legs would carry him. He could see Roderick ahead, Awiti hard on his heels. From behind, the sounds of crashing through the undergrowth were getting more and more prominent. Yerred knew he shouldn’t look back. Nothing ever good came from looking back. Still, he looked back. Seeing nothing immediate, he fixed his eyes forward once more.

And promptly tripped over a large branch to the side of the path.

He let out a yelp as he fell, and then landed hard, the wind whooshing from his lungs. As he struggled to catch his breath, Yerred took a quick mental inventory. Nothing seemed broken, there were no centers of pain other than his shoulder, which fortunately had not taken the brunt of the impact this time. His breath almost caught, Yerred looked over and saw his dagger had fallen a few feet away. He must have tossed it when he was falling. He decided that was a good thing. Imagine the story that would be told. BOUNTY HUNTER TRIPS AND FALLS ON OWN DAGGER. DEAD.

He snapped himself out of it, this was no time for jokes. Feeling every bit unlike a real bounty hunter, Yerred got to his feet and walked over to where the dagger lay. As he reached down to pick it up, a bolt of spiked lightning came shooting out of the brush and bowled him over. For the second time in as many minutes, Yerred found himself on his back. This time, however, sharp claws dug into his chest. Wincing with the pain, Yerred knew that his life was completely at the mercy of the monster he’d come all the way out here to kill. The creature’s claws were sharp, but small. Yerred surmised that they were meant for shredding, not piercing, and so they currently felt more like painful pin pricks than stab wounds. However, should the Gorfang decide to rake its claws down Yerred’s chest, the skin would be flayed beyond repair. Yerred would bleed out in minutes. He smelled the hot breath of the creature as it breathed heavily. Flanking the rows of razor-sharp teeth, a pale yellow froth gathered at the corner of its mouth. some dripped onto Yerred’s chest, and ran into the wounds currently caused by the claws that dug in. It felt as if someone had poured acid on his chest. Yerred screamed, and then he heard the sound of his voice mingle with another sound that was getting louder and louder. The Gorfang looked up, and Yerred saw its complexion change. The claws that had been dug into his chest retracted, and the creature stepped back, all pretense of its former rage had left it. Yerred shuffled to the side of the path, grabbing his dagger with one hand as he rubbed his smarting chest with the other. He kept his eyes on the Gorfang, but chanced a quick glance to his side to see what had placated the creature.

It was Awiti. She screeched at the Gorfang, and Yerred recognized the sound that he had heard while screaming in agony. The Gorfang looked completely stunned, and slowly approached the Wumpus. Awiti screeched again, but this time it was more of a warning than a threat, and the Gorfang continued to close the distance. It raised a claw, and Yerred felt a hot anger rise from his belly. Awiti had saved him, protected him, and he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to return the favor. He moved carefully at first, to not catch the Gorfang’s attention, fixed as it was on Awiti. One he was close enough, he dove and plunged his dagger straight into the side of the creature’s neck.

Or that had been his intention.

Yerred’s leap must have been louder than he gave it credit for, and the Gorfang turned at the last second, taking the dagger somewhere between the back of his neck and shoulder. The Gorfang roared and reached for the dagger, pawing frantically at its back, but it was too low for either of its claws to get a hold of. It looked at Yerred, then looked at Awiti. If its features weren’t so predatorial, Yerred would have sworn it was looking at them wistfully. Finally it let out a grunt, somewhere between a sigh and a whimper, and ran past them and disappeared into the brush again. Exhausted and in pain, Yerred sat down. Awiti walked over and began to lick his chest where the needle-like claws had pierced his shirt. Yerred was too lost in thought and fatigue to protest, so he just scratched behind the Wumpus’s ears.

“You saved me. Thank you.”

Just then, Roderick came bounding up and stopped, hands on knees, talking between large gulps of air.

“Saw.. Wumpus.. stop.. following” he panted. “Doubled back.. just in time..”

Yerred laughed, which made his chest hurt. Roderick always seemed to miss out on the fun.

They made their way out of the woods, coming out just under the ridge. They had caught their breath and Roderick had made a hasty camp for them. Using Yerred’s shirt, he tore two long strips and wet them with water from the canteen, then tied them around Yerred’s torso from either side of his neck and under the opposite arm, so it made an x across his chest.

“There we go,” said Roderick, “That’ll hold for now, but we will need to get you back to the Spine sooner than later. You’ll need whiskey poured over those and a proper dressing.”

“Can’t go back until we finish the job,” Yerred found that even talking could cause the pain to flare up, so we was choosing his words carefully and taking his time to get them out.

“Oh, I’m aware of your stubbornness regarding the matter,” Roderick said, “that’s why you’re going to stay here with this good girl-” he gave Awiti an affectionate rub on her shoulders “-while I go and track our ferocious little friend, yeah?”

Yerred considered protesting the decision. In his estimation, Roderick had proven to be untimely and unreliable since they had agreed to work together on the job. The fact that they found the Gorfang at all had boiled down to dumb luck and fortunate circumstances. Still, Yerred was no tracker, and was completely in the dark about where to go from here. He decided to let the ranger do what he did and hoped Taureos would smile on them and they’d get lucky once again.

“If you’re not back in an hour,” Yerred said, “Awiti and I are going to continue on without you.”

“An hour?! My good man, do you have no respect for the craft? Tracking takes time, it’s a subtle art. It’s-”

“You have one hour,” Yerred cut in. “The Gorfang is bleeding, it took off crashing through the woods recklessly. Surely a man of your extraordinary talents ought to be able to find the trail and where it leads and be back within an hour.”

Roderick thought about the odd compliment for a second, then decided to accept it. “An hour it is, then.” He stood, looking at Yerred and Awiti for just a second longer. Then, with a single nod of his head, he turned on his heel and ran off back into the woods.

Yerred watched the man go, and then looked at Awiti. The Wumpus lay on the ground a few feet away, staring at him and, unfathomably, he thought she was eyeing him with disapproval.

“Oh, don’t tell me you think that was too harsh,” he said.

He wiggled over to where she lay, holding his breath against the pain he felt in his chest at doing so, and rested his head on her soft belly. Awiti let out a quiet sigh of contentment, and Yerred released his own breath. He stretched out his legs and closed his eyes.

“Well, maybe a little.” he said, and let sleep take him.

Awiti’s sudden movement woke Yerred out of his slumber. Preparing to fight, he reached for his dagger, and briefly panicked at not finding it. Then he remembered that it was still in the Gorfang’s back. Before he could do anything else, he could hear Roderick shushing the Wumpus. Yerred let himself relax a bit.

“I found where the beast is holed up,” said Roderick. We don’t have much light left, so we have to go now if we are to get back before dark

“Not much light left?” Yerred snapped, “how long have you been gone?”

“Oh, couldn’t have been more than two hours. Three at the most.”

“Three hours!” Yerred started to get to his feet. “You said you’d be back in one hour.”

“Aye,” the ranger nodded, “and you said you’d leave without me. So it looks like we both are a couple of fibbers, yeah?”

Yerred wanted to argue, but didn’t really have anything of substance to say. He was right, of course. Realizing there was nothing more to be done about it, Yerred decided to drop the matter and move on to the task at hand.

“So you found the beast’s dwelling,” Yerred said it more as a statement than a question,

“I did. It’s actually a cave near the western edge of the woods. It was about half an hour on foot, but if you ride the Wumpus westward almost until the woods stop, you’ll be able to see the spot I’ve marked. Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes at a gallop” He sat down and took a large sip from his canteen. “Head north into the woods at that point and you can’t miss it. I’ll be on your heels, but it will take me a few minutes longer. I’ll just rest up here, quick as I can, and you won’t even miss me.”

Yerred wasted no time saddling Awiti. As they prepared to leave, he fished a hard-boiled egg out of his saddlebag., He’d nearly forgotten it from the morning. He tossed it to Roderick, who was not expecting it, but was able to make a basket with his hands and catch it all the same. Yerred tipped his head.

“Eat,” he said, “ get your energy back. We’re in the final stage of the job here, and I’ll need you if we’re going to see it through.”

Roderick had already started eating, so rather than reply, he just nodded his head and waved an arm in acknowledgement.

Yerred turned Awiti westward and kicked her into motion.

The woods were marked exactly where Roderick had said they would be, and once again, Yerred needed to dismount. After trying a few steps with Awiti in tow, it became clear to him that she wouldn’t be able to accompany him through the dense brush. He staked out a spot for her with plenty of grass, and whipped out her folding bucket, filling it with the rest of the water from the canteen. She’d be fine for a while.

Yerred felt a slight knot of nervous energy in the pit of his stomach. He was so close now he could taste it. He stepped carefully through the woods, knowing full well that his notion of quiet and careful would be like sounding trumpets to announce his arrival to anyone with any amount of skill in that area. Still, it didn’t stop him from trying. Before long, the woods gave way to a large clearing. The mulchy dirt from the forest floor gave way to smooth rock, and Yerred knew he must be close. Roderick had said it was a cave. It had to be nearby.

He hadn’t taken more than a few steps before he found bloody footprints. The tined shape of the Gorfang’s claws reminded Yerred of how close he had come to being flayed only mere hours before. His hand went instinctively to his chest as he felt it tighten with fear. The only reason he was alive now was because of Awiti. Yerred hadn’t taken the time to reflect on the encounter, he’d been too busy, but Awiti had saved him, staring down the Gorfang as if her sheer presence could cause the beast to stand down. Inexplicably it had. But why?

None of it made any sense.

He shook off the thought. Plenty of time to figure all that out later on the way home. He was too close now, his bounty was within reach. As he climbed down the rocky slope, his thoughts began to turn back to the reward, and how he would utilize it once back in Zwambe. Tafari would be paid off for another month, Yerred knew that much. Twenty percent would go to Roderick for his contributions. But then what? Should he store the rest away, hedging against future calamity? Idiot, where would you sleep?

He would undoubtedly need to buy his own space. The big question with that was whether he wanted it to be in Zwambe – or even Taureos’s Spine – at all. For all he scoffed at bounty hunting, and the folks who made a living doing so, being out here doing it had offered him a new perspective. The freedom of the open air. The overarching goal providing a persistent direction to keep pushing towards. It was all such a departure from the mundane existence he had come to accept as reality. Out here, though, Yerred could feel those winds changing. Reality was what you made it, and it could be as boring or as exciting as you let it be.

He got to the bottom of the slope and could see the cave opening not far off. His mind snapped into the present, and he cursed himself silently for letting his thoughts drift again. He was in the thick of the most important part of the mission, and he’d traded one distracting train of thought for another. Eyes on the prize, Yerred.

He approached the cave carefully at an angle. The hope was if the creature was standing guard, it might not be able to see him coming. As he got close, he realized how misplaced that hope was, as he could see the silhouette of the Gorfang crouched in the cave mouth, ready to pounce. Yerred shuffled to the side, hoping to draw the creature out of the cave, where he hoped that the open space would provide him an advantage.

The Gorfang didn’t move. Didn’t even turn its head.

Is it dead? Yerred felt a small bit of joy at that. If the creature had bled out, this would be an easy win. Yerred closed in on the cave with caution, although he had to force it. He wanted nothing more than to grab the bounty and go home. He supposed he’d need Roderick’s help getting the carcass back to Zwambe. He’d likely need to strap it to Awiti while he and the ranger travelled back on foot. It would be a long trip.

He got to the mouth of the cave and stopped.

The Gorfang wasn’t dead. It stared at him, its eyes very much alive, but it made no moves. It was laying there, seemingly aware of what was going on. The dagger still stuck out of its back, but the Gorfang disregarded it the same as everything else.. Yerred was confused. He’d had an encounter with this creature, and knew its ferocity. Yet here it lay, not even willing to stand up. Yerred, against his better judgment, walked right up to the creature, reached over and yanked his dagger out of its back. He hopped back, expecting the sudden motion and pain to cause the creature to engage. It didn’t. It was almost as if… Yerred’s eyes widened.

The Gorfang had gone duma.

“Aeros’ breath.” Yerred whispered to himself.

He heard a sound from further within the cave, and he felt a chill run up his spine. There could be more. He stepped carefully around the corner of the cave wall, holding out the dagger defensively. When he’d almost made it, he jumped into full view, ready to take on a second Gorfang if necessary. Instead, he couldn’t believe what he saw. There, on a bed of leaves, lay a full grown Wumpus. It didn’t move or even seem to acknowledge his presence. Nursing at its belly were three baby Wumpus’s. Yerred furrowed his brow. None of this made any sense, and yet somehow as it clicked into place, it all made perfect sense. Lorra had said that a farmer and his wife had been attacked, and their Wumpus eaten whole. Yerred could see that the animal hadn’t been eaten at all, but- What? Kidnapped? Yerred couldn’t quite figure out why a Gorfang would kidnap a Wumpus and keep it. He remembered how the Gorfang had backed off when it saw Awiti. Somehow, the monster had a connection to the Wumpus’s, but there was something not adding up. The mother and her babies weren’t going anywhere, he figured, so he returned to the cave mouth to wait for Roderick and try to figure out what he was going to do about this. He walked past the dumatose Gorfang and began pacing outside the cave mouth. There was a connection here, although he couldn’t yet put his finger on it.

“Oy, Yerred,” called a voice from above. Roderick bounded down with an elegance that made Yerred envious. The ranger noticed the Gorfang immediately and began to inspect it.

“Amazing. The beast is completely catatonic.”

“It’s gone duma,” Yerred agreed, “and there’s more.”

He led Roderick into the cave to where the mother Wumpus was laying with her babies. Yerred smiled at the confusion that was clearly plastered on Roderick’s face. The esteemed huntsman apparently didn’t know everything after all. He moved toward the nursing Wumpus, and Yerred thought for a second that the mother may become defensive. He’d seen Awiti in a mood and knew that, while an angry Wumpus might not bear the ferocity of a Gorfang, they knew how to do damage well enough. But the mother didn’t move, even as the babies shifted positions, angling to get a better grip on a fuller teat. Roderick got close enough to have a proper look, then turned back to Yerred.

“This one’s duma, too.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

Roderick backed away from the bed of leaves and back to where Yerred stood. He shrugged his shoulders, resigned to his shared perplexity.

“The mother, there. She’s dumatose as well. I’ll be hanged if I know why, but there’s no mistake.”

Suddenly, from the outside of the cave, they heard a crackling sound, as if something was being ripped open. They hurried to investigate, and made it to the cave opening just in time to see the Gorfang shaking – no, more like thrashing – as it attempted to escape.. itself.

“Is it-?” Yerred started

Roderick’s tone betrayed his shock as he cut in. “By the collective, it’s shedding its skin.”

Yerred watched the grotesque emancipation with morbid curiosity. The Gorfang eventually freed itself from the last bit and slowly backed away, as if getting its bearings. Yerred could see that the dagger remained firmly implanted in the neck of the shed husk, and he turned his attention back to the Gorfang. The tines that made the creature so ferocious were mostly flat and unthreatening, although the predatory gaze lingered. As the Gorfang came to its senses, it studied Yerred and Roderick. It didn’t seem to have decided they were a threat just yet, a fact that Yerred found both welcome and odd.

“Is it going to fight us?” Yerred said, voice barely more than a whisper

“I’m.. not sure,” Roderick said, “Look how it circles towards the cave while not taking its eyes off us. It might just want to check on the missus and babes.”

Yerred snorted. “Missus and ba-”

The realization hit him like a thunderbolt, as the Gorfang backed into the cave. Finally, the creature turned from the two onlookers and retreated out of sight. Yerred looked at Roderick, who seemed to be putting the same pieces together in his mind that Yerred was.

“The duma, it’s clearly a defense mechanism,” Yerred said. “You saw just now, the Gorfang crawled out a new creature. As if it had been healed, even reborn.”

Roderick nodded. “The mother Wumpus was duma, too. Was she healing from something?”

Yerred frowned. He hadn’t been able to figure that out yet either.

The Gorfang returned to the mouth of the cave, dragging the mother Wumpus’s dumatose carcass with it. Yerred quickly grabbed his dagger from the husk, ready to fight. Maybe he had misjudged this whole thing. Maybe the Gorfang had brought them back here for food. How could he have been so stupid to let this ferocious monster back in the cave with a dumatose Wumpus and her babies?

Just then, a second Gorfang emerged from behind the first. It was slick, and it had smaller tines than the first, though they were also flat at the moment. It stopped and looked at the two standing there. Deciding it was in no danger, it began to clean itself. The first Gorfang tossed the Wumpus it held in its mouth to the side with a flick of its head.Yerred could see that it was split at the back, as if a bag torn asunder. Realization hit at that moment. The second Gorfang had come out of there.

“They’re family.” he said

“Gorfangs and Wumpus’s,” Roderick said in astonishment. “They are one in the same?”

Yerred saw pieces starting to fit in place that he’d not even realized were there. “When we break them, we literally break them. We break their lifespan. Their natural progress.”

Roderick was taking a long look at the two Gorfangs standing at the cave mouth. He seemed to be struggling to reconcile their calm temperament with whatever predisposition he had towards the creatures. Finally, he appeared to catch whatever had been escaping him.

“They aren’t dangerous by nature,” he said. “They are driven to rage because we have interfered with their instinctive way of things. We keep stealing their babies and using them as work beasts.” He didn’t attempt to mask the disgust in his tone.

There was an uncomfortable silence as the two men took in everything they had just realized. Yerred finally broke the silence.

“So where does this leave us?”

“We have to go back,” Roderick said. “We have to tell Nuur about this. We can’t continue to raise the creatures. It’s not right.”

Yerred nodded in agreement. “And the bounty?”

Roderick gestured to the shed husk laying in the dirt. “Call me crazy, but it looks like you have a dead Gorfang right there.”

The trip back to Taureos’s Spine wasn’t as long as the trip up, though at times it felt a grteat deal longer. Roderick actually kept pace with them, although it didn’t leave him much wind for talking. Just as well. Yerred had been brooding this entire trip. After hoisting the shed Gorfang skin on Awiti’s back – which she gave him no small amount of nasty looks about – Yerred had morosely mounted the Wumpus. His chest scabs stretched, but held. He was grateful that they had healed so well, which he attributed to Awiti’s insistence on cleansing them herself. It would save them a stop at the inn they visited before and allow them to get straight back to Zwambe. Mostly, he lamented the fact that this would likely be the last time he ever rode Awiti – maybe even the last time he ever saw her. Changes had to be made, though. Their discovery had to be shared.

They rolled through the front gates to the Zwambe village, and stopped outside the Assemblage. Yerred intercepted a runner and asked him to run up and fetch Sir Lorra. Meanwhile, Roderick went into the Strait and Arrow to get something to wet their whistles while they waited.

“Your sling is off.”

Yerred peeked around Awiti and saw nobody, then turned back and almost jumped out of his boots. Lydia the asclep stood there beside him, her face a mask of disapproval. Yerred tried to give her what he hoped was a disarming smile. She did not return it.

“You were told six weeks. It hasn’t even been six days.” She said

“Lydia!” Yerred held his arms out in front of him, “but you’re a sight for sore eyes. I missed that no-nonsense glare of yours. Yes, that’s the one!”

“I’m not fond of my medical advice being disregarded.” She said plainly.

“Disregarded?” Yerred feigned insult, “Why I would never! No, in fact, the advice you gave me was almost too good. I healed up in a fraction of the time. See!” He raised his arms in the air, feeling his bad shoulder pop – and hoping the asclep did not hear it – more than once as he did so. It wasn’t paining him that severely any longer, but he suspected he might carry the noisiness of it with him for years to come, maybe forever.

Lydia’s cool visage had not wavered, but she allowed a smirk to tighten the corner of her mouth.

“Well, seeing as you’re back now, I’ll expect regular visits until I give you a clean bill of health.”

Yerred nodded, not intending to keep this conversation going any longer than he had to. Seeing that, Lydia turned to leave. She got a few steps before she stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“It’s good to see you, Yerred. Welcome home.”

She walked away and Yerred watched her go. After a while, he felt a powerful nudge that made him stumble. He realized that Awiti had playfully bumped him. The Wumpus huffed its strange laughter, and Yerred couldn’t help but smile back. He’d been concerned that there was nothing left for him to come back to. Perhaps he’d been wrong.

Roderick showed up with two mugs of amber, and a feshly filled canteen, which he handed to Yerred first. After drinking deeply, Yerred splashed his face and hair, attempting to rinse off at least a portion of the grime collected on the road. The ranger took the canteen and replaced it with the mug. As Yerred studied it, he tried to remember the last drink he’d had. He didn’t have long to ponder, as just then, Salvius Lorra and a small entourage showed up. Flanking them was a carrier with a wooden wheelbarrow.

“So you got the beast, eh?” Lorra said. “I’ll want to confirm it myself, of course. Matter of protocol.”

“Of course.” Yerred tried to keep the resentment from his voice. He walked over to where the Gorfang husk sat atop Awiti, unstrapped it and had Roderick assist him in hefting it over and dropping it in the wheelbarrow. Lorra tried to not show his surprise at the size of the husk, but it was clear the beast had been larger than even he had predicted. The small group walked around the wheelbarrow, poking and lifting sections of the husk for inspection. They all agreed it was most definitely a Gorfang that sat in front of them, but Lorra didn’t seem fully pleased.

“What’s this deep gash at the back, eh? Looks like you tore the beast open.”

Roderick jumped in. “Master Lorra, the monster attacked my colleague here. I had no choice but to attack it from behind. As I only had my quiver on me, I had to use the sharp edge of an arrow to do most of my damage. It isn’t the most elegant of work, but it was effective.”

Yerred opened the front of his shirt to corroborate the story with the stab wounds on his chest. Lorra’s eyes widened at that, which he quickly suppressed and buried under his smug demeanour. He took one last quick survey of the husk before waving to one of his entourage. The man came forward and gave Yerred a leather bag. As he took it, the coins within it jingled. It was music to his ears, and a great deal heavier than he had anticipated it being. Then again, when you’ve never held a substantial sum of money, you don’t know what to expect.

Lorra instructed his entourage to prepare to head back to the mountain village, then after studying Yerred for a time, spoke again.

“There were others seeking this bounty as well. A group of three men who left the morning I first met you. You didn’t happen to encounter them at any point, did you?”

Yerred kept his face completely stoic, even if his heart felt like it was going to leap out of his chest. While it was true that he and Roderick had acted in self-defense, the last thing he wanted was to explain that to Lorra, and risk the hassle and timing of a trial. More importantly, he had no desire to jeopardize the bounty he’d just received. He shook his head

“Never saw them sir. I was too focused on my own affairs”

Lorra studied him further, like he thought he could extract a lie with his glare alone. After a few seconds, the man broke his gaze and waved as if it was the most inconsequential thing in the world.

“No matter, I’m sure they’ll return in due time.”

He turned and left with his entourage, not looking back once. Yerred and Roderick collectively exhaled. Then, they looked at each other and laughed.

“Shall we drink to that?” Roderick indicated his half-full mug of ale. Yerred realized he hadn’t had any of his yet. He hadn’t even had a chance to think since they got back.

“I’ll gladly drink to this whole adventure,” he said. “But I need to take care of one thing first.

Roderick seemed to know exactly what he was referring to, and the two companions led Awiti across the village, until they arrived at Nuur’s ranch. The old man stood in his normal spot, looking out over his pasture. Yerred felt an odd comfort at the sight of it. There was something nice about routine. You could always count on it. It made what was coming next that much more difficult.

Nuur noticed the trio enter the pasture, and a huge smile spread across his face.

“Aeros’s breath!” he said. “You actually made it back.”

Yerred smiled in return. “It’s good to see you too, Nuur”

The old man scowled at Yerred as he walked past him. “Not you, ninny. Her.”

He began petting Awiti vigorously on her head and neck, cooing at her like one might do while playing with an infant in their lap. The Wumpus grunted and wheezed with satisfaction. Nuur had been her caretaker since she was small, and the comfort and contentment she felt in his presence was obvious. That made what Yerred had to say next so much harder.

“Nuur, we found the Gorfang.”

The rancher didn’t stop petting Awiti, but did take his focus off her long enough to take a proper, measured look at Yerred. “Yes, well, I suppose it didn’t get you, eh? Judging by your being here ‘n all.”

Roderick chuckled at the joke, and a look was shared between him and Nuur that suggested they would be doing some catching up later.

“We found something else too,” said Yerred.

“Oh?”

Yerred had spent the better part of the trip back trying to formulate the best way to tell Nuur about the connection. The system of Wumpus breeding, about how they were playing at being the Collective by manipulating the natural evolutionary flow of the Wumpus’s. Now, with the man staring him down, he struggled to find the words.

“Gorfangs are Wumpus’s,” Roderick blurted out. Yerred flashed him an annoyed look, but determined that it might have been the best way to broach the subject, so he turned back to Nuur and nodded in agreement.

“They’re what now?” said Nuur

“The duma,” said Yerred, “it’s a type of cocoon. The ‘corpses’ that a dumatose Wumpus leaves behind aren’t because they withered away from the inside. It’s a skin they shed when the Gorfang emerges.”

Nuur looked perplexed by the news. He stopped petting Awiti – a fact Yerred wasn’t sure the old man was aware of – and his face contorted in various contemplations as we went over decades of experience with the creatures in his mind. It seemed as though uncertainties from across his vast sea of knowledge of the etymology of his livelihood were suddenly aligning to paint a full picture. As the pieces clicked into pl;ace, Nuur grabbed Awiti gently by the neck, one hand on either side of her face. He looked into her eyes and the sorrow began to show itself through the glistening of his own. Yerred felt a pang of guilt at the regret that poured out of the old rancher.

“I’m sorry, child,” Nuur pleaded in a hushed sob. “I’m so sorry.”

Awiti nudged his hand further down her neck. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing to forgive. But there was some petting to get on with.

“I never asked where the new babes came from,” Nuur said once he had composed himself. “My job was to care for the creatures, not to interrogate those who brought them to me.”

“Nuur, nobody blames you,” Yerred said, None of us knew.”

“It didn’t take a genius to see how useful the creatures were, if you could stop ‘em from going duma,” Nuur said, “that I did know.” He paused. “I made my entire life about it. The caretaking was easy: feed ‘em, pet ‘em, love ‘em. Stopping the duma was more challenging. Breaking them was the only way.”

Yerred had already processed some of his regret at his profession and the role it played in the whole thing. But hearing Nuur discuss it brought those feelings to the surface. He wiped his eyes.

“Nuur, we have to stop breaking them.”

The old man nodded, staring at the ground. “I only have three broken ones. I’ll take off their harnesses. They’ll be duma within a week.” He shook his head lightly, the notion went against a lifetime of instincts. But when he looked back at Yerred, there was a determination to his expression, though the steel of it softened as he smiled. “Eh, well I was fixin’ to retire anyway. I only kept goin’ so as to give you somethin’ to keep you afloat.”

Yerred felt like he’d been punched in the chest. His entire time in Zwambe, he’d felt like an outsider. He was the chief’s ward, in a sense, but the only place he had ever felt he belonged was on the ranch with Nuur. The old man was, in many ways, like a father to him. He hadn’t appreciated it before now, but resolved then and there that he wouldn’t take that relationship for granted ever again.

“I have some things to see to,” Yerred said, “Could you..” his words caught in his throat. Nuur seemed to understand what Yerred was asking, and placed his hand on Awiti’s back.

“Aye, I’ll save this one’s harness for you to remove,” Nuur said. “After all you two have been through, she’s more yours than mine anyway.”

Yerred thanked him, and he and Roderick walked off. Yerred realized that he hadn’t even taken a sip of his ale yet. It was likely warm and flat now. Reluctantly, he dumped it off the side of the village thoroughfare. Roderick’s eyes went wide.

“I paid good money for that,” he said.

Yerred stopped and dug several coins out of the bag and handed them to Roderick. Despite the substantial sum, the bag didn’t feel much lighter

“Your payment, sir,” he said with a wink. ”Plus a bit extra for the wasted ale.”

Roderick took the coins gratefully, dropping them into a small leather purse at his side with a series of soft clinks. He looked back at Yerred.

“So that’s it then.”

“That’s it.”

Nodding, Roderick held up his empty mug in a toast.

“To adventure.”

Yerred held out his now-empty mug as well and echoed the statement.

“You know,” Roderick said, taking the mug from Yerred, “with the ranch closing down, I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve found yourself unemployed.”

“I am indeed,” Yerred said.

“Well, I’m off to return these mugs. Then, I reckon I’ll maybe stick around for one more,” Roderick said as he turned to walk away, “maybe I’ll have a look at the bounty board. Keep my options open.”

Yerred’s face split in a grin. “I’ve been dying to have a drink since I left this village a week ago. Maybe I’ll catch up after and join you.”

“Join me for a drink, you mean? I know you wouldn’t be interested in another bounty hunt,” Roderick called over his shoulder, “besides, you probably couldn’t keep up anyway.”

Yerred laughed and watched the ranger walk off. He was excited about whatever future might await him. Whatever it was, he suspected Roderick would be involved somehow. For all that Yerred had spurned the bounty hunting profession, he couldn’t help but admit that it had been one of the more exhilarating experiences he’d ever been a part of. Besides, it’s not like it was any less dangerous than Wumpus breaking had been, as his still-healing shoulder attested to. This reminded him of Awiti, and his heart sank. He was not looking forward to this part, but knew it had to be done.

As he entered the pasture of Nuur’s ranch, Awiti came running up to greet him. She nuzzled her head under his arm, insisting that Yerred pet her, an insistence which he gratefully obliged. He felt tears welling up as he thought about what was next. He reached under Awiti’s belly and unclipped the harness. The Wumpus jumped back suddenly, as if realizing the implication.

“Come on now, girl.” Yerred said as he moved toward her again, “don’t make this any harder than it has to be. Please.”

Awiti let out a whine, but didn’t move away again. Yerred finished removing the harness and, once completed, stood there holding it in one hand, letting the other rest on the back of his companion. She’d been there with him throughout the entire journey. She’d protected him, and he’d protected her. It made letting go almost too difficult to bear. Yerred continued to embrace Awiti, even as he felt her starting to slow down her breathing. He followed her to the corner of the pasture where she laid down. He joined her, resting his head on her shoulder as he had done every day since they left. She turned her head lethargically, as if it took most of the effort she had left, and nudged him one last time. Then she laid her head down and let the duma take her. Yerred stayed with her, tears flowing freely. When she eventually emerged, she’d run off into the wild. Maybe he’d see her again someday, and maybe he wouldn’t. But one thing he was certain of, it would never happen if he spent the rest of his days in the village.

He got up to his feet and, taking one last look at his friend, made a decision then and there. He would go wherever his feet took him, and right now, they were taking him to the Strait and Arrow. He thought about how he’d never hear the end of it from Roderick. About how after all his protests, he’d become a ranger after all.

It was time to finally get that drink.

The End

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