Mälque, while awaiting more loot to clean, scanned the surrounding woods. “So you’re certain that crazy man and his gors won’t come back to eat us,” he asked, his voice cracking ever so slightly as his imagination conjured gors devouring people…alive.
As a Wurmlin, he had been trained to the traits of every animal in the woods. Gors were scavengers who feared men and prowled in small packs. That description changed three summers ago when men from their tribe witnessed a village being mauled by the beasts. A baldheaded man mounted atop a massive bull led the slaughter. His assembled gors – a mystery unto itself – were an army of ravaging predators. Jaws snapped arms or legs clean off while paws swatted bodies this way and that with ease. When Mälque asked what had caused the shift in the gors’ disposition, the Wurmlins hushed him with a swat to the head, or wagged their heads and mumbled to themselves.
But he knew the answer. His mother had forewarned about such sightings the summer before.
“Yep, that crazy fool is long gone,” Olke answered, snapping Mälque from his reflection. Olke continued to swat the corpse up and down, listening for the thud or clink of loot or jewelry. “We been followin’ them now for…” he stopped tapping and scrunched up his lips to calculate the amount of time. Unable to do simple mathematics, and not about to let the boys belittle him for such ignorance, he dismissed the problem with a loud huff and blurted, “…a long time…a very long time.”
“Do we always have to steal like this,” Vonn asked in a dull voice. “It ain’t excitin’.”
Olke stopped, leaned back and gave them both a stern look. “You want excitement.”
“Yeah,” Vonn answered with a glint in his eye. “We’re Wurmlins, ain’t we? This ain’t stealin’.”
Olke folded his arms across his large chest and cocked his head. A greasy lock fell over his face, which he cleared with a violent shake of his head. “Well, these kind folk ain’t exactly handin’ their loot to us, now is they?”
Mälque pulled away from his gaze and took in the ash, the blood, the severed limbs, the mangled bodies. “But this…this is…” He once more became overwhelmed by the sights and smells, and could feel his stomach rumbling. He covered his mouth and nose with his sleeved arm.
“Look,” Olke fired, irritated by their tirade about how to make a living as a Wurmlin. “I don’t like it much neither, but what choice do we have? When this Gor King and his army started attackin’ villages, most folk sought refuge at Min Brock. The ones that didn’t,” he used his dagger as a pointer to highlight the death and destruction all around them. “Well, that crazy fool destroyed ‘em all. Even our own kind have scattered or been killed.”
His last words pressed down hard on Vonn and Mälque as they recounted the day their father died, followed soon after by their mother’s demise. From that day forth, per Wurmlin custom, they lived with Olke since he was their only living relative, even if he was a distant cousin. And unfortunately for them, Olke held to the custom that the boys were property – not adopted sons.
Wild dogs lived better lives.
Their mother’s warning echoed in their minds; “Don’t trust no one. Not even other Wurmlins.”
“So now,” Olke continued, “we follow his army of gors, wait ‘til they’re gone and rob the dead. Still thievery. Accordin’ to my codes, anyways.”
“We could go to Min Brock,” Mälque offered, eyes fixated on a child’s mutilated body and longing to see life beyond thirteen summers. “Ain’t nothin’ but dyin’ everywhere.”
Olke’s eyes narrowed; slits of anger burned at Mälque. “I’ll tell ya why not, yung-er.” He held his answer until he had their full attention. “Because we’re Wurmlins!” He thrust his blade at them and spittle flew off his lips. “We’re nomads,” his dagger darted from boy to boy as his tone became more impassioned. “Thieves. Highwaymen. And this here,” he waved his dagger at the woods, “is your home. Always has been. Always will be. You don’t need no castle.”
Olke’s eyes flared with anger as he whipped his hair to intimidate and remind them of his power over them. “Besides,” he added with a smile that was as greasy as his hair, “I’m the only family ya got.”
His last words struck the boys like jabs to the gut and Olke savored the misery that coursed their faces and the despair that weighed down thin shoulders. “Have you no respect for Wurmlin traditions,” he asked as the veins on his forehead pumped with passion. “You should be ashamed. I didn’t have ta take ya in and feed ya, or teach ya how to survive, but I did. You know why? ‘Cause I’m a Wurmlin!” He pounded his chest with pride. “I take care of my own. So never ask such a thing again. Ya hear me? Be proud of your heritage…your bloodline…your….”
Too flustered and perturbed to continue the lecture, he waved them off with his dagger and returned to his task. As he knelt over the body, he mumbled to himself about yung-ers not appreciating the sacrifice of kin.
An odd sound made all three freeze in place.
Training took over and they snapped their heads toward the woods. Without a word, Olke rose and the boys took up positions on either side, daggers drawn, ready to kill or be killed.