Olke caught the scent of burnt wood. It was faint, barely noticeable, and most people – whether Allsbruthian or even Ebonite – would have missed such a clue. But he was a Wurmlin, a nomadic thief who read the woods, the winds and the streams for the slightest of signs and clues leading to their victims’ whereabouts. Like wolves, Wurmlins could follow a scent for days.
Energized that he was closing in on their target – the village of Tellendale – he increased his pace. When the trees thinned, he hid behind a fat hickory tree and surveyed what lay ahead.
Beyond a grove of saplings sat Tellendale, or what was left of it.
Mounds of white and gray ash sat where cottages, shanties and barns had been. Littering the ground were dead bodies that he assumed were the villagers. Aside from a large bird pecking a corpse, the village was void of life.
Without taking his eyes off the grisly scene, he cupped his hands together, brought them to his mouth and blew through the opening. He fluttered several fingers to create an owl-like sound. In a flash, the boys were by his side.
“Look at ‘em,” Olke half-whispered as he slapped Vonn’s shoulder. “Ripe for the pickin’. Time to go to work, boys.”
With a final glance about the clearing, and a sniff of the wind to make sure that whoever destroyed Tellendale was gone, Olke rose and strutted out into the clearing. Long, dark hair swayed in time to his bold stride, and when a strand fell across his face, he whipped his head to set it free. Broad, determined steps brought him to the closest body where he knelt with dagger in hand and prepared to go to work. He glanced back at the brothers who were lollygagging toward the bodies. Olke snarled his lips and squinted at them.
“Get a move on,” he barked. “Who knows how much time we got.”
Mälque reached him first. As instructed from previous undertakings, he assumed his position near the body. Disgusted by the mutilated flesh, the tunic stained black with blood and death’s sick scent permeating the air, he turned away. “I hate this work. Too much dyin’ everywhere,” he blurted over his shoulder. “I wanna do honest Wurmlin work, like stealin’ or robbin’ or cheatin’.” Bile rose into his throat. It was all he could do not to throw up.
“Sure ya do,” Olke countered with a snort as he patted the dead man’s pockets with the flat side of his dagger. “But that’s ‘cause you’re young, and like most yung-ers, you’re just plain stupid.”
Mälque glared at Olke. He hated the word. Although it was what Wurmlins used to describe boys of his age, Olke used it like a cuss word.
Vonn, unfazed by the gore, plopped down beside Olke who backhanded the boy. “Next time, don’t be late. Now help me find the treasure this dead fool’s tryin’ to take to the grave.”
As he tapped the man’s last pocket, the blade struck something hard. He hit again, producing a muted thud. “You know what that sound means, don’tcha?”
Vonn knew the only answer that would spare him from being whacked again was to do his job. With tongue poking out of the side of his mouth, he slid his fingers into the blood-soaked garment.
“Well,” Olke asked, impatient with his progress.
“Hold on,” Vonn answered while swishing his tongue from side to side as fingers probed the sticky pocket. “There’s too much blood.”
Olke was about to punch him when the boy yanked his hand free and held up the prize for all to see.
A collective gasp rose from all three. Clutched between Vonn’s bloody fingers was a coin, stained with crimson.
“There you are,” Olke sang to the coin, his voice sultry and smooth, as if addressing a lover. “Come to me.” He stretched his hand toward the money. Vonn dropped it into his palm.
“A golden giln,” Olke gushed as he held it up to the light of day between thumb and forefinger.
Stained with blood, it was a shocking reminder of the manner in which they found it as well as its owner’s horrible demise. Yet all three were oblivious to such calamity and instead, gawked in awe at the coin. It promised better days ahead.
“Here, yung-er.” Olke flipped it into the air. “Make ‘er shine.”
Mälque, who had anticipated such an action, had already removed a cloth from his pocket. With eyes riveted on the end-over-end flight of the giln, he caught the coin in the cloth and started wiping the blood off. In no time, the gold glistened; sunlight danced across its surface.
“So, boy,” Olke asked as he pushed himself up from the ground, “what were you sayin’ about an honest trade?”
Mälque shrugged off the question and stared at the coin he twirled between his fingers. Maybe Olke was right. The giln meant hot meals and warm beds in a tavern, a far better life than chewing on rabbit gristle and sleeping in the open, using leaves as a blanket.
Olke held out his palm.
Mälque smirked, and for a brief moment, thought about pocketing the giln and dashing off for the woods. After all, thievery was in his blood, even if it meant robbing another Wurmlin. But when he felt the prick of a dagger through his tunic, and caught Olke’s evil expression, he thought better of his idea. With a heavy sigh and a parting glance at the giln, he surrendered the coin.
“Thata boy,” Olke said as he withdrew his dagger. He flashed the boy a wry smile. “Never rob a robber, I always say.”
He pocketed the coin and led them to the next corpse. They dropped the banter and went back to work robbing the dead.