The swordsman came to pound on the door as they all do: bruised and bloody, half out of his head. The old man allowed the stranger to stumble in and collapse on the floor, and then closed and locked the heavy oaken door on the darkened forest beyond.
It was the smell of tea brewing and meat boiling that awoke the stranger. A low moan came from the floor, and the old man responded, "Don't try to get up. If the floor is too cold, roll over onto the rug."
The swordsman managed to move from the bare wood onto the ragged circle of fur. "How long was I... how long?"
"Nearly a day."
"We must go... now. There is great danger." The swordsman tried to sit up, failed, groaned again.
"There is no danger as long as we remain inside this cabin. In any case, you are in no condition to travel."
"You arrived with none."
The swordsman opened his eyes, looked around, saw the interior of an unremarkable hermit cabin. "Have you one? Living here so close to the wood, alone?"
The old man laughed. "Look at me. Do I look like a warrior?"
"I set traps. I fish. The river god is kind to me. I had a bow, once, but I lost the strength to pull the arrow back, and so I sold it to a passing merchant in need of protection."
"You sold it." The stranger stared up at the wooden beams above him. "Old one, there is a great and terrible monster in the wood; three of us were hired by the town of Rillmain to destroy it. Only I escaped."
The old man nodded and said, knowingly, "You were lucky. Yours was not the first party sent into the wood by the town fathers of Rillmain — or Catchmill, or Felhamn's Point — and yours will surely not be the last." The old man stood over him, knelt, held a flagon to his lips. "Drink. This will help you regain your strength. And there is rabbit, if you feel you can eat."
"I can." The swordsman drank as much as he could. "Old one, your cabin stands at the wood's edge; I could throw an apple into it from your doorway. Or, I could when I could still feel my arm. How is it the beast has never come for you?"
"I know the odd protection spell." The old man fished the fully cooked rabbit from the pot, began slicing it into small pieces with a broad, sharp kitchen knife.
The swordsman said nothing. He could feel his strength returning already. The old man handed him a bowl full of boiled rabbit meat, and he set to devouring the scraps with relish.
"What was in the tea?"
"I keep potions for my aches and pains. If I felt as old as I look, warrior, I would be the one on the floor."
When the swordsman had finished with the rabbit, he did the same with the flagon of tea. He pulled himself up and stood, shakily, one hand on the table and one on a chair. "Do you have a name? I am Sharik."
"The traders who buy my furs call me 'Grandfather', though I never was one."
Sharik wobbled to the window, pulled the curtains aside, peered at the darkening tree line through warped glass. "Well, Grandfather: the monster followed me. It will be close by, waiting for me to leave. We will need to wait until daybreak to make our run for—"
"I'm not going anywhere, Sharik. This is my home."
"Has never harmed me, and never will."
There was movement there, in the trees, a great looming presence just beyond the limits of Sharik's perception. The hairs raised on the back of his neck. He managed to say, "You seem sure."
"I am." The old man sat at the wooden table, a plate before him. He speared pieces of rabbit with the knife, lifting them to his mouth with practiced ease.
"Grandfather, the monster we faced will be turned by no protection spell. One of my company was a powerful wizard. We were blessed, we were strengthened, we were made resistant. None of Kalthaic's magic made any difference: the beast tore him to pieces, and then my brother, who slew dragons in his day. What makes you think you—"
"We have an understanding."
"You have an understanding? With... with the beast?"
"I told you, you were not the first to delve into the wood with the beast's destruction in mind. Most never leave the wood. Those that do are usually injured, desperate. If they continued on the road to town, they would be lost to him. Instead, they stop here to hide and recover."
"And you give them to the beast?"
"I do nothing of the sort. I feed them, I nurse them to health when they are injured. As long as they stay within these walls, they are safe."
"And when they leave?" There was movement, again, at the tree line. A shape darker than the blackness behind it moved between the trees. Sharik backed away from the window and looked over at the old man.
He shrugged. "The road passes just on the other side of the cabin. Those who flee towards the town during daytime often escape. I am always amazed at how many choose to re-enter the wood. For revenge, for honor. For the sheer foolhardiness of youth. Their choice, always theirs."
Sharik stared at him. "I don't believe you."
The old man shrugged again.
Sharik surveyed the room; there were a dozen places to hide a weapon.
"Have a look around if you like."
He did, and found nothing.
The old man puttered at the stove, straightening up after his meal. "You should get some rest."
"I'm not staying." Sharik walked over to the table and picked up the kitchen knife.
"But before you go, you plan to cut my throat?"
"It's not for you." Sharik headed for the door, opened it. A blanket of darkness had descended. Over the rustle of the leaves, he could hear deep, heavy breathing somewhere close by.
"You're in no condition to fight her now. And with a carving knife?"
The old man shrugged for a third time.
"And you wouldn't chance to know she can be killed?"
"I've never thought to ask. Do you think she'd tell me? It's not as if I could do anything with the information: no one ever stops on the way in, of course."
Sharik closed the door behind him, and the old man went back to clearing up after his meal. He'd have to go out tomorrow, in the daylight, to retrieve the knife. It would be close by.
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