“What kind of person names their horse Rock?” McCree asked no one in particular. He watched as the horse’s ears flicked back, left then right, and then forward in the same order. He looked over at the other hose walking calmly beside him. “Or Tree?” He huffed impatiently and tried not to groan and slouch in the saddle.
He let his eyes roam. The road was an empty place, the land surrounding it barren and desolate. Well, perhaps that wasn’t fair – many thought the desert just as barren and desolate but he knew better.
The trees lining the road were leafless with trunks either white as bleached bone or black like coal. They reached with clawed, groping hands for the sky and over the road as if yearning for each other or to snag an unwary traveler. Between the trees the forest seemed empty, leafless shrubs clinging to gnarled roots and colored with the thick blue-grey mud that seemed to lurk in the shadows of this strange forest.
There seemed to be no living thing nearby: no birds flying overhead, no creature scuttling through the trees, only the metronomic plod of Tree and Rock.
“It’s a dumb name for a horse,” McCree said just to watch Rocks’ ears flick back toward him, left then right, and then forward again. He reached out and stroked his borrowed mount’s neck. “I’m sorry, but it is.” Shading his eyes, he tipped his head back to track the progress of the sun and found it beginning its descent toward the horizon. “I missed it,” he complained to himself. “High noon.” He closed one eye and using the thumb and forefinger of his gloved hand, he mimed shooting a gun into the air. But then the motion of reloading, as instinctive to him and as ingrained in blood and bone and muscle as breathing, took over and he shook himself free of it only when his hand brushed the canisters of quick-loaders at his hip.
Digging around in his pockets, McCree consulted his map. “Okay,” he said to himself and Tree snorted. “This is useless,” he grumbled, tracing the curving path through the forest. There didn’t seem to be any indication of how much longer he would be stuck along this road. He squinted at the path ahead and then down at the map. “There’s like fifty turns like that.”
Folding the map again, McCree tucked it away and measured the sun with his hand. “Okay, Rock,” he told the horse. Her ears flicked back, left then right, and stayed there as he continued, “We’ll go on for a bit more and see if we can’t find the end of this god-forsaken forest before nightfall.” Digging around in his bag, he consulted his letter again.
Unable to help himself, McCree snorted.
Forgive my impersonal way of address, for I have been called away as well. This world of ours is dark and full of secrets and a host of creatures that seek to-
McCree snorted and skipped a few lines down.
-for this reason I send you to the Black Forest to deal with an issue of utmost importance for the villages there send reports of a dragon of such seductive beauty that their hearts and loins are as set aflame as their fields and houses.
“For such a prude, he knows how to spin a good story,” McCree told Rock and Tree without looking up.
I have taken the liberty of sending your belongings ahead as well as additional bundles for your hunt. These physical burdens, as well as your horse, will be arriving at your destination by train so that you need only board this train or the one after.
Of course this hadn’t happened. The message had been given to the most forgetful person to deliver and no other word or plans had been made for McCree upon his return from his previous hunting trip. After a long night at the tavern he had woken too late the next morning to catch the next train to the Black Forest.
In fact, it had been a week before he had been informed of his new project.
He had been informed, of course, because Father Morrison had returned and expressed his extreme displeasure (to put it lightly) to find McCree still lingering in Gibraltar. The messenger who had not done his job had not been punished, of course, despite his assertions that he had misplaced the letter and then forgotten to deliver it.
Which was how McCree was sent out on foot and horseback, for the train station in the Black Forest had been burned to the ground by the dread dragon that plagued the area.
Even as far away as he still was, McCree imagined that he could smell the smoke and ash on the air and it churned his gut. Unable to finish the rest of the letter – the fifth time that day he had read it – McCree moved to tuck it away again when Rock suddenly startled with a high squeal, hopping and prancing.
Yelping, McCree gripped the saddle with knees and hands, fumbling with one hand for his gun while the other scrambled to grab the reins and soothe his mount. Tree snorted as well, digging his hindquarters deep as if prepared to flee. The letter, halfway tucked into his waist pouch, fluttered away.
He searched for what spooked his horses and found the first sign of animal life in the coiled body of a serpent lying in the middle of the road ahead. It was certainly of great size and if venomous, could prove dangerous to the horses. The way it lay made it almost impossible to pass without danger and though he detested his mounts’ names he had no desire to see their death in the middle of an abandoned forest.
“Whoa,” he murmured to the horses, stroking Rock’s neck until she stopped prancing nervously. Reaching into his bag, he drew out a few of the roasted nuts that Ana had made for him before leaving. Murmuring a prayer of forgiveness under his breath (more directed toward Ana) he threw one at the snake.
It didn’t move.
Spying a long branch at the base of a nearby tree, McCree carefully dismounted, tugging Rock’s reins over her head and letting them drag so that she wouldn’t wander off. He picked up the stick and used the very tip of it to nudge the snake.
It didn’t move but seemed to hang limply from the branch when he moved to scoop it up.
“Huh,” McCree said, letting the piece of the snake he had lifted fall to the ground. It still didn’t move.
Rock and Tree hadn’t reacted to anything else he had encountered thus far. They had passed trees hanging with bodies ( bandits , a crude sign shoved into the ground had declared) and had only twitched their ears at the buzzing of the flies; they had walked calmly past dogs held back by their suspicious owners with little more than a derisive snort. Both had walked through rushing waters and had only tossed their heads a little at the sound of a lonely wolf’s howl late one night as they camped beneath the sickle moon. He had seen them shuffle aside in the face of other snakes as they passed through empty fields with no indication – other than to move around it – that they had seen it.
So why were they reacting now?
McCree looked around and found the forest just as empty as it had been earlier. The wind whistled through the barren trees, bringing no other sound of life than what his borrowed horses made.
The snake remained as still as death in the middle of the road. Shaking his head, McCree carefully put the stick down and walked off in search of the letter. He found it a few trees off the path, caught in a cradle of gnarled roots.
When he returned to the road, he found a man mounted on a big black horse – like the enormous war mounts that knights rode – and dressed in fine clothes like a noble. McCree stopped at the edge of the road, surprised.
“ You are bold to leave your mounts unattended in the middle of the road ,” the noble said. There was an accent to his German that McCree didn’t recognize.
McCree sketched an awkward bow. “My apologies, lord,” he said in English. “I’m poor enough a traveler to not speak that language.”
The man’s lips twitched. “I said that you are bold to leave your mounts unattended in the middle of the road,” the man repeated in English. His eyes and the color of his skin reminded McCree of Asia though from where he originated he couldn’t be sure.
More interesting was how he became nobility in a land like this.
His interest in the noble had little to do with the little smolder of heat he felt low in his gut. The noble had long black hair that he held in a knot at the top of his head, tied with a gold silk ribbon. He wore a dark leather riding coat of good quality that looked well used. Likewise the rest of his clothes were of high quality but practical for riding, unlike those of most nobles that McCree had met in his travels.
“I beg your pardon for my forwardness, lord,” McCree said to the noble, bowing awkwardly again. He didn’t like the mean look of the riding crop held in the noble’s hand and fell into the persona that nobles like him preferred. “But may I have a name with which to address you?”
“You are not the fool you play, hunter,” the noble replied, sounding amused. “Still I shall oblige your game: you may call me Hanzo and I am lord over these lands.”
McCree straightened and looked up at the lord, hiding his incredulous expression behind his best mask. He was fortunate that Hanzo seemed amused by his sack for the noble said nothing more. “Lord Hanzo,” McCree repeated with another bow. “Begging my forwardness again, my lord, but why are you riding alone in the forest?”
“How forward of you,” Hanzo agreed, smiling with his eyes as his face remained impassive. “I have little to fear for I have been here for many years. Newcomers however, need be more cautious.”
For a moment McCree weighed that. It almost seemed like a warning.
Or a threat.
“I am passing through,” McCree said in response to the unspoken question. “I am on the way to the Black Forest.”
Hanzo nodded. “I hear tales of a dragon,” he said. “Is that what you hunt?”
Digging through his pouches, McCree carefully approached the noble and offered his official missives. The lord read through them and he tried not to be annoyed when it seemed that his eyes lingered for too long on the thick parchment and numerous seals.
“Forgive me,” the lord said at last, returning the missives to McCree. “I had not seen such paperwork before.”
McCree considered that as he tucked away the parchment. Despite his claim that he had been in the area for many years, he spoke more like a commoner than a lord: nobility would not have apologized to a mere hunter, who was lower in some ways than mere peasants. Peasants, at least had permanent homes. He still held himself like one though, his chin tipped back as he looked down his nose at McCree.
“And that?” Hanzo asked, his eyes dipping toward the unnatural glow of McCree’s arm.
For a long moment McCree debated answering him. Not many were very accepting of the idea of the supernatural or dark magic – not with the growth of Christianity and the decrease in “such pagan practices”. For rural villages there was still usually a hedgewitch, shaman, alchemist, or other minor healer so the concept of such spells were commonplace – typically anything else was met with extreme suspicion and more than once McCree had been the subject of a witch hunt.
And for many reasons, McCree wanted to be sure that this noble was on his side.
“Hmm,” the noble said, freeing the hunter from his intense gaze. “The forest will be getting dark soon. I suggest that you move through it with speed, hunter,” he said. “You may meet things in the dark that may do you harm.” Nodding, he nudged his mount forward – gently, with heels and knees and not the riding crop in his hands.
A warning about the snake in the road was rising in his throat when he realized that it was gone.
Rock shook her head and then dropped it to smell at the ground in front of here as if searching for grass to graze. Tree’s head was lifted, his ears pricked forward as he watched the noble and his horse leave.
“Something’s weird about this,” McCree told Rock quietly, running his hands over her shoulders. “But he’s right and we gotta get moving.” Gathering her reins, he swung himself into the saddle, checked the ties for Tree’s halter, and clicked his tongue. “Let’s go.”