The air grew cooler with each step closer I came to the bottom of the valley. The chill of the autumn wind was greatly amplified as it sped down towards the river, reminding me of just how close the first snowfall of the season was. I was dressed warmly, and well-prepared; brown wool trousers, tall leather hiking boots, a wool shirt, overcoat, and thick green cloak. I'd hoped to return to my home in the lowlands before the snows began, but the main roads have recently become the prime hunting grounds for the ever-increasing bandit legions; once, I was a soldier, and could fight; not I am but one man, alone, and perhaps worse, growing old.
The air around the cabin smelled of stew and tea, and, my spirits lifted, I rapped once, twice, three times on the door. No one came; I pounded my fist once again, accompanied by a yell. Again, no one came. I walked around the cabin and saw nothing - a pile of firewood stacked against the western wall, a smallish but empty animal pen, and what appeared to be the bones of some animal or other. I walked back to the door, pushed it open, and stepped inside.
There was only one room, with a fireplace and a stewpot on the eastern wall and a blanketroll in a far corner. The fire and single window provided enough light to see the room in full detail; bones and sinew littered the floor, presumably the remains of the same animal whose bones were outside. I decided that I would wait for my would-be host, pulled the tea kettle out of the fire, and enjoyed myself a drink.
A short while later, I heard footsteps - of what sounded to be at least two people. They both were men; I could tell from the weight of their footfalls crushing leaves and stomping over the hard ground. I replaced my tin cup in my pack, strapped up, and stepped out the door.
"Good day, gentlemen! I.."
"Who're you?" one asked, "What d'you want?" They spoke in a thick, unplaceable accent.
The men, one tall and one short, were filthy. Wearing dirt-covered and somewhat bloody clothes, they reeked of something foul, and looked even worse. Both men, easily into their old age, were haggard and wrinkled, but still appeared strong. Carefully gauging my words, I began.
"I am but a land surveyor for His Majesty in the North, and am returning along a rather wayward path and stumbled across your cabin, and thought perhaps I could find shelter for a night. I have coin to pay, of course.."
"We dun want yer gold," the short one began, "aye, it's nigh-worthless now. But yer welcome to our fire and our stew no less." The man gave a sly look to his friend, his face twitching in some unkown gesture.
"Oh aye we dun' get many visiters out her'."
"If you would rob me, then know I am an official of the King and was a soldier.."
"Oh nay, we dun' need yer money, but perhaps them young muscles..we've some work need'n t' be done."
"I would be glad to be of assistance," I said with a smile.
The old men put me to work chopping wood and pulling the remainder of their wheat crop. It was hard work, but welcome work - a nice departure from the typical. It felt good to be doing physical labour again, and good to know the years haven't been too rough on me. As the sun went down, the taller man called me inside and we sat down for the meal.
Inside, I noticed an old, road-worn pair of boots and belt in a far corner, and an old traveling cloak in the other.
"Well, thank ye fer the work, me an' Hari be gettin' too old t' be doin' this sorta thing"
"And thank you for the bed and meal, it has been days since I last slept under a roof."
And so the meal continued, small talk about the weather and crops, about the state of the kingdom (of which they were horribly misinformed; too many rumours), and their homeland. They were refugees from the far-off kingdom of Bel'ane. Quite a stretch - when I asked them how they came to settle here and why, they grew very queit and their eyes very dark. I chose, perhaps wisely, to drop the subject; it could have been a dangerous line of conversation, and, more importantly, it would be rude.
After the meal, I prepared myself for sleep. Bedroll, candle, and a pipe. By the time I was finished smoking, they were both asleep in the corner opposite of mine. Well fed, warm, and pleased, I drifted off into slumber.
I awoke early into the early hours of the morning to their voices; it was hard to make out what they were saying, but sounds of heavy metal objects could be heard being dragged about. One of them had a candle and was rummaging about a pile of debris against a wall, pushing and knocking things out of the way. To my horror, I watched as a pair of cracked and filthy skulls rolled off the pile and onto the floor.
The tall man said, in hushed tones, "This one be good fer eatin'"
"Aye," the short man agreed, "he's got some muscle on 'im. Not like th' last one..."
I watched them look each other in the face, nod, and began walking slowly and quietly towards me, each brandishing a wicked-looking metal weapon. When they were a body length away, I leapt to my feet, threw and arm around my pack, and used my free hand to throw a fistful of dirt into one man's face, and shouldered into the other. I hurriedly stepped into my boots and fled out the door, hiding behind a large rock a few yards distance from the house.
The men ran out, each with a torch and a weapon, and ran around opposite sides of the house. As the tall man approached me, I hurled a fist-sized stone away from me and into a patch of ground debris; as it caught his attention, I was on my feet, another stone in hand. I silently ran up behind him, smashed the rock into the back of his skull with a sickening crunch. I quickly returned to my hiding place to wait for the short man.
The small, round man hobbled back around the house, hollaring for his companion. Seeing him dead on the ground, he yelled a string of profanities, and sprinted towards the rock I was behind, waving his weapon and his torch frantically. In one fluid motion, I stepped out from behind the rock, hurled it, and crouched down to pick up a good-sized tree branch. The stone struck him in the chest and broke his stride, but he did not stop. As he approached, he swung his blade wildly, cutting a gash on my shoulder. With every bit of strength I had, I swung the branch into the side of his head. He dropped, unconcious. With the rope in my pack, I bound him hand to foot and applied a tourniquet to my arm, and dragged him inside.
I proceeded to use the man's own weapon to cut him limb from limb, throwing the useable meat in the stew and tossing the unuseable parts into the pile of debris where the skull came from. When the meat was cooked, I salted it, bundled it, and packed it away, and laid down for a good night's sleep.
Although filled with horrible nightmares, I awaoke in the morning refreshed and feeling very thankfully alive. I dragged the other man's body into the cabin, threw it in the pile of what must have been body parts, and made my way up the opposite wall of the valley from which I came.