III

Hollow
Prologue
It was getting hard not to feel lonely around the Hare’s Retreat. Harold had inherited the inn just six months ago, when his father passed. Every piece of furniture was a reminder of the boisterous man, and though they once complemented each other better than fine, carrying on had proven a greater challenge than Harold was up for.

That’s not to say the inn itself had deteriorated, Harold polished and carried water and lit the fire. But who wanted to drink around a broody kid, who winced if you tried to make him smile?

The final nail had been the new inn opening up in town square, making the 5-minute walk up the hill from Salcret suddenly redundant if you wanted a drink of the local apple-brew.

So what do I do now. Harold polished another clean mug mindlessly, while the only customer of the day kept his own warm with his hands while pretending not to be observing Harold.

Another half an hour passed. The plan was never for Harold to be an innkeeper, not past being able to help and scrounging up coin for whichever new plan had caught his fancy.

Lost at sea. With waves so high. Harold gave the stranger a refill and turned to leave.

“So kid, any plans?”

What a strange echo of my thoughts.

“Uh, what?”

“This is your place, right...? Just watching it for somebody?”

“No, yes but no I don’t have plans. This was my father’s inn. He inherited it too.”

“I see,” The stranger hid a smirk with his mug as Harold returned to the bar.

Another half an hour passed. The door remained as desolate past lunch as before.

“Maybe I should sell it.” Harold glumly spoke up from behind the bar.

“No, how can you do that? A family inn? What would your father say? Didn’t you have good times here, if you let that go then who knows.”

The man let the words hang ominously, allowing the young man’s mind to fill in the rest. No manipulation can improve on one’s own imagination.

The day passed with Harold’s thoughts slowly churning. He needed to feed the hens, and stepped out back for a minute. On his return the stranger got a closer look. The man was non-descript, cloaked and with the appearance of a local. A darker hair perhaps. He had been nursing the second mug for quite a while now, dinner having come and gone, and Harold was starting to wonder if the man would need a room.

Two of the town guard suddenly entered the door and Harold habitually looked up with a glint of hope, the sound a reminder before reality asserted itself faster than usual. Were they here for drinks? That would be a first.

“There he is, you called it.”

The woman just sighed. “Alright Dunner, you know the law.”

“What, can a man not merely have a drink in some peace and quiet?” He challenged.

The senior guard whipped out a glowing green stone which slowly shifted to dark and back again.

“You know we have the Hexstone, why would you even try this?” Her body language indicating a roll of the eyes would be superfluous. “Let’s go.”

The man glared at the glowing mineral with vitriol.

“One can always pray it breaks!”

Harold stood stunned as the man marched out in a mocking patrol. What just happened?

The younger guard was already following, but the woman caught Harold’s eye before she stepped outside.

“Kid, he’s a warlock. He was feeding off your emotion.” She looked at him expectantly.

“Warlock!? A warlock came to town?”

She sighed. “I guess you’re too young, but no, he’s always lived here. He came down when Bertrud died too, I recall the whole family, over 30 members, devastated. And that man, subtly egging them on, telling story after story of Bertrud’s youth. Most of it made up I’m pretty sure.”

“But how did you catch him?” Harold’s eyebrows were tickling his hairline by now.

“How do you think!? He got greedy! He let the energy build until Agnes could tell what was going on and ratted him out. Hah.”

Harold actually smiled. “And then you got the Hexstone?”

“Exactly. Anyway, watch out. He’s harmless, not like in the stories, and gods knows what his class needs that energy for, but now that I know you know you will be culpable if you let him do it.”

“That’s fair enough I guess, thanks for stopping by.”

“That’s my job kid, have a good one.”

The door shut. The kid thing was getting old. Harold went to snuff out the fire and change out his clothes.


2.

Dusk fell and Harold snuck out the back and into the trees. Carrying a big sack, he was skirting Salcret and heading for a property quite a ways from the rest of town.

This was a favourite target of the local youths, Harold found out all about it when tagging along one summer, learning the angles to approach from and most importantly the timing.

Apple trees. They spotted the valley, but the soil that grew them to a proper size for turning to drink was all on this hill. And the old fancy couple who lived there happily overcharged for the privilege of picking them, which was not a problem at all while dad was around, but Harold had resorted to these childhood tricks once he had to tighten his belt.

Travelling through the forest on his usual path had him thinking of all the memories down the ends of the different trails. His perspective had changed in the past few months, when he had all the time in the world those memories had far more positives. Now most of them seemed a waste of time. The trying to fit in with the kids in town, the hankering after every girl who would give him a smile, and not knowing how to hide it. The trying to make sense of fitful people and escaping to spend them with animals when things went wrong, then having the farmer find him and then that becoming Harold’s “thing”. Sigh.

Halfway there he stopped to wipe sweat from his brow. The final approach was rough terrain, and unless you wanted to risk running into something noisy you needed to scale the rocks and roots rather than go around. On the final vantage he analysed his target. The last of the light gave a nice view of a flowing field of grass running down from the homestead with a court yard. The most impressive apple trees Harold knew to exist dotted the green, and the branches hung heavy.

As he dropped down from the wide root he’d been standing on, to begin his approach, his foot unexpectedly broke through the soil. What the hell?

For a second he figured the soil was just loose, and then it stung him. Wasp nest!?

Five then ten, then fifteen wasps rose out of the ground before Harold was running awkwardly and lost sight in favour of distance. Why is there a nest there, of all places!?

A hundred meters from the woods to the green of the orchard. He made it three steps, each stinging worse than the former, then ducked around a tree and made it another few before two wasps caught him on the shoulder, narrowly avoiding his neck. A panicked rush made the rest miss, and then he spotted a tall bush of blue leaves with yellow bells hanging. Thank the Lord of the Forest! Harold ran at it windmilling his arms like crazy without losing momentum, the wasps hot on his heels. The bells released a yellow, dusty cloud and the wasps were taken aback for just a moment.

As they exited the cloud and caught Harold’s new direction back toward the farm, they got one final sting in and then he was past the forest line. Harold collapsed on the ground, panting and holding his stinging body where he needed to highlight his hope for reprieve. The wasps furiously attacked the field of energy protecting the green from pests, and Harold looked up, sorely tempted to taunt the aggressive beasts, despite the futility.







WORK IN PROGRESS