When the stranger rode into town, mount a curious replica of downtrodden weariness, folks knew this was the one Avery had sent for. The looks passing silently between them as the figure went by had the weight of a scream in the hazy mid-summer's noontide. Confusion spread just as insistently, though the visitor glanced neither left nor right to gauge their reaction.
They were poor, but had never considered that Avery might only afford the runt of the litter. The cringe hunter had the look of a scrapper. No one caught a very revealing glimpse of the face hidden beneath the square hat. The famous accessory was green and barren of any decoration. This utilitarian air was made complete by threadbare purple breeches and a blue tunic. In addition to this incongruous ensemble were boots composed of scuffs just barely held together by the thinnest possible leather.
The horse fared better than their mysterious protector. Old and swaybacked, he wore a new bridle and shoes that glinted smugly as each hoof made its determined journey forward from the dusty road. Though obviously exhausted, he was yet well-fed and blooming with health. His gray coat made the colors presented by his two-legged companion stand out starkly.
Then there was the great weapon revealed on the hunter's left hip. The sword would be made of a rare metal called jogan, struck in a sacred temple and blessed by the priestess within. This ritual created a versatile blade with the power to obliterate the djinn that plagued the countryside. The sword alone was worth more than the nag and rider together.
The horse continued on his way, ears perking lazily when some cough or whisper uttered by the baffled townsfolk caught his attention. Their hunter, on the other hand, may as well have been a clothed and painted statue. The breeze prompted more bodily movement than this fellow. Disappointment was tangible as the stranger reined in at Avery's house. The knowledge of its location confirmed the status of cringe hunter. They were doomed.
When entrusted with the town's funds in order to find someone who could stop the beast that stalked them, Avery faced a rather upsetting dilemma. Not a one of the borough's cringe hunters would accept the job for such a pittance, while a foreigner might surely misunderstand the nature of their particular nuisance, these horrors being so regional as they were.
But finally a traveler sent word that he'd found a hunter to assist them in any way possible. All this man asked for in return was a new saddle and blanket. Avery couldn't believe his good fortune. At the point of desperation, he made a quickly logical case for the hire. Every one of their sort was trained under the same fierce regimen. Though skills might vary from borough to borough, the basic principles of the hunt would be consistent. He could afford this price and still have enough left over to purchase the last few supplies needed to finish his embarrassingly skeletal barn.
Because it was understood that any hunter would demand a large fee, no one would ever guess at the truth of the matter. The year was coming along as best could be expected with the attacks. His autumn crop would lend support to the sudden completion of a barn four years in the making.
A three week wait almost killed him. But on a sunny day with the sultry heat of an open mouth, his cringe hunter arrived on his doorstep. Avery had been worried that the money hidden in the wall of his bedroom wouldn't keep much longer. His immediate elation at the sight of a square hat and sword strutting through the doorway was short-lived.
“You Avery?” a voice gritted out when he stared dumbfounded at this miniature protector.
He snapped to attention at the authority carrying those two words. “Yes,” he squeaked, then cleared his throat. “You the cringe hunter's second?” he asked hopefully.
The mouth visible below the shadow of that notorious hat quirked in sudden amusement. “No,” the hunter drawled, then reached up to bare a shaggy and decidedly sleek blond head.
Avery's eyes bugged in outright shock. Remembering who it was he might soon insult, he mumbled in explanation, “Wasn't expectin' no woman.”
Apparently not upset in the least, her grin widened after this admission. “Well, that's what you got, mister.”
“Your folks even offer proper training to women?” he asked boldly.
At his suggestion that she might not perform her duty to their satisfaction, she tilted one light brow, then shrugged. “If you've a mind to hire another, it's no worry to me…”
She'd started to turn away as she spoke, and Avery felt a sharp spike of fear drive into his gut as he recalled the monies waiting patiently in his bedroom. He knew he'd never run across a deal such as this again; hell, the woman knew it too. Damn her if he couldn't just see her eyes light up over the realization.
“Wait right there, girlie,” he said, unable to blunt the sharpness of his tone. “Now we have a deal here, and you're not gonna walk away from it.”
She maintained her stony composure at his orders, but he swore those eyes were laughing at him. Avery disliked her immensely by this time, but was well saddled with her now. The cringe hunter nodded stiffly and stood where she was to await further instruction.
“The Missus Bayley is ready to show you the damage,” Avery went on. “So you go on ahead. She'll be waiting for you by now.”
“I'll be sure of my horse first,” she replied. Avery sighed. “Yes, of course your animal will be cared for. I'll have my own boy watch him for you, ah…what did you say your name was again?”
Her face betrayed no emotion at this admittedly clumsy attempt, but her gray eyes shone with the same snide mirth. The wench was an impudent one, to be sure. Cringe hunters cultured a particular arrogance that was very ill suited to the fairer sex. Avery ground his teeth in annoyance when she ignored his question to turn away and quit the house, tapping the square hat back on her head.
It was only after she'd left that he realized they hadn't discussed the subject of payment. The woman was so confident she'd get what she came for that she hadn't mentioned it, preferring instead to worry over her horse. Of course cringe hunters had ways of eliciting due reparations from the towns they serviced. Likely she had no fear of losing anything in this bargain. His hatred intensified. The sooner she moved on, the happier he'd be.
“And then I saw it. It was—it was horrible!” the girl stopped her tale to whimper pitifully for several moments.
The stranger watched these scattered histrionics as she leaned against a well-worn fence post, arms crossed over her chest and legs cast carelessly before her. Cilla Bayley glanced surreptitiously at the woman, saw her heavy lids shaded by her hat, and guessed she might even be sleeping. She sure was quiet, that one. It was damned unnerving when a woman held her tongue like that. Cilla looked away quickly, having already learned that the hunter didn't like to be stared at and had an otherworldly sensitivity to it to match. Damned unnerving.
“What did it look like?”
The voice grated like a hinge in need of oil, ill-used as it was. Shaelin stopped her frantic pacing to stare wide-eyed at the queerly casual woman. The newly wed young wife stood in the center of the narrow corral where her goat had died suddenly just four weeks before. Unfortunately they didn't dare keep any other animals here after the djinn found an innocent spirit to whet its appetite. Now the corral stood abandoned, wet from the rains that burned their crops.
“I heard a terrible whisper. It was casting one of its charms. Then the grass moved as it came closer. Here,” Shaelin said, walking quickly to the opposite side of the corral. The greenery pressed against the fence there with a voracious intensity left unchecked by the absence of livestock to tame it.
Finally the hunter moved from her comfortable position to cross the corral and stand beside Shaelin. Cilla watched, her anticipation growing. After observing the woman keep her silence at no less than six previous testimonials, she despaired of finding any help at all. The woman had seemed most intent on asking the Kippley twins about the raspberry preserves they slurped from filthy fingers as they watched the hunter's progress through town. Though she had never seen a cringe hunter in the flesh before that day, Cilla was sure that this one had no idea what she was doing.
“That's where it stood. I could feel its eyes watching me. Sabo's body lay right where we stand, not an arm's length from the beast,” Shaelin was saying. She pointed in various directions as she spoke.
“On what day did this occur?”
Cilla frowned. This question had not been asked of the other witnesses, but none were as flighty as Shaelin to omit the information from their own stories. What mattered the proper chronology? The djinn was a mindless entity, pouncing upon any prey that presented itself. This capriciousness was what made the spirit such a formidable opponent. Only the greatest of hunters could defeat one. Cilla wondered if Avery had already made payment to this woman.
“On a Tuesday, I think. Four weeks gone.” Shaelin paused as the hunter considered this information. Cilla couldn't see the visitor's face from where she stood but knew she was deep in thought.
“I thank you, woman,” the hunter said pleasantly enough as she turned toward the area pointed out earlier.
Shaelin was stunned by the blatant dismissal, slack-jawed and frozen in place for several moments. But her ire quickly flared. Turning on her heel, she flounced back toward her house, sniffing, “She's worse than my husband.”
Cilla approached the woman timidly. The cringe hunter's back presented, she stared out over the dilapidated fence. As Cilla came close, the other woman gazed down at her feet, then suddenly stooped to crouch near the ground. Cilla rushed around her bent form excitedly, thinking the hunter had spotted something. Holding her breath, she watched the woman root along the earth with her fingers. She then lifted her hand toward her face, rubbing the thumb and forefinger together.
Finally Cilla could hold herself no longer. Expelling her breath in a rush of words, she asked, “What is it?”
The hunter glanced up at her. The hat shielded the upper portion of her face, but Cilla caught the betraying twitch of her lips before she answered, “Mud.”
This was far too much aggravation for Cilla to bear. She snorted angrily, then muttered, “Insolent.”
Wiping her hands on her breeches, the cringe hunter stood once again. “Now you will take your leave of this place, that I might begin my work.”
Cilla couldn't help but glare at her much the way Shaelin had. But she resisted the urge to throw a similar tantrum. This woman would soon be gone, her insufferable nature but a sour memory. She would pout over it then. Dignity intact, she merely shook her head and walked away.
The hunter watched the large woman hurry out of the corral to scuttle down the road nearby. The Missus Bayley was furious, but refused to reveal it. It made her smile quietly to herself. She was quick to chase away any curious gazes when ready to start the hunt.
The woman once had a name, but that was lost long ago. It was last spoken on a dying breath, and wouldn't sound right to her ears now. She was content to continue on through life without one. No one much cared about it anyway, even when they asked directly as the Avery had. She was a means to an end, and could never forget that.
Now that she'd heard the testimony and was alone, she could begin tracking the anxiety that had prompted her presence here. It was a tangled mess of half-truths and exaggeration she would have to sort through to find the source, but fear was always an impressive animal to work with. The emotion was high in this town, too. It had clutched at her with its seductive embrace the moment she rode in.
Even now she could taste it. Fear coated the tongue with a sulfurous cast when drawn in from the air. It was a massive beast here, where seemingly normal folk had succumbed to a hysterical perception of the world around them. This job would take a lot out of her.
“So where is she now?”
“Shaelin saw her walk out toward the woods. If it's still around, that's where it'll be hiding.”
“'Course it's still around. Look you here. Tooth damned well rotted out my head.”
Several such conversations could be heard around town as the sun made its wrathful progress across the sky. Though the day was hot, early evening found plenty of folk making some useful business out in the open, where furtive observation of the northward woods was easiest. The busy happenings of the djinn buzzed in the heavy air around their heads like some pollen-hungry bee. But the cringe hunter was well beyond harvestation of more evidence, for she had already discovered the source she'd been seeking as the townsfolk made their wild speculations. She had more work to do before the day was out, and avoided returning to town for the time being.
“This gal's supposed to be one of the best,” Avery heard one young man say to another as he made his way to the feed store. The useless horse had already eaten everything in sight. He stopped to listen at mention of the girl.
“Heard it took her less'n two hours to clean up Abscan, down by the Resin. She feels 'em out real sneaky like, then smash! Back to hell where they belong.”
“How do you know this one's her?”
A snort followed this query. “She's the only woman they got. Heard tell she earned the right from a brother what had cancer eating him up inside. Still got the blood, you see. That's the difference. Cringe hunters got poison in their veins. That's what they use to polish their blades, you know. Good for demon killin'.”
“You're full of it.”
“It's the truth! My pa told me himself, and he'd rip out an eye before he'd lie.”
Avery stepped away before catching much more of the ensuing argument over bodily injury and falsehoods. He bore coin in his pocket about to be wasted on some nag better used as feed itself, and had to spend it before losing his conviction. Hopefully some of the boy's tall tale rang true. Getting rid of the wench the very day she'd arrived would ease his troubles considerably.
Thunder erupting on a clear day was an evil portent. As the sun settled down to sleep at a cloudless western horizon, the persistent rumbling began overhead. Those standing outside swore the noise originated near the woods, and figured the djinn had been discovered and was fixing to fight. When a storm whipped up in spare moments, they were sure it had some otherworldly cause. The rain that burned was well feared, and wandering folks were quickly herded into whatever available shelter at the downpour.
Those windows and doorways facing the dark north were filled with curious faces. The hunter had yet to emerge since entering the tree line hours before. There were no doubts that a tremendous duel had broken out beyond the line of sight. Lightning slashed a harsh trail across the sky, causing hairs to prickle at the backs of necks. A fearful whimper of a child filled the silence between thunder crash and lightning.
“She's a dead one for sure,” someone whispered confidently at the back of Shaelin's house. More than twenty townsfolk had gathered here after the rains began.
“Bite your tongue! You'll damn her before her due,” a woman immediately hissed.
As one flash illuminated the sky for the briefest of instants, a second dropped toward the earth to split a large tree in two. The loud gasps and screams masked the sound of the great wood toppling amidst a flurry of sparks to disappear in the foliage of its shorter peers. But the shuddering dirt beneath their feet as the earth groaned at the impact was indisputable.
Several younger folks gave in to the urge to investigate, darting out into the storm before anyone could restrain them. The calls demanding their return fell short, for they were off across the field a moment later. But the warnings were premature. Soon after they felt the pelting drops, the rain quit entirely with an enormous break in the clouds.
The violent burst of energy that fell a tree as if it were no more than a twig poked lightly into the ground had been the storm's final expenditure. Though night had fallen, all was clear above them. The first bits of stars peered down to assess the damage left behind with their usual twinkling candor.
“Do you feel that?” a voice asked in the now muffled darkness.
“She drew down a great bolt to smite the beast,” another explained in awe. “This truly is the working of divinity.”
The few who'd braved the storm for the sake of curiosity could be seen splashing up mud and water as they jumped and pushed at each other grandly. The general mirth resulting diverted their attention, so it was just one young girl who noticed a new change in their surroundings.
“Look!” she shouted from her sheltered doorway. “There she is!”
The cringe hunter appeared at last, fully drenched with hat cocked sadly at the weight of the water it had taken on. She grasped her sword in her right hand, seemingly unable to put it aside for the moment. Fatigue fairly glowed around her in the shadows as she stepped forward.
Meeting her first were the impatient ones, with rounds of congratulations and thanks drifting back toward town. The hunter remained silent and steadfast through this. All that showed was her hesitancy in approaching the crowd already forming. But this she did anyway, braving the cheers and laughter to find Avery standing quietly nearby.
“It is done,” was all she said, then sheathed the sword.
Avery nodded curtly, as anxious to see her gone as she obviously was to leave. The horse had already been resaddled that afternoon. He awaited his master patiently, sated at last after eating his weight in oats. Both could not remove themselves fast enough to suit the town's representative.
“All is in readiness,” he replied. No handshake passed between them.
“Hey, was it a djinn? What did it look like?” a small voice demanded, accompanied by a sharp tug on her sodden tunic.
The boy had dared what no one else had the gumption to after seeing the woman's calm determination to take flight. The folk gathered round went silent in some hidden expectation. She gathered they feared he might lose the hand that so audaciously grabbed at her—or worse. But she was struck with no such compulsion.
“It is gone,” she promised instead of answering, and was speaking the truth. They allowed her to pass by at last.
She was never before so glad to leave a town. It had truly been a damnable day, and she pushed Sirjin on his way even though nightfall made the lazy horse's wont turn to sleep. Many years lay between them and the time the animal spent under her brother's guardianship. Today the only fire in his belly followed his casual habit of stuffing himself so full he could hardly walk. Running was a gait of the past. Still, she loved the old boy and wouldn't dream of replacing him.
The storm had been an unexpected surprise. In the process of removing the vines previously misidentified as the devilish form of an evil spirit and thus sparking a connection between normally disparate natural occurrences, the rain had her soaked in minutes. She finished cutting down the mess, shivering and sneezing in the chill.
This was where two children first caught sight of the “beast” as they dawdled over their return home after picking a basketful of wild raspberries. She'd read more than incidental interest in their attention earlier that day, and learned much from questioning them. In near dark, bellies full to bursting and red stains covering fingers, clothing, and faces, the boy and girl saw this oddly shaped bundle and scared themselves silly.
Unwilling to confess their late night wanderings, this meeting was kept in the secret place owned by all children sharing the same womb. Still, the seeds were sown right then for the full-blown hysteria to follow. The loss of teeth, spoilage of food, and death of livestock, once common enough circumstances, were twisted by fear into signs of pure evil.
It was only as she returned that lightning chose to land nearby. What better show of battle could she have ever hoped to orchestrate in effort to ease the public's peace of mind? Still, she'd nearly jumped out of her skin when the oak fell apart in a flaming blaze.
Hurrying out of there, she was not just a little chagrined to see that they thought the job was done. Five minutes chopping foliage and a handy turn of fate finished her up here. She'd have refused payment would it not cause suspicion. So she left with the fire of guilt lighting her heels.
Hoping she was still true to her brother's memory and dying scruples, she turned east to ride toward the point in the horizon where the sun would awaken at dawn. There was another chore not forty miles away, where the curdling of milk and death of a three-year-old boy marked the presence of a burgeoning darkness aching to steal away some of the goodness of this world. Her sword lay heavily at her side, a quiet sigh of faith in a reality ruled by pretense.