Ben scrambled to his feet, dropping the worn old jacket he’d been working on. His needle clattered to the floor, rolling underneath his chair.
“Boy! Get in here!”
The Lupe dashed into the next room, bowing hastily before the impatient figure that stood before him, tapping his feet on the hardwood floor. Quelling his resentment, Ben looked up at Levi, the tailor to whom he had been apprenticed.
“What seems to be the problem, sir?”
The old purple Lenny jerked his head towards a nervous-looking grey Lupe who waited in the front room, clicking his claws together anxiously. “This fella here needs new fittings. Take him into the back; I’ve got better things to do.” He turned back to the register, letting the coins slip between his wing feathers as he counted them, one by one.
Trying not to think about how much he hated Levi, Ben forced a smile at the Lupe. “Come with me, please.” He turned to lead him into the back room and heard the ragged, wheezing breath of the Lupe follow him in.
“Now, if you’ll please stand here...” Ben said, gesturing towards a worn spot in the center of the room. His customer stood there, fidgeting and jerking whenever a loud noise filtered in from outside. His fur was ragged and patchy, sticking up in every which way as though it had not been brushed in weeks. His watery yellow eyes glanced left and right, and he licked his lips nervously.
Ben snatched his supplies off the worn pine workbench, managing to juggle them between his paws as he made his way over to the Lupe- measuring tape, pen and paper, pins, cloth, scissors, and his trusty needle, retrieved from the floor and held firmly between his teeth.
“Left arm, please,” he managed to mumble through his teeth, and the Lupe obeyed, holding out his arm as Ben looped the tape around it in several places, marking down the measurements on a sheet of paper. It was rather difficult. Between the grey Lupe’s fidgeting and Ben trying to manage his supplies, it was a wonder he managed to get anything done. He sighed with relief once the measuring was finished, then shuddered to think of the pinning that still lay ahead.
The silence unnerved him. It settled in the air, filling the room and leaving Ben almost as tense and raw-nerved as the stranger.
Sticking the needle into a piece of cloth, he opened his mouth to speak, stuttering in nervousness. “S-so, what’s your name?” The strange Lupe jerked a little bit at the sound of his voice, causing Ben to nearly stick him with one of the pins. He scowled and tugged it out, rethreading it through the cloth so that it would hold it in place securely.
“Johnson,” the Lupe rasped, his voice very hoarse. “Erin Johnson.”
Ben nodded, concentrating on his work. It would not do to stab the only customer they’d had in days. After the pre-winter swarm not long ago, everyone had retreated to their homes to finish the harvesting and prepare for the winter. “So, Mr. Johnson, where are you from?”
“East,” Erin said, fidgeting uncomfortably. Of course, he was trying to be vague and uninteresting, but his simple reply set Ben’s boyish imagination afire.
“What brings you to Neovia?” Ben asked, trying to belie his interest. It wasn’t often that strangers came to town, situated in the Haunted Woods as it was.
“I’m looking for land,” he rasped, eyes shifting from side to side as though he was looking for something. His fingers twitched and jerked at his side. “I lost my old farm. There were- complications.”
Ben’s brow knit as he looked at the stranger with a perplexed expression. “Can’t see why you’d want to come here, then. The land’s awful- we get all these cold winds blowing in from the mountains in the west. You should try Farfield, or maybe Jessony. Pretty much all we grow here is weeds and pumpkins.”
Silence fell again and Ben continued his work, attempting to pin a lose white shirt to fit the Lupe’s scrawny frame. He was so high-strung that when he heard somebody laugh outside, he jumped and speared his finger on a pin.
“Oh, bother,” he growled as blood welled up on his finger. Carefully, he extracted the pin, wincing as bolts of pain shot up through his hand. Fyora, it hurts! One fat red drop fell to the floor, spattering over the dark wood. “I suppose I’ll have to get a bandage for this.” The pin had gone rather deep.
“Here, let me see,” the stranger said, his face taking on a rather glazed expression. He inspected the finger, eyes intent. The blood seemed to captivate him, and he turned Ben’s finger over and over in his hand, watching it with some expression Ben couldn’t quite name. His fidgeting had ceased, causing him to look rather like a stone statue- except no sculptor would have ever made a statue with such matted fur. Ben shivered and jerked his hand away, unnerved by the other Lupe’s unusual reaction.
The stranger drew back, wincing slightly. “Sorry,” he croaked as he dug for something in his pocket, managing to avoid all of the pins. “I haven’t much of a stomach for blood... here.” He handed Ben a strip of bandage and smiled, a bit sheepishly. “I always carry some around in case I get injured on the road. More often than not I use them for little scrapes and bruises than anything else, so I’ve got plenty to spare.” The boy took the bandage and thanked him, but he was shaking. He finished the measurements and told the traveler to come back in a few days for his clothes, but all throughout the same thought was running through his head. He didn’t come for the farming. And he definitely didn’t come from the east. You can smell it on him. He smells like the woods- and there’s nothing to the east but plains.
All the way home, Ben’s mind was troubled. He couldn’t stop thinking about the stranger. For some reason, that one image stuck with him- the image of the stranger staring at the blood on his finger, an expression of rapture on his face. I wonder what he’s really doing here, he thought as he walked down the street. His finger throbbed uncomfortably, and he cradled it with his other hand, hoping the pain would fade. A thought occurred to him and he stopped. Surely someone else must have seen that Lupe!
Maybe I can even find where he’s staying. It’s worth a shot. Maybe this means something! It’s just like a book, like one of those adventures of old...
He rubbed his forehead and sighed. What am I thinking? I’m no hero, and this is no Meridell. No knights in shining armor here... There was nothing to worry about. How could a stranger ever hurt anybody? Ben laughed at his fears as he strolled towards home, arms behind his back and whistling. After all, it wasn’t like there was anything the Lupe could do, was there?
Nothing here but a weird stranger...
A stranger from the woods.
Nothing to worry about at all...
But unbeknownst to Ben, he wasn’t the only one who had been unnerved by the meeting. In the shadows of the inn hovered a familiar figure, pacing his room as night began to fall slowly over the Haunted Woods. Letting out a wordless cry, he slammed his fist down on the dresser, filled with frustration. Sighing, he looked up at the mirror. A gaunt, ragged face stared back, worn and tired from traveling. But there was something in his eyes. The strangest, smallest flicker of red...
Cursing mightily, the stranger sat on his bed, holding his head in his hands. His anger mounted, boiling inside of him like a sea. It thrashed and swirled, snarling to get out. The headaches were back, stronger than ever, and that could only mean one thing.
It was a full moon tonight.