The Old Wardens
By Hazel B. West
This story kind of popped into my head as soon as I started thinking of something for this challenge. It’s kind of a mixture of Ranger’s Apprentice, Percy Jackson and Grimm. It might possibly be made into a novel later, in fact, it’s most likely it will, so I hope it doesn’t come across as being too rushed or cliff-hangery at the end. Also, on another note, I have not personally been to Portland…yet, so I apologize for any inaccuracies that occur in this story. I definitely plan on visiting before I turn this story into a novel.
My name is Owen Cadwallader and I’m about 90 percent sure I wasn’t supposed to be born in this century.
It might sound odd to say something like that, but I was pretty sure it was the case. And it wasn’t just my love of old tomes above people, there were things about me, things I kept hidden, that let me know despite trying to tell myself differently that I was just…different.
For example, I had an uncanny ability to learn dead languages. Forget Latin, I’m talking about ancient Welsh and Scandinavian dialects, and I was reading Beowulf in the original old English back in fifth grade. There was also the fact that I seemed to be able to pick up any weapon and it felt right. Yeah, okay, I didn’t have an arsenal or anything, but I did have a couple favorite items I had picked up at an antique shop that adorned my walls. I blamed it on my ancestry, which is Welsh, but still, call me crazy, but I felt something else might have been going on there.
Because of this, as one would imagine, life was hard for me living in 21st Century Portland. I had just celebrated my eighteenth birthday a week before things started happening. It began with a phone call—well, in a roundabout way. I got a call from a bookshop one morning telling me that a book I had been looking for was in, and I decided I was going to pick it up after school that day. My mom gave me my lunch as usual, and I was off walking to school. I walked as much as possible, I hated the bus; the cool morning air cleared my head and gave me some much needed solitude before the press of classes started.
Not that I had much more than solitude at school either. I didn’t really have friends, much preferring the company of books at lunch than people. It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried, it’s just trying to contain the amount of weird I had in my head around other people was too exhausting, and when I slipped up and spouted some arcane fact about British folklore, people gave me odd looks and eventually learned to avoid me. So yeah, friends didn’t work out too well, despite how my mom always seemed to try to pair me up with daughters of her friends, even forced me on a date once, but I had messed it up because apparently girls aren’t interested in Scandinavian epics and sword songs. I personally found them to be romantic.
So, it was just me and my books trudging through my last year of high school and still wondering what I was going to do when I graduated in three months. Probably take my Grand Tour of the British Isles. Portland was my home, and I was fond of it, but I felt smothered there, and I wanted to find a place I felt I belonged.
School dragged, as usual, hammering out math problems that never came easy, and finishing history work that was bland at best because they focused on all the wrong subjects. I couldn’t wait to get out and ran almost as soon as the bell rang, grabbing my coat and looping my tattered scarf around my neck as I hurried for the door.
I made a quick stop at the coffee shop on the corner and then headed downtown to where the used bookshop was that was holding my order. I hadn’t been to this one yet, but it held promise. I hoped to maybe find a couple other books I was looking for there as well.
As promised, the shop, when I found it, was small, but packed with books, sporting an old fashioned, hanging sign that read: USED AND RARE BOOKS. I opened the door to the soft tinkling of a bell, and inhaled deeply the sent of old paper and leather bindings.
No one was at the desk when I came in, but I was content to wait. I looked around for a few minutes, but when no one appeared, my curiosity overcame me and I began to explore the maze of shelves so packed that stacks of books littered the floor as well. It was my kind of place; this was where I felt most at home.
I found the mythology section easily enough, for it was quite large as opposed to what was typically to be found in bookstores. Looking up, I saw an old book of Arthurian legends that instantly caught my eye. There was a shelf ladder resting there and I couldn’t resist climbing it to fetch the book. I eased it off the shelf and blew the dust from it, ready for a peek.
“Can I help you?”
I startled so violently, I had to drop the book to grab onto the ladder, and once I steadied myself, I shoved my shaggy hair from my eyes and looked down to see a man standing there, the volume held in his outstretched arms, an unamused look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, hurriedly climbing down the ladder. “I just wanted to look at it.”
“I prefer customers to stay off the ladder for that reason,” the man said before looking down and considering the book. “However, I must say you have good taste. It’s lucky you did not damage it, this book is almost two hundred years old.”
“I know,” I told him, unable to help myself. “Or, I suspected from the binding.”
The man set a pair of piercing eyes on me, and it felt as if he were looking straight into my soul, making me uncomfortable. I studied him for the first time. He was middle-aged, probably in his early forties, and had dark brown hair that was a bit longer than mine, curling at the back of his neck and around his ears. A slightly ginger beard accompanied grey eyes that had the look of a warrior in them. Someone who missed nothing. I wondered vaguely what those eyes were seeing when they looked at me.
The man considered a moment more. “And how do you know so much about old books, lad?”
He had some kind of accent, I noticed them. Soft, but distinctly British, and I guessed Welsh, because it reminded me of my grandfather.
I shrugged. “I’ve always loved old books,” I told him truthfully enough. “My grandfather taught me. I have his collection.”
“Ah,” the man said, seeming to let down whatever guard he had set but not completely, I saw, with fascination. “Are you the Mr. Cadwallader I called earlier?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Hm,” he said, and I wasn’t sure, but I thought it seemed more of a confirmation than disappointment. Maybe a bit of scrutiny. “Well, come then, your book it at the front desk.”
He set the Arthurian volume on a stack of books and I followed him dutifully, wanting to look at the other one, but deciding it was probably best not to press the matter at that moment, since I had almost dropped it on his head.
The man stepped behind the desk and bent to retrieve my book. As he bent over, his long coat flared to the side and I almost thought I saw a metallic flash that looked very much like the hilt of a dagger. But I was prone to fantasize about that sort of thing. In any case, I was soon enough looking at the tome set in front of me.
“The Poems of Ossian, 1820s edition,” he told me as he set it on the desk. “That will be fifty-five dollars—I don’t take credit.”
I fished my wallet out of my pocket and handed him the money. He took my book and wrapped it in paper before handing it to me. I thanked him and tucked it under my arm.
“I’ll likely be back,” I told him. “Do you have a card?”
The man handed me one and I looked at it seeing the phone number and, likely his name: Rhys Hywel.
“That’s me,” he grunted.
“Nice to meet you, thanks again,” I said and smiled before I left the shop.
I started on my long walk home, my boots splashing through a puddle from last night’s rain. I was excited to have my new book, but for some reason, I just couldn’t stop thinking there was something strange, different, about the man at the bookshop, this Rhys Hywel—I had been right about him being Welsh then. Maybe it was a kindred, ancestral spirit I felt between us; he seemed like an outcast of normal society as well, but…ah, forget it. As my mother loves to say, I think too much about things that don’t even matter.
She had always said the same thing about my grandfather, Gareth Cadwallader. He was the reason I loved what I did. When I was a kid, I used to sit with him for hours and he would tell me such fantastical stories about history, and especially folklore. Stories about King Arthur, Beowulf, Na Fianna, and everything in between. I knew more about how to defeat a dragon or cockatrice than I did about biology, and always worked all the traditional folklore into actual history to the point my teachers gave up on me. I don’t know if I loved it so much because of my grandfather, or if I would have loved it anyway. All I know, is that I could never get enough, and since he died when I was twelve, it’s been my constant companion; something to keep me sane, even if I was now alone in my enjoyment of it.
I scaled the steps to our front door and went inside, wiping my boots on the mat.
“You’re back late,” my sister, Catherine, said from the kitchen, pouring cereal into a bowl.
“Went to pick up something from a bookshop,” I told her.
She snorted. “Whatever. I don’t need to know your geeky habits.” She went to the living room and plopped down on the couch in front of the TV. I sighed and crossed to the stairs, going up to the third floor where my room was.
It was the attic room, secluded and a bit cramped, but it was mine, and I loved it. My bed was under the round window at the far wall, and to the right was my desk, above which was mounted a sword, and a long axe as well as several daggers and a shield I had collected over the years. The other wall was all books. A jumble of mismatched shelves and piles and pretty much wherever books would fit, they went. I slid my messenger bag off my shoulder and threw it onto my bed, before I took my new book out of it and went to the desk to open it. It was in surprisingly good condition and I was glad to see that I wouldn’t have to do any repairs on it. All the books in Mr. Hywel’s shop had seemed to be very well kept. I decided I would likely be going back there soon when I had more time to look around. Despite the fact that he seemed a rather odd and unsociable fellow. Of course, most people would say the same about me.
But first, I decided to get homework out of the way, otherwise, I would never finish it. I groaned as I stood and tossed off my jacket and scarf, grabbing my bag and going back downstairs to find a snack while I worked. I reminded myself that it was only a few more months and then I would be free. It just seemed an eternity away from right then, when all I wanted to do was pursue my own studies.
I made myself a cheese sandwich and sat at the kitchen table, spreading my books out and scribbling quickly through the literature work, which at least was simple, seeing as I was one of the few students who had read Shakespeare quite a bit, and hadn’t even had to look back at Hamlet to answer the questions. The history was likewise easy, although I knew Mrs. Hammond wasn’t going to like my answers even if they were, technically, correct. I didn’t even want to think of the grade I would get on my essay.
I was working on my math problems when I heard something from the living room where my sister was watching TV, likely one of those intolerable reality shows, but this sounded like a news report and I glanced up to see the screen, listening to the reporter’s voice.
“Police say this is the second body to be found killed in such a manner. Whether it’s random attacks or assassination, they are unable to confirm at this juncture.”
“Ugh, just what I need; more reasons for Mom to freak out about me going into town,” Catherine groaned and switched the channel.
“Wait,” I called, getting up and heading into the room to stand behind the couch. “Turn it back.”
“Why?” she asked lazily. “Someone just got killed. Although I know you like all that morbid stuff.”
But she did switch it back and I watched with a frown as the reporter continued the story, realizing the killing had happened here in Portland.
“Police have not shared complete details about these strange deaths yet, but it is considered to be a mob killing, due to the unusual weapons used.”
Unfortunately, that seemed to be all they would say, and it turned to the weather report. I didn’t know why this story interested me so much, it had just caught my attention; anything weird did. Instead of returning to my schoolwork, I hurried back upstairs to my computer and searched for more information on the story. I found a report from a few days ago, likely the first of these strange killings. Scrolling through the regular rigmarole, I was finally able to see the cause of death.
“Cause of death is still to be determined whether it was actually a stabbing or a shooting, due to the strange spikes found in the victim’s chest.”
I read on, and discovered more information in other articles, finding out the spikes seemed to be organic, and also likely poisoned, as both bodies came back from toxicology reports with a currently undetermined type of toxin in their blood. This really was strange. I instantly thought maybe they might be half right about the mob thing. It sounded like a sort of ritual killing, and reminded me of the South American’s using darts with frog poison on them. Although why something like that would suddenly turn up in Portland, was anyone’s guess. I decided I was going to do some research on this. I didn’t know why, just that the idea wasn’t going to let me go anytime soon, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest until I had figured out what was causing this. It would give me something to occupy myself with anyway.
I heard the front door close and knew my mom was back from work. It was just her and my sister and I, since my dad had left just after Catherine was born. Mom blamed my anti-social nature and strange interests on not having a father figure, but the truth was I hardly remembered him and didn’t think about it all that much. I didn’t even use his last name. Besides, I knew it wasn’t some stupid teen rebellion thing, and it wasn’t like I was doing anything dangerous or bad anyway. It wasn’t my fault I couldn’t make friends, I just never seemed to be able to find the right people.
I closed my laptop and went back downstairs seeing my mother unloading groceries onto the table, sighing at me before I even got in the room.
“Owen, you didn’t finish your work, at least get it off the table so I can get dinner ready.”
“Sorry,” I told her as I cleared my things away. I helped her put stuff in the cupboards, then left to finish my work before dinner. It was a normal affair with Catherine talking about all her friends and everything she did (or didn’t do) in school that day and I not adding much. I might have hated school, but at least I tried. Of course, I didn’t have the distractions my sister did either. I excused myself early and went off to read my new book.
I pushed aside my papers that I had been practicing writing runes on. I was determined to get good at reading not only English in runes but ancient Scandinavian as well, then I could work on translating a couple of the old books that my grandfather had, some of the few I hadn’t been able to read yet.
While I was clearing my desk, the card I had gotten from the bookstore fluttered to the floor and I bent to pick it up, seeing it had landed on the reverse side. There was a small mark in the middle of it, and I squinted to make it out, seeing that it looked vaguely familiar and not knowing why. I finally shook my head, and decided it was probably because I had seen it at the store or something. Besides, I had other things to think about at the moment.
I read for a while, then decided to try and get some sleep. I wasn’t very good at sleeping, more used to keeping odd hours which kind of came with the nature of being a scholar. Coffee was my constant companion on most mornings, and I wasn’t even ashamed to admit that I fell asleep in history class most of the time and still ended up able to get all the questions right to my teacher’s constant chagrin.
Something woke me in the middle of the night. I realized I had fallen asleep with my book across my chest, on top of the blankets. I was cold, the attic room having little to no heating, and it was only nearly spring and freezing for the most part. I thought at first that was what had woken me, but heard the echo of something in my head, wondering if it had just been a dream sound.
Then I heard it again, a strange cry that I could not identify. I crouched on the bed and looked out the small window, unable to see anything in the darkness, no streetlights illuminating the ground below. I waited several seconds, but heard nothing else, and relaxed, figuring it was probably an animal of some sort, likely a cat. They made the most horrifying noises sometimes. Probably the culprit for the banshee legends.
I rubbed my face with my hand, feeling not so tired now as I had been. I stood up and went to my desk to pick up a book that I was fixing and my box of tools. Apart from being a professor in folklore and mythology, my grandfather had been a bookbinder, and that was another trade I had learned from him. A more profitable one too, as I did it as a sort of side business. For the most part, it paid for my book-buying habits if I was able to get enough work. This book was mine though, one from my grandfather’s collection. A bestiary from the 16th century. It was beautifully illuminated and I had remembered it fondly from when I was a boy, but it was very old and needed a lot of care and maintenance. I was currently repairing some of the pages, painstakingly sewing them back together before I would clamp the book and glue the binding before reattaching it to the cover which also needed repairing.
The section I was working on that night caught my eye, even though I had seen it a hundred times. It was about the manticore, a Persian/European creature of legend that was said to have the body of a lion but a face with very humanlike features. It was also a man-eater and carried poisonous barbs on its tail that it could shoot at people. I remember it was one of the few things that had scared me as a child. Not so much for the nature of the beast, but because of its human face. I had to admit even now, the picture was kind of creepy.
I worked for a while until my eyes started to burn, but I had finished the leaflets and was able to place the document into my book clamp for gluing tomorrow. I gently picked up the old cover to set aside as I stood up, but something on the cover caught my eye. I brought it under my lamp, frowning, as I took a closer look at the small symbol that had been embossed on the back cover of the leather binding; just barely recognizable after all these years, but there nonetheless.
It was a round shield, with a crossed sword and scroll over top of it. Just like the one that had been on the card I got from the bookshop.
Just to make sure, I took the card from my desk again and looked at it, comparing the symbol to the one I had just found. They were indeed identical. I sat down with a frown.
“Okay, that is a bit odd,” I had to say out loud. I had a feeling I was going to be going back to that bookshop the next day with a few questions for Mr. Hywel.
The next morning started normally enough. I drug myself from bed, packed for school, and hurried to eat my toast before I had to leave with my coffee and a quick hug to my mom. I usually walked, since it wasn’t far to the high school from my house, but that morning I had a strange feeling about doing so. It was like I was being watched, and I had no idea why I was being so paranoid all of a sudden and hoped I was rational enough not to freak out over the strange killings that had been happening.
I looked around but couldn’t see anyone anyway, so I didn’t worry overmuch, or at least forced myself not to. The hair on the back of my neck had other ideas.
Either way, I was actually glad to get to school that morning, if only to have the normal amount of people ignoring me, and made it to class earlier than I normally would have.
School was normal too, and afterward, I decided I was going to run back to the bookstore to ask about the symbol. Even if there was actually nothing really strange about it, I wanted to know where it came from and what it meant out of normal curiosity.
However, when I left the school, I again had that strange feeling between my shoulder blades that someone was watching me. This was getting creepy, and I surreptitiously yanked the collar of my jacket up around my neck and hunched my shoulders as I walked, trying to look as determined and unwelcoming as possible. I was beginning to have some doubts about going to the bookstore as it was in a sort of unpopulated part of town, but decided there was no reason to worry, and steeled myself, keeping to my destination.
Unfortunately, when I got there, I saw a CLOSED sign on the door. Huffing in frustration and disappointment, I started back for home. I had lots of homework to get done anyway.
I didn’t get that far though. I was about five blocks from my house, passing a park, when I heard shouting behind me and turned curiously and a little hurriedly, to see a group of people gathering, sounding frightened and a little frantic. Against my better judgment, I hurried over to them, wondering if I could help.
“What’s going on, is everyone okay?” I asked.
“Stay back, son,” a man told me, putting an arm out. “You don’t want to see this.”
Of course, that made me want to do just that, and I ducked around the man only to stop and stare in horror at the object of interest.
A man lay on his face among some bushes, having been unearthed by a maintenance worker who was currently emptying his stomach a few yards away. I knew instantly the man was dead, and what’s more, could clearly see what had killed him. Three long, thin projectiles that looked a bit like porcupine spines but… now buried between his shoulder blades. I didn’t know how to react to what I was seeing, just standing there, staring until someone grabbed me and pulled me back. I vaguely heard police sirens coming and then saw the cops pull up and force everyone back, including me, as they set up a perimeter tape.
I stumbled, shaking my head as I returned to my senses. I didn’t really know what bothered me so much about the scene. Sure, I hadn’t really seen a dead person before, but there was something else, something unnatural about the death. Those spines that killed him just seemed too odd. I shook my head again; maybe my mom was right, maybe I thought too much about the arcane and supernatural and needed to stick to more normal things.
Something distracted me from the scene in front of me where the police were checking out the body and forcing people farther away. Out of the corner of my eye, I had caught sight of a figure across the park dressed in a long, drab coat, and appearing to watch the proceedings. I don’t know what possessed me, because for all I knew—and to make it worse, I think this is actually where my thoughts were headed—he could have been the one who murdered the man, but I was off across the park, following him. Thinking back on it, I had no idea what had turned my head about this particular rash of killings, but I had unknowingly become obsessed with them.
In any case, I did probably the most stupid thing I had ever done in my life, and followed the man out of the park and around a corner of a nearby building that looked more or less unoccupied. And then I lost him.
All I found when I turned the corner I thought I had seen him go down was an old car, a 60s Chrysler, parked on the curb. I sighed, shaking my head. What had I been thinking? What did I expect to find anyway, a murderer, an assassin? If I had, what would I do then? Sure, I knew the mechanics of fighting, but it wasn’t like I had actually practiced in real combat before. I turned to leave.
I didn’t even get all the way around before I was grabbed by my jacket, my right arm wrenched up behind my back, and my face planted against the hood of the parked car. I gasped in pain and surprise and struggled in the iron grip, my school books in my bag digging into my stomach.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” came the voice behind me; low, oddly calm, and slightly accented.
I tried to wrench my head around to see him. “Let me go!”
Unexpectedly, he did, and I swung around, kicking out at my attacker’s knee while swinging a right hook into his face. Both attacks failed, however, as I found myself with my back slammed against the side of the building, the air driven from my lungs. When my eyesight finally cleared though, I saw who my attacker was.
“You?!” I croaked, shocked.
Rhys Hywel stood in front of me, a bland look on his face. “That’s quite an educated guess,” he said sarcastically, loosening his grip on me, but tightening it again as I began to struggle. “I wouldn’t try that again. You might have some natural skill, but I assure you, I am far better. Not that it’s any fault of yours, of course. You have hardly been properly trained.”
I stared slack jawed at him, not knowing what to say. Who was this Hywel fellow anyway? And, more importantly, why was he hanging around the site of a murder?
“Let me go,” I finally managed to say again, glaring pointedly at the hands gripping my jacket.
“Not if you’re just going to run away,” Hywel said resignedly. “I want to talk to you, Owain.”
“Well, I don’t!” I said indignantly, renewing my struggles to no avail. “For all I know you could have killed that man!”
He chuckled at this. “I assure you that is not the case. And if you would use that brain of yours, you would be able to rationalize that out as well.”
“Well, it looks pretty suspicious, you have to admit,” I growled, finally giving up my struggles, but still ready for anything.
He sighed. “If you must know, I was following you. I didn’t intend for you to see me. You’re not completely dense, I will give you that.”
Fear and a bit of revulsion washed over me and I struggled again, but found my kick blocked with a well-placed shin.
“Stop doing that!” Hywel commanded in exasperation. “No, I’m not a murderer or pervert, or stalker, or anything else of the sort, Mr. Cadwallader. I am trying to protect you, and I need you to cooperate with me so that it will make the job easier.”
“Protect me?” I choked out. “What do I need protecting from apart from you?”
He groaned low in his throat, rolling his eyes and released me with one hand to fish under the collar of his shirt. “Fine, I suppose I’ll just have to get to it then. Do you recognize this symbol?”
He revealed a medallion that held the same symbol that I had found on his card and the book the night before. I stared in surprise and he finally loosened his grip and let me go fully, seeming to decide I wasn’t going to run now. Against my better judgment, I didn’t.
“I knew your grandfather,” he confirmed. “And I need you to trust me, because there are many things that need to be explained to you, and explained quickly if you’re to survive the next few days without potentially deadly mishap, so I suggest you come with me and we’ll get down to business.”
“And why should I do that?” I demanded. “Sure, you say you knew my grandfather, but does that mean I can trust you? And what do you mean my ‘potentially deadly’? Where are we going?”
“To the bookstore, there’s something I need to show you,” he said, pulling out a set of keys and unlocking the car door. “Get in.”
Making an even rasher decision than the one I had earlier, I took my chances and climbed into the passenger seat.
He didn’t speak for a few long minutes as he drove slowly down the street, and all that time, I clutched my bag in my lap, thinking how stupid I had been to get into a car with a man who had been following me just because he said he knew my grandfather and was trying to protect me. Yeah, ‘stranger danger’ had been drilled into my head really well as a kid, obviously.
“I see you don’t trust me,” Hywel said after a while, startling me slightly. “That’s good. Your instincts seem to be sharp at least.”
“What does that even mean?” I demanded, finally deciding I couldn’t stay silent any longer. “And how did you know my grandfather? Are you going to explain anything to me or are you just going to stay all cryptic and kidnapper on me? I don’t even know why I agreed to this at all.”
A small smile flitted over his lips, pure amusement. “At least you’re not stupid. I’m afraid it would be easier to show you what I’m going to when we get there, but as for how I knew your grandfather, he was my teacher, you could say. My mentor.”
“You mean you were in his class at the collage?” I asked. I had met several of my grandfather’s students over the years, but none of them had been this…eccentric.
Another amused smile. “Not exactly.”
“Then what exactly?” I asked, exasperated.
He huffed through his nose. “You ask all too many questions, Master Owain. Please refrain until I can better explain by showing.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then decided it probably wasn’t going to do any good and just clamped it shut. We were almost to the bookstore again, and I was just deciding whether I should run as soon as I got out of the car, or not. As it pulled to a stop, I made another rash decision on my part to at least hear him out, hoping vainly that I would have some way out if this ended up going sideways.
“Follow me,” he said, as he unlocked the door to the shop, and closed it behind me, leaving the closed sign on the door. I half thought of turning it around, in the vague hope that someone would come along, but he was already disappearing through the shelves of books and heading to the back of the store. I followed cautiously, holding my bag in a position that I could swing it at his head if I needed to. Textbooks gave more than one kind of headache.
Finally, we came to a door and it opened into a small back room that looked to be mostly storage. I hung back, thinking this was a perfect place to get beaten over the head and tied up, but Hywel didn’t even turn back toward me yet. He went to a bookshelf on the back wall and took a large tome out, reaching behind it to touch the back panel of the shelf. A click was heard and the bookshelf swung out to reveal another doorway. Okay, that was rather cool.
“Come, Mr. Cadwallader,” Hywel told me, motioning me forward.
I hesitated, thoughts of what could be down there—a dungeon, a serial killer’s lair—but it didn’t smell like blood and decay, just old books, and well, I was already this far, I guess it couldn’t get much worse than this.
I took a deep breath and stepped forward behind him as he descended a set of stairs and flipped a light switch at the bottom. I couldn’t help the awe that I felt at seeing what this room was. And thankfully, it was certainly not a dungeon.
More bookshelves lined one wall, while another held jars and glass cases that seemed to hold scientific specimens and such, another wall was adorned with an armoire and sported several swords hanging on the wall beside it. The last wall, displayed the sword and scroll crest that seemed to be popping up everywhere recently, and in the middle of the room was a long table with chairs and lamps that looked like it had been stolen from the public library.
“What…is this place?” I asked, half shocked that it was so different from my dark imaginings.
“This, Owain Cadwallader, is your ancestry, your bloodline,” Hywel said, gesturing around. “You are an Old Warden.”
“What is that?” I asked cautiously.
“It’s what I am, and what your grandfather was,” Hywel told me, being helpful as usual.
“And what exactly is an ‘old warden’? Is it some secret society like the Freemasons?”
He laughed dryly. “No. The Freemasons don’t have any real significance, just a fancy gentleman’s club. The Old Wardens or yr Hen Wardeniaid in Welsh, are an ancient group of warrior scholars, whose job it is to be knowledgeable in what the world classes as folklore and mythology. They started soon after the death of Arthur, and have survived until this day.”
“But what do they do?” I asked. “It doesn’t seem to have any real use, does it?”
Hywel looked at me judgingly. “Does it not? It is a Warden’s job to protect the people in their charge from things the general populace do not always believe in, but are, in fact, very real, and very much a threat. Or help them understand the ones that aren’t. Either way, though our place in actual society is not what it used to be, our jobs are almost more important in this jaded, cynical age we live in when people refuse to believe in things science claims to be fantasy, when in actuality the creatures we study are just species that have been forgotten by time. Ones that are so rare there are only handfuls left.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said, frowning. “What do you protect people from?”
“From things that no one believes exists. Things like what is killing people here in this city now.”
“And what is that?” I asked angrily, wishing he would just get to the point. And he complained that I asked too many questions like it was all my fault.
He folded his arms across his chest. “Very well, if you don’t want me to ease into this, I’ll tell you straight. Those people were killed by a manticore.”
That stopped me. I stared at him, judging to see if he was joking or if I had misheard, and finally I started laughing, but he never joined in. “Are you bloody serious?” I demanded. “A manticore?”
“I am very serious, Master Owain, and so should you be.”
“So what you’re saying is that these wardens hunt mythical creatures?”
“That is what I have been trying to tell you. But they’re not as ‘mythical’ as people like to believe.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, deicing this guy was just plain nuts. “Even if that were true, manticores are a Persian creature, they shouldn’t be seen outside of the Middle East and they prefer wooded areas, and while I could understand one being found in the woods, or out near Mount Hood, why would it want to be smack in the middle of Portland? Plus, they are carnivores, and none of the victims were…eaten.”
Hywel seemed strangely pleased with my questions. “That is good, Owain, you do know your lore, your grandfather taught you well. And to answer all your questions, I don’t know. And that’s what I’ve been trying to find out.”
I sank down into one of the chairs, running a hand through my already messy hair. “Okay, so are you serious? Why would you be serious about this?”
“I am very serious about this.”
“And you say I’m a warden. How is that possible? I never even heard of them until now.”
“Yes, that is regrettable,” Hywel said, sounding genuinely sad about it. “Had your grandfather lived, he would have taught you something about it to prepare you. Most Wardens are brought up with some knowledge of the life, but I think it’s because of your mother that he didn’t.”
“Does she know?” I asked suddenly.
“No, and it’s probably best to keep it that way. It is rare that women share the bloodline and your grandfather never thought it fit to teach her. She was not cut out for it, so he took me as an apprentice instead as I will take you.”
“Woah, hold on, I don’t even believe this,” I told him firmly. “I just thought my grandfather was a professor, I didn’t think he actually hunted stuff like manticores. I didn’t even think he believed this stuff existed. I thought he just told me those stories to amuse me as a kid.”
“Well, now you know. He told you those stories to prepare you in the only way he could and at least it seemed to have paid off. Come look at this, it might change your mind.”
I reluctantly stood, and went to the wall with all the glass cases and bottles. My breath caught in my throat as I saw the things in there, stuff that on first glace looked to be nothing more than a naturalist’s collection, but upon closer examination was far too strange to be what anyone could call normal.
There were jars with strange creatures or worse, creature parts, bottled inside, and other bits and pieces. I gazed, horrified into a case that held a long spike, reminiscent of the ones that I had seen in the corpse of the murdered man less than an hour ago. It was labeled Manticore spine. I swallowed hard. But even more mind-blowing was what I saw in the next case, a long, black claw that could have been from a dinosaur, but looked oh so much more lethal. This was marked impossibly as Dragon claw. Yeah, I really didn’t know what to say about that.
“This is all real?” I gulped out.
“It is,” Hywel said.
I went back to the table and sat down, completely shaken. “Okay, so I guess my life just completely turned around. And I’m going to hunt these things too?”
“It would be a good idea to learn,” Hywel said. “I know it’s a lot to take in all at once, and I am sorry I didn’t find you before. I was out of state until the last few months, but when I heard it was your eighteenth birthday, I came back to track you down. It is customary to present a Warden with their sword and a mentor in their eighteenth year. Your grandfather would have done it for you had he lived.”
“Okay, so I’m part of an ancient scholar warrior bloodline—that’s pretty epic, I guess. But why are the wardens here? It sounds more like a British or European thing.”
“It started as such, obviously, before the New World was populated by our ancestors. In the ancient days through the dark ages it was a very lucrative profession with all the monsters and dragons running around. But as the creatures began to dwindle the Wardens became fewer, until only about a hundred bloodlines stuck around, you and I are part of some of the first ones. As people came from Europe they brought many things with them, even creatures whether on accident or on purpose, until some Wardens traveled to the New World to take up their professions here. It used to be that there was a Warden in every large city, but now it’s lucky if there’s one in every state. There’s not as much call for our expertise anymore. But sometimes things happen and we are needed still.”
“The manticore,” I said quietly, shuddering slightly at the thought of looking at the picture in the bestiary the night before.
“Indeed,” Hywel confirmed. “I thought it would be a prime opportunity for you to start your work as a Warden. Also, beasts seem to have an uncanny attraction to us. Something in our blood, our makeup, makes us seem like a predator to them and causes them to fight back. I was afraid that if I left you in the dark, you might do something foolish and get yourself killed by the manticore. I couldn’t watch you all the time.”
I mulled this over, unable to really process any of it. There was all too much too soon. I put my head down in my hands and must have stayed like that for a long time because the next thing I knew, Hywel was putting a steaming cup of tea beside me.
“Drink it, it will help.”
I sipped warily, but found it strong and not disagreeable. It did refresh me, and I was able to start rationalizing again. At least as far as I could rationalize in this very strange situation.
“You do have a choice, Owain,” he told me after a while. “But know that if you do choose not to join the Wardens, the life still might find you and it might end badly for your not being prepared.”
I was still silent, my hands wrapped around the mug of tea, the warmth doing little to stay my nerves. Finally, I took a deep sigh and looked up. “If I do agree to do this, to be a…warden, then what does that entail?”
“Lots of research work—more so than hunting, fight training, and sticking around me probably more than you want to. You also have to learn to be ready night and day for any occurrence. Sometimes family and friends have to be put aside for the greater good of helping the many. It is not an easy life, but if you want to apply yourself, then I have a feeling you will make a very fine Warden.”
I took a deep draft of the tea, and set it down on the table with a thunk, looking up to meet Hywel’s eyes. “Okay then, when do we start?”
Copyright© 2015 by Hazel B. West
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