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Chapter 18

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Chapter XVIII

Return of a Ghost

 

Outside the doors of the mountain as both Vernon and Charlie raise their guns raised on the hooded figure. Who was at that moment lowering his own gun and looking around checking to see if there were any more wolves, seeming unperturbed by the sight of the two people who had their guns trained on them.

“Who are you?” Vernon yelled at the stranger his gun trained on the hooded figure, wondering why they was so keen to keep their identity hidden from them, the figure then returned his attention to the group as they looked down towards them, before lowering his hood of his traveling cloak and walked down to join them, as both Vernon and Charlie lowered their weapons, at about the same rate that their jaws drop at the sight.

Jack Wolfrick walked down into the valley holstering his gun over his shoulder and bearing an axe in his belt. With a strip of cloth covering his empty right eye socket and faded war paint going from his left eye to his right cheek. Vernon also notices a flash of green around his wrist as he put his gun over his shoulder, but it was gone as soon as he went for a double take on the object.

“Jack. Gods.” Vernon said looking shocked to see the eldest Wolfrick brother standing in front of him. He never thought that this day would come. Neither could Charlie, who walked up to him and hugged the seventeen-year-old, before retreating a few steps.

“We thought we’d never see you again.” Charlie said smiling at Jack, who did not smile back.

“Is there anyone after you lad?” Vernon asked looking around at the surrounding land, but not seeing anyone, the lad had chosen to remain behind as a penalty for Brutus’ actions in the town and he doubted that they would be pleased that he had seemingly bailed out on the deal.

“No.” Jack said, a haunted look in his one green eye, a look that had seen so much. “Other than the beast’s pack most like.” Jack finished, as Martin ran up and jumps on Jack hugging him, nearly knocking his eldest brother over. Jack cracks a false smile before detaching himself from his youngest brother.

“Well, we shall eat well this evening. In celebration.” Vernon said. Not failing to notice that Jack was not the same person they had left in Bergskort, he seemed more weathered, his easy grin had been replaced by a sullener look. “Come on lad.” Vernon finished clapping Jack’s shoulder. As Vernon, Charlie, Nick and Martin began to walk back towards the mountain gates, feeling a lot better than they had at the beginning of the day. Jack waits outside looking around at the landscape for a bit longer before following the group towards the mountain.

 

As the five of them walk through the gates to the mountain, it didn’t take long for Jack notices the stares of both the dwarves and the mountain-men, he subconsciously placed his hand on the hilt of his axe in anticipation for a fight. As Vernon turns around and sees this action he smiles slightly, realising what it was like for the lad, but also quickly gestures for him to move his hand away from the weapon. Whilst it was unlikely, there was still the possibility of someone taking it the wrong way.

“You can take your hand of your weapon lad.” Vernon said looking around at the stares, he had become used to those stares, but understood to a newcomer that they might be disconcerting.

“Why are they all staring at us?” Jack said, looking around at the onlookers, but did not take his hand of the hilt of the axe. In his rough clothes he looks practically like a nomad in this place of richly dressed dwarves and men.

“Your brothers are, well let’s just say they’re well known.” Vernon said smiling slightly. “A lot’s happened since we left you.” Vernon said looking back at Martin, although Nick to had made a name for himself here as well.

“Like what?” Jack said taking his eye of the onlookers and looked at Vernon as he also takes his hand away from his weapon at the mention of his brothers.

“We’ll explain later.” Charlie said as they reached the door to the quarters, both she and the old butler had noticed a slight change in the lad’s voice at the mention that something had happened with his younger brothers.

 

As they walk through into the large room, they see Dave, Codsworth and Barca sitting at the table planning the next hunt. The three look up at the sound of the door opening, surprised as it was still daylight and had expected them to be out training until dark.

“How was training?” Codsworth said before looking at the two and starting to panic. “What happened?” Codsworth asked as his mind going to the worst possible scenario, although both the kids were there so nothing bad could have happened, plus they also had dinner with them. At the question however, Vernon simply stands aside to reveal Jack standing behind him in the entrance to the quarters, looking like less like a nomad than he had done in the main hall, but still travel worn in here.

There was a brief pause when nobody said or did anything. Both Codsworth and Dave get up whilst Barca sits in place with his mouth slightly open, Codsworth steps aside so Dave can walk up to his older brother, and after looking at each other for a few seconds they hug.

“It’s really good to see you brother.” Dave said, smiling like a boy for the first time since arriving at the mountain, his stress levels dropping rapidly given the fact he no longer felt the burden of being the eldest Wolfrick in the group.

“We’ve also brought dinner.” Vernon said dropping the dead wolf on the table, Barca looks at the beast for a few moments, lost for words until he eventually found them.

“I’ll send for someone to butcher it.” Barca said still looking at the dead animal and wondering how they had managed to kill it. Charlie was a good shot, but killing these things was more down to chance rather than anything else.

“No. I killed it. I’ll butcher it.” Jack said his gaunt looking face set on the matter. At which Barca looks over at the commander at this, who only nods in return.

“Aye lad. Whatever you want.” Codsworth said smiling at Jack, who once again did not return the gesture.

“You’ll want to drop your things off I guess.” Barca said. “There’s a spare room down the hall. It’s yours.” Barca finished, that had been what it was there for, although many, including he suspected the old butler, had never thought that the room would ever have been filled, he continued to look at the ghost of the lad in front of him. There was a pause before Jack responds.

“Thank you.” Jack said before walking down the hall and into the room that Barca had pointed to. Leaving the rest of the group in the living area, wondering what had happened to make him this way.

 

That evening everyone was sitting round the table, eating the wolf that had been killed earlier on in the day, everyone except Jack who sits in the centre of the table not touching the food, only messing about with it on the plate. He also still wore the long traveling cloak over his shoulders, adding to the look of someone who does not belong. Seeing however, that the lad wasn’t eating, Jimmy turns towards him with an eager expression.

“What a story you must have to tell.” Jimmy said looking interested, he wanted to hear everything that had happened back in the town since they had left the small town. He wasn’t alone as well, as Abi also piped up at the opportunity to question their companion.

“Start at the beginning, and don’t leave out any details.” Abi said, eager for the latest gossip as she always had been. The table at large went quiet and looked over at Jack waiting on his response. It took a while but eventually the teen did speak.

“Well, you know the beginning.” Jack said in the same deaden tone, as if he would rather talk about anything else but this. “And this meal is the end.” Jack finished as he continued to play with his kill.

“What about the middle?” Codsworth asks raising a cup and taking a drink, that was what he was interested in, the lad had been away for close to a year, and he wanted to know what had happened.

“Were the north-men good to you?” Abi asked, as eager as before, clearly not put off by Jack’s apparent lack of interest in discussing the matter.

“Aye… They were.” Jack said, pausing slightly in between as there was a lump at the back of his throat, he finally took a bite out of his food, not that it helped the situation. Vernon, however, did note the use of the past tenses in this latest answer and looked over at Codsworth who looked like he had as well, for the old commander had a dark look on his face.

“Do you plan on returning to Bergskort laddie?” Bruce said whilst eating at the same time, seemingly unaware of the previous answer. Again, there is a pause before Jack responds.

“No. I’m here to stay.” Jack said, as he spoke the sleave of his travelling cloak, which he still wore, making him seem more conspicuous, slipped down revealing a simple band around his wrist, but with an emerald imbedded into the centre. It glinted in the light from the ceiling, with Nick looking at the gemstone for a moment.

“What’s that?” Nick asked looking at the wristband, never having been the most tactful of the brothers, he makes to touch it before Jack hastily removes it from sight as well as from his younger brothers reach.

“It’s nothing.” Jack said. But the haunted look in his bright green eye that Vernon notice had seen when he had first arrived was back once more. It was a look that the old butler had seen before, and it was never the sign of good news. He looked into Jack’s eye for a few moments. Like with Alan, Vernon could easily tell when Jack as well as his brothers were not being entirely truthful or hiding something. A few moments pass when the table sits and eats in silence before Vernon changes the subject.

“Well, if you are here to stay Jack. You’ll have to agree it with the king tomorrow.” Vernon said, trying to change the subject, which Jack was grateful for, as both Codsworth and Charlie looked like they were about to enquire further on the matter. Before the old butler looked over at Nick. “Would you mind going with your brother?”

“Sure.” Nick said, wondering why and more importantly what Vernon suspected about his brother.

 

Later that night Jack lay wide awake staring at the rocky ceiling above him. Not that he wasn’t tired, he was afraid of what visions would come to him in the darkness, however the visions came despite his reluctance for them to, his home on fire and the piles of bodies that littered the entrances as people were cut down as they tried to flee the inferno. To his right lay his rifle and to his left lay his axe, not that he had had to use them, but he was ready to if need be. At which moment Vernon walked into the room, had he not knocked before his entrance, he might have leaped on the old butler fearing an attack.

“Are you alright lad?” Vernon said looking concerned at the eldest Wolfrick, something was up, and he wanted the lad to talk about it.

“Yeah.” Jack said still looking at the ceiling, he had barely heard Vernon’s question, but could guess what it had been about.

“Yeah.” Vernon said moving towards the chair, but not sitting down just yet, whilst also nodding to himself before continuing. “We’re delighted to have you back. But you seem out of sorts. You don’t seem yourself lad.” Vernon said, looking at Jack who remains silent, so Vernon continues. “What happened in Bergskort lad. I got a pretty good idea, but I want to hear it from you.” Vernon said leaning heavily on his cane, he had known that something was up from the moment Jack had lowered his hood back in the valley earlier that day, but he hadn’t connected the dots until dinner.

“How did you know?” Jack asked his throat croaking slightly from lack of speaking, the lump in his throat was back which made speaking all the more difficult to do.

“I saw at dinner.” Vernon said, that had been the second thing, the first being that Jack had arrived alone, but that at the moment could mean anything so he returned to the second thing. “You had the same look in your eye that your father had right after your mother died.” Vernon said looking across the room, like his son, Alan had spoken very little for almost a month after his wife’s death, Vernon only hoped that it would not take that long with Jack as he waited to hear his response, but when again there was only silence, the butler continues. “I’ll just sit here a while longer. If you don’t mind.” Vernon said as he took a seat on the chair. He half expected to be told to leave.

“I don’t mind.” Jack said as he continued to stare at the rocky ceiling, wondering how in the gods name he was going to carry on living.

“When you’re ready to talk lad, I’ll listen.” Vernon said, and then remained silent, waiting for the moment that Jack would spill the beans.

 

The following morning Jack and Nick walked into the throne room, the elder still wearing the worn cloak, looking worse for wear. The pair find Fierhand in the process of addressing one of his councillors, looking bored out of his wits. He looks up from the throne and sees the two brothers approaching.

“Ah, my young imperial friend. For what do I owe this, very early pleasure.” Fierhand said, his mood improving at the sight of them, notably the member of the council who had been talking to the king, looked furious at being interrupted.

“Just bringing my brother here to ask for your protection and permission to remain here.” Nick said looking up at the throne, as Fierhand nods at this waving away his councillor at the same time he gestured for Jack to come forward.

“You. Imperial’s brother, step forward.” Fierhand said, his voice commanding the room, as Jack steps forward. Fierhand looks him up and down before noticing the wristband, the light seemingly drawn to the gemstone, a small grin crossed the old dwarf’s face as he looked up at Jack. “You do not need to ask permission lad. Your bracelet indicates that you married into a north-men family. Am I correct?” Fierhand asked looking down at Jack.

“Yes.” Jack answered, he hoped that that was an end to the questioning on that subject, but the shocked look on his younger brother’s face indicated that they were most likely only going to be getting started.

“Then by rights you are already a citizen of Normanguard, and I cannot turn you away.” Fierhand said smiling from behind his thick beard. Jack simply stares not saying anything. “So be welcome in my mountain and at my table.” Fierhand said, he looked around at his impatient council member, before looking into Jack’s eye directly. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot to discuss.” Fierhand finished and smiled at the newcomer.

“Thank you.” Jack said before turning to leave as Fierhand calls him back, he was halfway to the door when the words he had dreaded since coming here came out into the open.

“Where is your wife then?” Fierhand asked, never the one for subtlety the old dwarf spoke his mind without thinking ahead on the matter. Jack froze on the spot, looking worse than Martin did whenever he heard Eugene speak to him.

“She… She couldn’t make it.” Jack said, choking up at the mention of Erika.

“Very well, you may leave.” Fierhand said, his brow creasing, the old dwarf had the vague suspicion that he was, well not being lied to exactly, but that the lad was withholding something from him, he chose not to press the subject however, and Jack bows before walks out of the throne room with Nick on his heals all the way.

 

As they walk out of the throne room, Jack leans up against a nearby pillar, hyperventilating slightly, his hands on his knees. Nick walks up to his oldest brother looking cautious.

“You alright brother?” Nick asked, looking concerned wondering about the damage that had been done to his brothers during the absence from the group. A nearby dwarf, who was on guard duty outside the throne room also walked up to the two brothers.

“Is there a problem here?” The dwarf asked leaning heavily on an electrified spear. It takes a few moments but Jack fights to regain control of himself.

“I’m fine.” Jack said walking off, the dwarf nods, clearly satisfied with the answer and returns to his post as he watches Nick run to catch up with his brother.

 

When they return to the quarters, they find Vernon, Codsworth and Dave waiting for them.

“How’d it go?” Vernon asked getting up from his seat by the open fire, he knew that it had gone well, but kept up pretences for Jack’s sake. There was no need to out the lad’s marriage to Codsworth and Dave until he was ready to tell them.

“Good.” Jack said simply, hoping to get to his room, so that he could lie down, as he had something that he needed to do this evening, and needed as much strength to do it as possible.

“Excellent.” Vernon responded although the lad didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm on the matter, he instead chose to look around the room for a few moments before asking a question that had been on his mind since dinner the previous evening. Something that Vernon had not told him about the previous evening.

“Where’s Dmitri?” Jack asked. There was a silence in the room as both Codsworth and Vernon exchange a look, they knew that the question was bound to have reared its head at some point.

“Jack. He’s dead.” Codsworth finally answers in order to break the silence, like with Martin, he decided on the truth about his friend’s death.

“When? How?” Jack asked, he didn’t entirely believe it, whilst the last time he had seen Dmitri he had looked unwell, he hadn’t shown it, the fact that the young soldier was dead scarred Jack somewhat, thinking that if they could kill Dmitri, what hope was there for the rest of them.

“Shortly after arriving here. He went out on a patrol to look for your brother.” Codsworth said. “His horse carried his body back two days later.” The commander finished looking at the ground.

“Look for my brother?” Jack asked, wondering what in the gods name for, and if it had something to do with them being so well known, as Vernon had told him when he had first arrived back.

“Martin. Aye, like we said. A lot’s happened, but that is a story, that is not ours to tell.” Vernon said. The group stand there in silence for a minute before Jack leaves and walks into his room, closing the door behind him.

“What happened to him Vernon?” Codsworth asked. He had known Jack for a long time now and had never seen him like this before, the lad he remembered was eager to the point of annoyance, what had returned from Bergskort was something entirely different.

“When he’s ready, he’ll talk.” Vernon said before turning round to look at Dave and Nick to hammer that point home with the brothers. “And that’s an order you two. Don’t force him to tell you anything until he’s ready. Understand?” He said emphasising the last word for Nick’s benefit primarily.

“Sure.” Dave said, a few years ago he would have found it as difficult as Nick would to follow the order, but times had changed since then. Vernon seemed satisfied with that answer before returning to Nick who was staring at the ground.

“Nick?” Vernon said looking at Nick looks around for a few seconds, clearly trying to avoid the question, but when he can no longer avoid the question he answers grudgingly.

“Fine.” Nick said resigned, as he and Dave leave the room. Nick heading for his own room and Dave back out into the mountain proper. Codsworth turns to Vernon, wanting to find out what had happened.

“Do you know what happened? Codsworth asked, he knew what the answer was going to be, purely based on the fact that Vernon knew a lot more than he let on when it came to the Wolfrick brothers.

“Yes.” Vernon said looking grim, it had been cruel, what had happened to Jack’s life, when it seemed to have found some normality, but that was the way it often went. “He told me last night. I’m sure he’ll tell the rest of the group. When he’s ready.” Vernon finished, returning to the fire. He hoped for that at least as what Jack had told him, was something that he didn’t want the burden of knowing alone.

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