The torches burned brightly down the short road home, casting stable long shadows because there was no wind. The moon was a fingernail resting on the tips of evergreen trees. The motionless air was chill and dry. Ibn winced as he saw his little brother Stern grab father’s hand. He still seemed like such a baby to Ibn.
“Probably afraid of the dark,”
he whispered, apparently louder than he realized. Grandmother’s head turned almost instantly, her dark eyes narrowing on Ibn’s lips.
“What was that?”
“You’re still afraid of the dark Ibn? But you’re only a year away from manliness?”
A mischievous grin fell across her face. Ibn realized she knew exactly what he had said, and what he had meant. His face flushed and an all too familiar tightness gripped his chest. Looking down at his soft shoes he tried to convey his shame. But when he stole a glance upward at Grandma she was softly smiling at him. He need not feel too ashamed.
Little Stern let go of Father’s hand as soon as he heard Grandma’s embarrassing question. He flipped around toward Ibn and giggled.
“Are you really afraid of the dark? That’s pretty dumb.”
At this Father gently grabbed Stern’s cap and lightly smacked his short dark hair with it. The smack was just hard enough to cause irritation and express his displeasure at the tiny child’s comment. The little boy frowned and resumed his place beside Father at the head of the family’s informal twilight parade. He impatinetly grabbed at his cap but Father easily and playfully kept it out of reach.
After a few more minutes of walking in silence the family arrived at their door. It was simple and wooden like everything they owned. Like everything most people owned in Tannhauser. Father took out the several keys he kept hanging on his neck and unlocked the door. He motioned for Grandfather and his eldest son, Ram, to go inside first. Then Father unshouldered his rifle and stood guard by the door as the rest of the family huddled together anxiously waiting to enter. One by one lamps inside the house could be seen turning on. They would not be able to enter until Grandfather and Ram had lit a lamp in each room. This was a very typical ceremony, especially for families that lived on the edge of town as Ibn’s did. He turned around and looked down the cobblestone road they had just come down and saw 5 or 6 other families doing the exact same thing.
He could also see the ahrons arriving at the town center. They were hurriedly putting on their helmets and getting the ladders off a large handcart. Normally it was their job to lite all the street lamps 30 minutes before sundown. But tonight there was a watch on. These nights they were required to extinguish all these torches except for the one in the town center and the two that bookended each road out of town after evensong. Ibn had always liked the idea of becoming an ahron. They also were responsible for protecting the townspeople from fires and were the second line of defense after the volklyders. Ibn could not sing very well and had always wanted to have a family some day, so the lyders didn’t interest him very much. If he had looked away from the town towards the forest Ibn might have seen several of these grey clad defenders slowly. making their way towards the various blinds to hunker down for the watch.
Grandfather appeared in the doorway beckoning Grandmother come in first. She did and was followed by her granddaughters like ducklings. Stern stood patiently until the last of his sisters was inside. Then he skipped down the front hallway humming a nursery rhyme. By the time Ibn was upstairs Ram and Stern were already tucked into their bunks. Grandfather entered the room and sat in his chair. Ibn stood behind the dressing screen watching as the old man deliberatly and quietly drew up his pipe, packing and lighting it. The sweet smell of herbs tinged with honey filled the room. He heard the distance scratch and clank from father turning or checking each bolt to the house. He would check all the downstairs storm shutters as well. The noise in the quiet night was always ominous to Ibn. He wondered if all children felt as nervous as he did…that was why he made the comment towards Stern. No one else ever seemed scared. But he always felt on the precipice of panic.
“Hurry and get to bed son. I’ll turn down the lamp in a minute. There’s a watch on, otherwise I’d be on the back porch already. But when a watch is on can’t no one be left alone.”
The old man’s voice grated on Ibn. But instead of scolding him further Grandpa simply took another puff. After this Ibn quickly disrobed to his pants and hopped in bed.
“What story do you want to hear?”
Grandpa asked while turning the lamp low. Ibn knew Stern would speak first.
“Old to you or old to me or old to the woods?”
“I don’t know.”
Grandpa sat pensive. Puff after puff. Father’s footsteps slowly padded upstairs. His check was done.
“Did I ever tell you about the Hatman?”
Something in Ibn tightened. Hatman? This sounded strange. But Ram loudly groaned.
“Oh come on Papa! There’s a watch on so you’re gonna spin scary yarns? None of us is going to leave this house. Not after mother…”
He trailed off. The boys rarely stopped thinking about their disappeared mother. Grandpa left it alone.
“I suppose the Hatman would be scary, if you were little girls.”
Again Ram groaned, as if that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.
Stern spoke up
“I’m not little or a girl.”
“Aye yer no girl, but not much in the way of manliness either.”
“Alright Ram you tell me what ya know about the Hatman.”
“Well he’s a monster. He hides in the woods standing still as a tree. No one notices him until it’s too late. Then he snatches children when they are alone. He takes them to the hat peak on Tiber mountain and sacrifices them to some mad god. Those are the nights when we get a blood moon.”
Silence…except for the rustle in Father’s bedroom. Probably checking his bullet supply or fetching a revolver for grandpa and maybe one for grandma as well. The low lamp light made dark dances around the room.
“Do ye know what a NOMAD is?”
The boys were silent at Grandpa’s question.
“Suppose not. They mostly don’t exist anymore. A NOMAD is a metal man. They still rule parts of the wastelands. Old days folks built slaves of metal and used them for all sorts of things. Then one day the slaves decided the old magic weren’t enough to keep em. That was the day we met the Hatman.”
The room fell completely silent. Ibn saw his father’s silhouette in the doorway.
“Pa do you hear that?”
“Nah, but I can feel it. That ain’t the right song.”
Ibn’s fingers went numb as he faintly heard the most beautiful music, and for some reason it filled him with terror.