Photo Credit: Allison Heine

Grey Dawn

Paul Alan Aspen
Published in
5 min readMar 1, 2020


Waking is alarming when you don’t remember falling asleep. One moment and he was back in the panic of the night, crawling out under the loose flooring his brother had pried up to sneak out and the next in pitch black.

Dead? Alder heard no more screams. Was it night and the torch-made hell was all a dream? The smell of dank earth told him he was indeed under the house. It was no dream. With the back of his hand he rubbed at his face, clarity returning with frightening specificity.

The smoke did it. Just like a warm summer’s campfire, the burning house above had put him to sleep. He had been sleeping, but the screaming started, the bell rang once and then stopped.

It had been horse-eaters! The wildmen!

Through the window, an ax bit into a man as easily as it might have hewn a tree. The hairy arms covered in tattoos and the screams like animals as his neighbors fled. The door bursting open and his family’s cries of terror!

He felt tears cleaning the mud from his cheek, but he didn’t feel himself crying. How long had he been crying? How long had he been there? He let out a whiny little high-pitched grunt as he crawled forward, groping blindly ahead.

The entrance was blocked but air was coming through. He could poke a finger through the uneven slit to feel the living air. It was sweet as he breathed, clearing his head.

The snort of a horse made him jump like a rabbit, knocking his head hard against the humiliating timber above. He almost cried out. Almost.

What if they’re still here?

The voices came closer, until Alder could see their boots and breeches in the light of the torches:

“I see it, Dancer. It’s him.”

“Staked horse head right there’n the middle of the square. Well, what’s left of it.”

“Aye. Go give the cap’n word. This can’t’ve been since yesterday eve, we’ll catch the Hog within the day.” The first voice was gravelly, the second one cool and venomous. The first speaker fell more than sat on a barrel that sat in the street, and there was a cling as a great blade was gently set down. “Rest of you lot go in pairs and search, same as last time. Hey, no no no! Ingolf, you go with Rolf. He’ll keep you from getting your little paws into trouble. I don’t want you whipped again. Everything you find gets brought here first.”

A chorus of acknowledgements and muttering. Not the wildmen then. This fellow sounds foreign though… one of House Grimaud’s men?

The distinctive sound of an apple being bit, crisp and juicy, dispelled his musings. With a great effort aided by his twisting belly he shoved his way out of the tunnel, scooting the flotsam aside inch by inch and getting covered with soot and the occasional cinder.

Eventually, he was able to pull himself free. The unimpressed man was just finishing the apple, not reaching for the sword. The boy didn’t know how to start talking, so he was glad when the man finished chewing.

“Usually the boys bring any survivors in. Can’t say I’ve had one just come up on me before. How long you been under there boy?”

“Last night. We’d just gone to bed when they attacked us. Wildmen, I think. I only saw one fellow with an ax — ”

“Easy lad,” the man held up his waterskin. “Want a drink first? You sound awful.” Alder took it and drank. He nodded to the man and didn’t know what to say next.

“Happen that your wildman had a big forest-boar face on his head?” The man seemed unflappable, alien like an angel or a snake. Vaguely sympathetic, completely callous to the scene around him. “What about your family? Any family living nearby?”

The boy’s eyes finally took in the scene around them. Dawn was still a ways away, but the gloam revealed bodies on the ground and the skeleton of the slain village. He shrugged in answer.

“Well there’s nothing left here. Any who survived are gone to the winds. Rough luck, hope you find them.”

Alder half-stepped back, looking out on the familiar fields, feeling the first heat from the rising sun as it began to burn away the fog. A crow called in the distance. “Sir?”

“Aye?” There were chuckles from nearby men sifting through the wreckage. He called Ames ‘sir’ hah! “What is it?”

“Did I hear that you’re going after him? The Hog?”

The big man shifted on his seat. “Maybe you did.”

“Will you kill him when you find him?” The lad traced his eyes over the black skeletons of places he once knew, homes and storehouses and the hall.

“We’ll send him straight to hell, lad. Him and all his band. But we only get paid fer ‘is head.”

“I’m coming. I’ll see that bastard buried.” His hand slowly curled to a fist.

“We aren’t going fer a picnic boy. We don’t have food fer strays.” The big man’s face was soft but the eyes were unchanging, steady and even.

“I know how to work and be useful.” Alder jerked his chin over at his father’s shop, or what was left. “Da was a smith.”

“Apprentice. Well. We’re heading on soon. Grab your things, whatever you need.”

The fog stole back in as the man took his light back the way he’d come. Grey tendrils snaked along the ground, shivering him as he slowly walked to the front door. It hung on one hinge, and he dared not look in.

The head of one of the large nails had popped free in the violent entry. He picked it up, something the fog couldn’t take from him.

A new life was given to him on that grey morning when his old life died.

Perhaps he was lucky.

This story was written for Promposity’s March contest, details of which can be found here:

I challenge Jordan Aspen and Squadron-Fire-Hawk-23 to join in and write something about the tools and gear needed for the journey.



Paul Alan Aspen
Promposity - I help visual designers get recognized by telling stories of their skills in a way clients will understand - courses & writing services for hire