Winter. Coldfrost 29th 1102 SF (Since fall of Tunaras)
An angry fall night had descended upon the hamlet of Anglor, swallowing the cluster of white-washed, thatch-roofed huts. A chill danced on the breeze howling in Sewenna Ravenot’s ears as he made his rounds through the rough-hewn streets. Still, Sewenna had to remain vigilant and watch for the alleged Beast of Anglor—like all villages across Indova, Anglor lived in fear of a monster that lurked in the shadows of their tedious lives.
“There never is,” grumbled Sewenna, adjusting the padding under his basinet so the cold metal wouldn’t touch his skin. He stopped and glanced around him, the five poorly “painted” mud-brick homes on Street One seemed calm, quiet. Sewenna didn’t bother learning any of the street names—what would be the point? He’d grow bored in Anglor as he had in every backwater village he spent time in as he crisscrossed across Indova in search of Harga-thul.
He heard that laugh in the breeze. Glancing around, he found nothing but mundane huts—just my imagination he told himself.
“Forget this accursed cold, I’m going to the tavern,” muttered Sewenna. He walked brusquely through the streets, his chainmail shirt clinking loudly. Slightly larger than the average Anglor home, the Priest and Crook was the only tavern in town.
Through the curvature of the glass, Sewenna peered in and saw the barmaid Deloys glide about the room serving patrons. He paused, straightening his basinet, securing his sword at his belt and adjusting the surcoat over his mail. Sewenna wasn’t hideous, but his looks never won him women in Indova City. He cringed at the sight of himself: early in his fourth decade, and brawny with frizzy, coffee hair. He kept his oak colored beard thick to hide his cleft chin. Sighing, he entered the tavern.
“Hoy! You catch us that beast yet? Roderick over there says he seen it and it’s a werewolf,” snapped Estout the moment Sewenna shut the door. He couldn’t help glaring at the blowhard, a barrel-chested man nearly a foot taller than Sewenna.
The town protector felt all eyes on him, waiting for an answer. Sewenna hesitated, glancing around the room filled with tables and men drinking after a hard day’s work. “Not yet,” he grumbled, lying by omission as no such beast existed.
Estout scoffed, turning back to his friends and ale, “some knight he must’ve been!”
He made his way to the counter and took a seat at the counter as Deloys flittered his way. A delicate woman early in her third decade, Deloys’ eyes glittered like gilded wood. Her silky flaxen hair lay on her back in thick braid. She excited a fire in Sewenna’s heart he hadn’t felt in two decades—not since that night.
“The same? Bread and pottage,” said Deloys, placing a soft hand on Sewenna’s shoulder, “oh! And because of Estout we have some venison.” She absently waved a hand at the big man as the tavern erupted with gales of congratulations. Even Deloys’ disdain for the oaf who fawned over her every night couldn’t hide the natural joy in her voice. Sewenna loved that…how she possessed such cheer.
Sewenna nodded to Deloys who slipped away to fetch his dinner. He kept his head lowered, eyes on the counter and listened to the jovial villagers laugh and thump together their wooden mugs. Then he heard Estout rise from his chair.
“Not again,” Sewenna hissed under his breath.
Floorboards groaned under the big man’s weight as he strode to the counter, “shouldn’t you be out looking for the beast that killed my flock? Or is that below you, Sir Sewenna of Indova City? Heh! Sewenna’s a girl’s name! Your mother must’ve really wanted a girl, huh?”
Sewenna remained calm, but heard the patrons shift in their seats and others whisper of another brawl. The tale of Sir Sewenna slaying the great “dragon” Thaakal was common knowledge in of Indova. Certainly no hero would allow such an oaf to guffaw at his honor! Sewenna chuckled—if his countrymen knew Thaakal had been an oversized adder, he’d be as important as the local tailor. No, the real monster was the snake’s master, Sewenna’s prey and whose laugh he heard in the wind.
“I told you it’s fall. Food supplies limited for both man and beast. Most likely, it was a pack of wolves. I sent Gildon the messenger to Sarosum—forty miles is the closest city. He’ll be in back in two days with more hunters. You can handle yourself until then,” assured Sewenna as he edged his longsword from its sheath, “understand?”
Estout’s eyes narrowed on Sewenna’s weapon. “I suggest you make your rounds soon and watch over my stable. Manston’s the only useable drought horse in town, and I know my father the Reeve will appreciate it. You understand?” Estout growled.
“Aye. Let me finish dinner and I’ll be off for a look,” said Sewenna sourly, his lips dipped into a frown. Estout stood over him another moment as though deciding whether he was satisfied or not.
Deloys nudged him out of the way as she handed Sewenna a wood plate rich with bread and pottage steaming with tender chunks of meat. “Go back and sit with your buffoons,” she shoved a slender finger in his face, “you show him some respect!”
With a grunt Estout turned on his heels and stormed back to his table.
“Thank you,” grumbled Sewenna, then bit into the loaf of bread. Deloys jiggled his basinet like a playful kitten.
“Well, you did slay a dragon—”
Already finishing his bread, and slurping up spoonfuls of pottage, Sewenna mumbled, “there’s no dragons…no monsters.” But Deloys glided away, not having heard his confession. He ate his meal hurriedly, ignoring whispers of his inability to slay the Beast of Anglor.
Sewenna pushed aside the empty plate, finished the mug of ale that had mysteriously appeared, Deloys’ ritual, and headed for the door. He hated to rush, wishing he could court Deloys further, but Estout’s glowering urged Sewenna into the cold night.
Rounds took longer than usual tonight—rather Sewenna meandered through the four streets, his mind lost to his future. Already, he felt the restlessness itching in his skin, but Anglor had held his interest longer than any other village. Deloys’ cheerfulness kept him here, but he’d need to move on soon.
Since that night he heard Harga-thul’s cackle in the breeze. Thinking about those events tore at Sewenna’s soul and mocked him. True, he slayed Thaakal, but only after it slaughtered his retainers including his brother Ulger. But when he faced Harga-thul, he faltered, only able to graze him with his blade before overwhelmed with fear and fleeing. Harga-thul the Eldritch Mage had been a man once, but let magic and power contort him into some monster. He had resembled a skeleton whose skin clung to bones as like a frightened child clings to its mother. His sunken green eyes akin to rancid milk had sent the knight running from his lair…a shame Sewenna carried with him. He had lied about it, but that only made his thirst for vengeance and redemption more palpable. If he ever found Harga-thul, Sewenna was certain it’d be his death, but at least he’d die well and redeemed in the Good Spirits’ eyes.
A howl pierced the air, jolting Sewenna from his aimless thoughts. He’d wandered to the village outskirts where Estout’s stable stood by instinct. Nothing seemed unusual as he scanned the wood structure with a sliding door at each end.
Still, he had heard the howl. Sewenna approached the stable and slid open the door as a blast of wind knocked the basinet off his head. “Blast it!” he bent down, grabbed it and replaced it snugly.
Sewenna froze when he heard it. A baleful, demented growl came from the trees just beyond Estout’s stable. He turned to face the creature as it emerged from the foliage—a large, perverted, wolf with an over elongated snout and bovine legs ending in clawed, hand-like hooves. Its lupine eyes reflected his torch’s light, and Sewenna swore he saw the Foul Spirits in them.
Cautiously, as not to spook the animal, Sewenna slid his sword from its sheath, keeping his torch held high. The beast seemed cautious too as it slowly circled him, watching him with horrible, yellow eyes. Sewenna hesitated to attack, not wanting to engage an animal he knew little about, particularly such a fiendish one.
Seeing the wolf edge forward Sewenna advanced and stabbed at it. But midway through his strike the wind cackled manically, and seemingly threw him to the ground. “He’s here,” gasped Sewenna, climbing to his feet.
However, the beast took advantage of his fall and lunged at him, sinking vicious teeth into Sewenna’s forearm. He screamed, feeling fiery pain tear through mail and padding and puncture flesh. His torch clattered to the flagstones as the fiend forced Sewenna to the ground, its bone crushing maw latched onto his arm. Sewenna managed to keep his sword, and struggled to position the blade under the wolf’s belly. With a quick snap of his arm, he thrust the sword, but it was already off him.
The beast circled Sewenna as though waiting for him to stand and prepare himself. Sewenna gladly obliged, rolling over and pushing himself to his feet. He examined his wound with a glance…deep and shredded, but it would heal. Returning his gaze to the fiend, he found it poised for another lunge, and he prepared for it with a quarte parry.
The creature cocked its head, watching Sewenna as though confused. Its yellow eyes flickered in the torch’s dying light.
“Come on, then,” he heaved, motioning it forward. The bovine wolf hesitated.
A cold breeze brought a drawn out whisper that rattled Sewenna’s courage, “not…yet…Nduaerng. Make…him…wait.”
The fiend seemed to understand. It bounded into the woods, leaving Sewenna alone in the torch’s dying light and the claws of encroaching darkness.
He scanned the tree line, then shuddered, thinking about that forlorn whisper. He wiped the blood from his blade on his britches. He glanced into the stable and found Estout’s chickens, cow, and bay stallion unharmed and slid the door shut.
Sewenna knew he should trail the animal, that slight could leave a few blood spots he could follow. But going on a hunt in the dark, wounded and without another torch convinced Sewenna to wait until daylight. Besides, he knew the beast existed now, and he had an idea who sent it. But this time he wouldn’t run.
Taking a swig from his flask to dull the pain, Sewenna headed to the Priest and Crook where he’d been staying with Deloys. Gildon will arrive by morning with hunters…then we’ll go hunting. I should inform Estout, thought Sewenna dourly. A part of him hoped the creature would get the blackguard before morning, but either way he needed to keep the villagers occupied so he could investigate properly. Sewenna knew the beast and the whisper would reveal themselves soon.
Excitement and fear descended on Anglor like it had never seen. Most shops and businesses closed for the day. Jolis the blacksmith closed for the day, Léal the tanner closed, Herbrand the tailor closed as did the cobbler, farrier, carpenter and mason, who instead gathered at the Priest and Crook. The tavern dotted with shoddy and unfinished tables roared with activity as men, busy organizing into hunting parties, boasted of their hunting skills and that they would catch the beast.
Luckily for Sewenna few wished to join his band, consisting of Gildon the messenger who had yet to arrive with more hunters, and Pepin the mason. A short burly man with bushy ash-blonde hair, he served Sewenna’s purpose—untrained, passive and scared. He was less concerned about the wolf-thing and more focused on its master—a fiend he couldn’t speak of lest he burst into tears in front of a tavern of men.
“Quiet!” Sewenna banged his hand on a table, though his gaze focused on Deloys meandering through the room, delivering mugs of ale. Pay attention, he scolded himself and turned back to the impatient throng of villagers.
“We don’t need any fancy words from the likes of you—just let us kill the beast!” Estout shouted followed by jovial agreement from his comrades.
Sewenna grunted, annoyed and worried, seeing expressions of bloodlust among the men. They’re going to get themselves killed, he thought. “Move out,” he said grimly, glancing at Deloys as she came to his side. She placed a soft, milky hand to his cheek, caressing him and landed a soul jumping kiss on his rough skin. He smiled, flushing, even more so when he noticed Estout glowering at him before he and the villages streamed out of the tavern.
Sewenna touched Deloys’ hand, swearing, through his gloves he could feel the warmth of her love, “I’ll be fine, and hopefully be back soon—follow me, Pepin.”
Winter had swallowed fall in the days since Sewenna’s encountered the creature. The ground of the Living Woods had frozen, covered in loose foliage that cracked underfoot. Sewenna despised the name—another ridiculous superstition that the trees come alive and eat those who mistreat them. Still, they loomed over he and Pepin, obstructing the sun from view and casting them in a eerie pseudo-twilight.
“Be careful, we don’t want to disturb the trees or we’ll be the ones hunted,” said Pepin, glancing around the woods nervously.
“We are the hunted,” he grumbled, keeping his hand on his sword’s hilt as he crept from trunk to trunk. Sewenna doubted his skulking would hide him from the wolf—too many twigs and dead leaves for that, but against his better judgment he had abandoned his mail. “Shhh,” he halted, pretending he heard something.
“You hear the beast?” gasped Pepin. He trembled in his boots, buckles jingling.
Sewenna smirked, though it soon faded when he caught the flash of something pass a tree ahead. “If you return to Anglor, I will never speak of it…we lost each other…” he said, peering through the trees. They seemed to bend, twist and stretch their skeletal arms to hide what Sewenna had seen.
“Really?” Pepin gasped excitedly.
“Aye, go home,” said the knight, cocking his head to see beyond twisted limbs. Another dark figure appeared in the distance. Wood snapped and Sewenna spun around, unsheathing his sword. Nothing, but Pepin running back towards Anglor.
Shaking his head, Sewenna turned back. The figure was gone. Hunted indeed, he thought, proceeding deeper into the forest. Sewenna’s tracking skills couldn’t compare to Ulger’s—he had been stronger, received women’s attention and men’s admiration.
An afternoon breeze drifted through the forests, teasing loose branches and skipping leaves across the cold earth. Sewenna paused, expecting to hear that cackle—just the moaning wind.
“Now my apprentice,” murmured the trees, or was it the wind, or the leaves!
Behind you! Sewenna swung around, swiping his blade at the hulking figure at his rear. Heart pounding, and eyes blurring, Sewenna had reacted too quickly to see who or what was there before it circled around him. It struck with claws like steel, tore through Sewenna’s padded armor, and ripped strips of gory flesh from his back.
He howled in agony, collapsed forward onto the frozen earth as his padding and surcoat filled with warm blood that steamed into the winter afternoon.
Crack! The sound of bone snapping sent surges of pain through his body, jolting Sewenna from unconsciousness. Blinking furiously, he tried to see through blood that had caked over his face and the throbbing pain in his ribs. His arms ached, tied behind his back and around a thick trunk.
“Good, you’re awake. I was afraid you’d be out all day. I don’t like being in the Living Woods at night—all the trees, you know,” said Estout, looming over Sewenna with his chest puffed out. Blood dripped from the big man’s gruff, stubbly face.
“You…” groaned Sewenna, realizing it was his blood. “You’re the beast? I suppose I should’ve known,” he flinched, his back ablaze from the stump’s bark.
“Ha! Not likely. You think you could ride in here on the coattails of some failed quest and take her from me? Who are you that you’re better then me?” snarled Estout, spittle and blood flying from his mouth. “That’s right, I’ve heard the rumors. The great dragon Thaakal slew all your men and your brother to die,” he chuckled, his laugh rumbled in his throat like a bestial growl.
Sewenna yanked his arms, trying to break free, lunge on Estout and tear him limb from limb. When the coarse ropes binding him and his weakened body wouldn’t obey, he sank back. “Who am I…I am Sir Sewenna Ravenot of the Knights of the Raven and you’re a miscreant hiding in a paltry village, scaring women and children!”
Estout scratched his chin, nefarious thoughts flashing in his eyes.
A crack of thunder rumbled across the unseen sky—it had grown darker since Sewenna woke. He needed to engage Estout before the moon rose. Otherwise the big man would become the beast.
“Are you challenging me?” said Estout as though he hadn’t understood Sewenna’s intention.
Sewenna scoffed, “this is why Deloys desires me and not you. By the Good Spirits I’ve been here for months and you had your whole miserable life to woo her—Yes I challenge you!”
It worked. Anger boiled in Estout’s face. He bent down and ripped off Sewenna’s restraints. It wouldn’t have surprised Sewenna if Estout spit flames.
“All right,” said Estout, tossing the ropes aside and stepping back. He pointed to Sewenna’s sword against a nearby tree, glowering, his gaze glinted like moonlight.
Limping, Sewenna retrieved his sword, turning to face Estout. He moved into a fighting stance, motioning the big man forward.
Wasting no time, Estout lunged at Sewenna, claws sprouting from his thick fingers.
Sewenna ducked and Estout struck the tree with a loud thump. When Sewenna spun around, Estout had begun the grotesque change. Back expanding, bones broke themselves to elongate, forming thicker limbs ending in flesh-ripping claws.
Sewenna stood aghast at the monster Estout had become: a hulking bear with a perverted humanoid shape. His soldier’s instincts jumped to action, and Sewenna thrust his sword at the creature. But Estout wasted no time and rushed Sewenna, latching its jaws onto the knight’s basinet and hauling him off the ground. Teeth bit through steel as the beast tried to snap its jaws shut on Sewenna’s skull. He unstrapped the helm and slipped out, rolling back onto his knees with his blade upright as if in salute.
Estout charged Sewenna, and fell into his blade. He howled, writhing in agony as his blood flowed out in waves over Sewenna. Still, the creature batted at him with its claws, tearing through the knight’s padding.
Sewenna screamed he started to buckle, the were-beast slowly slipping atop him as it went limp. For a moment, underneath that looming blanket of fur and muscle, Sewenna thought of letting it crush him—to join Ulger and the Good Spirits in the afterlife.
Deloys, he thought, I can’t leave her alone.
Heaving Estout upward as far as he could, Sewenna let go of his sword and fumbled out from underneath the creature. It hit the ground like thunder, Sewenna’s blade piercing through its back.
“Farewell, Estout. You died well,” breathed Sewenna as he fell back and laid on the ground slick with blood. Exhausted, he rested for a moment when his name came on the wind—but soon he heard it was the villagers calling his name, not some monster.
Sewenna would be celebrated as a hero, as the one who slayed the beast. Perhaps it would redeem him for his cowardice. But, he deserved his rest, and as the torchlights and villagers closed in on him, he passed out with Harga-thul cackling in his ears.
Festivities raged for a week in Anglor after Sewenna’s victory, though he spent that time recuperating at the Priest and Crook. Laying on a couch and sipping tea by the fireplace.
All of Anglor had been astounded at the beast’s identity, but a number of rumors put fearful minds at ease: Estout had been cursed by a witch, possessed by a demon or murdered by a doppelganger who took his place.
Sewenna didn’t pay them any attention. However, that week on the couch he mulled over what had happened. He couldn’t piece it all together. Few had been bothered by the creature save Estout—a few cattle here and there, but his whole flock had been torn apart. Moreover, he had been the one who vehemently demanded Sewenna kill the creature. Could Estout have been that clever to devise some ploy to kill him and take Deloys for himself? But he fell victim to a simple defensive maneuver…
“It’s bitter out tonight,” said Deloys, stepping into the tavern with the wind howling behind her as she closed the door.
Sewenna glanced over and nodded, taking another slurp of his Indovan Spiced Tea.
“Are you all right?” she asked, hanging up her cloak and crawling up on the couch next to Sewenna. She kissed his cheek.
Sewenna sighed and sat up, leaving the comfort of his couch and betrothed.
“What are you thinking?” asked Deloys, her eyes following Sewenna as he limped across the tavern to his chest behind the counter. He crouched down and pulled it open, “Estout wasn’t the beast…” Sewenna trailed off, waiting for Deloys’ response. Shuffling through the chest’s contents, he found his dagger, and slipped it from its sheath.
Deloys remained silent.
“Estout was a were-bear—the beast I first encountered was some deformed bovine-wolf,” said Sewenna, rising from the floor. Deloys stood at the counter. He hadn’t even heard her move.
“Really?” she asked.
“Aye,” Sewenna nodded grimly, inspecting Deloys’ beautiful features. He cursed himself for not putting it together earlier…love had dulled his senses. “The way you move—silent, almost eerie.”
“You’re the beast,” said Sewenna coolly.
Deloys smirked, “and who is my master?”
Scowling, Sewenna lifted the dagger, gazing into Deloys’ chocolate eyes. “Harga-thul the Eldritch Mage. The one who killed my brother,” Sewenna pointed the dagger at Deloys.
She made no move. “And?”
“I know how he’s followed me all this time,” he said dejectedly.
“How?” Deloys shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Sewenna could see she was prepared to attack or run, he didn’t know which.
“That night when Harga-thul killed Ulger. I grazed him before I ran. A nick, but enough. Harga-thul, or that body he occupied, must’ve developed an infection in the wound and died,” said Sewenna, his eyes growing watery with the memory of his brother. “With no body to inhabit, his dark soul sought me out. His revenge was entering me. Living through me, continuing his heinous evil through me—and with Thaakal dead, Harga-thul needed a new familiar. That’s where you come in,” he motioned the dagger at Deloys.
Deloys smirked, “I’m impressed. We didn’t think you would discover it so soon. Maybe in a few years when you started to wake soaked in blood. But this doesn’t change anything. I have always been the beast and you have always been my master. You are damned, and your body belongs to the Eldritch Mage now, and forever.”
Sewenna sighed, “no.”
“No, I will serve justice, and I will be redeemed,” said Sewenna, driving the dagger into his neck and dragging it across his throat. Blood gurgled out, and as he drifted away towards his brother and the Good Spirits, Sewenna heard Deloys crying and Harga-thul howling in rage.
Bio: I have been writing for two decades and have attended numerous workshops at UMass Amherst by invitation. Pursuing my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Springfield College, I tutored for an African-American Literature course and completed an Independent Study in Creative Writing. I currently attend Harvard University, pursuing a Masters in Liberal Arts in Creative Writing.