The vicious kick caught the dog in the ribs, his breath forced from his lungs as he lay there curled in a ball on the floor. This served only to infuriate Dreggyn, who snarled and rained heavy fists down upon the dog's head and back. The dog had not stacked the firewood properly, indeed, had not finished stacking it at all. Instead, the dog had chosen to chase butterflies in Dreggyn's field behind the house. The dog knew it had done the unforgivable, and could only whimper piteously in between his cries of pain as Dreggyn's boot and fists struck him again and again.
Passers by noticed the dog getting beaten, and quickly hurried on down the muddy road. So the malformed half-wit was getting beaten again, what of it? A few extra lumps certainly could not mar an already grotesque visage, and besides, who could stand up to Dreggyn? Tall, muscular and captain of the local war band, Dreggyn was the sort of man whom you gave whatever he asked for and quickly. At least, those who were wise did so.
At length, the tall warrior paused in his beating to catch his breath, leaning up against the roundhouse and glancing down the road. A small boxed wagon drawn by a mule slowly ambled its' way up the muddy road toward Caernyghlenn, the driver hooded and cloaked against the softly falling rain that was commonplace in this region of Erehn. The dog whimpered pitifully, and Dreggyn dealt him another savage kick for good measure.
Surprisingly, the wagon and its' cloaked driver stopped in front of Dreggyn's roundhouse. The mule brayed, and the driver turned to look through the rain at the warrior. Dreggyn struggled to see, but could make out no face within the dark hood.
Good morrow, a rich, feminine voice spoke from within the hood I see you've a wounded man, there. I am a healer of sorts, and I deal in all kind of medicinals, poultices, and unguents. I can heal him for you.
Dreggyn barked a laugh.
What, this? he dealt the dog another kick This isn't a man, lass. He's a dog, and a damned useless one at that! I'll not be paying to have him healed or cured or anything of the sort. He can die and rot for all I care!
I see, the woman's voice spoke again, though there was the barest hint of venom in it now like the soft hush of a dagger being drawn. And when he dies, I assume you'll be taking over his chores, then? That must be where you got those muscles. An interesting way to keep fit for the battlefield, or perhaps you swing only at the weak and the helpless?
Dreggyn's jaw dropped in outrage. Thundering up to the wagon, he made to reach for the driver with angry hands. The mule brayed once again.
Bitch! You'll not talk to Dreggyn like that! I'll -
A slender hand emerged from the cloak to point two fingers directly in Dreggyn's face, stopping him cold.
Oh, the danger in the woman's voice was not masked now. It was a bared sword, a drawn bow. A serpent coiled to strike Oh, I think I will talk to Dreggyn exactly like that. You see, my dear pig, I am the only healer of any true skill for a hundred leagues in any direction, and the early snows follow in my wake. When the winter rot sets in amongst your livestock, when the fevers and the palsies send you and yours shuddering; when broken limb and bleeding wound drive you like a babe mewling for milk to my wagon, whom do you think will tend to you? Tell me, brave warrior, will my skills be at your disposal, or will I leave you retching and wracked with fever along the side of the road? Put. The wounded man. In my wagon. Now.
Face flaming with fury, Dreggyn collected the whimpering body of the dog in his massive arms and gently placed him in the back of the wagon. His eyes were cold and full of hatred. The mule brayed one more time.
This isn't over, woman. Dreggyn promised.
A sigh escaped the hood.
No, the woman said, snapping the reins and starting up the road once again No, I don't suppose it is.
The dog awoke sluggishly to the sound of a crackling campfire and a gentle voice humming softly. He was warm, and did not hurt as badly as before. The dog cautiously opened his eyes and shifted. This movement brought a sharp stab of pain lancing through his body as his side burst into red hot flames. The dog cried out. Immediately, the humming stopped. Gentle hands came to rest on the dogs' shoulders, urging him back. Looking up, the dog saw a face. Beautiful, with an olive complexion framed by raven-dark hair that flowed around slender shoulders. And two extraordinary eyes that seemed to shift color in the firelight one moment dark and deep, and now hazel. The eyes held only concern for the dog.
Now then, the woman spoke in her rich voice You've some broken ribs, lad. Try not to move. I'm preparing a poultice right now that should ease the pain, but you need to remain still, agreed?
The dog understood the words, but could only nod slowly. The woman frowned slightly. Her hands, so gentle, moved to softly brush tangled hair away from the dogs' face. The dog flinched slightly.
Easy, lad, the woman said I'll not hurt you. My word on it. What's your name?
The woman blinked, and her slender brow arched slightly. Standing, she brushed her hands on the woolen dress she wore. She pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment and nodded to herself.
Rhyn....Yes, Rhyn will do. I've always liked that name.
The dog blinked now.
Dog he emphasized. The woman smiled warmly.
Nonsense. You're not a dog, and I'll not call you one. Rhyn your name is, unless there's another you'd prefer? No? Good, then. My name is Ena, and if you don't stop twitching about, I'll give you something nasty tasting that will put you back to sleep.
Rhyn did as he was told, not moving a muscle. Instead, his eyes followed the movements of Ena as she busied herself about the campfire and the poultice for his broken ribs. She began humming softly again, a haunting melody that stirred something in Rhyns' chest. He felt himself being coaxed by it, lulled along as if on an aimless current of deep, dark water. There was Old Blood in that melody. Rhyn had eavesdropped on enough conversations in the village to know about the elden and the fey, and Ena's lilting tune brought such things instantly to mind.
Rhyn himself had heard similar tunes on the edges of the great wood beyond Caernyghlenn, when dusk had rendered the broad oaks into shadowy giants with outstretched arms covered in leaves. Voices singing as if from some impossible distance wove tunes the likes of which Rhyn then still the dog had never dreamt of before. Beautiful voices, merry voices, and voices so ancient as to open doors into one's mind. Rhyn had fled then, and wept bitterly for doing so. Those in the village said that the elden and the fey stole away children and trapped the unwary in their nets. And there were hints of something even darker in the heart of the wood...
Rhyn shivered in spite of himself, bringing forth another lancing shock of pain. He grimaced and tried not to cry out, lest Ena make good on her promise to dose him with something foul. At that moment, however, Ena walked purposely over to him with some strips of cloth covered with something that made his nose twitch. She laid them aside and suddenly there was a knife in her hand. Rhyn, cried out and flinched backward, disregarding the pain in his side flaring up again in white hot anger. Ena gasped and jumped back, momentarily confused. Then, her face softened.
Here now, I'm not going to hurt you, she said with a slight frown. I have to cut open your shirt. I don't fancy hurting you while trying to pull it off of you. I give you my word on it, yes?
Trembling, Rhyn allowed her to approach. True to her word, she did nothing more than deftly slice open his tunic with her knife. Oddly, the blade of her knife was of some dark stone not iron like the ones used in the village. Ena gasped then, and Rhyn turned his attention back to her. He was honestly shocked to find her strange eyes glistening with tears as she looked upon him, though realization quickly fell upon him like icy water.
Rhyn knew what he looked like. He was ugly. Hideous and malformed. He did not look like the other men in Caernyghlenn. He had this fact beaten into him again and again by Dreggyn and the others to the point where he looked in no pools nor gazed in burnished bronze mirrors. He felt shame descend upon him like a black wave.
Who... Ena said in a whisper, Who has done this to you?
Rhyn followed her gaze down to his chest and stomach. The skin there was almost completely covered in dark purplish bruises and cuts, old scabs and scars. This was what had brought the tears to Ena's eyes. This was why she had gasped. Suddenly, Rhyn was filled with a sorrow he could not explain, and his shoulders began to shake with great, heaving sobs. Ena put her arms around him, and that one act did more to ease his pain than all the poultices she could ever make. She rocked him gently like a babe, and whispered softly in his misshapen ear.
Shhh....there, now.....It's alright, my Rhyn....there, now.
Sunlight filtered down through the trees in bars of gold where Ena sat outside her small covered wagon mending a torn tunic. Rhyn's Ena hummed softly while she worked, her bone needle moving quickly in and out of the torn fabric. At length, she paused.
You may as well come out, dear, she said I'm not going to hurt you. My, but folk are skittish around here.
A young woman guiltily stepped out from behind a tree, her pale face flushed with embarrassment. Ena went back to her mending and smiled. The woman took hesitant steps forward until she was only a few feet away and then dropped a quick curtsy.
If it please you, m'lady, she began in a small voice My man Dreggyn has sent me to fetch the dog back.
Ena's needle did not stop.
I see, she said, her eyes moving to peer intently at the young woman. My, but you're a pretty thing, aren't you? How old are you, girl?
Nineteen summers, m'lady.
Ena nodded thoughtfully. And your name?
Sendra dear, you appear to have a nasty bruise on your shoulder.
Sendra quickly pulled the neckline of her dress over the bruise, obscuring it completely, her face coloring even deeper.
A-An accident, m'lady. I'm a clumsy wench....can't put one foot in front of the other on most days.
I see, Ena's needle and thread continued deftly moving in and out of the the tunic Well, I'm afraid my patient isn't completely healed yet. He's got some broken ribs, you see, and it will take some time for them to mend. Your man Dreggyn will have to wait, I'm afraid. And you really shouldn't take names for yourself, dear. It isn't seemly. As for your bruise, I can make you a salve that will help it and the others heal more quickly.
I...I've just the one, Sendra stammered too quickly, pulling at her dress once again.
I see, Ena replied, arching her brow wryly and then looking at the sky. There will be snow soon, I think.
Yes m'lady, Sendra spoke hesitantly. My.....My mam used to call this time of year the Falling Death. The snows always come right after.
The Falling Death? What a peculiar name....why did she call it that, I wonder?
I think it was because of all the dying leaves falling from the trees, m'lady.
Ena nodded thoughtfully. It's no true name, though not completely. Look around you, Sendra dear. Do you see nothing but death in the wood?
Sendra looked so confused and at a loss for words, that Ena laughed lightly. Rising from her seat and putting her stitchery aside, she gently took Sendra's uncertain hand and led her to the base of a gnarled oak. A thick carpet of dead leaves lay surrounding the trunk, which Ena proceeded to dig through with her free hand until she reached the ground and pulled up the sod there. Rich, dark earth was revealed. Ena smiled and scooped some up in her hand, showing it to Sendra.
Though the cold will cover everything soon, it cannot touch the deepest roots of Father Oak, here. He simply sleeps and weathers the cold until the time is right. Father Oak is meant to stand tall and proud. He'll not let the darkness and cold of your mam's Falling Death hold him down for long. Ena laid a gentle hand alongside Sendra's face and looked her in the eye.
Appearances can be deceiving, Sendra dear. Even though the snows freeze His branches and the winds batter Him about, Father Oak has power in his deepest roots that most don't even think about.
Sendra held Ena's gaze for a long moment. At length, her eyes welled up with slow tears, and something came back into their depths that had been left by the wayside long ago. The barest hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and her hands moved instinctively to cover it.
I...I must be getting back now. Dreggyn will... She paused, and her smile deepened I think...I think I need to stop over at Gerna's house on my way back just to check up on her. She's been sick, you see.
Of course, dear Ena replied and smiled, walking back to her seat You make sure to come visit me again, now. I'll have your salve ready for you when next I see you.
Sendra smiled and nodded, and then took off running like a doe back through the trees. Ena looked in her direction long after the girl had disappeared. She then looked down and picked up the tunic she'd been mending and passed a critical gaze over it.
Well, she said to no one in particular It's not my best stitchwork, I'll grant you. But, it was an ugly tear to begin with.
Bel's balls, but I hate this time of year! Marl looked out the window at yet another cold and drizzly afternoon. He took a long pull at his tankard and wiped his thick, ale-soaked mustache on his sleeve. The rest of the men tensed slightly as his voice cut through the silence in the roundhouse. Dreggyn snarled.
Keep your old woman's whining behind your teeth, Marl, unless you want to be outside running patrol!
Marl flushed and looked away, as did the other men in the room. Dreggyn was in one of his moods, and was getting surlier with each tankard of ale he polished off. Word had gone 'round quickly about the healer woman who had come to Caernyghlenn and how she'd spoken to Dreggyn. It wasn't likely that the broad-shouldered warrior was likely to forget the affront or forgive it.
Conn drew off another tankard and brought it over to Dreggyn, sitting down beside him. He rubbed a hand over the gray stubble on his shaven head and gave Dreggyn a clap on the shoulder. Dreggyn sulked, but said nothing.
Here now, Dregg, Conn said What say we hunt some boar when the rain lets up? I don't know about you, but I'm itching for a little excitement.
Shut your fool's mouth, Conn, Dreggyn growled You want your horse to turn a hoof in this Bel-cursed slop? Aye, the damned rain may let up, but it'll be days before it's dry enough to hunt anything.
Ah, but you're right as always, Dregg, Conn replied, switching tactics Likely as not one of us'd get gored, and I'll be damned if I want that witch in the wood patching me up!
Dreggyn grunted in agreement. Conn smiled knowingly.
Nudd's teeth, but she's got some nerve coming here and acting like she's a queen. I hear she put some witchery on old Fhenn, and now he doesn't use his crutch to walk anymore. Not natural, if you ask me.
That's the truth of it, Dreggyn assented, taking another pull from his tankard. The other men in the room began to relax. Talking was better than fuming. Marl smiled and walked over to sit on the other side of Dreggyn.
Aye, he said She probably put a spell on you as well, Dregg. Else, you wouldn't have let her take your dog from you.
Dreggyn jumped up and swung a heavy fist at Marl, catching him on the jaw and sending him flying from the bench to land on the floor. The room was silent in an instant. Dreggyn's eyes shone murderously as he glared down at the shocked Marl.
No one takes anything from me, he snarled. I'll go and get the ugly cur from that bitch-whore, and she'll wish she hadn't crossed me!
The room remained silent until Conn spoke up, looking around at the others.
Aye, lad! That'll show the bitch!
The others voiced similar affirmations and the room relaxed again. Marl scurried to find another seat out of Dreggyn's view. Dreggyn took a slow pull from his tankard and growled under his breath.
No one takes anything from me.
Rhynn awoke with a start, his eyes darting wildly this way and that in a panic. The plain interior of the wagon was pitch-dark. He held his breath in the darkness for an agonizing moment, and then relaxed slightly when his nightmares did not follow him into waking. He winced as he shifted his frame, his hand moving to gingerly touch the bandage wound 'round his torso. He was still tender, but the pain had greatly lessened. Unable to lie still any longer, Rhynn cautiously slid out of the thick blankets that Ena had drawn over him and left the wagon.
The little camp was quiet. The rains had finally stopped and a large pale moon lay nestled amidst brooding clouds overhead. Tendrils of ghostly mist carpeted the ground as the dark woods loomed around the little clearing. A pot of stew bubbled promisingly in a pot on the campfire, it's aroma making Rhynn's mouth water. A short table had been set up near the wagon, and was occupied by several small pots of dried herbs along with a stone mortar and pestle. Of Ena, there was no sign.
Rhynn moved toward the pot of stew, but the echo of a sound wafted through the trees, halting him in his steps. The sound faded quickly, making him wonder if he had indeed heard it at all. The trees revealed nothing, and Rhynn felt his heart begin to beat wildly in his chest. The sound came once again, the wild skirl of wind instruments accompanied by skin drums. Rhynn began to breathe quickly. It was the elden music, once again and there was no one to chastise him for following it this time.
Moving quickly, but cautiously, Rhynn followed the eerie sounds of the music. Tree branches lashed at his face as he moved through the wood, but Rhynn felt compelled to find the source of the haunting melody once and for all. The music called to him. It sang in his blood. The song grew louder as he approached, and now Rhynn could hear the voices once again. The ancient, old voices that spoke to him as if from a far away land. Rhynn wept with anticipation as he neared, until at last he could see the reddish glow of firelight through the trees. As he drew near, he slowed until at last he paused on the edge of a clearing framed by oaks so massive and ancient, they seemed carved from stone.
A single, pale tree without leaves stood in the center of the clearing, it's shapely branches illuminated by the moonlight and gleaming like silver in the night. The tree, unlike any Rhynn had ever seen before, was tall and proud, and a nimbus of soft azure light limned it's smooth bark. Before the tree, a bonfire roared, and here at last were the musicians. Rhynn could only stare.
Dancing lithely around the flames were the most beautiful and frightening creatures he had ever seen the eld folk. Enraptured pale faces moved beside faces made as if from twigs and leaves. Tall and short, slender and great of girth; the elden defied categorization. Feminine forms as graceful and beautiful as willows whirled and leapt in the arms of dark skinned shadows with leaves for hair. And Ena's nude body writhed and danced among them, her hair fanning out like a cloak of midnight. The wild thrumming of skin drums pulled at Rhynn's blood, his heartbeat following the cadence like a leaf tossed about on the wind.
The music called...beckoned to Rhynn until at last he was forced from the clearing, tears streaming down his lumpen face and his arms thrown wide in rapture. The music ceased, and all turned to face him including Ena, whose wild feral smile softened. Wordlessly, she held out her hand. Rhynn, choking back a sob, felt his hand enter hers almost before he realized he had taken a step. The stars overhead were captured in Ena's twinkling eyes, and Rhynn knew he had never seen anything so beautiful, so alive.
A pot-bellied boy with cat eyes began to beat rhythmically on the head of a drum, and Ena began to move Rhynn about, her eyes sparkling. Rhynn shuffled to match her movements, but found that the more he tried to move properly, the less he did so. Ena smiled and bent down to his ear.
This dance has no steps, my Rhynn. Don't think. Feel.
Rhynn closed his eyes and began to move with the drum. The roaring bonfire stained his eyelids orange and red as the other elden musicians began to play. Rhynn began to move instinctively, his feet moving here and there before he even realized what he was doing. Light laughter greeted his ears and a joyous cry from his own lips split the night as he stepped lively, the wild fey music drawing him ever on. Ena laughed and spun, her lithe body flickering and leaping like a writhing tongue of flame.
Without warning, a great cracking and groaning of trees suddenly froze all dancers, stilled every tongue. Rhynn's heart leapt in his throat as all turned to look toward the dark wood. The trees groaned and parted.
Something had come.
A massive shape stepped into the clearing, the moonlight overhead illuminating the tall muscular form. It stood upon two goats' legs, covered in dark fur; it's footfalls echoing strangely with each step. Two great, many-branched antlers thrust out from a thick head of unruly hair tangled with twigs and leaves. A human face with wild, dark eyes regarded the scene. Old power shone in those eyes; older than the beginnings of the world.
The elden sank to their knees, their faces almost touching the ground and suddenly, it was as if Ena and Rhynn were completely alone. Alone with Him. Ena quickly pulled Rhynn down to the ground, where she bowed deeply with the others. Rhynn whimpered and knew real fear as cloven-hoofed footsteps echoed in approach. A deep and yet quiet voice spoke. There was no other sound to be heard.
What....is this? the Forest Lord spoke, crouching low until his face was scant inches from the tops of the humans' heads.
I know you, Ena Raven-Hair, he said, his voice rumbling like distant thunder But you bring a stranger into my halls this night, and he has the stink of villages upon him. Stand, and tell me true.
The two rose slowly, and a wave of pure terror washed over Rhynn as he found the Forest Lord's face a mere half-inch from his own. Those dark and impossibly deep eyes held his in an iron grip, and Rhynn felt himself trembling from head to toe. Dimly, he was aware of Ena speaking in respectful tones.
He is from the village, it is true, my Lord, she said softly But they abuse and harm him because his shape is not comely in their eyes. I have sought to heal him and give him shelter. He must have heard our music and followed it to my Lord's halls.
The barest hint of a smile touched the corners of the Forest Lord's mouth.
Then his fate is upon his own head, is it not? he said in his deep voice, his eyes boring into Rhynn's Who are you, manling?
Ena started to answer for Rhynn, but the Forest Lord held up a hand, instantly silencing her. His eyes reflected the moonlight as he spoke again, his voice filled with a deep music that wound and threaded its' way down to the roots of Rhynn's soul.
Who are you, manling?
Ena stirred the small pot over the campfire, humming softly to herself. The days were growing colder, and the trees on the edge of the little clearing seemed to lean in toward the fire. Rhynn had left a short while ago seeking fish from the river. He'd insisted, actually. Ena smiled to herself. Ever since that night deep in the wood, Rhynn had begun to carry himself differently. He no longer shied away from her or flinched whenever she moved suddenly. In just over a week, he had even lost the whimper in his voice. Though she hoped that she had played some part in healing Rhynn's broken spirit, Ena still gave thanks to the elden and the Forest Lord for not turning him away like so many others had doubtlessly done in his life.
Ena paused and looked up from the cookpot. Why had the birds gone silent? A slight chill began to grow in her heart, and her eyes slowly scanned the trees at the edges of her campsite. There. Ena slowly stepped away from the fire, trying to ignore her own heartbeat as she looked into the surrounding wood and spoke.
What can I do for you, Dreggyn? she asked.
In response, he stepped from behind a tree and strode into the clearing. Ena could smell the ale on him from where she stood. Dreggyn looked at her for a long moment, his hands balled belligerently into fists at his side.
I've come for him, and I'll be taking him back with me. his voice was dangerously low.
I'm afraid he isn't here, Ena replied, her heart beating faster Perhaps if you come back later, you can ask him -
Ask him? Dreggyn interrupted and strode toward her until he was a few feet away I'll not ask him anything, bitch! He belongs to me, do you understand? The dog is mine!
He is not yours, Ena replied, her own temper flaring to life He is his own, and you can't hurt him anymore, you bastard.
Can I not? Dreggyn asked with an evil smile.
Rough hands took hold of Ena's arms and held her fast. A fist painfully jerked her head back by the hair as Dreggyn stepped closer, his eyes filled with cruel malice. Out of the corner of her eye, Ena could see other members of Dreggyn's warband stepping out from the trees with determined looks on their faces. Fear took hold of her heart in an icy fist.
Dreggyn reached out and slowly caressed Ena's cheek with the back of his hand, the hunger in his eyes betraying his intent immediately. Ena's foot came up a half-second later to connect solidly with Dreggyn's groin. The big man went down with a grunt.
Ena struggled, but the men held her fast. Dreggyn slowly stood to his feet, the smile replaced by a murderous glare. Ena spit in his face.
Do what you came to do, she said, her eyes going to Dreggyn and the men around her Your fate be on your own heads.
Dreggyn struck her then, and the men forced her down to the cold earthen floor of the clearing.
It was almost dark when Rhynn came back to camp, several fat trout dangling at his side.
His eyes immediately saw the destruction of the wagon, its' sidewalls hacked and broken while the contents it had once held were strewn about the clearing. The cookpot and table were overturned and the fire was burning low. It looked as though someone had attempted to burn the wagon, but the wood strangely had not caught. A chill gripping his heart, Rhynn ran forward into the camp.
He found Ena lying slightly propped against one of the wagon wheels, her face a confusion of bruises and welts. Her naked breasts rose and fell only slightly. There was so much blood. Rhynn, sobbed and cradled her head in his gnarled hands.
No, he said No, Ena....
Ena's eyes fluttered open to fix on him. A trickle of blood spilled out of the corner of her mouth as she managed a smile that looked so very out of place now amidst the ruin of her face.
M-My Rhynn, she said in a pained whisper You're free. F-Free of them. I'm...I'm glad to see you one last time before I move on.
Fat tears rolled down Rhynns' face as he awkwardly smoothed the blood-soaked hair away from her face. Ena...No...
I love you, my Rhynn, Ena smiled again I love you. C-Carry that.
The smile remained upon her face, even as the light died in her eyes.
Rhynn's shoulders shook with sobs as he crushed Ena's body to his chest, her slight body seeming tiny against his large frame. A low keening rose in his throat as he held her there, slowly gaining strength and volume until it became a roar. The campsite echoed with Rhynn's roar until it raced over the treetops and descended upon Caernyghlenn, where Dreggyn and the warband sat in the roundhouse drinking. More than one man looked to another nervously as the cry echoed over the village.
Dreggyn went to the window and stood for a long time drinking and staring out at the edge of the wood.
The cry was heard far from the village, in the darkest heart of the wood, as well. Here, in the grove of the Forest Lord, the cry echoed for long moments after it had finally ceased. There were no elder folk dancing here, now; no bonfires nor wild music. There was only the Forest Lord and the pale tree that shone silver. And the sorrow of the loss of one of their own.
The Forest Lord looked toward the village, his expression unreadable save by she who had known him from the beginning. His hand strayed to rest with familiarity upon the shapely branches of the lone silver tree. The wind rose, and dark clouds moved to obscure the moon. The first thrummings of the wild magic stirred upon the wind, even as the earth moved with Rhynns' racing footsteps. The Forest Lord moved to embrace the tree, his eyes touched with a deep melancholy. Closing his eyes, he lent his will to join with the others in the working.
Double edged their meeting, he spoke softly as the branches of the silver tree began to sway in the wind And double edged their parting.
It was late when Marl stumbled out of the roundhouse to piss in the muddy street, his ale-sotted thoughts troubled and confused. He subconsciously rubbed at a bite mark on his cheek. Stupid wench, he thought. If she'd been smart, she'd have just let them finish with her and move on. But she'd fought like a she-wolf with cubs. She'd managed to mark every one of them before the end. Dreggyn didn't like being fought especially not by wenches. Well, it was over now. Leastways, Dreggyn's dog would most likely come skulking back in the morning and things would go back to normal. It was all the curs' fault, anyway. He should have known hiding behind the witch woman would send Dreggyn into fits. Stupid bastard.
Marl coughed and shook himself, gazing with bleary eyes at the pale mist growing thickly over the village. Overhead, the full moon slowly appeared from behind dark clouds. Down at the end of the street, a dog stood rapt at attention, growling at the wood before tucking its' tail between its' legs and slinking off with a whine.
A deep snort sounded from within the trees, followed by a rumble of heavy footfalls.
Inside the roundhouse, Dreggyn brooded over his tankard. The fire popped in the hearth, but no one spoke. A few had fallen asleep, snoring softly with their faces resting in puddles of ale. Conn yawned and stretched, causing Dreggyn to look up from his drink.
Without warning, the door to the roundhouse was smashed inward as a body flopped rag-like onto the earthen floor. The men jumped to their feet, scrambling for their swords and spears with cries of alarm. Dreggyn slowly moved toward the body, his eyes intent on the open doorway before moving to examine the body. It was Marl. His eyes stared vacantly upward, oblivious of the gaping hole in his chest. His spine had been snapped like a twig, and his body lay bent at an unnatural angle.
All eyes turned to the doorway.
The back wall of the roundhouse caved in as something huge struck it with tremendous force. Several of Dreggyn's band were hurled backward to smash against the opposite wall as all light was extinguished, pale moonlight shining down through the rising dust. Dreggyn, who had fallen backward, scrambled to his feet, the cries and shouts of men all around him. Beyond the wreckage of the back wall, he could see nothing out of the ordinary outside.
Outside! Dreggyn shouted Outside, you bastards! Now!
The men scrambled outside, carrying their comrades on their shoulders. Men and women were running out of their houses to investigate, cries of alarm filling the night. Dreggyn scanned the area, his warriors' instincts screaming a warning. The thick mist writhed around their feet.
Spears up, men! he screamed The rest of you lot, get back in-
The small house off to Dreggyn's right exploded as something huge ran straight through it. Heavy stones and roofing showered from the sky and flames caught on the fallen thatching. A bone-chilling roar of bestial fury split the night as the creature stepped into view.
Bel have mercy, Dreggyn heard Conn whisper.
It was a boar. The most gigantic boar Dreggyn had ever seen; easily the size of a large wagon. It's massive flanks, covered in wiry hair, heaved like bellows as steam poured from the things' great snout. Two giant tusks sprang like swords out in front of the beast as it regarded Dreggyn with eyes filled with rage.
One of the warriors shouted defiance and ran toward the beast, spear upraised. The warrior thrust expertly at the great boars' chest, the spearhead flashing toward its' heart. With frightening speed, the boar sidestepped the thrust and the warrior was impaled on the beasts' monstrous tusks. With a twist of the mighty creatures' thick neck, the warriors' body was thrown high to land in a broken heap upon the ground. The beast charged.
Dreggyn dove for cover, but Conn wasn't fast enough. The great boar bent its' massive head low and caught Conn in the stomach, using its' forelimbs and tusks to tear the unfortunate warrior in half. Blood soaked the ground. Several of warriors leapt to the attack, their spears and swords sinking into the beasts' thick hide, but the monster thrashed this way and that, sending them flying like so many leaves on the wind. The boar smashed in through another home, sending a fresh shower of rubble to fall upon the villagers' heads. Flames sprung up, eating the thatch and wood hungrily as the monster roared.
Dreggyn picked up a discarded spear. Waiting for the right moment, when the beast was distracted by what remained of his men, the captain of the warband ran and leaped upon the creature's broad back. Taking the spear in both hands, he drove it downward with such force that the haft snapped. The great boar bellowed in pain and fury and thrashed its' body whip-like to send Dreggyn crashing against what remained of the stone wall of a house. Now people screamed and ran here and there, trying to put out flames and rescuing the wounded. None dared approach the beast, now. Dreggyn coughed up blood, staggered painfully to his feet, and drew his knife with his one good arm. The other dangled helplessly at his side. The boar stepped slowly forward in challenge, its' great dark eyes regarding Dreggyn with rage. Dreggyn looked into those eyes and suddenly fear, long-fled and denied, clutched at his heart and limbs. He dropped the knife and shouted through the flames and smoke.
Not a dog, he shouted A pig...a pig for roasting! I'll feast on you this night, you bastard!
The boar gave a tremendous roar, even as Dreggyn screamed in challenge and the two mortal enemies rushed at each other. The creatures' tusks slid into the warrior and erupted out his back in a fountain of gore. Dreggyn, screaming and smashed at the monsters' head repeatedly with his fist before his strength drained with his life's blood.
N-Not a dog, He whispered and hung limp upon the boars' tusks.
The monster roared and threw Dreggyn's body to the ground, where it stamped it into a broken pile of blood, mud, and gore. More villagers came then, with torches and more spears. The great boar continued to destroy all in its' path, its' rage overflowing into madness and bloodlust. Houses were smashed, villagers trampled and gored, and still the beast claimed its' bloodprice.
At the edge of the wood, unnoticed by all, stood a tall figure with many-branched antlers springing from his head of unruly hair. A great, curved bow that glowed softly with its' own inner life was held in his hands. The beast would not stop killing. Vengeance had given way to madness, and more innocents would die. Through long years, the beast would haunt these lands, murdering and destroying all it came across. This was not balance, and balance was life. Rhynn had known this the moment he had lent his will to the working of the wild magic borne on the wind from the wood. A vision given, a pact made.
The Forest Lord drew the great bowstring back to his cheek, a long slender shaft of purest moonlight notched for flight. His voice was soft as he released the string.
Go gentle, Great Heart.
When the morning sun rose, Sendra searched through the rubble with the other wives, reclaiming what had not been destroyed by the beasts' wrath. Where the beast had gone, or why it had suddenly stopped its' murderous rampage, no one could say for certain. The monster had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from their midst, leaving behind a scene of utter carnage. Sendra shook her head and continued to search here and there for anything she might find. The coming winter looked to be a hard one, and the village would need everything it could get its' hands on to weather it. Most of the warband was either dead or would not last the day, leaving the village open to attacks from raiders and brigands. Sendra sighed. A worry for the future. Not now.
And Dreggyn? Dead. More than dead. Sendra could not bring herself to feel loss or even pity for her husband. Many nights she had lain awake after being beaten or raped and wished for an end to it all, but none ever came. Dreggyn had broken her just as he had broken the poor hunchback. Had stolen their dignity and identities until naught remained but hollow shells. Empty and cold.
But the healer woman had given it back to them. Sendra supposed she was a witch, but what of it? There was no magic nor spellcrafting to the way she had brought them back out of the darkness that Dreggyn had them cowering under. Or maybe there had been. Where Dreggyn had been harsh, the healer woman had been gentle. Where Dreggyn was cruel, she had been kind. Where Dreggyn was ugly and deformed inside, the healer woman had been beautiful. Perhaps her magic was beauty.
Sendra blinked, surprising herself by such deeper thoughts. She walked around the back side of the burned out shell of a home and gasped. There, his body broken and mangled, lay the hunchback. His eyes stared upward, but there was a strangely peaceful smile on his lips that belied the obvious violence of his death. Clutched in his hand protectively was a small branch with silvery bark. Sendra felt a profound sorrow cause tears to well up in her eyes. Behind her she could hear approaching footsteps.
Sendra? What've you found? It was Ghwennid, the wife of the miller. Her pinched face scowled down at the body of the hunchback. Nessa, the daughter of Cian the smith was behind her.
It's Dreggyn's dog, Nessa spoke in nasal tones.
Filthy wretch was probably daydreaming when the beast came upon him during the fight, Ghwennid sniffed Ugly cur never was right in the head, and hanging out with that witch woman didn't help him any.
I heard she put a spell on him with her dark magic, Nessa replied.
I've no doubt, Ghwennid answered back, digging at the hunchbacks' body with her toe Probably to beguile him to fall in love with her. Sorcerous bitch was probably what brought the bea-
Sendra's closed fist caught Ghwennid square in the nose, sending the older woman flying backward into Nessa. The two women fell into the mud to stare in utter shock up at Sendra; quiet, shy, mousy Sendra. The woman stood over them, her voice quiet as her eyes went to the wood beyond the village.
No, she said softly They were beautiful. Both of them.