The Lake District
Lantern light bobbed ahead of them, casting overlapping golden pools on the hillside.
“Rancy!” Ekram called as he trudged up the steep terrain behind Trantor, his long-legged friend and neighbor. “Nessa!” He’d take some hide off those two for scaring their mother like this.
Then he laughed to himself. No, of course he wouldn’t. He was too soft-hearted. A good talking-to, that’s what they needed, sweet Nessa with her flaming hair, and her cheeky big brother, dark-haired, dark-eyed Rancy.
Their mother, though, was a different kettle of fish. Benna would wallop their behinds for them once he got them home.
Truth be told, it would serve them right. Those two scamps knew better than to stay out after dark.
“Any sign of them, Ekram?” Trantor swung his lantern in an arc, taking in a wide swath of the grassy slope.
“Not yet.” Ekram thought Trantor was more worried that he ought to be. It was just little ones being little ones. They’d likely meet them scampering down the mountain.
But Cleos was Trantor’s eldest and the only boy, expected to take over the smithy when he was grown. It was natural for a father to worry over his only boy.
The children should have been back a good hour ago; their suppers were cold on the table, their mothers wringing their hands with worry.
Ekram and Trantor had searched all the usual places. They’d been to the clearing in the woods where the children liked to build forts, the pond where they skipped stones, the old quarry where they hunted pretty rocks. No sign of them. The next place to look was the cave.
Cave Mountain was two miles east of Bellwyne, beyond where the children were supposed to play this late in the day, in case it grew dark before they got home.
Which it was right now. Too dark. No moon hung in the sky, just the gods looking down from their stars, cold and distant. Ekram shivered, then shook if off. The gods were the gods; nothing to do with him. Let the High Elders in their tower down in Delta Town worry about that sort of thing.
The cave. Right, that’s where the children would be. They weren’t supposed to come up here on their own, but Ekram had played in the cave himself as a boy, so how could he tell his own not to?
Trantor’s long legs surged ahead and Ekram hurried to keep up. The ground got steeper and rockier. They were nearly there. Maybe the children were holed up inside the cave, afraid to walk home in the dark, waiting for their fathers to come and bring them home safe. The thought made Ekram smile.
He was looking off to the side when he stepped on Trantor’s heel and stumbled to a halt. His friend was staring at the ground.
“What is it, Trantor?”
“Tracks. What do they look like to you, Ekram? Bear?”
“There’s been no bears near the village for many a year.” He studied the depressions in the grass, bringing his lantern closer, bending down to see better. “That’s no bear. More human, somebody walking barefoot.”
“Human? Can’t be. Look at the size of them. And there’s claw marks, can’t you see?”
Ekram saw. His gut clenched.
Trantor straightened up and turned in a circle, his lantern swinging wildly. “Cleos! Son! Where are you?”
Only the wind answered, sighing through the trees.
“Come on, Trantor,” Ekram urged. “We’re almost there.”
The two men hurried toward the cave. They could see the mouth of it now, a darker shape against the dark mountainside.
They were striding fast when Trantor stopped again and grabbed Ekram’s arm. “Smell that?” His voice was hushed, hollow.
“Smell what? I don’t smell any—” Then his mouth snapped shut and bile rose bitter in the back of his throat.
A memory slammed into Ekram’s mind: A wild boar hanging by its hind feet, its throat a gaping, bloody, upside-down smile, steaming entrails pooling in a bucket set on the floor below, the musty metallic smell of spilled blood.
The wind blowing down from the cave carried the stench of slaughter.
“Nessa!” Ekram shouted. “Rancy!”
He ran up the slope as fast as his legs would carry him, toward the cave, toward that awful stench.
Behind him, Trantor screamed, “Cleos! Cleos!” over and over and over, harsh and high and terrible.
Ekram and Trantor reached the cave together.
Cast overlapping pools of lantern light into the mouth of the cave.
Ekram’s mind would not accept the sight before him.
No, it can’t be. It can’t be.
He turned to Trantor, seeking denial, seeking something, anything, instead of what he saw before him, this jumble of torn flesh, broken bones, bloody rags strewn across the cave floor. This, this horror, could not possibly be, could not possibly be—
His friend collapsed to his knees, wailing his grief. Ekram wouldn’t have it.
“No, Trantor, stop. It’s not, it can’t be, it’s not them!” Not them. Please, you bloody, useless gods, not them.
Ekram took one step farther into the cave, just to see, just to prove—
His foot kicked something.
Something roundish, like a big rock, but too light for a rock. Something broken, hollowed out, streaked with pink and red and glistening gray.
He lowered his lantern toward the rounded thing. A long tail trailed from it. He moved the lantern closer, closer still, and held his breath.
Lantern light shone on a flame-kissed braid tied with green ribbon.
Nessa of the flaming hair, her mother’s favorite. Nessa, who begged a bit of green ribbon whenever a peddler passed through the village. Nessa, only six years old, his laughing summer child. Nessa, always tagging along after her big brother.
Her big brother.
The gods wouldn’t be so cruel, would they? They wouldn’t take away his son, too. Ekram swallowed the bile forcing its way up his throat and held the lantern higher. He didn’t want to see, but he had to know.
There, near the cave wall, a pile of bloody rags. He went closer, used the toe of his boot to spread the rags a little.
What had Rancy been wearing? Likely that blue jacket, an old one of Ekram’s that Benna had cut down to fit Rancy as a gift on his eighth birthday.
He toed the rags some more, and a blue sleeve flopped into view. A blue sleeve with a worn wooden button and a tear on the cuff.
Oh, how Benna had scolded the boy for that. He’d caught it on a bramble bush the day after his birthday, and Benna’d told him if he insisted on being so careless with the clothes she slaved over, he could fix it himself.
Ekram had laughed at that, thinking of his ham-fisted son wielding a needle, but Benna had held firm and the tear hadn’t been mended. Here it was, here it was—
He broke then, like a knife stabbing through his breastbone, cleaving his heart in two. He wanted to fall to his knees, scream and sob like Trantor, but he could not. He had to go down the mountain and tell Benna, tell Benna—
Ekram shook himself. Something else needed to be done before they returned to the village.
He went to Trantor, took him by the shoulders and pulled him to his feet. “Trantor, my friend, we must warn the Guard. One of us must go down to the garrison and tell them what happened here.”
“The garrison? The Guard?”
Trantor’s voice was a ragged whisper. Ekram shook him a little, feeling bad about it, but it needed to be done.
“Trantor. Listen. We have to warn them, so no one else—” He couldn’t finish his thought.
His friend’s eyes came back into focus. “Yes, of course, we have to warn the Guard,” Trantor said. “Shall I go, or— Ekram, I don’t know what to do. I can’t think.” And he sat down in the dirt.
Ekram looked out over the dark land, toward the west. In daytime you could just see the purple peaks of the mountains they called the Westers, far, far away. Now, all was blackness.
As he stood staring westward, lightning forked down, outlining the distant peaks in silver. It lasted only a second, and was so far away Ekram didn’t bother counting the time until the thunder; he’d never hear it.
He turned back to Trantor, took his arm and helped him stand. The man overtopped Ekram by six inches and outweighed him by three stone, but he felt weak as a newborn babe under Ekram’s hands.
“I’ll go to the garrison,” Ekram said. “You go back to the village, to your family. But don’t tell anyone else, not yet. You understand, Trantor? I need to tell Benna myself.” He couldn’t think about that right now, couldn’t even picture his wife’s face. He had to keep his mind blank, that’s all.
Trantor was still staring at him with hollow eyes. Ekram wasn’t sure he’d heard, but then those eyes focused and his friend’s head dipped in a nod.
They walked down the slope together, parting at the fork in the path. Trantor trudged on toward Bellwyne; Ekram turned north, toward the Rivaran Guard garrison that served the Lake District. The captain there would know what to do. Seth Greenwood, a young fellow who’d grown up in the village. Young yet, but he’d know what to do. He’d put guards on the cave, likely send trackers out.
They led away from the cave, those tracks. Some monster was out there in the dark, maybe following him, getting ready to attack. Rend him. Devour him.
Ekram’s hand went to the dirk in his belt, the only weapon he had. The only weapon he’d ever needed, until now.
The light from his lantern bobbed along in front of him. Anyone watching could see him clear as day, the only light in the too-dark night. But if he doused it he’d be stumbling through blackness.
Any monster with sense would be far away by now, making for the thick woods south of the lake or the far side of the mountain, not creeping up behind him so near a fort full of soldiers.
Then again, maybe this monster didn’t know about the fort. And maybe it had no sense, only an appetite for flesh.
Ekram shivered hard, and then he walked faster. He daren’t let himself think about it, or he wouldn’t make it to the garrison; he’d fall down right where he was and die of grief.
In a little while he could see pinpricks of light against the dark, all in a line: the torches along the fort’s stone wall. A good thing, too; the oil in his lantern was near gone. In ten more steps it sputtered and went out, but Ekram trudged on toward the torchlight.
Thunder rumbled far to the west and he thought of rain. Somewhere rain was washing the dust from the roads and giving new life to the crops in the fields.
He felt rain on his cheeks and reached up to wipe it away with the back of his hand, but it wasn’t rain, wasn’t cleansing, life-giving rain. Nothing would ever cleanse from his mind what he’d seen in that cave. Nothing would ever give life back to his sweet, slaughtered babes.
Ekram put one foot in front of the other, stumbling through the dark, wondering how in this whole wide, terrible world he was going to tell Benna.
TO BE CONTINUED…