The moon was full and the sky clear, silver light reflecting from the thick snow. It made the woods, a few hundred feet from the edge of the village, look even more foreboding. The tall, tangled pines, ominous enough by the broad light of day seemed predatory, malignant as the children stopped by the last building.
“We’ve got to go on,” Jack said. His breath frosted in the air and he didn’t feel as grown up or brave as he had ten minutes ago. “We mustn’t get scared.”
“Why do we have to do it now?” Janet asked. Despite the light it was hard to see her face, it was a shifting mosaic of blue and black shadows. He could tell that she wanted to cry. “Can’t we go in the morning”
“We’ll never find him in the morning, he’ll go too far into the trees. We have to go now or more people are going to die.”
“Why do we have to go? We should get an adult.”
“Come on, Janet. You know why. Look, if you’re really too scared, go home. I’ll go on my own.”
“No,” she wiped her face, pretending it was her nose and not her eyes. “I’ll come with you.”
“Good. Let’s go. It’s nearly midnight and we have to be ready.”
The two children, eleven and nine years old, left the safety of the village, trudging through the deep, fresh snow towards the trees.
The village was small and, until recently, it had been prosperous. The harvests were strong and the cattle reared on the lower slopes of the valley healthy. Their produce was always sought out on market day, sometimes even the Baron’s men came in search of the local cheese and smoked meat. If the village hadn’t been so remote, hidden away in the mountains in a corner of the realm few ever travelled to, the success would have seen the village grow, the inhabitants assuming the airs of town folk. It made the people glad that hadn’t happened. They liked their isolation, liked knowing that the world was slowly leaving them behind. They didn’t want any of the machines, the new ways of thinking that they increasingly saw on market day. Things like that weren’t for them, didn’t belong in the valley.
Of course, not everybody saw it the same way. In any community, no matter how happy and balanced, there will be malcontents, people driven by greed or anger to covet what they don’t need. For centuries the village elders had been able to curb the worst of them, most often they were only guilty of youth and eagerness. Once the truth was explained to them they normally came round, accepted that things were the way they were because they had to be. The welfare of the village mattered more than any of the people living there and if that meant they needed to shun outsiders, outside ways, then that was the way the world was meant to be.
In recent years, the struggle had become harder. Outside the valley the world was changing fast; great iron ships sailed the ocean none of them had ever seen and terrifying machines ran on steel tracks between the cities. For most of the summer and autumn the only conversation at the market had been the plans to bring one of the rail roads to the town next year. Merchants from the city had begun to appear, seeking fresh suppliers for the constant hunger in anticipation of the project’s completion. The lure of the new, the promise of the fortunes to be made offered by the merchants, had caught the attention of several villagers chosen to take the goods to town.
The merchants brought more than the offer of easy money with them. New ideas were appearing in the cities as well, challenges to the established ways of thinking. Agitators in the taverns got to some of the young men from the village, filling their heads with doubt. It took some time, the poison working it’s way into their life so slowly the elders didn’t notice, but eventually demands were made. The young men wanted the same say in affairs as the elders, wanted the money to be split equally between them all rather than each receiving what they needed. They accused the elders of hoarding the best for themselves, favouring their own families above the rest and clinging to control long after they lost the ability. It wasn’t even as if the elders had any standing in law, they and the power they wielded were an idiosyncrasy of the village, one that was kept hidden from the outside world. That alone was proof that the elders needed to be removed, wiped away like the foolish superstitions they clung to. Progress was something to be embraced, not shied away from.
Jack and Janet weren’t there for the final, tumultuous meeting when the elders were finally expelled, although they could hear the raised voices from the open window of their bedroom. They saw the elders leave the next morning, three old men on carts with their possessions and the members of their families who wanted to go into exile with them. They said nothing as they left town but their faces were angry and sad. Like the other children, the siblings didn’t know what to make of the changes, but the next few weeks had been exciting. The adults had been in high spirits, laughing at mischief that would have earned a thrashing in the old days. That had been reason enough for the children to celebrate.
The day after the elders left there was another meeting, during the day and with all the children present. The new town council, elected the night the elders were expelled, called it to announce that the old village laws were being thrown out, that progress was going to replace the backward beliefs of a bygone age. Someone asked when the money was going to be shared out and Ned, the new mayor, said the accounts were still being checked. Once the audit was over, he promised, the money would be shared. Jack had felt uncomfortable, he had never liked Ned, and he saw the same doubt on his mother’s face. The changes were going to affect their family more than most, the potential for ruin was great.
Like any isolated community, the village had given it’s own spin to the faith they followed. Everyone attended the same church, directed their prayers at Rome as much as Heaven, both seemingly as far away. No one doubted the doctrine, believed in the transmutation every Sunday, but they also knew how far they were from their saviour and his representatives on earth. The world was full of evil, Lucifer and his legions waiting in every shadow and corner for the unwary. The valley where they lived was particularly thick with danger. Before the coming of the light, a dark and terrible tribe had called it home. Echoes of the darkness that had reigned then were all around, waiting to crash down and undo everything that had been done, more than prayer and faith was needed to keep the valley safe, to keep it for God.
Under the rule of the elders, defending the village against the darkness had been paramount. Everyone in the village had been expected to do their share, from manning the watchtowers at night to checking that the wards set in and around the settlement were properly kept. The wards were six foot tall wooden posts, arranged in a pattern that formed an overlapping square and triangle around a circle when seen from above. Twice a year, on the equinoxes, they were given a fresh coat of whitewash, blessed with holy water by the priest—if he expected to last long in his post. Other, smaller posts, were erected outside every home and most of the other buildings, like pagan altars to a household god.
Ned abolished the nightly watches, although he stopped short of ordering the towers pulled down. War was always rumbling on the horizon, he said, and they were worth keeping for that eventuality. He abolished the patrols that had checked the perimeter of the village every dawn and dusk as well, a chore that was only desired in summer when it could provide an excuse for strolling with a sweetheart, although that didn’t go as well. Happy as they were to avoid a long, cold night in a tower several of the villagers weren’t able to sleep without knowing the perimeter had been checked. They didn’t know what it was being checked for, just signs of anything unusual, but they were happier if it was. Ned laughed at them but hesitated to enforce the ban.
There were other relics of the past—affronts to both God and Science, Ned called them—but none was as tricky to deal with as the one Jack and Janet lived with.
For a while after the elders were thrown out the children and their mother continued to give their father the potion. It was a simple mix of herbs and a mushroom that grew in the forest and they kept a small pot of it by the fire to stop it solidifying. Whenever Father started to stir they would give him some with a little broth or milk, melted snow in the winter when they knew the water would be clean—even Janet could feed him. After he would settle back into his blankets, return to the dreams that sometimes made him twitch and talk in his sleep. They had kept him like this since the day Janet was born, Jack had no other memory of his father. He was the guardian of the village, chosen by the elders when the last one died—in exchange for his sacrifice, the rest of the village cared for his family.
“You are keeping him drugged,” Ned said the morning he arrived with his men, striding in without knocking and knocking the spoon from Jack’s hand just as he was about to feed his father. “You aren’t to blame, but this heathenism must stop. Look, he is still young. Once he has recovered his strength, your father is as able as any other in the village. It is abhorrent to keep him like this.”
“He watches over us in his dreams,” Mother replied. “He does great work there. You must not wake him.”
“Nonsense. What you are doing is an affront to decency. A crime. You will stop, or I will call for a judge. What do you think they will make of you poisoning your husband, killing him slowly to live off superstitious charity?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“I would. We have been blighted for too long by the medieval, by people like you. Take her unguents.”
Ned’s men took the pot from beside the fire and turned over the house looking for the ingredients. They didn’t know what they were looking for, the recipe known only by the elders and the guardian’s family. They broke most of the pots and left with half the larder in addition, taking the mushrooms because they looked like food. They knew the extra items they took had no value except as food, but the first snow had fallen the night before, much earlier than other years. They had their own bellies to think of, although the ones that took the mushrooms suffered the next day with terrible stomachs. Later one of them, shamefaced with his mother’s words still ringing in his ears, brought back what he had taken and a small wheel of cheese by way of apology. By then, Jack’s father had been starting to stir.
For a week it seemed that Ned and the modernists had been right. Jack’s father, weak and confused after almost a decade asleep, recovered fast. He didn’t speak, everyone assumed he had forgotten how, but he ate heartily and observed the people around him with a quick eye. By the second day he was able to hobble around, leaning first on his wife’s shoulders and then his son’s. On the fifth day, when the snow was still only an inch or two thick, he ventured outside with the aid of a stick, blinking in the sunshine. He still didn’t speak but he smiled a lot, his teeth strong and white behind the flowing beard—it was prohibited for the guardian to be shaved. Ned took to accompanying him on his walks, talking at length about how the world had changed and what was going to happen. His followers—half the village by then—trailed behind, hanging on the words of wisdom. The old women and children hung back, watching the procession in silence.
The silence was finally broken on the morning of the eighth day. Jack and Janet had just woken and were carrying out their morning chores—Janet cleaning the fireplace and Jack fetching water from the well. They shared it with their neighbours and someone had already dropped a rock down it to shatter the layer of ice that had formed overnight. It started to snow as Jack made his way back to the house, wishing he’d listened to his mother and put his cap on.
“I shouldn’t be awake,” Father said, freezing them all in their tracks. “Have the elders chosen another?”
He didn’t speak again after that, no matter how insistently the questions were posed. Ned heard about the breakthrough and appeared a little after lunch, the bleariness in his eyes suggesting another late night. He had taken the best house in the village for his own, filling it with his sycophants and girls from the poorest families—his own family remained in the much smaller old home, increasingly shunned by their neighbours, albeit fearfully.
“So, you can speak?” he sneered, bending down to peer in Jack’s father’s face. “That’s good. I was starting to think you’d been left defective. You’re going to need to work, you know? The free ride is over. Time for you to do your bit. Understand?”
Jack’s father met Ned’s gaze, staring at him until the younger man broke away, trying to hide his embarrassment. Face flushed, he looked around the small room as if he were making a list. Janet was hiding behind her brother when Ned turned back to Mother, sitting quietly by her husband’s side, holding his hand. He looked hot and uncomfortable in his new clothes, bought the last time he went to market. His recently shaved chin and cheeks looked red and raw, angry looking cuts along his jaw testament to his lack of skill with a razor—beards were primitive he said, determined to lead by example.
“You can’t expect any charity from us,” he tried to sound haughty, only managing peevish, as he spoke. “We are a community now, we can’t be expected to support those who don’t want to try. Get him cleaned up and ready for work by tomorrow morning.”
“He doesn’t understand,” Mother replied. “You have to give him time.”
“There’s work that needs doing. Make sure he’s there.”
That evening, as the first heavy fall of winter was starting, Jack and Janet watched their father calmly cut Mother’s throat. She was standing by the table, cutting the vegetables for tomorrow’s stew, looking sad and tired. The children were by the fire, using small portions of bread to mop the last of the juices from their bowls. Father had finished his and had been staring into the fire, frowning and lost in his own thoughts.
When he rose, he crossed the distance in three strides, approaching Mother from behind. With one arm, far stronger than his withered limbs seemed possible off, he snatched her by the mouth and pressed her against his chest, muffling her cries. With the other hand he seized the knife she had been using, Jack heard the sharp cracks as her knuckles and fingers snapped. With a single gesture he drew the knife across her throat, slashing it halfway through. Blood sprayed across the table and chopped vegetables, splattering the opposite wall. Turning to look at his children, Father kept hold of Mother’s head as her legs collapsed. She sank to his midriff and he methodically cut through the rest of her throat, twisting the spine to pull the head free. The corpse sank at his feet and he threw the head aside.
“Stop me,” he said to his children, the man briefly shining brighter than the monster. “You must.”
Jack and Janet sat in silence for a moment after he fled, looking from the open door he had left, the snow falling in darkness, to the headless corpse of their mother, still fitfully pulsing blood. The head had rolled out of sight, it was found later at the foot of the stairs. When they summoned the courage to approach the door they saw the tracks their father had left, leading in a great, loping line towards the trees, and then they finally ran screaming for help.
Two weeks had passed since then, each day bringing more snow and fear. Jack and Janet had been taken in by a neighbour, the widow two doors down. Their only aunt had left the village when she was a girl, running away to join a soldier and their grandparents were dead. It was uncomfortable at the widow’s, although she was kind. They had to share a narrow cot stuck in a corner of the kitchen and listen to the old woman grieve in her sleep—all her children had died in her womb and her husband died when he was still young, an infected wound in his leg more than his body could defeat. Jack didn’t see why they couldn’t have stayed at home, he and Janet could look after themselves with a little help, but Ned had declared that it wasn’t safe.
“I know you feel like a man,” he had said to Jack, bending down so their eyes were level and Jack could smell the beer on his breath, “but you are still a boy. What would you do if you father came back tonight? Could you protect your sister there? Little Janet?”
If Father came to the widow’s, she would be relying on Jack to protect her more than the other way around, but he was man enough to know when it was wise to hold his tongue. He also knew that his father posed no threat to him or Janet, or to any of the other village children. With no one else to talk to, Mother had shared more than she should have about what Father was doing, what his family had to do to support him. Jack had learned his lessons well, his quick mind and sharp ears helping him to fill in a lot of the blanks. The children of the village would be safe, possibly safer, without adults, until spring. Until the equinox.
The morning after the murder, Ned gathered the men in front of the church, bundled up in an expensive city coat no one had seen before. He looked impressive, like one of the army officers they sometimes saw at market, but by the end of the day he’d abandoned the coat for something that didn’t trip his feet and absorb more moisture than it repelled. By then everyone knew what had happened and until he sent the women home Ned struggled to make himself heard above the call for a return to the old ways, that the bloodshed was proof they were true. With the women gone the men kept their fears to themselves, too proud to be the one to seem cowardly or superstitious. Jack, easily slipping the widow’s eye, watched from around a corner, straining to hear everything that was said.
“We all know Gregor was a good man, when he was young,” Ned said to the men. “In a way, he isn’t even to blame for what he’s done. I dare any one of us to say that, if we spent ten years drugged as he has been, that we wouldn’t also lose our minds. Facts are facts, all the same, and he is a murderer now. A dangerous one. We have to go and find him, make sure he doesn’t get a chance to kill again.”
“Are we going to kill him?” someone shouted, Jack thought it was the youth who had returned their food.
“Only if we must. If we can, we’ll bring him back for trial,” as Ned spoke, Jack saw him caress the handle of the gun sticking from his belt. There were no holsters in the village and the weapon was a hundred years old, as antiquated as the traditions Ned hated so much. “The safety of our women and children is all that matters. If we have to kill him then we will.”
The men searched all of that day, splitting into teams and fanning out into the woods. Some of the braver children tried to run after them but were driven back before they reached the trees—more than one father swapped the frustration of the day for a stinging palm and aching wrist when they returned. With the men gone the village felt empty and desolate, the children too scared to play and the women too nervous to gossip. Shunned by the other children, the way they always had been, Jack and Janet had snuck into one of the towers, spent the freezing day staring at the trees.
After a second day fruitlessly searching, Ned called a halt. There had been two heavy snowfalls and Gregor must have frozen to death, he claimed. It was clear winter had set in and there was no point wasting time and energy looking for the corpse until spring. Some of the older men tried to object at the meeting, the women and children again summoned but expected to watch in silence. They were shouted down by the others, accused of wanting to go back to ignorance and poverty. Family feuds were started that day, fathers and sons turning subtly against each other, wives and daughters silently choosing whose side they were on, learning to hate who they’d loved a day or two before.
Jack heard the screams on the fifth night, when his father chose to come back. One of Ned’s lieutenants, a youngest son with no prospects, had taken the abandoned guardian’s house, finally earning some worth in his wife’s unhappy eyes. Like everyone else, Jack claimed he had been asleep in the morning when the corpses were found, the dead couple’s infant child bawling in it’s crib. He didn’t manage to see inside his old home, Janet clinging to the back of his shirt and refusing to look, but he saw the blood around the kitchen door. It spread in a pool wider than it seemed two people could hold the blood for, a tapering trail leading to the woods along the same line Gregor had run after slaying his wife.
“Was it Father?” Janet asked.
“Yes,” Jack replied.
There was a local legend, never fully approved of by the church but tolerated, that claimed the village had been founded by a saint after he spent a night fighting against the darkness in the valley. He won a great victory, although how he did it varied from telling to telling, but it was enough to know that a fortress had been won, one of the weak spots between purity and filth that needed to be defended. The pagans of the valley had been convinced by the victory to cast aside their old beliefs, their attempts to pacify and placate the evil all around, and join the holy fight. With or without the church’s blessing, they had chosen to nominate one of their own to continue the fight, to act as a proxy for the saint in the nightly battle.
For a thousand years, maybe longer, an unbroken line of guardians had stood watch over the village, their unbroken sleep tricking the darkness. It was visions of blood and slaughter that had made Gregor occasionally twitch and mumble in his sleep, made the brief glances of his eyes when he stirred so melancholic. To spare the village he had accepted the torment into himself, confused the demons with figments of his imagination, felt the cuts and bites they inflicted in dreams as if they were real.
More than that, he had accepted the inevitable end, the merging of his soul with the darkness—it happened to every guardian the day they died, the day a different mushroom was mixed into their broth.
“Are you ready?” Jack whispered to his sister. “Last chance to go back.”
They were standing at the edge of the forest, the trees as tall as mountains. Looking back they could see the village, all the windows dark and the roofs hidden under snow. The moon was still high in the sky and they could see the track they had left in the snow, Jack forging ahead to clear a path for Janet. At times the drifts had risen to her hips, she wouldn’t have been able to get through on her own. If he hadn’t know the way so well, hadn’t walked the same path a thousand times with Mother, he knew he could have ended up stuck to his neck in one of the dips and hollows that littered the slope.
“I’m scared too. We don’t need to be. We just need to give him his medicine. That’s all.”
The day after Gregor returned, Ned organised a second search of the trees. This time he had enlisted the help of the stronger, heartier women. His eyes had been bloodshot as he shouted at his people, the fine clothes already starting to look grubby and worn. After the searchers left the children had sat in the church, listening to the ageing, ineffectual priest read random passages from his bible. The women not tasked with supervising the sermon gathered in groups, not quite daring to voice their concerns higher than a whisper.
The searchers came back tired and wet with nothing to show for their labour. That night, the monster came again, leaving the priest in a mess of entrails before the altar. It was disturbed during the act, a late reveller leaving Ned’s happening to be curious about the open church door. There was only the drunkard’s word to take that it had been the monster, the thing that no longer looked like Gregor, that knocked over the candles and started the blaze that left the church in ruins. Tongues might have started to wag if, the very next night, the monster hadn’t come for the witness and his wife, their eldest son. The three younger children, the second boy just months shy of his majority, were left alive, the youngest too traumatised to ever speak again.
More deaths had followed every night since then. The ground was frozen solid, resisting pickaxes even after a day and night with a fire burning on the spot. The corpses were being kept in a makeshift tent outside the village tavern, a grim reminder for the people who increasingly chose to spend their evenings, and nights, there. If the church had been standing they would have gathered there for support; few could even bare to look at the charred struts and crumbled stone, breathe the air nearby with any ease.
On the second night, Ned ordered men into the watchtowers, a task willing undertaken. It was the last time he seemed to be in control, his fancy clothes much the worse for wear after another day in the woods, antique gun lost in a stream. The four volunteers, two for each tower, were found in the morning, eviscerated and drawn in circles around the shattered remains of the towers. Ned’s last supporters had slunk away and since then he had sat in a dim corner of the tavern, curled on the floor in a corner like a child. He only moved to relieve himself or fetch more drink, everyone was careful to avoid looking at him, too scared to do anything about him.
More people were taken every night, the darkness growing hungrier as it grew stronger. One morning they woke to find that the ward posts had been uprooted and piled in the ruins of the church. They hadn’t been cut or snapped off, the monster had pulled them intact from the frozen earth. The twelve foot poles, as much below the ground as above, had taunted the villagers as they gathered to look, more snow falling. The roads out of the valley were impassable and no one was brave enough to risk the journey by ski, not alone. Talk had turned to the old ways, but none of them had understood or known what to do.
Jack would have spoken up then, if he’d been able. Janet would have as well, but they were with the other children, corralled in the dining room of the house Ned briefly called his own. Under the watchful eye of the widow and the other crones it was easy to slip away, to keep abreast of what was being said and done, but neither child could make themselves heard. The widow and the other women told them to go away when they asked questions or tried to tell what they knew, threatening them with beatings from one of the men if they weren’t good and quiet. After the second thrashing, one of the men administering it without questioning why, Jack gave up trying to let them know what had to be done, resolved to do it himself.
The darkness, the demon that lived in the valley, was always hungry. That was the nature of it’s curse, the method God had chosen to punish it. It thought that it knew what it needed to ease the starvation, was consumed by a constant desire for dying flesh, for the freshest agony. It was a creature of evil, simple and primitive, easy to control by people who knew how. On it’s own, the demon would never find what it needed, more than likely dismissing it if found by chance, but if given it, it would sleep. All that was needed for the darkness to be calmed was the medicine, the concoction that left it senseless, malleable.
Instead, in the tavern and the other houses where people gathered, talk turned to quicker solutions. The truly religious, the little coven of Catholics that hoped every new priest would be the one to purify the village, prayed to God. If he heard, he was too far away to respond before they were taken in a single night—eleven adults slaughtered and six small children left to almost freeze in the cold. In the private upstairs of the tavern, there were too many for the main room, the landlord and his peers hatched a plan to send for the elders. It was impossible that they had travelled far, they could be brought back before it was too late. They couldn’t find anyone brave enough to venture into the unbroken snow—if the demon left tracks, they were always covered by fresh snow. The plan was quietly forgotten the morning after seven of them were taken in the night, snatched from the beds they’d gathered together in the upstairs room. Confronted with the hideous mass outside their open window when they woke, the survivors slunk downstairs and joined the others.
“We must appease it,” Margaret, the only crone the men couldn’t force away to mind the children, had been saying the same thing all along, her quavering voice growing louder and shriller every time. No one had listened to her before, it was so long since her shunning began the reasons were lost. “Give the demon what it wants. Give it the feast, like the old days.”
Before the saint, before his battle showed the way, the pagans brought their children to the valley on the equinoxes—newborns in the spring and adolescents in autumn. On those days the darkness was allowed to devour the sweetest flesh, to come close to satisfying the hunger that drove it. It was enough to keep the peace, to avert the feeding frenzy. Fairy tales only the women and children knew, the men forgot them as they grew or laughed instead, told of special days when all the children were offered, an offering of appeasement.
It was chance that Jack was by the tavern window as Margaret spoke, his own plan already under way. It had been difficult to sneak past his minders, but he had managed it somehow, was only outside the window to catch his breath in a handy shadow. His goal was his old home, hoping that the looters hadn’t found everything. The mushrooms were hard to find, buried beneath rotting wood, as likely to be found by chance than anything else. Then they needed to be dried, ground. There was a chance some were still left at home, his mother had stored them all over the place in a frantic quest to ensure they never ran out.
“Give them the children?” someone objected. “We can’t do that. We aren’t monsters.”
“We don’t need to give them all, just a few. The old tales all say that one or two will keep the monster happy.”
“But it’s months until the equinox,” one of the others objected. “We won’t survive that long if it keeps coming every night.”
“We don’t have to wait. The equinoxes are just the best days. The sacrifice can be made on any night.”
“You’re talking about murder.”
“I’m talking about survival.”
Jack hadn’t stayed to listen to the rest of the argument. He knew already what the adults were going to do, if not tonight or tomorrow then within a few days. There were plenty of orphans in the village now, extra mouths no one thought they’d be able to easily afford. If his mother had still been alive, she might have been able to persuade them to try a different way but Jack didn’t think so. There was evil in the village, some of the people as eager for blood as the monster.
The front door of his house was closed and locked but the kitchen door was open, the frame damaged and the door itself hanging from one hinge. The small panes of glass in the windows had all been broken and as he approached the threshold he could smell the rankness from inside. Except to retrieve the corpses, no one had been inside since the monster struck, as scared of the shadows as they were in all the houses were people had died. The stench wasn’t just the blood and gobbets that had been left to decay, the monster’s own foul musk was heavy in the air as well. Jack took several deep breaths of the cold night air before pulling his scarf over his mouth and stepping cautiously inside.
It was colder inside the house than outside, he dreaded to think what the smell would be like in the heat of summer. The familiar items he had known all his life looked strange and desolate, the chairs shifted to new positions by the lieutenant and his wife. They had been eating when the monster attacked and the bowls were still on the table, the remains of their broth frozen over. It seemed much longer than the few weeks it had been since this had been his home, the memories bringing a tear to his eye. He wished Ned had never been born, or that the elders had fought harder to save the village. He wondered where they were now, if they had found somewhere safe to hide.
Wiping his tears away and steeling his nerve, telling himself that he was a man in all but size, he went to the kitchen area and checked the cupboards. He didn’t think he was going to find anything there, the looters had done a good job, and he was right. Next he checked the larder, with no more joy. There was nothing at all downstairs, not even a stalk, and he knew he would have to go upstairs. It was dark up there, he could tell the curtains were drawn, and the part of him that was a child wanted to turn tail and run. If he took Janet and the other orphans now, they could be far away by morning—maybe too far for the villagers to catch them. It would never be far enough to escape the monster, he knew it would come looking once there was no one left in the village.
Jack found a candle on the mantelpiece and lit it with one of the matches kept in the dresser, the little sticks one of the few modern things the elders had approved off. Then, hoping that the light couldn’t be seen outside, or that no one was looking, he made his way upstairs, wincing at every creak and groan of the frozen house. The smell was worse up here, bad enough to bring tears to his eyes and the flame guttered as if the air was stale. The knot of fear in his belly grew tighter and began to slowly spin. His hands and knees were shaking but he gritted his teeth and went straight to his mother’s room, at the end of the landing.
The lieutenant and his wife had found time to use the bed before the demon came for them, the sheets and bedspreads were knotted and tangled and one of the pillows was lying on the floor. Despite the stench he caught a trace of her scent when he opened the truck she kept her meagre clothes in and it made his heart lurch, a strangled sob escaping. It was hard to think of her as she had been, mournful but kind, and not the way she had looked as his father pulled her head free. As a memento, a gift for Janet, he took the red scarf Mother had worn on Sundays. There were no packages hidden away, he wasn’t sure if there ever had been and he closed the door when he left.
Opposite Mother’s room was the small chamber they had kept Father in, the one that would have been Janet’s if it hadn’t been needed. Without really thinking, he expected the smell to be worse in there when he opened the door and it was a surprise to find it almost absent. It looked the way it always had, as neat and tidy as if Mother had just left. Neither the lieutenant or the looters had been in here, either overlooking it or kept out by superstition. He had known on his way over that this was the best chance of finding what he needed, checking the other places first only because he hoped he would be lucky. Even when everything had been good he hadn’t liked coming in here, avoiding feeding his father as often as he could. It felt even less inviting knowing that the nightmare that had been trapped in here for so long had woken into the real world.
Ten minutes later he paused again outside the tavern window, his prize of dried mushrooms carefully wrapped in cloth and tucked inside his shirt. The adults were still arguing, more angrily than before. Margaret had gathered several supporters and they were shouting at the rest, demanding that the village did what it needed to in order to survive. There weren’t enough of them to silence the opposition, the few who still thought that it was just a madman, one who could be trapped and killed, and the others appalled at the thought of offering innocents to the darkness or clinging to the hope that it would just stop, that the monster would have it’s fill and leave.
There was no attack that night, proof many claimed that there was safety in numbers, and the bloodthirsty were stalled for another day. It gave Jack the chance he needed to tell Janet about his plan, enlist her help in preparing the mushrooms. He knew the method, but Mother had always said his sister was better at it. It didn’t take long to grind the dried fungus into powder and mix it into a paste with a little butter, although laying his hands on the butter was almost as hard and nerve racking as retrieving the mushrooms had been. They waited until after they had done their chores, there were plenty of those for the orphans, to make the mix. They weren’t bothered, not even the other orphans wanted anything to do with the children of the monster. Jack had wanted to head into the forest the same night, only prevented by the blizzard that swept over the valley, dumping an extra foot of snow on the village.
The monster struck during the blizzard, handing victory to Margaret and her supporters. In the small hours, it crashed through the window of one of the smaller rooms in the tavern and slaughtered the two families crammed inside. Two more orphans were created and six adults slain, their faces torn off and torsos emptied. The screams woke everyone else but neither the people in the room or the corridor could get the door to open. By the time someone arrived with an axe, reducing the heavy door to splinters in minutes, the carnage was over. The monster fled the same way it had arrived, moving too fast for the men who went outside to catch it. They barely even saw it in the driving snow.
“We must make the sacrifice, like the old tales say,” Margaret said after the excitement died down. Dawn had been breaking by then, the storm passing over to leave the sky the colour of blood—even the fresh snow seemed tinged with scarlet. No one replied. “We must, or we’ll all die before the solstice, never mind the equinox.”
“Let’s do it now,” the voice came from the back. It could have been anyone, no one ever claimed it was them, but the cry was picked up quickly. Even Ned, broken and forgotten in his corner, shouted out. The children with parents began to wail and clung to the skirts of their mothers, the orphans clung to each other in a corner, too scared for tears. Jack held his sister behind him, silently swore he’d make them pay if they came for her.
“It has to be done properly,” Margaret silenced them all, almost seeming to enjoy herself. Looking at her, Jack had known she had dreamed of a day like this throughout her life, made bitter and jealous by her exclusion. “We must offer them before dawn, when the last stars are still visible. We must wait for tomorrow.”
“We have to let it come again? How many are going to die tonight?”
“If you had listened to me yesterday, then it would be none. You chose to ignore the law, like you did when you followed Ned. If any of you die tonight, waiting for the dawn, then you can only blame yourselves.”
“What do we do? How do we do it?”
“It’s all in the tales,” Margaret cackled. “Everything we need to do is there.”
The snow wasn’t as deep beneath the trees but it still reached Jack’s knees and it hid all the roots and tangles of the forest floor. They hadn’t gone very far before he realised that it was too much for Janet—she had already fallen a half-dozen times and even though hardly any light was making it through the evergreen branches, he knew that she was crying silently.
“Here,” he said, bending down when they reached the edge of a small clearing. “Climb up. You can be my eyes.”
Janet clung to his back as he carefully crossed the clearing. They were hidden by the snow but he knew the space was a small rock field, the exposed surfaces worn smooth and slippery by rain and moss. It would be easy to fall. Above them the moon was almost at the peak of its journey. It looked impossibly large and heavy, the dark patches of the oceans easy to see. It was no comfort to know that it was also looking down on the village.
In front of the ruined church the villagers had cleared a wide space of snow, using the orphans and some of the other children for the task. It had taken most of the morning but when it was done the men had taken the ward posts from the ruins and used them to construct the pagan altars Margaret said were needed. It was impossible to dig new holes for the posts so they improvised free standing structures, lashing and nailing everything in place, sawing the posts into smaller pieces when needed. By the time Jack and Janet had been able to sneak away, hiding in the stink of their old home until it was dark enough to slip away, three altars had been constructed. By dawn there would be seven, each one intended for three children. The blacksmith had fashioned crude hoops to drive into the wood so the children could be tied in place. All the orphans were going to die, plus a few of the less favoured others. If anyone had been brave enough to stay inside Gregor’s room long enough to look under the bed, Jack and Janet would be among them.
“I think I saw something,” Janet whispered in his ear. Her breath was warm, it tickled.
“Slip down a minute.”
He crouched down and she dropped behind him, pressing against his back as he peered in the direction she had pointed, hands slightly raised. It was hard to see anything in the gloom, his eyes trying to tell him that the shadows were shifting as he looked, that everything was alive and moving. He held his breath and his heart thumped in his throat. Through the thick layers of his clothes and coat he could feel his sister trembling, her fingers were digging into his shoulders, either side of his neck.
“What did you see?”
“I’m not sure. It was something big.”
“Keep looking. I’m going to try something. Don’t be scared.”
Moving slowly, eyes fixed to the spot Janet had pointed to, Jack reached inside his coat and withdrew the small pot. Until this afternoon it had contained honey and even in the cold it was still sticky as he unscrewed the top. Inside, almost frozen solid, was the paste Janet had made. The smell was sharp in the cold air, homely and inviting until it was masked by the scent of pine. He held the open jar at arm’s length, wafting it about.
“Maybe I was wrong,” Janet said. “It might have been nothing.”
The monster slunk out of the shadows, ambling like one of the gorillas the travelling circuses had. It’s arms were massive, barely sinking to the wrist in snow that still reached Jack’s knees, the shoulders and back rising high above the lowered head. The powerful torso behind was a twisted mass of knotted muscle, some of which looked like extra arms, clinging tightly to the chest. As it approached, sniffing at the pot, the powerful feet, as dexterous as the hands, clung to the tree trunks, as if it were bracing for a pounce.
“Hello, Father,” Jack said, looking as calmly as he could into Gregor’s face, the only part of him that hadn’t changed. “We have your medicine. You need to take it.”
The eyes in his father’s face were red, the pupils black slits. There was no trace of recognition in them, only cold hunger. Behind him he could feel Janet struggling not to scream. She was pressed against his back, eyes peering over his shoulder. He could feel every shudder of her body. Drool, thick and shining green in the moonlight, dangled from Gregor’s mouth, sizzling when a drop broke free and landed on the snow. A growl rose in his throat and he stepped closer, towering above the children.
“Please, Father,” Jack said, trying not to fall backwards as he shrunk away. He could feel the poison washing out from the creature, turning the air into noxious filth. Janet had her whole face buried in his back know, was clutching so tightly at his coat that she was pulling him back. “You need to take it. Everything will be okay if you do. I promise.”
The villagers were waiting at dawn when Jack and Janet returned with their father, his normal form restored and stumbling as he fought to stay awake lone enough to get back to his bed. His face was gaunt and his crazed eyes red from sobbing but there was no doubt the monster had been contained, the darkness driven back another time.
“What have you done?” Margaret cried as she saw the children approach, leading Gregor by the hand. “We must sacrifice!”
“We only need to keep the monster asleep,” Jack replied. “The way we have always done. No one has to die.”
The children tied to the posts began to wail, sensing that something had changed. They were dressed only in their underclothes, their tears froze on their cheeks. Around them the adults were getting uneasy, a low muttering rising from the back. No one dared to move.
“Will you listen to a child?” Margaret shrieked at them. “The child of the monster? We must sacrifice. We must appease the darkness. There is no other way!”
“The only way is the old way,” a woman shouted. “We should never have changed.”
The argument broke out again, except this time the bloodthirsty were in the minority. Jack and Janet led their father back home, put him to bed, and left the villagers to settle things among themselves. The children were rescued from the posts and taken to warm fires, petted and adored the most by the same ones who had tied them up for the darkness to take. Margaret was hounded from the village, taking the same road as the elders through the snow. Like them, she was never seen again, except perhaps in nightmares.
The village grew and flourished in the years that followed, finding a way to meld the old and new ways. The church was rebuilt, the deaths explained as a terrible accident during Christmas Mass. Ned drank himself into insanity and after the wars a ski resort was opened—the modern world craved the valley.
For a long time it was good. Gregor’s successors were kept hidden from the outside world, money and science combining to perfect the tools and environment they needed to be kept in. By the dawn of the internet age, the guardian slept in a hidden basement room, monitored and pampered. The mushrooms were no longer ground up, their essence was extracted and administered by IV drips. The village was happy, the rich and famous wanted to be seen there.
Everything would have been fine, if new ways hadn’t crept in, if the new elders hadn’t grown blind and complacent.
Copyright © 2015 C. Law All rights reserved