MONSTER IN THE MOUNTAINS



MONSTER IN THE MOUNTAINS, by William Gerke

Head bowed, back bent, advancing step by laborious step, Gowther trudged onward even though he was nearly buried alive by snow. Makeshift snowshoes kept him from sinking completely, but it piled atop his shoulders and outstretched arms and clung to his wool cap, leather hood, and heavy scarf. The wind slashed at his face, tearing at his cloak to slip snow inside. He stumbled through a blankness of cold and numbing pain. He couldn’t feel his fingers, nor the tip of his nose. His eyes were squeezed shut against the driving snow.

It had been light out, with ragged gray peaks losing themselves in the overcast sky, when he encountered soldiers on the road leading through the mountain pass. They were searching for a former comrade who had deserted, and they told Gowther of a farm where he could shelter for the night. What had seemed like clear directions became useless when the lowering clouds spilled snow down the flanks of the mountains. The biting sleety mess had shrouded the world around him, and then nightfall had taken even that away.

Had he still been riding, Gowther would have reached shelter in time. But his horse had stumbled some days back, and he had been forced to put it down and butcher it, eating and carrying what he could of the now-frozen meat.

On foot he would have been lost and devoured by the elements — if it weren’t for the dogs.

They came to him in the wilderness, as they had many times before. A greyhound pressed against Gowther’s right thigh; always the first to appear, with its yellow eyes and graceful stride, it had drawn close even as the pace of the storm quickened. On his left stalked a huge wolfhound, its thick, coarse fur matted and tangled. He had never seen it before but did not question its appearance. The greyhound had appeared with many different pack mates in the years since it first came to him.

Now they drove him onward, held him up, guided his steps — until his outstretched hand struck jarringly against stone. Gowther thought at first it was the face of a cliff, that the pack had led him to a cave. But he ran his gloved hand along the hard surface and found masonry joints; it was a stone wall, strong and well-made. He caught the scent of smoke on the wind.

Gowther reached down to pat the greyhound’s head, but it was already gone.

He felt his way slowly around the structure and found an entrance. The lintels of the doorway were carved stone, with flourishes in a style that dated back several centuries to when the empire had stretched this far north. Gowther pounded on the wooden door, shouting to be heard over the wind. He paused for a moment and then pounded again.

Slowly, the door cracked open, sending tendrils of golden firelight out across the snow. Unwashed bodies, peat smoke, old wood, dogs, and the teasing odors of bread and stew skittered over Gowther in a rush of warm air. The wind, for its part, pushed snow and ice and cold and darkness inwards. Caught between the two was the person who’d opened the door — a large man with sagging jowls and shadowed eyes. He held a long knife.

“Who are you to come pounding on my door in the night?” asked the man. Behind him, shadows moved in the flickering firelight. Gowther heard the scrape of steel.

“Just a traveler,” he replied. “Some soldiers I met on the road said I could find shelter here. I can pay in coin or horse meat.”

The man eyed Gowther for a moment and then lowered the knife, pulling the door open.

“Step quickly,” he said. “You’re letting out the heat.”

The building comprised a single room, large and round, with stone walls and floor and a thatched roof. Gowther supposed it had been a military tower of some sort that had been converted to a home by the farmer or his predecessors. Sleeping pallets were arranged in front of a wide stone fireplace that dominated one side of the room and provided all the light. A wooden table occupied the center of the room, resting atop a woven rug, old and faded but still bearing a pattern that suggested it came from far to the south and east.

“Is that your dog?” asked the farmer.

Standing outside the door at the edge of the light, the shaggy greyhound watched them with yellow eyes; its fur was covered with snowflakes and icicles.

“No,” said Gowther. “It’s not my dog.”

The farmer slammed the door shut and dropped the bar into place.

A teenage boy held a short scythe and eyed Gowther nervously. An older woman, her graying hair bound up in a complex knot, stood beside two girls whose long braids glimmered red in the firelight. The girls wore homespun woolen dresses and looked younger than the boy, who Gowther thought must be their brother.

“Sorry for the rough welcome,” the farmer said while setting the knife on the table. “There are bandits about in the pass — even in weather like this — and good folk can’t be too careful.”

Gowther shrugged off his heavy pack. With stiff and fumbling fingers, he bent to unlace the frozen bindings of his impromptu snow-shoes. One of the girls dragged a chair over for him, and he sat down with a grateful sigh. The farmer’s wife went to the fire and filled a bowl with stew; Gowther’s stomach grumbled in response to the smell and the idea of hot food.

“You said you had horse meat?”

“Yes,” Gowther said. “The meat’s plenty cold and should still be good.”

“We can take that then. Trade you a little of our smoked meat for it, as that’ll do you more good on the road.”

Gowther dropped the second snowshoe to the floor. He pulled back his hood and removed his woolen cap.

The girls gasped. The woman dropped the bowl of stew and, pulling her girls along, backed away from Gowther. The farmer recovered his knife. The boy stood uncertainly between the man and the woman, as if unsure whether his place was with the children or his father.

Gowther realized he should have said something, should have prepared them for the shock of his countenance, but he was so cold and tired that he had forgotten.

He knew what they saw — a face like no other man’s: a low sloped forehead with deeply sunken eyes beneath heavy brows; wide thin lips; a broad, flat nose, broken and reset many times; and around it all, a fringing mass of hair, brown and matted like that of the great apes in the jungles to the south, covering all but a thin fringe around his eyes and lips and nostrils.

“What are you?” asked the man.

“A demon!” the woman said as she and her daughters made warding signs.

Gowther held up his hands. “No, no. Just a man,” he said, standing up.

The farmer raised the knife further. The boy, to his credit, advanced but stayed behind his father.

“Stay back,” said the farmer. “We’ll have no truck with the unclean.”

“I’m not diseased — just cursed since birth with an excess of hair.”

“We don’t want any trouble.”

“I don’t want any trouble either. Only somewhere warm to rest.”

“You can’t stay here. It wouldn’t be right. There are women and children.”

“I’d be happy to sleep in the barn,” said Gowther. “If you have one.”

The farmer nodded, slowly. “We’re good people. We won’t send anyone out in the cold to die. You can stay in the barn if you like — with the animals. Leave the horse meat in trade”

“Thank you.”

The girls stayed in the corner, but their mother eased away from the fire, squinting as she peered at Gowther. Her foot brushed the broken remains of the stew-bowl. She knelt to pick up the pieces, her eyes still on him. When he bent to pick up his discarded snowshoes, their eyes met. She looked away first.

“Where’s the barn?” he asked while removing the horse meat from his pack.

“It’s attached to the house,” said the farmer. “Go outside and follow the wall to your left. You’ll find the door.”

Gowther heaved his now lighter pack onto his back. The strap still bit into his shoulder, but he would not have to carry it long. He lifted the bar, one-handed, and let it fall with a crash to the floor. The door burst open as the wind seemed to gleefully welcome him back by embracing him with its snow-filled arms.

He paused in the doorway. Snow danced about him, tearing away the last memory of warmth at his back. Snowflakes whirled hypnotically in the fire’s glow, but the light died out barely an arm’s length from the door, lost in the storm.

“I’ll bring you some stew,” called the woman suddenly, sharply from behind him.

Before Gowther could respond the door swung shut. As he shuffled into the drifted snow he heard muffled voices through the heavy wood and heavier stone of the farmhouse, but the wind snatched away all meaning.

Gowther continued into the darkness. The wind cried and flung loose snow about the farmyard, snatching at his clothes and threatening to tip him as he hauled his bag to the barn. His feet, bereft of their snowshoes, sunk deep into the snow as he followed the path that clung close to the curving wall.

As the farmer had promised, Gowther found the barn adjacent to the house; the two structures shared a wall. The barn’s entrance was only a dozen or so paces from the door to the house, but Gowther was panting and teary-eyed from the cold by the time he pushed open the barn door and stepped into the musty darkness.

His eyes adapted quickly. Sheltered once more from the driving snow, he didn’t need the stray light that seeped from the farmer’s house through cracks at the top of the old stone wall in order to see his surroundings. An open space separated livestock from deep bins holding their fodder. He could smell sheep and cows; their scent mingled with the sweet smell of hay. The animals shifted and stirred nervously upon his arrival.

Gowther set his bag on a pile of loose hay. He lay his leather cloak beside it, making a bed that wouldn’t scratch or irritate him.

A blast of cold air heralded the arrival of the woman with his stew. He did not turn.

“Just set it by the door,” he said.

Her footsteps were soft on the packed earth floor. “What happened to you?” she asked, her voice barely audible above wind rattling the wooden barn walls.

“Nothing happened to me. As I said before, I was born like this.”

“Was your father cursed?”

“You could say that.” He laughed bitterly, even while catching her scent — sweat and oil and smoke — as it mingled with that of the stew. “My mother could not conceive. She met a Lord of Change in the forest, one of the few old ones who still live in the lonely places. Whether she was tricked or knew what she was doing depends on who you ask. But she wanted so desperately to have a child that she bore his. So yes, my father was cursed — cursed with an unfaithful wife and monstrous child.”

“The blood of the Lords Mutable runs through your veins?”

“Can you not tell? I was born covered in fur, with teeth like a beast’s.”

“Is there more? Did you inherit the lords’ power? To walk on wind and speak to the stars? To fight like ten men and never grow old?”

He thought of his unusually sensitive nose, eyes that could see in all but the deepest darkness, his strength greater than any man he had yet met. “No,” he said. “Nothing. I’m just a man.”

She sighed.

Gowther heard the soft clatter of crockery being set beside the water trough. He turned as she opened the door, a blast of icy air blowing his long hair away from his face. The door closed. The wind faded. The woman was gone, and he was alone.

* * *

A sudden chill woke Gowther. Something lay beside him, growling softly. The cattle shifted and sheep bleated. Someone had quietly opened and closed the barn door, but whoever it was couldn’t prevent the frigid winter wind from slipping into the barn.

Gowther lay still, reluctant to rustle the hay that made his bed until he was ready to act. He did not open his eyes.

A creak of wood announced someone climbing over the fence that ran around the hay bin. The farmer’s scent — sweat and dirt — drifted toward Gowther. He heard the faint sound of hay crunching beneath feet. A whisper of cloth might be the raising of an arm. Gowther opened his eyes.

The farmer stood over him, holding a heavy club above his head.

Gowther kicked the man in the shin even as he rolled to the side. The blow, badly aimed, still staggered the farmer, his club crashing to the empty hay. Gowther scrambled to his feet.

The greyhound lunged, barking, but the farmer caught it with a backhand swing that hurled it into the air. The dog crashed with a yelp against a support post, then hit the hay-strewn dirt floor with a thump.

Gowther charged, ducking beneath another wild swing of the club and wrapping his arms around the farmer’s chest. He smelled the fusty wool of the man’s coat as he pushed the farmer backward, stumbling and flailing, until they hit the fence at the end of the stall and went over it.

The farmer twisted as he fell, and Gowther lost his grip on him. Upon landing on the packed dirt of the threshing floor, Gowther rolled and sprang to his feet.

The two of them faced each other across the open space between the now frantic sheep and cattle.

“So this is your hospitality?” asked Gowther. “Killing lone travelers.”

The farmer said nothing. He swung the club, and it whistled round. The smack of wood on flesh was audible over the distressed cries of the animals.

Gowther’s palm stung and his right arm tingled, but he had caught the club. He grinned in the darkness, baring sharply pointed teeth, then yanked with all his strength, intending to drag the farmer within arm’s reach.

The man braced himself and did not budge.

Gowther tried again, but to no avail.

Then the farmer yanked back.

Startled by the extent of the man’s strength, Gowther stumbled toward him, still gripping the club. The farmer spun, slinging Gowther against the outer wall of the barn. The aged and weather-worn timbers shuddered and creaked.

Gowther barely managed to turn in time to block the farmer’s next blow with upraised arms. The heavy padding of his wool coat, layers of clothing, and thick hair dulled the impact, but he was driven back against the wall, shaking it again.

The farmer drew the club back for another blow.

Ignoring the pain, Gowther lunged and landed a punch to the farmer’s face. The blow caused the man to stagger. Gowther followed with his left fist, bringing it from low near his waist and up under the farmer’s chin in a strike that would have snapped the neck of an ordinary man.

The farmer stumbled back.

Gowther pressed forward, jabbing him in the abdomen and doubling him over. He hooked his hands in the farmer’s coat. With a roar he spun and hurled the farmer at the exterior wall.

The man burst through the planks with a splintering crash. Gowther followed close behind.

The wind had done its work on the sky, shredding the last of the snow-bearing clouds. Moonlight bathed a rolling expanse of snow. Trees huddled in black masses on the mountain slopes, and stars glittered out of reach beyond. Beneath it all, in a snowy crater, the farmer stirred, trying to prop himself up on one arm, blood dripping in the snow.

Long hair streaming, Gowther pounced atop the farmer and began punching him in the face.

“Wait!” Gowther heard a woman cry through the roar of blood pounding in his ears. “No! He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s possessed!”

The farmer’s wife stood in the doorway clutching a blanket tightly about her, her coarse gray hair unbound. The house behind her was dark.

Gowther stalked toward her, dragging her helpless husband by the collar of his coat and leaving a blood-spattered furrow in the snow behind them.

The woman cringed as he approached. Gowther shoved her through the doorway and heard a crash and a whimper as she struck the table and fell to the floor. He tossed the unconscious farmer in the other direction, purposefully knocking over the son who had been skulking in the darkness, apparently thinking — wrongly — that the shadows would hide him from Gowther. The boy’s sisters were plainly visible where they crouched on sleeping mats near the glowing embers of the fire.

“Bank the fire,” he told them. “I’m going to talk to your mother.”

Gowther stood a moment in the doorway, the icy air at his back cooling his heated blood. He breathed deeply and slowly. When his head had cleared and the battle-madness subsided, he closed the door.

The boy crouched on the floor, holding his father who breathed but did not stir. The mother flinched as Gowther approached but did not resist as he helped her up and into a chair.

“You say he is possessed. Tell me what you mean.”

“It started a few months ago. There was a storm, then an avalanche, when Kaerl was up the mountain. He came back changed — sullen, quiet. He wouldn’t talk about why. His sleep was troubled. Later, a pair of pilgrims arrived on their way over the mountains and spent the night. I woke in the night to find him missing from our bed. But I found him soon enough, and watched as Kaerl killed them both with his bare hands. I asked why he had done such a thing; he would not reply. He didn’t seem to see or hear me at all. He then carried their bodies up the mountain, one under each arm as if they were nothing more than lambs.”

“And when he came back?”

“He was restored to himself but he would not talk about what he saw, nor what he did with the bodies there.”

“This happened more than once?”

“Twice more — the last time when some soldiers stayed with us. After one of them disappeared, his fellows thought he’d deserted.”

“They did not see your husband’s tracks in the snow, leading up the mountain?”

“You’ve seen the storms here. The snow covered his tracks.”

Gowther nodded. It was possible. There were things out there in the wild places — old things, things he had sensed often enough before — echoes and memories from before the reign of man, when powers ancient and fickle and infinitely mutable walked the earth. Long since locked away behind barriers of stone or sorcery or time, sometimes survivors crept forth to touch the world of man; Gowther knew this for truth. In her weakness and desire, his mother had been touched by such a one years ago, and Gowther was the unfortunate result.

“Fetch some rope,” he said to the boy. “Tonight we will bind your family. Tomorrow you will take me up the mountain.”

* * *

By late morning Gowther and the boy stood far up the mountainside. Below them, the farm huddled in its little dell. Before them spread the vista of the mountain pass. Blue sky and pale sun set the jagged peaks in sharp relief, creating lines of light and shadow along cliff faces. A dark bird hung like a cross against the sky, seemingly frozen in place by the buffeting breeze.

The boy pointed to where a boulder-strewn ledge curved away from them and around a rocky outcrop. “There’s a sheltered spot just around that rock, and a pool where runoff gathers in the summer. We sometimes lead the sheep there and stay overnight. It’s where my father would have gone.”

“Then that’s where we’ll go too.”

“No,” the boy said and shook his head. “You scare me, but whatever might be there now — whatever it is that changed my father — scares me more. I won’t go.”

“Then go down the mountain, back to your family. Untie them. I suspect whatever’s going to happen will be over long before your father could get up here.”

Without another word the boy turned and hurried away.

Gowther watched him go down the mountain, small against the ancient heights that rose around him. Old as these mountains were, what he was looking for might well be older. He thought about abandoning his search and following the boy down the mountainside and back to the world of man.

But then something bumped his hand. He looked down and yellow eyes looked back at him. Snow and ice clung to the greyhound’s fur, and it favored its injured side. Another dog — sturdy, shaggy, with broad paws, a short tail, and fur that hung down into its eyes — sat a few feet away.

Mysterious and curiously intelligent, these dogs were the one constant in his life. They came and went, sometimes few, sometimes many, but always led by the yellow-eyed greyhound. Gowther didn’t know where they came from, if they were sent by someone or drawn to him by the ancient, uncivilized blood in his veins; regardless, they seemed to be never far away, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes helping — different from other beasts.

Gowther tried to be different from other beasts, too.

He followed the ledge as it curved around the mountain and found the hollow the boy had spoken of. The mountain stretched far above an overhang of rock that blocked some of the wind and much of the sun, shadowing the area.

The dogs growled.

Gowther sniffed the air. Something had died here recently. He could smell the tang of blood and the rich odor of viscera. Beneath that he smelled something older — something spicy and bitter and dusty.

The scent grew stronger toward the back of the hollow. Gowther pushed against the snow-covered cliff face, and his hands sank into the snow. A puff of rancid air emerged as he withdrew his hands. He began clawing the snow away and, within a few minutes, revealed a jagged cleft in the wall about half the width of a man.

Gowther removed his snowshoes and shed his pack and heavy leather cloak. He removed the sword from across his back and, holding the sheathed falchion in one hand, turned sideways and squeezed through the narrow gap.

The cleft opened into a small chamber. Ahead, stone slabs framed the entrance to a shaft that descended into the mountain. Jagged chunks of stone lay scattered on the ground.

Gowther knelt to pick one up in a gloved hand. One side was smooth and marked with curving symbols. The edges were rough, with bits of ancient mortar still clinging to them.

Rising, he inspected the shaft. The stone supports were marked with the same sorts of symbols as the chunk of rock, but these glowed faintly with an unearthly green phosphorescence. Gowther traced one of the glyphs with his finger; the glow did not fade.

He looked back, toward the opening of the cave. More symbols were carved upon the wall there, but those markings, like the ones on the broken stones, did not glow. Through the cleft he could see the dogs waiting outside.

Gowther descended into the mountain.

Each set of stone supports was carved on both sides with the same set of glowing symbols, and the shaft was wide enough for him to walk down the middle and fully extend his arms on either side. The floor was smooth and well-worn; scuffs in the dust showed signs of recent passage.

The smell he had detected outside grew stronger, and he noticed discolored patches on the stone floor. Blood. Doubtless from some of the farmer’s prior guests.

A stirring in the air signaled a change in the passage ahead. Gowther removed his boots, and shed his coat, and quietly drew his falchion from its oiled scabbard. He left the scabbard with his coat, and moved ahead on padded, hairy feet, silent and slow.

He approached a final aperture, beyond which the passage seemed to widen and drop away. The smell of death and decay was thick here. Gowther paused as the dark body of a multi-legged creature nearly as long as his arm occluded a set of glowing glyphs.

He crept slowly beneath the lintel, staying low.

The doorway opened onto a room where the ground sloped steeply down before leveling; the result was a wide flat space slightly larger than the farmer’s home. Rocks, bones, and rotting scraps of flesh were strewn about the floor. On one side of the room a pool of water surrounded by a low stone wall glowed with a faint, bluish phosphorescence. Amidst a great heap of rubble on the other side of the room rose a jumble of wooden spars that stretched from floor to ceiling.

With a start, Gowther realized that the spars were shifting, quivering slightly — as was the mound of rubbish. The spars twitched again, and he discerned that they weren’t wooden posts after all, but segmented legs three times his height.

Gowther shuddered with revulsion.

Something slept in the gloom, something with a lumpy, misshapen body the size of a bull’s; it was covered with rock and lichen and old bones embedded in some sort of waxy substance. The thicket of legs extending from its body bent awkwardly to fit into the room. A pair of serrated mandibles the size of a man’s arm jutted from either side of a mouth nestled beneath a cluster of dark eyes.

This creature, Gowther suspected, was the cause of the farmer’s madness.

He waited, barely breathing, but the creature did not stir. Slowly, Gowther crept down the slope and approached it. He gripped his falchion with both hands and raised it above his head, ready to bring the curved, heavy blade crashing down. Light flared in the beast’s dark eyes. With a creak like a wagon axle, the monstrous legs shifted, jerking the body back. A shrill, hissing hoot preceded the sudden spray of liquid from hollow cavities around its mouth.

Gowther spun instinctively away but couldn’t avoid being spattered with fluid. Its acrid scent seared his nostrils, and droplets ran down the hair on his face. His eyes burned and filled with tears. He stumbled backward and rubbed desperately at his face, shaking his head and blinking to clear his vision.

From the corner of his eye he saw a blur of motion — something long and spear-like rushed toward him. Gowther flailed with his sword, but the creature easily batted the weapon aside. The tips of its long legs tapped and probed him, knocking him about and finally pinning him to the ground.

He felt the thing’s mind — vast, cold, ancient, and multi-faceted — touch his own, filling him with memories: being bound and dragged through the narrow passage, past sorcerous barriers that burned and blinded and overwhelmed it; eons of darkness and waiting and hunger; devouring fish from the pool to stay alive; never full, never satisfied, never strong enough to break free.

The creature’s mind burrowed into his own, tearing at Gowther’s identity and will.

It needed to feed and be fed. Suddenly Gowther wanted to bring food to it. No, not it —  master. Life was food and food was strength and strength was freedom. Unlike the farmer, he could bring it more than rare visitors ambushed in the night, for he was a predator too, and could range farther and bring more prey more often.

The ancient creature’s mind burrowed into his, seeking to make him part of its hunger, slave to its desires, until the probing found Gowther’s own hunger — akin to its own — and woke that hunger.

For despite his desire to rise above his inhuman heritage, his father’s monstrous blood ran through Gowther’s veins. He was a predator, too. Not prey. Not servant.

Predator.

For just a moment Gowther felt the creature’s surprise and sudden fear, and then all was consumed in redness and rage.

He howled and brought his falchion around in a wide swing that hacked through a leg with a spray of ichor and splinters of chitin.

The creature stabbed with another leg, driving it deep into Gowther’s shoulder. Pain flared as Gowther dropped his sword and grabbed the leg with both hands. His muscles burned as he pried the blood-coated appendage from his body.

The monster lunged. Its huge mandibles grabbed at Gowther’s legs, but he was ready and kicked them away while twisting to one side and driving the sharp-pointed tip of the creature’s leg against the stone floor. A cracking sound echoed through the chamber.

The beast reared, yanking its damaged limb from Gowther’s hands.

Gowther grabbed his falchion, rolled away, and scrambled to his feet.

Hampered by the confined space, the upper joints of creature’s legs scraped against the ceiling as it swiveled to face him.

It attacked again with its mandibles, which snapped and clattered against each other. Gowther skipped back. A foreleg kicked at him. He sidestepped and brought his heavy blade down like a man chopping firewood. Brittle with age, the leg cracked and fell away.

Ancient as the creature was, powerful as it had been, it was old and weak and starving, and in Gowther it faced no ordinary man.

But it stabbed at him with another of its legs. Gowther knocked the blow aside with a backhand swing of his sword. He chopped at its eyes, hitting instead one of the massive mandibles and carving a chunk from it.

The creature backed away.

Gowther pressed the attack. He went for one of its wounded legs, hacking at the point where it joined the creature’s abdomen. The joint took two blows, and then the limb lay twitching on the cave floor.

The creature listed to one side. Uneven and unsteady, it was unable to defend itself as Gowther struck at another leg. A hammer blow bent the limb inward. Unable to support its own weight, the monster toppled forward.

Gowther backed up a few steps, judged the distance, and leapt over the grasping mandibles. He scrambled to find his footing atop the debris clinging to the creature’s armored back. He jumped up and came crashing down, driving the beast to the ground and splaying its legs out awkwardly. Its eyes rolled backward and gleamed softly in the dim glow of the pool.

He felt the touch of its mind again, ancient and cool and strangely familiar. Where force had failed, it now tried persuasion. It showed Gowther an image of the two of them hunting together across expansive slopes of volcanic rock lit by hellish pools and streams of magma. They pursued elephantine creatures that waded through the molten rock like a man would wade through streams. They shared the soft and salty flesh beneath unfamiliar stars.

Gowther brought his sword crashing down between its eyes. Chitinous plates buckled. He struck again, and the armoring chitin splintered. A wordless scream accompanied each blow. Gowther struck a third time and the plates cracked, his sword chopping into the creature’s brain in a spatter of oozing gore. With that final blow, a consciousness that had spanned thousands of years flickered, faded, and was gone.

With a sigh Gowther walked to the pool. In it, pale, eyeless fish flitted about. Gowther plunged his sword into the water to cleanse it, and the fish darted toward the bloodstained water. He wiped the blade on the leg of his pants.

Walking past the piles of bones, the bits of meat, the remains of countless meals, Gowther climbed to the archway that led to the tunnel. He touched the magical signs on the lintel and recalled the creature’s memories of being bound and dragged into this cave. Though the glyphs still glowed, they no longer performed any function; someone or something had trapped the creature here to wither and die, and Gowther had finished their work.

He almost pitied it.

* * *

Sunlight and the dogs waited as Gowther emerged from the cave. The shadows had shifted, and clouds were building in the east. The greyhound nuzzled Gowther’s side, and the hairy dog bounded ahead down the trail.

They found the farmer for him about halfway down the slope. The man was sprawled in the snow, arms and legs splayed, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. His face was red and burnt from wind and cold, but he was still breathing. Gowther lifted him onto his shoulders and carried him the rest of the way down.

The farmyard was silent and still when he arrived. No breeze stirred the snow or disturbed the thread of smoke that rose from the chimney. Gowther pushed his way into the farmhouse. The whole family sat near the fire, waiting. When he dropped the farmer on the floor, the wife and girls rushed over.

“He’s alive,” said Gowther.

He grabbed the edge of the table. With a grunt he heaved it over, toppling it. Then he grasped the rug that had been beneath it and yanked it away in a shower of dust and dirt. A wooden trapdoor was set into the stone floor. He gestured to the boy and said, “Open it.”

The boy looked him in the eye for a moment, sullen, defiant. Gowther pointed again, and the boy knelt and lifted the trapdoor. A ladder descended into the darkness.

Gowther now pointed to the woman and then down into the cellar. “You,” he said, “get down there.”

She shook her head, clinging to her husband, tears glimmering on her cheeks.

“Either you or the boy,” said Gowther.

She glared and cursed him, but she went.

Gowther followed.

The cellar was about a third the size of the room above, with stone walls and ceiling and a dirt floor. Clothing was piled between chests, trunks, and stacks of crates. An assortment of neglected weapons lay on a table. Smaller chests were arranged on another table; some were open and heaped with copper coins.

“You said this started a few months ago, but it has been going on for years,” Gowther said. “That was clear when I saw all the bodies in the cave.”

“In the cave?” the woman stammered. “Then it’s — ”

“– Yes, the creature is dead. It’s over.”

She shuddered.

After a moment Gowther realized that she was crying again.

“You don’t know what it was like being slaves for that thing,” she said.

“You weren’t all slaves, only your husband.”

“What could we do? We couldn’t stop him. You’ve seen how strong he is when the creature’s will was upon him.”

“You could have tied him up when you had visitors. You could have left.”

“This isn’t good land, but it’s ours — freely held. It’s all we have. We were just trying to survive.” The woman fell to her knees, her hands clutching the empty air as if to grasp his coat, but he stood out of reach. “Surely you can understand that?”

“Are you looking for forgiveness?” asked Gowther. “The blood of the Lords Mutable runs through my veins. I was born a monster, but I choose to act as a human. You were born human, and you also made a choice.”

He ascended the ladder. The girls scuttled away, but the boy stayed bravely by his father as Gowther once more checked the man. His breathing was slow and steady. He would live and, given time and care, recover.

The woman watched him from the hole in the floor as he gathered up some food for the journey. He did not acknowledge her as he exited the farmhouse.

The dogs were waiting for him by the low stone wall that marked the border of the farm. There were three this time — the hairy dog, the wolfhound, and the ever-present greyhound. They flanked him as he turned south. Then the greyhound raced ahead, leaving paw tracks in the glittering snow.

___________________________________________________________

Born in Minnesota, William Gerke lived in New York City for many years and now lives in Boston with his fiancée and the obligatory cat. With a Masters in English Literature, he has worked in downtown office buildings, in a suburban basement, and on an aircraft carrier. When he isn’t busy being a good corporate citizen, he reads, runs, and writes.

Learn more about William at his blog: http://williamgerke.com


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