Even the best intentions can lead a man astray. If I hadn’t found that scroll, I very well might have died in that pit, flayed and eaten by that fiend. And perhaps that would have been better for everyone. The scroll was buried under a pile of rubble, out of the way and forgotten. By all accounts, I should have missed it, even as a peasant boy hungry for treasure. Looking back, it must have been placed there for me to find, to prompt the first tiny step on a twisted, terrible journey.
When I unfurled the scroll, I was stricken by the shapes of the letters. I was a butcher’s boy, and hopelessly illiterate. Words were for the church, and for others who lorded above us. But I knew enough to realize that these weren’t the usual meaningless scribbles of high society. They weren’t even letters at all, really. They were gouges, like someone had scratched them into the vellum with a knife. They came at each other in strange angles that approximated language; that alone made me see the value in it. Maybe a scribe would give me a couple of silvers for it. That’d be enough to eat for a few months. Or to get on a caravan headed West.
“What did you find?” said a voice like grinding stone. It came from Bryde, a miner’s son made big and strong from years of working the quarry. I’d never been either of those things, and in that dark place under the earth, his standing so close to me made my skin crawl.
“My part of the take,” I replied, rolling up the scroll up and stuffing it into my shirt. There were four of us, huddled in a circle of torchlight. Four victims of overbearing parents who wanted nothing more than their own opportunity at life, at making something of themselves and shaking the yoke of the peasant caste and the lord’s gilded boot.
We couldn’t articulate it in such words, none of us had any sort of education. In truth, it was a simple equation for us. We were peasants. They were lords. The lords had money. We didn’t. If we got money, maybe we could be lords of something too.
“I should have it,” one of the other boys said. He was short and plump, with bacon grease staining the collar of his shirt. He was the son of a baker. I’m not sure what his name was. “I’m the oldest.”
“By one season, you lout,” Arryn—the last boy—called out, cradling his father’s pitchfork. The four of us squabbled in the dark like children, fighting over a thing we didn’t understand.
No wonder the demon found us. Bryde was halfway through describing how he’d smash my head with the fat boy’s if he didn’t get that scroll. That was when Arryn shouted.
“Eyes in the dark!” Arryn held the torch, waving it frantically at the amorphous darkness behind us. You could still see a pinprick of light where the tunnel opened to the surface. We’d slipped through a jagged crack of rock in a hillside to get here, a dark tunnel that wouldn’t end. Not the kind of place happy boys with stable families found themselves in. “Something’s watching us!” Arryn hissed.
“Keep your mouth shut, or it’ll get ya,” Bryde replied, a sick chuckle catching in his throat.
Arryn was shivering, the pitchfork rattling in his grip. “It was just there!”
Of course, none of us saw the thing: too many places it could hide. Or it had never been there. The thought of Arryn’s mind already fraying at the edges made me shudder. “Let’s just keep going,” I suggested. We had a ways to go, and I didn’t want to think about the possibility of some demon being in here with us. All the same, I kept one of my father’s knives close at hand.
We pressed on through twisting tunnels for what felt like hours. The air was stale and damp, sludging into your lungs as you breathed. Darkness pulled at us with wicked hands, and every flicker of the torch made us stop, watching madly and praying that the fire wouldn’t go out.
This place was blamed for every disappearance in the village. If a child didn’t come home before sundown, the mother would worry that her little ray of sunshine had gotten lost in the Pit. If a man wasn’t there to tend his field, some old maid would concoct a story of demons crawling out of the Pit and pulling him in for endless tortures, punishing him for his sins.
Sane men didn’t venture in these dark places. But boys did. We weren’t the first to come here, but we had gone further than anyone else. For all our bravado, I think we had all hoped to find a neat pile of gold by the entrance, just waiting for us to claim it.
The boys up ahead stopped all at once and I nearly tumbled into them. A dead end. Bryde snatched the torch out of Arryn’s hand and passed it over the wall. “That’s it? Where’s the treasure?” he shouted, as if he expected the walls themselves to answer.
“We should go back,” Arryn said, fidgeting with his pitchfork.
“No. I ain’t leaving till I get what I came here for,” Bryde replied.
I couldn’t imagine going home empty-handed, but the fear in Arryn’s eyes beat in my chest, too.
“Look! A passage!” Bryde shouted, waving the torch at the floor.
“That’s no passage, that’s a trap,” the baker’s boy said.
“What are you on about?” Bryde replied.
“I heard a bard say once, that he saw a thief reach his arm into a hole just like that,” the baker’s boy pointed down, “and when his arm came out it was melting off the bone.”
We were all quiet for a moment, picturing the doughy plops of flesh hitting stone with an accuracy only frightened boys can muster.
“It’s the only way through,” Bryde insisted, “and you’re going.”
“Why me?” the baker’s boy demanded.
“Because you’re the fattest. If you can make it through, so can we,” Bryde replied.
“I don’t want to, I’ll get stuck.”
“We’ll pull you out if you get stuck,” I offered. I wasn’t the one going through the hole, so I would have said anything.
The baker’s boy looked like he was going to cry, looking at each of us in turn. Maybe he’d have protested, if he hadn’t seen the same look in all of us. He knelt, looking through the hole. It seemed a yawning mouth, ready to sprout teeth and bite his head off.
“Can I get the torch at least?” he asked, but we wouldn’t give it to him. He snivelled as he knelt down, then pulled his fat rump in.
We waited, jumping at every scratch of stone. Even the sound of the fat burning on the torch echoed. Arryn kept mumbling about the eyes in the darkness, the demon that would come to get us. I tried to shut him up, tried to argue that if there was a demon it would have killed us already, but he’d have none of it.
When the baker’s boy called out to us, we all nearly jumped out of our skins. “I’m through! Hurry, I can’t see anything!”
“What’s in there?” I shouted into the hole.
“I said I can’t see see, you idiot!”
“You’re next,” Bryde said, pointing the torch at me.
An objection rose, but I knew there was no arguing with him. Just like the baker’s boy before me, I was outnumbered. I felt a sudden sympathy for him, the same sudden urge to turn around and shout it was unfair. In truth, I’d have been outmatched even without Arryn. Bryde could have crushed my head like a turnip, if he’d wanted.
The hole smelled like rot, and I was sure something skittered when I tried to peer inside it. The torch went only so far as to show the filth and webs in the hole. I imagined a huge, hairy spider crawling into the back of my shirt, squirming and biting as I crawled through. I shuddered and stamped my foot.
“Get in there!” Bryde shouted, grabbing the back of my collar and forcing me in.
From there I had no choice but to crawl. For the first time in my life, I was thankful to have been born small. Where I’m sure the baker’s boy felt squeezed and crushed, I didn’t even feel the stone on my back. I just kept my eyes shut, didn’t think about all the disgusting crawling things that lurked in the hole, and scrambled through. Before I knew it, I tumbled out on the other side, cracking my nose on the stone.
I swore up a storm. I could already feel the blood seeping through my fingers and running down my chin. I used my sleeve to mop it up as best I can.
“Guess that means he’s through,” Bryde’s voice floated to me through the tunnel, “I’m next.”
“What? You can’t leave me alone!” Arryn’s protests bounced weakly down the hole.
“Don’t be like that. Look, I’ll even leave you the torch.” Next came the grunts and scrapes of Bryde forcing his way through the cramped hole. He struggled mightily, swearing and grunting as he pulled himself along. I thought of him getting stuck and almost smiled, until I realized that would have left us trapped too.
Bryde emerged and dusted himself off. “Alright, Arryn, get your ass in here,” he said.
No whines or complaints. But nothing else, either.
“Stop fucking around, Arryn.”
“Bryde, look,” the baker’s boy said, pointing back through the hole; you could just barely see the hallway through it.
The torch sat on the ground, flickering.
“What the fuck?”
“Maybe he went home,” I offered.
“Without the torch? Bumbling and crying in the dark?” Bryde asked.
“The demon got him. It’s going to torture him! And we’ll be next!” the baker’s boy shouted.
His words echoed. I don’t know if we were waiting for someone to refute his claim or if we hoped Arryn would pop out of the hole. Oh it had all been a joke, you should have seen the looks on your faces. Maybe we were waiting for the demon to come for us too. When none of that happened, Bryde grabbed my shoulder.
“You need to go get the torch,” he said.
My heart spasmed. “What? I’m not going through there again!”
“If you don’t get that torch, we’ll be blind,” Bryde said.
“Yeah, blind,” the baker’s boy added.
I could have argued with them, but I had nothing but whines and excuses. Neither were convincing. So I went back in. I’m not proud of how meek I was; a boy like Bryde wouldn’t dare even raise his voice at me now.
I crawled through the tunnel, stopping just before the hole, where the flickering torchlight licked at the earth. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a hunter who’d just brought us poached venison. My parents were butchers, and we dealt with poachers just enough to survive. While my father counted out the man’s coin, I’d asked the hunter how he survived out in the forests, where so many things could kill you. “Whenever something bad happens, stop and listen.” He told me of the time he killed a boar with a knife after the beast charged him and broke his bow. Beaten and bleeding, he was anxious to dress the kill and take it home, but instinct kicked in and he stopped to listen. He heard something rustling and hid. Next thing he knew, a black spider the size of a horse crawled out of a hidden hole and carried off his kill. “Lost the boar, but could have lost more.”
So I stopped and listened. I didn’t see the thing, but I could hear it, sniffing and snorting in the dark. Then came the tearing of something wet, like raw chicken off the bone. I tried not to imagine it, not to think of Arryn’s body being ripped apart by some horrible fiend as I reached for the torch. I kept my eyes on the darkness, ready to scamper back in the hole. I thought I could see its back, slick and oily, shifting in the dark. I told myself it was my imagination, kept telling myself whatever I needed to until I had that torch in my hand.
The moment my fingers felt the splintered wood, I snatched it and pulled back. The tearing grew louder, seeming to come from inside my mind, until the floor gave out and I stumbled into the room beyond. I must have yelped, because both Bryde and the baker’s boy came to my side, drilling me with questions. One rose above the rest. “Did you see anything?”
“No,” I answered. It was the truth. I hadn’t seen anything but I’d heard plenty, more than I was willing to share. I handed the torch to Bryde; if he wanted to play leader, he could carry it himself.
None of us mentioned Arryn after that.
The room we found ourselves in was nothing like the tunnels we’d just blundered through. Those had been rough, natural rock. This chamber had high, vaulted ceilings and smooth masonry. It had seen the hands of men. Or other things. Things that didn’t exist outside of old women’s hearthfire tales. Strange figures were carved into the walls, worn into vague silhouettes draped in moss, blue and green and foul-smelling. The smashed remains of rotted pews littered the floor. In the centre of the room was this squat stone thing with strange markings ringing it. Atop it was a recess, shaped like a stone bowl.
We all went our separate ways, forgetting the danger of this place. I went for the altar. It’s hard to describe what happened next. It started as whispering, though it was coming from all around me at once. It grew louder until I was staring into the water, brown and muddy like runoff from a quarry. I knew it was a voice, but it wasn’t saying anything I could understand. It was somewhere between the wail of a baby and the hissing of a snake.
But I did see something. A blurry shape that bobbed up like an apple. I thought it was just under the surface, and I reached out to grab it. My fingers hadn’t even touched the surface that the thing turned, clear and terrible. A face, gaunt and purple, stared back at me with beady black eyes. Bumpy horns ran over its brow. Though its lips didn’t move, I knew the voice battering my eardrums belonged to it. Undecipherable ramblings turned to screams as they ripped through me, my knuckles went white on the altar as I fought to stay upright.
The face receded with a stream of bubbles, and showed me a thing that I struggle to describe, to remember. It showed me my father’s death. Flashes of feeling, blood and bone raced by in that murky pool. Even now, I cannot recall the exact means of his death. Only this sinking feeling that if I did nothing, this terrible thing would come to pass. It would be violent, and it would be my fault. The screaming blasted through my mind as my vision went black.
When Bryde shook me awake, I realized I was screaming too. “Shut your mouth! You’ll kill us all!”
My wits only returned a few slaps later.
There was nothing for us in this chamber; no riches to bring back and lord over our equals. We moved on, pushing through a creaking door of rotten wood, and through to a dark hall of smooth masonry.
I’d like nothing more than to attribute what came next to skill or knowledge, to claim that I’ve always been beyond my peers. But it was nerves, nothing more. We were only a few feet from the rotting door when I felt my foot give way, the stone under it falling away with a click. I spasmed and dropped.
With a grating, grinding noise, a great scything blade sprung from the wall, swinging over my head. Then a wet crunch. It had hit something. Something that sobbed and gurgled. For a brief, insane moment, I dared hope that his considerable girth had saved him.
Then the blade drew back. I saw his eyes first, these empty, wailing things. Then the blood, seeping past the blade and into his fingers. And then the blade drew back, and the two halves that had been the baker’s boy fell. Winding snakes of guts and and grime stretched between them, leaking blood and other foul things. There was something not quite like breath left in him, stumbling over some lump in his throat. Bryde was there, just behind him, and once I found my feet we stood over him for what felt like an eternity, until that last shred of breath died in his breast.
It’s not that we didn’t want to help him; we just didn’t know how. I’d seen a broken leg turn farmers to beggars, and this was so far beyond that. Even if I’d known what to do, could I have done it?
That was when Bryde looked up at me and I saw the dark thing in his eye. It screamed that the baker’s boy hadn’t just blundered into the scythe’s path. I thought about challenging him, accusing him of killing that boy. But as I looked up at him, that sliver of evil in his eye screamed something else.
It can happen to you too.
From there, we fell into a sort of daze, and found things that four bumbling boys would have stumbled into. Other machines of death. We didn’t see the things that hid in the walls, designed to tear us apart. We only saw the tripwires and pressure plates.
Something had already changed in us, and there was much more change to come.
The passage ended in an iron door, spotted with rust. It wouldn’t budge, even after Bryde threw his shoulder into it. He cursed and passed me the torch. He pulled something from a pouch at his side: these long tools made of ugly, hammered iron. I’d never seen anything like them; there were pointed prongs and long flat things that looked like files. They jingled as he picked and prodded at the lock.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” I asked.
No answer, save for the click-clacking of the stubborn lock.
“Bryde, are you—”
“Make yourself useful and keep your eye on that passage. I don’t want anything coming up behind us,” he said, but it wasn’t the threat of some fiend in the dark that made me obey.
I stretched my arm out as far as I could, pushing the small ring of torchlight to the edges of the passage. We were maybe twenty feet from a corner, and as far as my mind was concerned, any manner of awful things could have been lurking there. I wondered if Bryde was a thief. Did he skulk about the village at night? Sealing...what? What did any of us have that was worth stealing?
It was then, mid-thought, that I first saw the thing’s eyes, coming around the corner. They were the colour of amber and glowed like a cat’s eyes.
“It’s out there, Bryde,” I whispered.
“No it’s not,” he shot back. He kept his voice as low as mine.
“I can see its eyes. It’s watching us.”
“I’ve almost got it open.”
As if hearing him, the eyes jumped closer. “It’s coming for us,” I warned.
A sudden snap of metal. “Fuck!” Bryde cursed.
My heart dropped to my gut. The eyes were even closer now, and just below them, a set of jagged teeth—black and rotting—caught the flickering light. Bryde was mumbling to himself as he messed with his tools.
I fumbled for my knife as the thing got nearer, and saw it wielded a wicked hacksaw blade. It was spotted with red, though I couldn’t tell if it was rust or blood. It was only ten paces away.
It would corner me in the dark and rip my flesh from the bone, just like it had with Arryn. I was so sure of it.
“Got it!” Bryde shouted, and as he did I burst past him and through the door. I nearly crushed him as I slammed it shut. The fiend smashed into it, beating the iron with its fists and slashing at it with its blade. I thought the door would come open or fall of the hinges, that the fiend would come through and flay us alive. Bryde fumbled for the bolt, this heavy thing nearly as thick as an arm, and slid it into place.
The pounding stopped, replaced by this screeching howl, the kind of sound no man could make.
And we were trapped.
“How are we going to get out? It’s between us and the exit!” I shouted.
“There may be another way through, maybe some way back to…” he trailed off, walking past me like a man bewitched
“Bryde?” I asked, and as I turned to follow him, I saw it. A sarcophagus sat in the centre of the tiny, cramped room. But rather than the stench of a corpse, it held the glint of silver. I fell to my knees, and it was all I could do not to blubber like a child. We’d done it. Two had fallen, and we’d nearly died ourselves, but finally we’d made it. There was enough in there to make us both rich. Maybe not enough to become lords, but enough to own some land and claim our destinies. We wouldn’t have to follow in the footsteps of our fathers. We could be our own men.
Our own men.
I thought of my father. I knew what I’d use all that coin for.
But as I approached the sarcophagus, Bryde threw a shoulder into me, knocking me aside.
“Bryde! What the hell!”
“Don’t touch any of my coin.”
“Your coin?” I shot to my feet. “We came down here together, agreed to split whatever we found equally, you can’t just—”
He grabbed me by the collar and pulled me in. I thought he’d kill me to keep the coin. Or maybe just for the fun of it. I didn’t really know who he was in that moment.
Bryde snatched the scroll from my shirt. “How much is this worth, huh? Did you think I’d forgotten about it?”
I squirmed in his grip, hot in the face. “It’s nothing, Bryde! A few silvers from a scribe! No more!”
“How do I know that’s true?” He gave the scroll a shake, and it unfurled all on its own. “I can’t read this! Might as well be a deed to an old lord’s castle, worth more than any of this!”
“That’s not fair! I don’t know what it says either!”
“I don’t care about fair!” Bryde threw the scroll, and it flapped before falling in a heap. He threw me after it. “If you want more, you’re free to keep going.”
He pointed beyond his loot, to a grate that looked like the portcullis in a lord’s keep. A foul stench drifted from it, and I imagined all sorts of horrors lurking there, flapping and stinking.
“I’m not going in there alone,” I replied.
A scratching sound just beneath our feet. Not like rats, but more like a mining pick, chipping at the stone. Bryde and I were still as we listened. Dread filled me. But the sound lasted just a few seconds. We both sighed with relief when it stopped.
Bryde was trailing his fingers over the coin, mad lust in his eyes.
“There might be greater treasure below, through that grate,” I said, not believing my own lie.
Bryde’s eyes twinkled. “I’ve got enough here for a lifetime.”
The scratching came back, but all I wanted was to knock some sense into him. How could he do this? Had I not deserved my fair share? He knew the scroll wasn’t that valuable, he had to. He was just using it to excuse his greed. My thoughts darkened. Now he wasn’t a companion; he was in my way.
What about a good hit to the back of the head? Not enough to kill him, just daze him. Then I could fill my hands with coin and run out. No not my hands. There were vases and pots by the sarcophagus. I’d fill one of those up. Bryde would be mad as hell when he woke, but by then I’d be long gone. There’d be plenty left for him, anyway. Nothing to really be angry about.
I just needed to find something heavy to hit him with. There wasn’t much here, but the ceiling was coming apart in places—something I probably should have noticed before—and some of the stone had detached from it long ago. One such piece rested no further than my foot. It was only slightly larger than my palm. I wondered if a blow from such a stone would kill him.
The floor fell away between us, chunks of stone disappearing into a growing black pit. A twisted, gnarled hand shot through, the skin red and raw. Black claws clinked on the stone as the fiend crawled out. Amber eyes glowed with malice and long ears twitched in anticipation. Rows of black, crooked teeth spread into a vicious grin, bits of flesh jammed between them.
Bryde was still lusting after his coin. He couldn’t see the thing creeping up behind him. For an instant, I thought of letting it kill him, of taking the coin for myself.
“Bryde! It’s behind you!”
He turned just as the fiend drew a wicked, saw toothed blade from a loop at its waist. Fresh blood stained it from hilt to tip. The fiend had tasted manflesh, and it wanted more.
The blade sparked against the sarcophagus, nearly taking Bryde’s head as he scooped up some coin and ran for the door. He’d just reached it when a long knife clattered against it, inches from him. The fiend had a belt of these strapped to its chest, and it was already throwing another. Coins twirled to the stone as Bryde dove away from the weapon.
I saw a flash of Bryde’s eyes, then. There was the fear; that I’d expected. Fear that the demon would strip the life from his body and take its time doing it. But there was something else, just a seed that would take his lifetime to blossom and grow beyond the mere coerced bravery of the levy. He was determined to kill this thing.
Bryde stood slowly, staring the fiend in the eye. It screeched at him, blood and grime dripping from its open maw. Bryde drew his weapon, just a heavy cudgel. “Wait until it comes for me.”
He was mad. And we would die.
Bryde charged for the fiend, cudgel held high. He let out this bloodcurdling roar, more fit for a barbarian from the frozen wastes than a peasant. The fiend answered in kind and charged him, swinging its wicked blade. The first swing sailed just over Bryde’s head. The second slashed through the flesh of his arm. I took that for my cue.
I charged and drove my knife into its back. The blade punched through, deeper than I’d anticipated. A splash of black blood hit me in the face, burning my eyes. The fiend screeched and cracked me across the jaw with a backhand, slamming me into the sarcophagus. I rubbed at my eyes furiously, wiping and scratching to get the blood out. I only let out a breath when the burning finally stopped. I could still see. I wouldn’t go blind.
Just as I thought this, my blurry gaze fell on the scroll, still a heap by the hole. And for some reason I still can’t fathom, I knew I needed it. The sounds of fighting dulled in my ears, and it was like I could see nothing but the scroll as I scrambled for it.
For the first time in my life, I could read something. These weren’t just random scratches and shapes. There was a logic here that I could grasp. I turned back to the battle, scroll in hand.
Bryde slammed his cudgel into the thing’s head, and for a moment I thought he had killed it. But the fiend just stumbled a step and shook off the blow. The courage left Bryde’s eyes as the fiend closed in on him, raising its blade.
The scroll’s words rose from my throat, spoken in a language I didn’t know, with a voice that wasn’t entirely my own. The parchment pulsed with warmth, and then an intense pain flared in my palms, red-hot coals trying to push their way through. Instinctively, I dropped the scroll and threw my hands forward.
Flames spewed from my hands, lashing at the fiend like whips and leaving long, thin burns. Then the flames wrapped around it and tightened. The fiend snarled and gnashed its teeth as its flesh cooked, filling the air with a terrible stench. It swung its blade madly, stumbling back and away from Bryde. The flaming whips tied the fiend to me, and it stumbled towards me as I tried to scamper away. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know how to stop it, and thought the flaming fiend would take my head. But as the fire licked at its face and melted the knives on its chest, the fiend lost its footing and fell through the pit it had crawled out of. It howled as it bounced off a stone and tumbled into the dark. The flames ripped out of my hands, nearly pulling me into the hole. I fell forward, sprawled out at the edge of the pit. The fiend was gone, and now there was just unending blackness in the pit.
A mad laughter escaped Bryde’s lips, an infectious thing that took me as well. We lay there, laughing in the dark, until our throats were hoarse. There was an ecstasy in that first kill I never felt again; the knowledge that a vicious thing had tried to kill me and failed. That I had come out on top. I had never experienced anything close to that in my life up to that point.
It wasn’t until the grate at the end of the room shook that we regained our senses. We suddenly remembered the danger of this place. The fiend was all but forgotten now, and our eyes went to the grate. I clumsily rolled the scroll up and stuffed it back into my shirt, my hands and arms still throbbing with pain. White-hot burns covered my palms and snaked their way up my forearms. My hands were stiff and painful, and just closing them was uncomfortable.
Bryde stood first, reaching for his loot, eyes wide. As I stood, ready to swipe some coin for myself, the grate shook again, sending loose dust twirling. Then a withered arm shot through, tipped with sharp bone fingers. A howling, like a dying horse, rang from somewhere beyond. Bryde stuffed coins into a vase then turned to flee. I grabbed as much as I could and ran after him. He either didn’t see me or didn’t care.
Red trails on the stone were all that was left of the baker’s boy. We never saw Arryn’s body. We didn’t love those boys, but a real, deep dread twisted at our guts. We could easily have been in their place. Bryde had made sure of it; I’d just been lucky.
But we’d succeeded. Even the tiny sliver of coin I’d managed to spirit away was more than a butcher made in a lifetime. I thought I’d never have to come to one of these dark places again. My life was now what I wanted. I’d wrested it away from the fates.
How wrong I was.
I still don’t know how long they waited there. All day, perhaps. In hindsight, it was the smart thing to do; let someone else to brave the dangers of the pit. See what they bring back. Then you can decide whether it was worth the risk.
Five village boys sprang on us the moment we emerged from the pit. They rose hiding places behind boulders and tall grass. Well, they weren’t exactly village boys. They worked the farms and shops, earning a few coppers each time, but didn’t live in the village. Each of them had caused problems, either starting fights or stealing. Some were disowned and thrown out of their family homes. Others had no parents at all. They lived somewhere on the outskirts of the village, though no one really knew where.
I don’t know how they’d found out about our venture, but they’d obviously expected us to come back with something. They were armed to the teeth—for farmboys—and ready for us. There was no way we’d outrun them, not with coin in hand. A pit yawned in my stomach. I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t want to believe that everything we’d been through would be for nothing, but I didn’t expect clemency from these boys.
The biggest of the five boys stepped towards us, a notched logging axe bouncing in his hands. His hair was dirty and matted, his smile gap toothed and mean. “I wanted to say something clever for this. Spent all day waiting, and thought I’d scare you good with the right words.” He looked at his boys. “But I’ve got you outnumbered, and you’re unarmed, so I don’t need words. Give me whatever you’ve got, and that’ll be the end of it.”
Bryde’s jaw clenched. He looked just as insulted as I was. They hadn’t gone down there, hadn’t risked their lives. They didn’t deserve a single piece of it. I waited for him to do something, to fight back. But he just dropped his coin at his feet. His face was grim, his eyes downcast. He looked like a pale shadow of the man I’d just fought side-by-side with. We’d killed a fiend! A demon that dragged people away in the night! I thought that was all I’d need to say, that their eyes would widen in awe and they’d let us pass. But would they have believed it? Would anyone believe such a tall tale?
The vicious boys closed in on us, greed tainting their eyes. I couldn’t let them take what was mine. I dropped my coin along with Bryde’s, but instead of submitting, I went for the scroll. I don’t think I wanted to kill the boys, I’m sure I only intended to frighten them. If they thought I was some kind of witch, they’d run with their tails between their legs. Sure, I’d have to leave the village, and who knows who they’d send after me, but in that moment, I could only think about keeping my coin. “You’re going to burn for this!” I shouted.
But when I pulled the scroll out, I couldn’t read it. I didn’t see words anymore, just this random mess of faded scribbling and scratching.
From the beating they gave me, I imagine I succeeded in scaring them, just not as much as I would have liked. They ripped up the scroll, took the coin, and left me battered and beaten. Worse was the look in Bryde’s eye before he turned to walk home. His eyes said he expected something of me, and I’d disappointed.
Mercifully, my mother was already asleep when I finally got home. It was all I could do to slink into bed and cry myself to sleep.
The next morning, my dear mother shook me awake. “Where the hell were you?” she screeched into my ear. She already had her apron on, splashed with old blood. As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, she looked too much like a witch from the stories.
“Nowhere,” I replied, propping myself up on my elbows. I was suddenly aware of just how much pain I was in, tight knots of it all through my muscles. The boys had struck my head like a bell and it was still ringing.
“That’s a dirty lie. You were supposed to be here, getting the game meat ready before the bailiff’s men get here.”
Not all of our meat came from poachers, but what we did get from them kept the village from starving. The King’s crusade was costly, and the dirtborn usually paid the balance. The bailiff had an uncanny ability; he could smell out poached meat. Or maybe he just declared it when we had a bit too much for his liking. “I’ll do it,” I said, throwing off my blanket.
“Well you’ve just got a day, now, so you’d better get to it.”
And I did. I dedicated that day to our sliced subterfuge. Deer cuts could pass for beef or pork. Squirrels and rabbit had to be ground up. It wouldn’t hold up if you tasted the meat, but it was the bailiff’s eyes and nose we had to beat. Coin jingled and scythe blades swung in my mind as I worked. Thoughts of those boys—no, thieves—left a rotten taste in my mouth.
I thought of my father between chops of the cleaver. Thought of the thing I saw and could barely remember. But it would come to pass. Somehow, I knew it to the depths of my being. I couldn’t have explained any of it to my mother; I could never explain anything to her.
I was interrupted when a fat woman burst into the shop. Her eyes were red and puffy. I knew why. She was the baker’s wife. “I need to talk to your son!” she shrieked, until my mother came out of the back. My mother ushered the fat woman out just as she yelled, “You killed my boy!”
When my mother came back, she knew everything. “You went in that pit, didn’t you?” It was worded like a question, but she hurled it like an accusation.
I couldn’t bring myself to answer. She already knew, anyway.
“That woman lost her boy because of you.”
I tried to focus on my task. There was still plenty of meat to go through.
“Why did you go in there? Riches? Glory?”
“I killed a demon,” I said between thunks of my cleaver.
The cleaver came to a rest. “I. Killed. A. Demon.”
My mother stormed towards me, raising a hand. “Do not tell such filthy—”
I backed up, staying just out of her reach. “It’s true! It was big and red with black teeth! It ate Arryn!”
Her eyes widened. “Another one? You killed another boy?”
“I didn’t kill them!”
“You might as well have!” She fumbled with the counter, trying to find some support. Her shoulders heaved and shook until she found the stool behind the counter and collapsed onto it. “The blood of those boys...it’s on your hands now.”
“They chose to come with us!”
“I know how you are with words. I’m sure you were convincing.”
Had I been? I’d just thought that four boys had a better chance than two—Bryde was all too willing to delve into that dark place—and I’d told them what we could come away with. I hadn’t swindled them. I’d told them the truth as I believed it. “They wanted more. Just like us.”
“More?” Her jaw fell open. A single, choked laugh came them. “Do you know how many boys would kill to be where you are? Nevermind all the poor souls begging and starving in Northgrove, do you know how many here in Hillshade would take your place? You’ve never had to tend a field, or work the quarry. You’ve been fed everyday of your life, even when the bailiff comes for taxes.”
“And that’s enough?”
“You ungrateful little—”
“Why do you think father left?”
That stunned her. I immediately regretted saying it, but couldn’t stop now. “He was levied. He had no choice.”
“Didn’t he volunteer?”
“Because he knew that the other families couldn’t bear to lose their men.”
“Or he wanted to leave.”
She shot to her feet and struck me. “Don’t you ever say that. Don’t you dare.”
So I didn’t. Nor did I say anything else. I left the cleaver on the counter and walked out of the shop. That was the last time I saw my mother.
I bumped into a stumbling, drunken boy on my way out. I wanted to hit him. Who had the money, or the time, to get drunk so early? Then I recognized the boy’s face. He was one of the five who’d stolen our coin. He didn’t recognize me, or he was just too drunk to care; he flipped me off and kept going on his merry way.
I followed him. I couldn’t imagine ever setting foot in my mother’s shop again, to see the smug satisfaction on her face that came with knowing I had nowhere else to go. I followed the drunken boy to the outskirts of the village, past few farms there, and even beyond that. I’d never been so far from home, but I went without hesitation.
I trailed him to a strange place, a ring of standing stones covered in moss. The kind of place where fairies danced or demons dragged screaming children, depending on who you asked. I hid behind one of these stones and watched the drunk boy stumble to a crooked shack built in the ring’s centre. He plopped onto a stool right by the door. There was another one there, keeping watch. Our coin had to be there. If we could get inside, we might just get it back.
Bryde wouldn’t have any of it when I told him. I found him in the quarry, covered in chalk dust and pushing a cart full of the stuff. One of his eyes was swollen shut and ringed by a fresh bruise. When I told him about the shack, he shook his head. “My place is here, and I’m never leaving again,” he said, his voice just a low grumble. The spark had gone out in him, and I was looking at what was left.
“But Bryde, I know where they are. We can get our coin back.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself, oh powerful one?”
“Why not burn their little shack down, like you did that fiend? You can reclaim your loot from the rubble. Maybe if you’d done that earlier, we’d still have our coin.”
“I’m not a murderer,” I lied. I’d been entirely too willing to burn those boys to keep my coin, but admitting I couldn’t use the scroll anymore felt worse.
“Good for you,” Bryde replied, dumping his load of chalk. Some other miner was shoveling chalk from that pile to another. None of it made any sense to me; they were like ants swarming around a pile of sugar.
“Bryde, we killed that fiend together,” I placed a hand on his shoulder, “no one can take that away from us.”
I thought I was winning him over.
“Especially not our parents.”
He shrugged me off. “I like it here, I’m happy. Everything’s simple. You work in the quarry all day, you go to the tavern for a drink at night, then off to bed. Eventually you meet a nice girl, have some kids and die a happy old man.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was nothing like the man who’d gone into the pit with us. “Is that really what you want, Bryde? Or did somebody beat it into you?”
His face twisted and he struck me. I might have deserved it, but I certainly didn’t feel that way at the time. I barely maintained my composure.
“We killed that fiend together, Bryde. No one can take that away from us. Not even our parents.” I hoped that would bring some change in him and that I’d recognize some shred of the man who’d fought that demon. I didn’t. “Fine. I’ll do it myself.” I told him where the boys were, just in case he changed his mind. I didn’t have much hope.
It was late afternoon when I made it to the standing stones. I didn’t even think of waiting until night. Two of the boys stood outside the shack, ale in hand. They were armed. One of them—a short fat boy with scruffs of hair on his chin—even had a sword. It was an ugly thing of dark iron, a foot soldier's weapon, but it was still a blade. The other wasn’t so well armed. He held a logging axe. How much of our coin was already gone?
I approached them with some notion that I’d talk my way in there and steal the coin back without them realizing it. I’d never seen anyone talk their way into anything; in a village like ours, people who tried that kind of thing got a beating for their trouble. But I couldn’t fight these boys, not when one of them had a sword. All I had was a heavy cleaver from the shop. It would cleave a man’s hand off, but you couldn’t parry a sword with it.
They saw me coming and stumbled to some kind of fighting stance, drawing their weapons. “Don’t stepsh any closer!” Swordboy said, the blade weaving in front of him like a drunk snake.
I raised my hands. The cleaver was hidden at my back; for all they knew I was unarmed. “I want to talk to your leader.”
They looked at each other. The swordless, near-toothless, one barked back at me. “We don’t have a leader.”
“Someone told you to stand out here—”
“We chose to,” Swordboy said, “better to drink our ale in the sun, I think.”
“Then I’ll talk to you.” I held out my open palms. The sun danced across pink mottled spots on my palms and spiderwebs along my forearms. The scars never did heal right. “I killed a demon for that coin. You’ve enjoyed it thus far, but it belongs to me.” When I came up with my brilliant plan, it hadn’t struck me that I might have needed strong arguments to convince these boys to give me my coin back.
“You didn’t kill nothing,” Toothless said, “probably just grabbed a hot kettle so you’d have something to brag about.”
Swordboy laughed. “Bet you’ve never done anything worthwhile in your life.”
“And you?” The blood was hot in my ears now, and I’d sunk to just trading barbs. “You think having that sword makes you a man? What’d you do to deserve it?”
“I was smart enough to wait for someone else to go get coin for me,” Swordboy replied with a stupid, lazy grin on his face.
“As if it was your plan. I bet you’re too stupid to put your shirt on the right way.”
His eyes flicked to his shirt for a second. “It was my plan!” Swordboy shouted. Toothless suppressed a chuckle. “Was too!” Swordboy was flushed in the face. His weapon didn’t dance anymore; it was pointed right at me. “You think you’re funny, eh? I think I’m going to show you what your guts look like.”
I fumbled for my cleaver as he stalked towards me. I never drew it. A fist-sized stone hit the sword, sending it flying from the boy’s grip. He spun just in time for another to thump into his stomach and send him to the ground, wheezing for breath. Toothless spun, running for the door. A small boulder struck him in the leg, throwing him to the ground with a sick crack. He held his leg and moaned.
Bryde strode towards us, tossing a stone aside. He wasn’t the beaten boy from the quarry now, but the man who’d sent that fiend hurtling into a pit. “It’s a wonder they didn’t just skewer you when you opened your mouth. You’re shit at talking.”
“I got you here, didn’t I?” I replied.
“My father had more to do with that than you did.”
I made a face at him and went for the boy at the door. His hand was pawing uselessly at the wood, just out of reach. I pulled him away so he couldn’t alert his friends. If his screams hadn’t already done that. The other one, Swordboy, was nearly up, but Bryde kicked him across the jaw and knocked him out.
“I think you broke my leg!” The boy under me whined.
“Well if you don’t shut up, he’ll make it worse,” I replied, glancing over my shoulder at Bryde. I tied Toothless up the best I could with his own rope belt and stuffed a ripped piece of his shirt in his mouth. That’d keep him from screaming.
Behind me, Bryde had Swordboy’s blade in hand, and he held it up in the light. I waited for him to say something, but he was utterly spellbound.
“Bryde? The coin?”
It took a moment for him to even look at me, and even then he had to blink something out of his eyes. “This is power. Forget love or fear, cold iron is what makes titans out of men.”
“Did you hear that in a song?”
“No,” he replied, frowning.
“Coin can buy swords and men to wield them. That’s real power. Let’s go get ours back.”
It was sheer luck that no one inside the shack was awake enough to hear the scuffle just outside their door. They’d all spent the night drinking, judging from the snores and the state of the place. Half a dozen rough boys, and nearly as many women, lay draped all over each other on the ground. It was the kind of debauchery the priests warned against. The women were naked, at least to some degree, and I recognized farmer’s daughters and other village girls. All eager for a bit of coin or scraps of destiny.
I stepped carefully around limbs and past burgeoning pot-bellies and bare breasts. At the end of the shack, left on a dresser, was the pot pilfered from the tomb; the one Bryde had used to carry his coin. My heart sank. There’d once been coin to the rim, but the filthy brutes had gone through more than half of it. Blood pumped in my ears, the heat of it conjuring images of a cleaver sinking into sleeping foreheads. So when a hand grabbed a scruff of my hair and pulled, it’s little wonder that I turned and swung.
I wish the cleaver had just gone through a wrist, lopped off a hand or a ear. Instead, it was buried in a red, bloody throat. It was a hollow consolation that it belonged to the leader of the boys, the one who’d made all the threats and gave me a good beating.
His eyes were wide and white with fear. I realized he must have been a few seasons younger than me. He didn’t look like a terrifying bully, now. Just a boy who knew he was going to die. All he could manage was a drowning gurgle as crimson bubbles pushed past his lips. His hands flailed at me, fumbling for the cleaver, clawing for my face, and only reflex made me pull the weapon back.
It was just a reflex.
When I pulled back, all the blood seemed to drain out of him at once, cascading over his pale throat and spreading a nasty stain over his shirt.
That’ll never wash out. I ruined his shirt.
Strange the things we think when our lives are falling apart.
I ran out of there just as they were waking up, pushing past anyone in my way. My perception had shrunk to the door ahead of me. I don’t remember much of that flight, save for a few stumbles in high grass and a slip on loose rocks. I only stopped when my legs were tired. Not just sore, but completely unable to support my weight. I fell and, unable to stand, just sat there. I was on a small hill that overlooked our village. The sun was setting behind it, casting bloody shadows over the roofs.
I wanted to go home, to go back to the shop, apologize to my mother, and finish preparing the meat for market. I didn’t want the coin or a different life. I’d made a mistake.
Market day was the next day. Tents would go up, dyed with whatever a peasant could afford, and people would come down from the farms around to trade whatever they had. It was almost a profitable day for us, and we usually managed to get all our poached meat sold before midday, when the bailiff would make his official appearance.
My hands shook, and the cleaver tumbled from my grip. The bailiff. He’d be here in the morning. No one loved the rough boys at the edge of the village, but few would forgive the murder all the same. I’d hang. There was no doubt about it. I had to flee. Any direction, as long as it wasn’t here.
It was in the midst of this panic that Bryde surprised me. He had the coin. He tipped the vase over, dumping a rough half of it at my feet, along with a new shirt. “It probably smells like hell, but at least it’s not covered with blood,” Bryde said, sitting next to me.
I hadn’t even noticed the huge, dark stains on my shirt. “You—”
“I tell you, the moment the blood started going, the rest of them hightailed it out of there.” He watched the sunset, holding his sword against him.
“You came back,” I finally said.
Bryde looked at me and blinked, though with his one shut eye it could have been a wink. He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. He scratched into the dirt with the heel of his boot. “If you hadn’t come for me at the quarry, I’d still be there now.” And who knows what else my father would have done to me, his eye seemed to say. “What you did in there—”
“It was an accident!” I blurted out.
Bryde nodded. “Good enough for me. I just wanted to be sure you hadn’t turned into some kind of murderer.”
But that’s exactly what I am, Bryde, I thought. I killed that boy.
“You might want to get going, use the dark for cover.”
I’d thought about it, but I also worried about stumbling around in the dark and getting lost. “What are you going to do, Bryde?”
“Not going with you, if that’s what you’re asking. Don’t want my uncle to come after me, thinking I helped you,” he said, his face soft. His uncle. The bailiff.
I prodded the coin with my foot. “Why didn’t you take it all?”
“I thought about it. When all those boys ran away, and it was just me in there, I wanted to scoop it all up for myself. I came real close.”
“What stopped you?”
“I didn’t deserve it. Maybe I thought that in the pit, but after you came at the quarry,” he paused and took a deep breath. “I fought it out with my father. I found out he just wanted me to stay because he couldn’t stand the embarrassment of his eldest son leaving. And I realized that, up until that point, you were the only one who actually cared about what was right for me.”
I confess that, when I fetched Bryde at the quarry, part f me did it for selfish reasons. I knew there was no way I could take on all those boys by myself. “So what now?”
He smiled, looking down at the sword. “I’ve got this. I can do whatever I want. Think I’ll go East, see about those reaver bands that go into the Wastes.”
“You’re not serious,” I said, staring at him. The Dread Wastes were mile-long strips of marshes in the Eastern Province, right on the border of Endless territory. While not everyone agreed that the Endless were real, going out into their territory was a great way to get killed. Only barbarians, criminals, and beasts lived out there.
Bryde shrugged. “What about you?”
What about me? I’d be a wanted man before the week was out. Once those boys came back to their senses, they’d seek out the bailiff and tell him everything. They’d give him a description of my face—and my name if they knew it—and word would get out all over the province. Then they’d come after me: cutthroats, sellswords, maybe even a knight or two. “I need to find my father,” I said suddenly, surprising myself.
“Your father? Isn’t he on the Crusade with the king?”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell him how I knew; I’d sound insane. I wasn’t even sure of my own sanity then. I just knew I couldn’t spend my life fleeing the law, not without a purpose, not when my father was in danger.
“I didn’t take you for a soldier,” Bryde said. He stood and dusted himself off. “Well, guess that’s that.”
“I’ve got a long road, and I want every chance at finding an inn before dark.” He hesitated, then. “You should come with me.”
“Come on. We killed that fiend together. Imagine the kind of adventures we’d have! The coin, the jewels! We’re not a terrible team.” There was excitement in his voice, but to me it felt almost like it was just a courtesy. A final parting offer before we decided never to see each other again.
And I thought about it. Imagined us delving into darker places, killing fiercer demons, gold lining our pockets and women falling at our feet. But I knew it was foolish. I was no use in a fight. I reached inside my shirt, but the scroll wasn’t there. I’d left it in the shack. Hadn’t even thought to grab it. “I’ve got to go back. Got to get my—”
Bryde nodded, and the scroll plopped onto my pile of coin.
Torn in half and barely legible, but it was there. I held up the two pieces, so that they fit together, nearly looking like a whole again.
“I asked myself how you did that, against the fiend. I’d never seen anything like it. I wondered if you’d been some kind of witch for years, hiding under our noses. But then when you didn’t do it on those boys—”
“I don’t know how this all works, Bryde. I never thought I’d ever be able to do something like that.” And just like that, I knew what I needed to do. Yes, I needed to find my father, but I’d be useless to him as I was. “I need to find someone to teach me.”
“A witch?” He spit the word, and I could almost see his skin crawl. “Nothing good can come of messing with one of them.”
“You saw what I did, Bryde. I can’t just ignore that. Not if it can save my father.”
Bryde snorted. “You should work on your sword arm instead. That’d get you further.”
“Maybe. But I know this is what I have to do.”
“Alright, I won’t stop you. Just don’t do anything...demonic. Don’t want someone paying me to kill you.”
I smiled. “I think that’s fair.”
He held his hand out, and I shook it. “Take care of yourself, Mort. And for God’s sake, run like hell.”
“You too Bryde. May your blade always strike true.”
He gave me a strange look.
“I...heard it in a song once.”
“I like it,” he said finally, and sheathed his sword. And just like that, he walked off, headed East to find his fortunes. It would be years before I saw him again, though he wouldn’t be the same man. Neither would I.
I sat back down and watched the sun set as the place I’d called home my entire life slowly fell asleep. There was a certain sadness in knowing that I’d never come back here. I’d probably never see my mother again, never slice up bacon for market day. And although it pained me to see my home for the last time, it had never been as beautiful as it was now.