A fantastical medieval tale of single parenting, strange knights and monsters lurking in the forest.
Apologies for the lack of story last month. I have tried writing several things that have taken much longer than I’d hoped. But normal service is now resumed!
Freya took a generous swig of home brewed ale, wishing she had something stronger.
It had been a long week. Her son Ed had been tormenting Farmer Jacob again by stealing his favourite sheep and shaving a rude symbol into its wool. It was quite a deft cut, by her reckoning, but the grumpy old beggar didn’t see the funny side.
She signed and took another swig. Her younger son Bert was no better. Earlier that morning, she’d had the town mayor hammering on her door, his face as red as a beetroot. The silver chain of office had mysteriously vanished from his esteemed person, and was now stuck around the neck of the fattest sow at market.
Freya, smiling innocently, asked the seething mayor if he had any proof that her sons were responsible. At this, the mayor turned purple, blustering and huffing and stamping his finely clad feet. Eventually he ran out of steam and stormed off.
What a pompous old fool, Freya thought, shaking her head. But he was an important pompous fool, who could bear a grudge. It wouldn’t take much for him to throw the boys in gaol, or worse.
As if hearing her thoughts, the two lads ran into the workshop. They looked as innocent as cherubs, with ginger hair, round cheeks and bright blue eyes.
‘Ma…’ Ed put on his most beatific smile. ‘Can me and Bert borrow some money? There’s a fair in the town over on Sunday and-’
‘No.’ Ignoring the groans and complaints, she dragged them over to the anvil. ‘Come watch me hammer this horseshoe. You might as well learn something.’
Many marvelled and more scoffed at the idea of a woman taking over a smithy, but you might have thought Ed and Bert were watching plaster dry. Ed yawned loudly as she hammered and Bert made an irritating popping noise with his cheeks.
‘Will you two good-for-nothings pay attention?’
But the boys were already gone.
Oh gods. What are those two up to now?
She opened the workshop door. Ed and Bert were standing outside, talking to a fine-looking man in full shining armour with a chestnut stallion. He had taken off his helmet, and his dark hair flopped over his eyes.
Freya swore under her breath. Playing pranks on the mayor was one thing, but a knight? That could get them killed.
She rushed outside, ready to swallow her pride and beg for forgiveness. But the knight did not seem irritated. In fact, he looked rather pleased. Bert was handing him a wooden ale mug of homebrewed ale, which he examined politely.
‘Do you fine lads know where one might find a blacksmith in this town?’ asked the knight, his voice crystal cut as the lord’s best wine glass, and perhaps a little finer.
Ed made a low and extravagant bow, and waved his hand at Freya as if she were a servant. ‘My mother can assist you, sir,’ he said, attempting to mirror the knight’s fancy accent.
Freya folded her arms. Trying not to piss off the powerful was one thing, but to bow and scrape and kiss their shiny boots was taking it too far. She kept her gaze level with the knight, daring him to say something.
To the knight’s credit, he did not sneer or raise an eyebrow at the sight of a woman in a smeared leather apron. Instead, he stuck out a gauntleted hand.
‘My name is Sir Cuthbert,’ he announced, flashing his oddly shiny teeth. ‘I am here on an important mission. I do not mean to alarm you, but there is a beast plaguing the towns of this region.’
Freya raised a sceptical eyebrow as she shook the proffered hand. She had heard a few rumours about beasts from travellers, but it had seemed like fancy brought on by drink and a desire to impress the local townsfolk.
‘A vile beast,’ the knight continued. ‘A creature of such cunning and cruelty that it is said no man can kill it. I have sworn on knightly honour to defeat it and present its head to the king.’
He paused, waiting for her to congratulate him. She didn’t.
The knight cleared his throat. ‘Unfortunately, my sword has been damaged by fierce battle. I require the finest blacksmith to forge me a new one.’
He shot her another winning smile. Freya gave him a long hard stare.
‘If you want the finest blacksmith,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to ride to another town.’
Silence followed. Ed and Bert stood with mouths agape, unable to believe that their mother had spoken so bluntly. I’m for it now, Freya thought. He’ll cart me off and have me hanged.
The knight took a step towards her. Then he clapped her on the back and burst out laughing.
‘Your honesty does me good!’ he said, beaming. ‘Have my sword ready by sundown and you shall be richly rewarded.’
Freya’s stomach knotted. Making a sword that quickly was nigh on impossible. But saying no to someone like Sir Cuthbert was equally unthinkable.
‘I’ll do my best,’ she said.
‘Excellent.’ The knight grinned. ‘I’m sure these lads of yours take good care of my horse while I wait.’
While the boys fought over who’d get to look after the horse, the knight picked up his ale mug and, with false enthusiasm, took a long swig. The taste made him choke and he dropped the mug on the ground, spilling its contents. The knight’s horse seized upon to puddle of alcohol and began to lap it up with great gusto. Oh well, Freya thought. At least someone appreciates my home brew.
Making a longsword is long and difficult work, especially when a horse has drunk all your ale. By the end of the day, Freya’s forehead was encrusted with dried sweat from the heat and her mouth felt like paper. She’d depleted her entire charcoal supply to keep the furnace burning. Her arms and shoulders ached from constantly pumping the bellows. But she had achieved the seemingly impossible. The sword, while not perfect, was done.
She sat heavily on a chair and drifted into an exhausted dream about a sword that broke each time she struck it. The sound rang and rang in her ears, until she eventually realised it was coming from outside – Sir Cuthbert was hammering on her door.
Sir Cuthbert’s armour gleamed in the setting sun. He looked surprisingly fresh faced for a man about to face down a beast.
‘You have such fine and helpful sons,’ he said, gesturing to Ed and Bert, who were holding his horse’s reins. ‘A credit to their family name.’
Freya had to turn her disbelieving laugh into a cough. ‘Your sword,’ she said, handing it over.
The knight held up the blade in the last rays of sunlight, tested its balance, then made several sharp cuts in the air.
‘Marvellous. This will do well.’ He reached into the horse’s saddlebag and handed over a small bag.
‘Thank you.’ She could not bring herself to say sir.
Freya and the two boys watched Sir Cuthbert mount his horse, give a wave of thanks to Ed and Bert, then ride slowly away, the orange light of sunset glinting off his shining armour.
The next morning, Freya woke late, after a night of vivid dreams about knights and monsters. Ed and Bert were already out, but that wasn’t unusual. They were probably running errands, or causing some sort of mischief.
Still, it wasn’t like them not to wake her before they left.
She hurried out, hoping there would still be turnips at market. But the vegetable trader looked at her like the dirt beneath her boots.
‘We’re out,’ she said, in a haughty tone.
Freya looked at the wooden crates surrounding the stall, stuffed full of fresh vegetables. ‘You must have carrots still, or parsnips.’
‘Nothing for the likes of you.’ The old woman wrinkled her nose and turned her back.
Freya walked on, irritated but not unduly; old widow Martha was known for her foul moods. She would go back later, tempting her with a few of those shiny coins from Sir Cuthbert. Then she’d change her tune.
A crowd was gathering outside the town hall, and curiosity pulled Freya towards the throng. She peered over a tall man’s head and spotted the town mayor standing on the steps. He was holding a leather bag in his right hand. Perhaps Sir Cuthbert had caught his beast after all, and had brought back his head for all see. She knew she shouldn’t look, but she couldn’t drag her eyes away.
‘Good people,’ boomed the mayor, in an unusually grave voice.
The crowd hushed. All eyes were on the bag as the mayor reached in and pulled something out.
All the strength fled from Freya’s body and she staggered into one of the farm lads. She couldn’t see the people around her, couldn’t tell what the mayor was saying. All she could see was what clutched between the mayor’s ringed fingers; a bloody cloak, just the right size for a young lad of thirteen.
Please, Freya prayed. Let it not be them. Let it be someone else. Anyone else.
The mayor continued gravely on. ‘As many of you know, last night we lost a young lad, in the prime of his youth. I implore you fine people to comfort Thomas’ mother in her time of need.’
Guilty relief flooded Freya. She tried to imagine how Thomas’ mother must feel, but she could not. All she could think about was the fact that her prayer had been answered, and Ed and Bert were still alive.
As the mayor made some speech about the importance of community and coming together in dark times, Sir Cuthbert began to walk up the steps. His armour, once so shiny, was dented and stained in blood. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. His bloodshot eyes turned to the crowd, and the mayor fell silent.
‘Last night,’ Sir Cuthbert’s voice was hoarse. ‘I encountered a beast so unspeakable, I dare not describe it to you good people.’
A thrilling shudder ran through the crowd.
‘The beast that stalks the forest is cunning. I tracked it through the night, seeking its lair. Unfortunately, I was too late. It had already seized its prey.’
The crowd gasped.
‘In vain I tried to slay the beast and save the lad’s life,’ declared Sir Cuthbert, a little of the old theatricality returning to his voice. ‘But alas, my sword failed me.’ He lifted up his broken blade. Freya’s blade.
People whispered angrily while Freya ground her teeth, forcing herself to remain silent. Now was not the time to argue about her craftsmanship.
‘I ask you, good people, to remain vigilant. Keep your children indoors and do not let them out of your sights. But do not fear. I have acquired a new blade, and shall go out this night to destroy the beast once and for all.’
There was a smattering of appreciative applause, and the knight bowed low and left, followed by the mayor. As the door of the town hall shut behind them, Freya felt the attention of the onlookers shift uncomfortably back to her. She tried to avoid their eyes and make a quick exit, but someone blocked her path.
The face of the cobbler’s wife was ashen, as if a vampyr had come in the night and drained her half dry. She jabbed a spidery finger into Freya’s side.
‘You should be ashamed’ she snarled, with surprising vigour for a woman so pale. ‘Turning up here like this.’
‘I-Inga,’ Freya stammered, cheeks flaming. ‘The blade was good, I-’
‘I don’t care about no stinking blade.’ She dug her finger in harder. ‘Your boys killed my son. They took him out at night and now…’ Her voice broke and she began to sob.
Freya burned hot with shame. She knew this was coming. She’d known. And yet, even in her darkest fears, she hadn’t imagined it would be like this.
She fled through the crowd, hostile eyes following her. She did not care. All she could think of was the bloody cloak.
The two boys were sitting by the fire when she reached home. They were oddly silent and did not look up when Freya approached them.
‘You weren’t at Farmer Jacob’s last night, were you?’
Neither Ed nor Bert said a word. You could have heard a pin drop.
‘Thomas is dead.’ The words echoed around the walls. ‘Ripped apart by some… beast. And you led him there.’
Ed and Bert stared into the flames. Silence sucked the air from the room.
‘You have one chance to tell me what happened. Speak.’
It was Ed who told her. His voice was quiet and hoarse, deadened of life.
‘Sir Cuthbert gave us some money for looking after his horse, so me, Bert and Thomas thought we’d go to the fair. We snuck out late at night while everyone was asleep. We didn’t think we’d be gone long – it’s only a couple of miles through the forest...
‘But there was something wrong. All the old paths were overgrown and we kept walking and walking. Ended up going round it circles. Thomas started saying we’d done it on purpose. Said we were too chicken to go too far in the forest.’
‘We decided to scare him,’ said Bert, his voice oddly high.
‘That’s right. Only scare him.’ Ed picked at a scab on his arm. ‘We ran on ahead and hid behind a tree, waiting for Thomas. Only he never came.’
Ed turned to face his mother. His skin was ashen, and there were dark rings around his eyes.
‘There was this horrible noise,’ he said. ‘A sort of growling. And then we heard this… this cry… it wasn’t human.’
Bert’s hands balled into fists, his knuckles turning white.
‘We started running.’ Ed took a deep breath. ‘We ran and never stopped. We found our way out of the forest. And it was only then we realised that Thomas – that Thomas wasn’t-’
Bert began to cry, great gulping tears like a baby. Ed’s face was ghastly pale, the face of a ghost. He held onto his weeping brother, looking like he might break himself at any moment.
Freya took a deep breath. She knew she had to say something. Yet try as she might, she could not utter any words of comfort. All she could think of was the blood-stained cloak.
‘Go pack your things,’ she said at last. ‘We leave at dawn.’
Freya sat in the smithy, staring at the pieces of metal on the walls. Making them had brought her so much joy and purpose. All useless now.
The thought of leaving everything she and her husband had built for a life of anonymous toil in the southern cities made her want to weep. Yet what choice did she have? She could hardly stay here, in a town that hated her. No one would buy a piece from her again. Besides, what would happen to the boys?
At the thought of Ed and Bert, Freya felt a harsh pang of guilt. She had been too hard on them. Yes, they had been stupid and reckless going into the forest at night, but aren’t all lads foolhardy at their age? It wasn’t as if they could have killed the beast themselves.
She walked back into the house. ‘Ed? Bert? Are you all packed?’
Silence answered her. She ought not to be anxious, she told herself. They had probably just gone out to get something.
She wandered around the town for some time, hoping to spot them loitering in one of their usual spots. All the doors were locked and even the inn was closed. It was if the town was under a siege.
‘Ed!’ Freya felt her voice crack a little. ‘Bert!’
After exhausting all other possibilities, she found herself outside Farmer Jacob’s house. The sunlight began to fade, but she could still make out the sheep Ed had marked, tied to a post with a piece of string.
She hammered on the farmer’s door. After some time, she heard a bolt pull back.
‘What in all hells are you doing here?’ Farmer Jacob knotted his bushy brows.
‘My boys. Have you seen them?’
‘Oh, I saw them all right. Pah!’ He spat on the ground. ‘They wanted a cart but I sent them packing. Good riddance to those good-for-nothings.’
Freya bit down her impatience. ‘Do you know where they were going?’
‘Not my business.’ Farmer Jacob shrugged. ‘But they said they’d be going through the forest.’
Freya’s heart thudded in her chest. ‘You’re certain?’
‘Of course I’m certain. Now go away.’ The old man slammed the door in her face.
For a moment, Freya stock still. The boys out there all alone, with that monster… she wanted to sink to the ground and scream. But it wouldn’t do any good. She had to act now, before it was too late.
Freya ran back to the smithy and grabbed the only weapon she owned, the first sword she’d ever made. It was short and far less grand looking than the blade she’d made for the knight, but it would do.
If a knight couldn’t kill the beast, what makes you think you can?
Ignoring her doubts, she searched for a wooden box containing her only valuables. The knight’s coins were still there, along with a small silver ring, crafted by her husband.
A spot of silver is better than a pot of gold, he used to say, in his more nonsensically romantic moments.
She put it on, feeling a brief comfort. Then she took the knight’s bag of money and went out into the night.
It wasn’t far to the cobbler’s house. She dropped the bag of money outside the door, knocked, and hurried to the town gates, the sword hilt pressing into her side. The town guards allowed her to leave with little resistance, their frightened eyes fixed on the darkness beyond.
Freya strode out boldly, feigning a confidence she did not feel. The forest path started off straight and well-trod but soon diverted into smaller, narrower tributaries. She chose each fork by instinct, hoping that it was right. She called out Ed and Bert names over and over, until her voice hurt. The trees thickened as she walked, their trunks broadening. The only light she had was a lantern, which she held aloft as she walked. It cast creeping shadows over the path. Little insects buzzed near her, attracted to the flame. Something flitted past her shoulder and she almost dropped the lantern, but it was only a bat.
‘Do not allow yourself to fear,’ she told herself. ‘If you fear, you will never find them.’
But fear had already snuck into her chest and lodged itself, like a fat spider in a lair. She gripped the lantern tightly, praying the candle would not gutter out. Twigs touched her hair, and brambles clung to the hem of her long coarse dress. She wished by all the gods that she had a pair of man’s breeches.
The quiet noises of the forest were the only answer. Her boots squelched on damp leaf mulch. Trees pressed into her, forcing her to stoop and bend and at one time squeeze sideways.
I’ve gone the wrong way. I’ll never find them here. Perhaps they never came to the forest at all and went home.
She gritted her teeth. These were cowardly, wishful thoughts, her mind’s attempt to lure her into giving up.
A twig snapped. She whirled round, seeing nothing. The shadows beyond her ring of lantern light seemed immense and solid, and yet…
She ran. Branches knocked into her and thorns scratched her skin, as if trying to pull her back. Her feet flew across the damp forest floor, dodging every tree root. She sprinted blindly in the darkness, almost dropping the lantern, but she held on. Suddenly the trees thinned and she found herself in a small round glade. In the centre was a makeshift shelter, and the remains of a fire.
Freya whipped round. She couldn’t see anything in the trees, but she was certain the creature was still on her tail.
‘Stay back!’ she called out to the shelter. ‘A beast is coming!’
No one responded. Either the shelter was abandoned, or the person inside was too sleepy, afraid or stubborn to talk. It did not matter. She was ready to fight alone.
The ring felt warm on her finger, as if the sun had shone upon it. All at once, the forest began to sway and groan. A sharp wind whipped past her, its direction changing.
Freya held her sword aloft. It occurred to her how little she knew of real fighting, how unskilled and unprepared she was. She recalled Sir Cuthbert’s broken sword.
But still, her sword arm remained steady.
An inhuman roar rattled the trees as the beast burst into the clearing, leaping forwards on all fours. The creature’s grey fur was thickly matted with blood. Yellow fangs protruded from its powerful jaws and its chill blue eyes fixed on Freya with hellish malevolence.
Freya swung her sword in the air. ‘Go on then,’ she bellowed. ‘Come and get me!’
The beast did not attack, but nor did it retreat. It eyed Freya with suspicion, its furry back arched. Freya noticed the frightening curves of its great black claws, and imagined them carving through her flesh like a hot knife in butter. The beast swished its stubby tail and crouched down, readying to spring. Freya’s silver ring began to burn, and she held her sword hilt so tight she thought her fingers might break.
Something rustled in the trees. Freya and the beast looked round as one as Ed and Bert emerged on the other side of the clearing, crude slingshots in their hand. They stared at the monster in disbelief and horror.
‘Run,’ Freya screamed. ‘Run!’
Quick as a whip, the boys obeyed, disappearing into the trees. Freya made a clumsy slash at the beast, but missed. She cursed as it dived back into the forest. She had to catch it quickly. She had to pray Ed and Bert had the sense to stay out of its way.
Freya made quick pursuit, but the beast proved frighteningly fast. She lost sight of it almost instantly, yet caught signs of it everywhere: scratched trees, broken branches and a stench that reminded her simultaneously of wet hound and corrupt meat. She followed the trail of destruction, thankful that there were no signs of blood.
As she rounded a bend in the path, Freya heard something groan. A lightning shudder ran through her, and she readied the sword, glancing about in the poor light for the source of the sound.
‘Help … me…’
Freya lifted the lantern with her free hand. The man lying before her did not seem terribly injured. His clothes were torn, and he had no hat, and he made a moaning noise when she touched him, but she was able to pull him to his feet without much difficulty.
The trembling mayor gripped her hand. Any sense of dignity had long been stripped from him. ‘H-he’s a m-monster, Freya,’ he babbled. ‘A m-monster.’
She shook him off. ‘I know there’s a monster. Which way did it go?’
He pointed right, towards the town. ‘Oh gods, Freya.’ The man pressed a hand against his face, muddy with earth from the forest floor. ‘We’re done for.’
Freya had no time to console the man. They had to get to town, as fast as possible.
Despite his shattered mental state and torn clothes, the mayor proved physically uninjured enough to run. They sped through the forest, the path growing wider as they got closer to town. As the clouds above them parted, she could make out footprints in the light of the newly exposed moon. The prints were larger than a bear’s and looked extremely fresh.
Freya began to sprint. They were almost at the town and they still hadn’t seen the beast, but it was close. Perhaps they might make it.
She skidded to a halt, the lamp in her hand dropping to the floor. Six guards lay dead in front of the town gate, their corpses mutilated. Several had been split down the middle, their entrails half devoured. Others had gnawn off faces or holes in their necks, the ground beneath them soaked in dark blood. The stench was overwhelming and yet she found herself salivating, as if it were a hog roast instead of a massacre.
The mayor staggered towards a bush and threw up copiously. Then he sank to his knees and began to mutter prayers, forming signs with his hands that had no hope of saving either of them.
Freya’s hand tightened around her blade. Every instinct told her to pull back, to abandon this hopeless fight. Her knees weakened.
And then she heard a boy screaming.
For a second, she forgot how to breathe. Her heart pounded, jackrabbit fast. An inhuman rage sang through her, powerful and terrible and strong.
She hammered on the gate. No one came to open it, because the guards were all dead. Behind her, the mayor remained on his knees, murmuring prayers.
Freya didn’t have time for the gods to answer. ‘Keys. Now!’
The mayor’s eyes flew open, wide with shock, but lucid. Freya snatched the keys from the chain around his neck and opened the gate, cursing all officials and their cowardice.
‘I’m coming,’ she bellowed into the night, throwing open the gate and running into the town. Her chest constricted, lungs molten with effort. But she could not slow. She had to get there, before the beast killed her sons.
Because it had to be her sons. The gods would not have allowed it otherwise. This was her punishment, for her arrogance, for disrupting the order of things. For letting her children go into the dark alone.
‘Curse you,’ she spat with her last remaining breath, not sure whether she was talking to the gods or the beast or herself.
The sound led her to the market square. The beast stood hind legged, lit by moonlight, its eyes fixed upon its next victim. A quavering boy stood with his back pressed against a cart, the body of his dead father lay slumped next to him. Several other corpses lay scattered across the square, torn apart with hideous ferocity.
The boy, the butcher’s son, stopped screaming at the sight of Freya. He could only stare open mouthed, paralysed with terror, as the creature threw back its head and made a dreadful cry that chilled to bone.
But Freya had no time for terror. She was livid.
She charged at the animal, her sword bouncing off the beast’s back as if it were made of plate armour. But blow was enough to make it turn its head, which was enough. She slashed at its hateful blue eyes, praying her aim would stay true.
Her luck held. The beast made a guttural moan and fell on all fours, shaking its head wildly. Blood spurted in all directions as the boy fled to one of the houses. A hand snatched him, pulling him inside to safety and slamming the door tight shut.
He’s safe. At least the boy is safe.
The beast roared and stomped its clawed foot. It sniffed the air and raised its head towards Freya, snapping at the empty air with its vile jaws.
‘I’m over here! Come and kill me!’
The beast howled and went for her with a bound that was more like flying than leaping. Freya held out her sword, ready to slice at the underbelly. It was her only hope.
She did not react quickly enough. The beast slammed her to the ground, its huge black claws digging deep into her shoulders. She bit back a cry and tried to move her sword arm, but it was no use. She was helpless under its weight. The stench of human blood dripping from its jaws made her want to vomit. She struggled desperately, trying to unpin her arm and stab at the creature’s stomach.
The jaws widened. If she wasn’t mistaken, she would have sworn the thing was smiling.
The cry it gave before it gave the killing blow was long and triumphant. She hoped the beast would be sated with her blood, and yet she had a horrifying feeling that her death would only wet its sickened appetite. This creature did not kill from fear, or wrath, or hunger like an ordinary beast. It delighted in it.
How like a human, she thought, shutting her eyes and waiting to die.
The cry ended suddenly, followed by a yelp. She felt the heavy weight lifting as the beast jumped off her and fell onto its back, writing in agony.
‘There’s more where that came from!’ hooted a pair of familiar voices, and Freya looked up, her breath catching.
Ed and Bert were sitting on the town hall roof, armed with sling shots. Bert was pulling rings off the mayor’s silver chain with a pair of crude pliers, while Ed was pinging them down at the shrieking monster.
Freya looked down at her hand, the one without a sword. The silver metal of the ring winked at her, just like her husband might have.
She tipped the silver into her palm. Then, with a swing of her arm, she hurled it into the beast’s open mouth.
The creature cried out in unearthly pain. It clawed at its own throat, desperate to dislodge the silver, but the ring was stuck fast. The animal rolled around desperately, pathetically, like a dog itching the fleas on its back. It wheezed, couched and retched. Then, with a final judder, it fell still.
There was a moment of deep silence, when all of mankind holds its breath. With some trepidation, Freya reached over and poked it in the neck with her sword. It did not move. She poked it again. The beast remained completely still.
‘It’s all right,’ she called out. ‘It’s dead.’
It was another full minute before the first door creaked open. An old man poked his head out, a candle in one hand and a poker in the other.
‘Truly dead?’ he croaked.
Freya kicked the beast hard. ‘Dead as mutton,’ she announced.
Other doors began to open. A small crowd gathered round Freya, their frightened, curious eyes fixed on the dead animal. Several raised their hands heavenwards, and gave prayers of thanks.
‘You saved him, you saved my little’un.’
The butcher’s wife embraced Freya in an unwilling bearhug, weeping openly. Freya’s face grew hot and red under the adoration. She’d preferred it when everyone despised her.
Freya ducked out of the woman’s arms and ran towards her children. She hugged them tightly, determined to never let go.
‘Ma, get off.’
‘You’re being embarrassing.’
Freya let go, blinking back the burning tears. ‘What were you thinking, running away like that? I was so worried.’
‘We thought we’d make our own fortune,’ said Bert, scratching his ear.
‘So you’d be proud of us and forget what we’d done,’ added Ed, scraping the ground with his boot.
Freya hugged them close again. ‘Forgive me boys,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll always love you and be proud of you, no matter-’
‘The beast!’ screamed a woman. ‘The beast is moving!’
Everyone leapt back. Freya pushed Ed and Bert behind her, readying her sword. Those with enough sense pointed their weapons at the creature, while those with more fled back to their homes and used what little they had to barricade the door.
The beast’s whole body shook violently as if possessed, its tail slapping the cobble stones. The long snout and ears shrank back, the fur retracting back into the skin. The tail disappeared into its back and the sharp claws receded into dirty nails. A crop of dark fine hair exploded on its head.
At last, a naked man lay on the ground for all to see, his eyes bloodied. His fine limbs were scratched and scarred, and his manful chest caked in blood, but his expression was peaceful, an angel dreaming a pleasant dream.
Sir Cuthbert rolled over in his sleep, naked and unashamed as a babe. Freya grabbed Bert’s cloak and threw it over the man. The townsfolk stared down at the sleeping knight, speechless with disbelief.
‘It can’t be,’ someone muttered. ‘It can’t be true.’
‘Oh, but it is.’
The mayor pushed his way through the crowd. He seemed to have recovered his wits and pushed Freya to one side.
‘Good people, I saw it with my own eyes. We were hunting the beast in the woods when this man transformed into a monster, murdering my escort. Fortunately, I fended him off single handed.’
A low mutter swept through the crowd. Freya resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
‘Now, citizens, do not fear. I, your mayor, shall-’
But no one was listening. An argument had already broken out about the best way to destroy the monster. Some advocated burning. Others were keen on drowning. Still others thought he should be hanged, and his body cut in four and scattered to the winds. No one seemed to agree what kind of creature he was, which was half the problem. Warlock, said some. Devil, said others. Still others declared with great confidence that he was a changeling, a shapeshifter who could not be killed by physical means and required the work of a specialist priest.
While the argument raged, the hapless mayor waved his arms around and called for calm.
‘Please, good people,’ he shouted. ‘We must have a trial before-’
With a groan, Sir Cuthbert sat up. The crowd backed away, raising their makeshift weapons or making signs against evil.
‘Where am I? Why am I not in bed?’ He turned his head. ‘Mayor, is that you?’
He reached out a hand and the mayor jumped back, making a sign. ‘Get away from me, devil.’
Sir Cuthbert exploded with rage. ‘How dare you speak to me like that, you impenitent swine. I am a knight of the realm!’
The mayor yelped like a kicked dog. Sir Cuthbert took a deep breath and recovered himself.
‘What I mean to say is,’ He forced a smile. ‘While I understand this is all some sort of… high spirited jape, I must ask you to cease this charade and remove my blindfold at once.’
‘Of course, Sir Cuthbert, but…’
‘There is no blindfold.’
The mayor spun round. Old Farmer Jacob had moved to the front of the crowd, and was leaning on his pitchfork.
‘There’s no point hiding it. He has to find out sooner or later.’
Tentatively, the knight reached up, groping at the bloody mess where his eyes should have been. He began to scream like a babe ripped from its mother’s hands. He cried out to the gods, promising anything and everything, if only they’d give him back his eyes.
A fierce lump rose in Freya’s throat. She had to do it, she reasoned. And yet, looking at this ruin of a man, half naked and bawling, made her insides burn.
The cloak she had draped on him slipped a little as he railed, revealing his bare chest. Five dark lines were etched in deep, long healed but still visible. The sight of them made her wince, and she reached instinctively for the wound in her shoulder. The deep claw marks pulsed with a deep, sickening pain.
Something twitched in her stomach, a gnawing pit that would never be sated. Her lips salivated with primal hunger. She heard howling in her ears, a piercing shriek of savage joy.
And then the moment passed. The clouds parted and Freya saw the moon, hanging with the sun in the sky. Light and darkness, held within a hair’s breadth.
‘Ma, are you ill?’
Freya shook her head. The crowd, held by the spell of Sir Cuthbert’s despair, wouldn’t stay still much longer. Soon the bloodbath would begin, and there would be no stopping it. Something inside her itched for it to happen, revelling in the oncoming violence. But she shoved it down.
Whatever was in her blood, she would fight it. She would fight it with every last breath. She had good reason to.
Freya turned to her sons, watching expectantly.
‘Time to go home, boys,’ she said.
And she put her arms around them, and led them away from the oncoming storm.