They buried her sister Fiona three days later, two days later than custom and religion said they must. The men had their mewling and other such craven bleating to attend. Men? If they could be called that. Even now, every pious and decent one of them sat before the shroud that contained her dear sister’s broken and lifeless husk, being preached at about the Walking God, the god who lived amongst them, by an asinine ape of a preacher the Gheet had insisted they hire.
Deirdre hardly could stand it. The stone of the church strangled and smothered her, the cloy and meaningless words of the minister choked her, and the filthy complacency of their so-called friends and family … her own family. She couldn’t breathe. Knowing what was beneath that shroud, she couldn’t breathe. Every shuffle, every cough, every impatient voice-clearing was a profanity. The senseless droning of a feckless, treasonous minister was a heresy.
What use were such words? No one had done anything.
She couldn’t breathe.
The neutered and spineless township trustees had boasted they’d gone to the local Gheet baron, and afterward they’d bragged of having been awarded wergild. In truth, they’d left the baron’s keep with three ducats, the price of a sheep, no doubt grateful they’d quit the place without a swift kick in the pants, the usual reward for troubling his lordship with “idle gossip” of rape and murder. Not even shame had kept the township worthies from crowing it was the price of a prize sheep. Her sister. Her sister. Her best friend. A sheep.
She couldn’t breathe.
Twice her mother had reached for her hand from where she sat in the pew next to her, hoping to calm Deirdre and to settle her writhing and twisting. What will the neighbors think? The same neighbors who had stood by impotent and now couldn’t wait to get out of the church, to get away from the lifeless young woman whose death so shamed them, to get away from their annoyance and their utter guilt.
She couldn’t breathe.
She couldn’t, she couldn’t … she couldn’t. By a power not her own, she found herself rising and walking the few paces to her sister’s remains. She couldn’t breathe, her throat so choked and frozen with emotion that not a word could come out. But when she went to speak, words burst from her like a thunderclap.
“Damn you all straight to Hell!!!” shouted a quavering voice she scarcely recognized. “You miserable, spineless curs! You men who are less than women! Less than children! Cower in your homes! Tremble in fear! It’s all you’re fit for! They hunt us like animals, they use us for sport, and you … you do … nothing!”
Her father, mortified, stood and approached her. It was as nothing to her that a man she’d loved and feared her entire life now, in anger, sought to corral and silence her.
A madwoman possessed her.
“And now you pray to this useless god. Where is he?! He’s supposed to walk among us. Where is he?! You worship at an altar led by a priest who sucks the tit of the men who murder us. False priest, false god, false men!! Damn the cowards of Edwin Township straight to Hell!”
An iron grip seized her right shoulder, and she lashed out with all her might. The shocked look on her father’s face as he stepped away moved her not at all. It was too late.
“And damn you, you miserable man,” she spat at him, her voice still choked with rage. “I’ll have what’s mine. I’ll have my vengeance. I’m going to the Fiend!”
Deirdre fled through the church doors and made a hard right for the trail to the upper meadow. She’d never before been to the barrow, but everyone knew where it was. It was the place in the far distant woods to which no one ever ventured. None who still lived had ever seen the Fiend that lived there, but it was known without dispute that was its lair. Three wretched souls in Deirdre’s fourteen years, fools all, had taken the journey, had travelled to Blackwood Barrow, a place only the most desperate or pathetic dared.
None had returned.
Three years before, the affianced of Deirdre’s murdered brother, Beleric, had been the last. For three days, an armed group from the township had scoured the woods around the barrow looking for sweet Twila Gandy. The men hadn’t the nerve to seek justice for Beleric, but they’d at least searched for the girl. It had been the last act of courage in Edwin Township.
Deirdre continued at a run as she passed the upper meadow. Her long and strong legs propelled her through the dense copses where the timbermen worked, past the wooded hummocks where the crofters foraged, and into the Blackwood where only the hunters dared go.
By that time, the thicket had slowed her to a walk, but her entire course had been beset by the water that streamed from her eyes and the heaving sobs that racked her grieving body. The past was gone, everything was dead and gone, and she could never return.
Many was the silent night she’d lain awake wondering what had become of Twila, whether the Fiend had dragged her to Hell, or bandits had made off with her. Only Fiona’s warm and loving reassurances in the bed they’d shared had comforted her. Now, all gone.
So, she continued on her path, which by that time had narrowed to a faint trace leading ever northward into the hills.
It wasn’t clear how much time had passed when she stumbled upon a faint clearing in the forest. Her stomach rumbled, and the sun seemed near its zenith, but she hadn’t thought to bring anything to eat. She continued onward into the clearing that appeared to be some sort of footpath, one far wider than necessary for the passing of game.
It was only when she made the third turn along the winding way that she was accosted by a voice.
“May I help you?”
The deep and buttery voice had come so abruptly that she leapt in the air, and now a tense and trembling Deirdre peered into the shade of the nearby wood to determine its source. At first, there was nothing. And then she discerned — or she thought she discerned — a figure near the bole of a large maple at ten paces distant. She dared not go closer but instead sidestepped for a better angle and peered more closely.
“What brings you up into the Blackwood?” the voice intoned in the deepest bass. “I don’t often get visitors out this way.”
The new words sent another jolt through her, but soon after, her eyes focused, and she made out the shape of what could only be the ugliest and dirtiest little man she’d ever seen. He squatted on his heels just inside the shade of the maple and regarded her carefully.
She moved to speak, and nothing came out. Was this some vagrant? A highwayman in the hills who preyed on the lost and the desperate? The villain seemed filthy enough to do most anything, and his voice was … there was a cream, a honey, a smoothness to it that set her nerves on edge.
“I …,” she finally managed to spit out. She otherwise stood trembling while twisting and wringing her fingers in front of her, as if that act might ward off some menace. “My … m …,” she tried to continue, uncertain what to say, if anything. The man seemed small, and she was a swift runner. The mere thought of running caused her muscles to bunch for just that purpose.
But before she could think to bolt away, the man leaned forward and stood erect to his full height. In two strides, he stood in the path before her, and he was simply gigantic, at least half again as tall as the tallest man in the township and equally lean and powerful. What had seemed dirt and soil upon his flesh now appeared to have been an illusion, as thorough as his sudden change in size, for his skin was mottled and dark, colored in shades of black, grey, and sickly blue. His eyes … his eyes were jaundiced orbs, and there was no hiding his teeth. Even with a mouth half-closed, the tips of grisly canines were visible top and bottom.
Deirdre’s sturdy farm legs betrayed her, and she soon found herself supine on the ground, where a horrid smell assaulted her.
She’d soiled herself.