by Brian G. Ross
Several cycles ago my wife Carpathia went to the market to gather supplies for the long, incumbent winter, but by nightfall she had not returned. By daybreak her side of the bed was still cold, and I feared the worst.
For many moons thereafter I searched the plains until my feet bled, and called her name until my throat hurt, but I neither saw her nor heard from her again.
The villagers were quick to blame the Beast for my misfortune as they did for every other disappearance in the land, but I did not share their conviction. My wife was gone, but I could not seriously lay her fate at the door of a ghost. I would rather admit she had abandoned me than accept I had lost her to a myth.
Even so, sometimes, despite my better judgement, I too cursed the Creature.
The worst had come to pass—
—but I was not alone in my pain.
Everyone in the valley had a loss to speak of—be it real, imagined, exaggerated, or a combination of all three—but the only people brazen enough to claim they had actually seen the beast were either drunk, crazy, or both.
“He’s ten footings high, I tell you. A bigger animal I’ve never seen.” Jurgenson was always looking for attention. He was one of the Low People from over in the Dark Country, but small even by their standards. Everybody looked that tall to him.
“He has six eyes,” Bartholomew said, another tankard of warm ale between himself and reason. “And four, no five arms. The foulest smell you could ever imagine.” He took another hefty swig.
To me at least, the creature’s existence was just a dusty old legend, steeped in blood and shrouded with foggy details. It was nothing more than the product of a thousand furtive imaginations; designed by over-protective parents and brought out every now and then to scare the young ones into eating their greens and going to bed when they should.
The campfire tale had been around in one form or another for a dozen generations or more: for as long as there had been someone to tell it and someone to listen. Every telling of it was a little different from the last, depending on whoever was spinning and whoever was being spun the yarn at the time, but regardless of the audience there were always claws and fangs; always eyes like burning pools of fire, and a roar like the depths of Hades itself.
I can still remember the first time my father told me about it—over ginger beer and toasted marshmallows. I was just a child. His eyes were bright with the flame of invention, and I watched him through a web of frightened fingers as he wove the tapestry before me.
When I was a little older and wiser he discussed the first time his father had told him, which had been under predictably similar circumstances.
“No smoke without fire, son.” my father had said, somewhat cryptically. “You best be remembering that, lest you want to find yourself just another chapter in the never-ending story.” His eyes were cast downwards and he grabbed my arm as if to back up his words.
It was this conversation I recalled last evening, as the sun was setting over the dirty teeth of the Shin-Too Mountains.
As I counted my catch for the day on the banks of the Yan Low River, my thoughts swimming between my lost wife Carpathia and our dear daughter Annaka, I watched the beginnings of a shape rise out of the twilight mist and make steady progress in my direction. It moved slowly but definitely—a shadow with purpose—but was still perhaps three or four lengths distant and in no way an immediate threat.
Dropping the basket I picked up my hatchet which lay nearby, waiting to see if the mysterious shape would come any closer, but instead of moving towards me it vanished behind the far-away shelf of Copper Ridge as quickly as it had appeared. For the longest time I stayed perfectly still and slowly let out my breath, which until then I did not know I had been holding.
I rubbed my closed eyes and shook my head to clear my mind and regain some semblance of perspective. The shape did not have the diaphanous qualities of an hallucination, but at the same time it did not seem substantive enough to have been real. When I opened my eyes again the world was darker, and I still was not sure what I had or had not seen.
I took my day’s work home and, after a troubled slumber in which I could not shake the image of whatever I had seen last night, awoke with the sun this morning. I pushed the sweat-damp sheets to my feet and got out of bed, wondering if there was perhaps more truth to the stories than I had believed.
With a reflective and heavy heart I ate breakfast alone, hoping not to disturb Annaka while she slept. Finished, I cleared away the dishes and picked up my bag of flints, but when I reached the front door she was already there.
“Where are you headed this day, Father?” She had been crying. She pushed a sleepy strand of hair away from her eyes.
I smiled bitterly. “Do not ask and I will not have to lie.”
I sighed. “There is something I must do, Annaka.” I turned away from her, but no matter where I looked, those red-rimmed eyes were burned into my soul.
“It is early yet. Stay on a little. Breakfast with me.”
“I have already eaten.”
She placed a soft hand against my chest. “What is so important it cannot wait?”
I brought her into my arms and folded myself around her. For a long time I said nothing. It was all I could do to simply hold her without breaking down. “I have to go to Broken Rock,” I said finally. I dared the tears to fall but they did not. “I saw something last night, due west.”
Annaka pulled away from me sharply. “We have been over this a thousand times already. It has been three whole cycles since mother disappeared. She is dead. You have to move on. I have.”
“Move on, I shall. But only when I know the truth.” I reached for her hand and placed a thumb over her knuckles. “She may well be dead, but I have to be sure.”
“You were just going to leave without saying goodbye?”
“This?” Annaka produced the quickly scribbled note I had left by her bed. “This is how you tell me you are walking out? Giving up?”
I hung my head. “You do not understand.”
“I understand that you are leaving me. What more is there?” She crumpled the piece of paper and threw it on the floor. “Broken Rock is a death-trap. You will not return alive.”
I shrugged. “If I do not make it back, know that I love you more than anything else in this world, and that I am doing this for both of us.” I grabbed my crude tools and stepped past Annaka into the sharp morning light. “I have made provisions for you. You will be well looked after, whatever happens.”
“I don’t want to be looked after, Father. I want you to stay.”
“We don’t always get what we want, Annaka. In time you will learn this.” I kissed her once upon each cheek and my lips hesitated as they brushed her brow. “But if we never try, we will never know.”
“Please don’t go.”
I slung the canvas bag over my shoulder, offered her a thin-lipped resignation, and turned my back on my daughter for the first time in my life.
The warmth of the morning swallowed me, and I was glad when I reached the bottom of the valley, for then I could no longer hear my daughter’s cries. I knew her sobs would haunt me for many nights to come, but for this brief moment at least, my world was silent.
I picked up the dusty trail that led towards the Shin-Too Mountains and then, with only the watchful eye of the Great Sun to judge me, I finally allowed myself to cry.
Brian is a thirty-something Australian, based in Scotland. He has over one hundred publications – ranging from humour (Defenestration) to horror (Murky Depths), mystery (FMAM) to mainstream (Every Day Fiction), and everything in between. His work also appears in several paperback anthologies, including the Read by Dawn series, The One That Got Away, and Damnation & Dames. You can follow him at www.briangrantross.com