The Horror of Dagon Hill
Its face was a burlap sack, as far as anyone could tell. It appeared one morning atop Dagon Hill, silhouetted by the rising sun. Tall as the saplings on the Feywood’s edge, it loomed over the village of Doolin, watching. The farmer’s wife asked him if he built it there to scare away the crows. He told her, “No.” The brewer moved his kegs to the far side of his cottage, away from the shape’s shadow, and complained of bad luck. The innkeep’s daughter confided in every man who would listen how the figure made her shiver like a maid. As the day drew on, children slipped away from their chores to gather on the slope beneath it–wide-eyed, wondering–though none of them dared venture close enough to find out what it was for certain.
“It’s a jape, my brother said, to scare the little ones,” the boy with black hair told the others. He looked like a Westerner, like a knight too proud to back down from a challenge, so the others teased him. City people oft were lost forever in the woods on errant quests. The boy with black hair carried that same pride, but true borderfolk knew better than to venture too far from their hamlet homes.
“Why don’t you challenge it, then, Sir,” said the barefoot girl. She stooped to pry a stone up from the dirt. “Then the babes will call you hero.”
“The Warrior of Doolin,” an older girl laughed. “They’ll make songs for you with a name like that.” She climbed up onto the overturned cart and sat there, swinging her legs. Though now this was a place of play where children climbed and danced, long ago, in a wicked storm, fey raged so furiously their howling drove some mules into a frenzy. As the story went, two cart-beasts knocked their driver from his seat and all three unfortunate creatures were dragged into the Feywoods. The barefoot girl remembered, as her mother told it, come spring some loggers found the man inside a tree, curled up and full of worms, with his face misshapen like a gourd. That scared her, but the sun was high and there were no stormclouds in sight, and if the fey were angry, surely they would scream. “The birdfolk put it there,” said the older girl. “They have their ways. And like we use straw men to scare off birds, they made their own to frighten us.” The older girl was smart. “Omies laugh at strange things.”
Another child, Merin, shoved the black-haired boy forward. “Go take its cloak. You can wear it as a mantle when you’re knighted.”
“Don’t,” said the barefoot girl. She squinted up at the scarecrow’s silhouette. With the sun behind it, shining through the forest canopy, it loomed black as a shadow. The sticks that were its fingers stretched for trunks nearby, as though to brace it in the wind–but a breeze swept through the leaves, and the scarecrow stood still. Though gales whipped the children’s hair about their faces, not even the shade’s coattails swayed. The black-haired boy frowned at her. She tore her gaze from the hilltop to scowl back. “It’s too close to the woods.” Her grip tightened around the stone in her hand.
“It was you who said he ought to challenge it,” said Merin.
“What, then? I don’t wish him to get snatched, to put us all in wicked trouble.”
The older girl laughed at that. “Fey aren’t out right now. It’s not yet Seldarine’s moon.” The barefoot girl shuddered. “Or don’t you know the stories? If your mother loved you, she told you all the tales.”
“My mother loves me!” said the black-haired boy.
Merin laughed this time. “She’d love you more if you were brave. Go chop it down. Fetch the axe from the old man's woodpile.”
“Here,” said the barefoot girl, handing the black-haired boy her stone. “Throw things at it. See if it moves.” That would be safer. Good children knew not to venture too close to the treeline, Seldarine’s moon regardless. The black-haired boy studied her, perhaps to determine whether or not this gesture were some slight against his honor.
“If you can throw that far,” said the older girl from her perch, shading her eyes skeptically as she stared up the slope.
At that, the black-haired boy snatched the stone, and edged forward for a better view of his target. On spindly legs straighter than arrow shafts It stood, with arms outstretched, and fingers reaching like the twigs of a dying tree. It looked too rigid to be alive, the barefoot girl thought. She drew some comfort from that observation as The Little Knight prepared his throw. With a shout of exertion, he lobbed the rock. It soared upwards, and the barefoot girl lost sight of it in the sunlight. The other children held their breath. When it landed with a thud on the slope’s peak, at the feet of the monstrosity, they stared. No one dared move. They all stood as still as the scarecrow–until Merin folded his arms over his chest and remarked, “I knew it was nothing. You ought to have seen the fear on all your faces. For nothing. Omani put it there, or else some bitter ballock with an ill type humor.”
The black-haired boy grabbed a rotten Dagon apple from the hill’s base, and pitched it up after his stone. “Like Old Alby!” he laughed. The wind blew fair, and his second shot soared truer than his first. The apple arced in the sun and came down to splatter mush across the figure’s chest.
It opened its eyes.
Its eyes were on fire.
The older girl leapt off the cart. Merin made a noise like a choking cat. They ran. All of them ran. The barefoot girl tore off through the meadow and down the path and never looked back. She thought she heard The Little Knight’s footsteps behind her, but could not slow her pace to check. It might be the monster. It might be the shade. She ran and she ran, nearly colliding with a farmer and his buggy full of chickens. He shouted at her as she passed, but his words were wind. She fled and never felt pebbles scraping at her soles, or branches clawing at her skin when she cut through the midtown copse. At the farmstead, her mother sat before the milk cow, tugging at its teats. She called to her, but got no answer. The barefoot girl never stopped until she reached their cabin, and shut the door behind her. There, she sank to the floor.
Later, when her mother came to find her in the kitchen, and scolded her, and asked her why she trembled, she could only shake her head. She went to bed by the fire, clutching a blanket to her chest, but never slept till dawn.
Winter came too quickly. No snow fell, but cold descended upon Doolin like a wicked spell. Old Alby said he knew this season well, that when he was a lad there came a bad and bitter winter after some old crone angered the gods with her divining, and thereby called down the hand of Despair upon them. The Suffering, the force the friars called Melzedek, would only be appeased by the death of a child. The farmer joked darkly how such a tragedy might spare him a good deal of trouble, as his eldest daughter had taken to her bed, and would not bestir herself even to help with her siblings.
“She need a husband,” said Old Alby. “Girls get that way at an age.” He gulped down some ale, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “You always been too easy on your brood.” The farmer shook his head, more in exasperation than disagreement. Old Alby shrugged and tongued his gums. Once, he had a full mouth of good teeth, and a smile as charming as a Western prince's. That was before a mule had spooked on the path to Borgild, and kicked him in the jaw for urging it on. The sharp chill of a gale through the tavern’s open door tore him from his memories. He stared as a shrouded figure crossed the threshold. Bundled up against the cold, the patron’s shape was difficult to discern. He might have been a stocky traveler; he might have been a shadowskin–and that made Old Alby nervous. “Too many strange folk passing through of late,” he grumbled.
“Aye,” agreed the farmer. “I’d not like to be at camp out in the wilds in this wind either.” Alby grunted. The stranger took a seat in the hall’s shadowed corner, and waited for a barmaid to attend him. While the farmer drained his mug, Old Alby heard the inkeep’s voice carry through the postern door. He stared back through the cups and bottles stacked behind the counter, and saw the silhouettes of several folk come in from the cold. One in particular, the dark-haired merchant who had settled here away from Western kin, looked to be heaving.
“Calm yerself,” Alby heard the inkeep say. “Breathe, will yeh. Yer gone purple.” The farmer set his drink aside and looked back too.
“My only ox. My ox!” The merchant stumbled forward, hand splayed over his chest. He came around the kegs behind the counter with sweat streaming down his face. “Leapt onto the fence!” he shrieked. “The border fence! Fence taller than a man! Posts stabbed straight through its belly. Out its back.” He clapped his hand over his mouth and sank down to the floor, eyes bulging. “Blood,” he breathed. “Blood everywhere.” A serving girl rushed over with the inkeep to help the merchant to his feet.
“Yeh can’t rest here, a mhac. Come on now. Tally, take the man up to a room. Fetch him some watered ale.” The serving girl pulled the merchant’s arm over her shoulder and turned for the stairs. Together with her charge, she lumbered across the hall, sounds of the merchant’s sobs ringing through the quiet. Everyone stared: the gathered drunks, the farmer, the shrouded stranger. Old Alby watched the newcomer instead. When the merchant and the maid reached the second landing, and their heads disappeared beyond the ceiling, the shrouded man slipped out the door, as quiet as a cat. A thump on the bar made both men jump. There the beefy inkeep stood, one fist upon the woodgrain, the other mopping his brow. “Get yeh anything, men?”
“No, not for me,” said the farmer. “I’ll have eggs for you tomorrow.”
“Aye, I’m done,” said Old Alby. The inkeep grunted as his guests rose to gather up their coats.
Up on top of Dagon Hill, the leaves were speckled gold. The barefoot girl had taken no notice of such things the day she came with the others to investigate the shade. She was too afraid. From a distance, though, from the safety of the path, The Horror’s perch looked almost lovely. It still stood there, tall as the young trees, thin as a sapling’s trunk. Its face was a burlap sack.
The barefoot girl chewed her lip. More and more she wondered if she had only imagined its blazing gaze, if fear had made her silly. From the meadow behind the cart, The Horror seemed to have no eyes at all. She crept closer, and wintry winds snapped at her cloak. Yestermorning, her parents spoke in low tones about an ox run through on the border fence south of the farmstead. They warned her not to venture there; her father had been stern. But they said nothing of Dagon Hill. Mirnday The Horror opened its eyes. Tornday an ox somehow slew itself on posts twice as tall as a man. Wexday the barefoot girl heard tell that Merin’s father’s pigs fled squealing into the forest. From what, she had a guess. Today, Thergday, her mother complained that the cow would not give milk, so she snuck away instead of washing clothes, to see if the scarecrow remained.
It stood atop the hill as tall as ever, staring without eyes over Doolin. The barefoot girl drew nigh the overturned cart, and stepped up on its hitch to peer around its rotting walls. The wood creaked beneath her weight, but then the world went silent. There at Dagon Hill, only The Horror and she stared one another down. She whispered a prayer to The Suffering, trembling as she spoke.
Take our tears and leave us
Settle in to drink our sorrow
Leech us and bereave us
But be gone upon the morrow
Take this offering of sadness
Take this offering of fear
And depart then with your Madness
To stay gone another year
The barefoot girl wept as she prayed, for her mother taught her that was the only way to appease Fog Melzedek. Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she made herself meek, singing to the wind. The Horror watched her.
It did have eyes.
It opened them wide.
The world was on fire.
Then, without a sound, it turned around. Its outstretched arms fell to its sides, and off it stalked into the Feywoods.
The barefoot girl opened her mouth to scream, but found there was no breath in her. As she whirled around to flee, she stumbled on the cart’s axle and fell into the grass. A rock caught her sweet head, and at the base of Dagon Hill, cradled her kindly while she bled.