The sun had sunk behind the castle’s hill, making way for the night that would always be known as the end of the Crosset Famine.
Darkness chased after the dozen men as they wound their way between leafless trees, batting away low-hanging branches and sloshing through muddy, half-melted snow. Crossbows and pitchforks jolted about on their backs, falling loose from makeshift rope harnesses.
Bailiff Johnsy’s plan was straightforward: Get the boy, and they get the food.
He didn’t give any directions for everything in between.
The only light came from a lamp held by the man in the lead, Draken Armorheim the Farmer. Most of the lamp’s oil had burned away while they were lost, and they must hurtle free of the forest before its last light flickered out. They couldn’t camp out and wait another night; there was no telling how many more of their children, women and elders would succumb to hunger during that night. No, it all ends tonight.
The lamplight fell upon a fallen tree lying squarely on their path, reaching up to Draken’s middle. Sighing in relief at the landmark, Draken carefully set his lamp on the log and prepared himself for the climb. He had just swung his first leg up over the curve of the trunk when commotion broke out down the line.
“Move it, pig! Or I’ll snap your neck-bone in half.”
The large, bald man way down the middle of the line snarled as he gave the leash another vicious yank. The fat little boy at the other end of the rope lurched forth, his muddied face contorting in pain as the leash’s noose tightened against his windpipe. Once he had regained his balance and his breath, he rearranged his features into a sneer.
“Spare me your empty threats. You need me alive to bargain with my father,” He challenged, his silvery eyes flickering with feigned bravado.
The hulking man with the leash smirked back. Hunkering down so he came eye-to-eye with his hostage, he whispered, his voice low and trembling with barely tempered fury.
“Your dead body will do as well—skinned, quartered, butchered then fried in lard scraped from the wall of your belly. First meal in weeks for my boys.”
“And also their last, Krulstaff!” Draken interrupted, hurriedly making his way to the pair, as the pudgy boy flinched and blanched in horror. Krulstaff’s attention snapped to Draken, and Draken told himself to stand firm as he locked eyes with the giant, explaining tensely.
“Chione isn’t even half done with us. We keep the boy safe here in Crosset, and his father will keep us all fed throughout winter. That’s the plan!”
Draken reminded his obstinate fellowman for what he felt was the umpteenth time. Krulstaff snorted, shaking his head. With one stride, he closed the distance between himself and Draken.
“Why don’t you give me that, Armorheim?” He spat, his spade-like hand grabbing unsuccessfully at the lamp. “Because unlike your son-of-a-whore in Meriton, my children are dying as you get us lost in this godforsaken forest!”
Krulstaff’s voice rose to a bellow. Draken went paper-white, livid. Seizing Krulstaff by the collar, he snarled,
“Don’t you dare—”
Before Krulstaff could retaliate, the other men hauled Draken away.
“He’s got a point, Draken.” One of the men concurred, indicating the sniffling boy with his pig-butchering knife. “We don’t need him awake. We can move faster with this potato sack on our backs than oozing down here.”
Draken glanced at Brodel the Butcher, and swallowed his anger as he remembered all that was at stake. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he gestured carelessly towards the boy.
“Cuff him one on the noggin—with the handle, mind. And give Krulstaff the blade if he doesn’t shut it about my son.” Giving the seething Krulstaff one last glare of pure hatred, he barked at the remaining men, “Move out!”
But before Brodel could even take one step towards the squealing captive, the sharp crack of a broken branch shot through the silence.
The men turned as one to stare into the dense wall of trees, where the noise originated. Crossbows raised and pointed in the same direction, they slowly backed away—then an arrow shot forth into the gloom from Krulstaff’s bow.
“Oh, for the love of—!” Draken’s feverish swear was drowned out by the high-pitched scream of a young girl. But when he dashed in to see to the poor lass, he was sent somersaulting backwards by a gust of wind as something barreled past him, crashing through the trees to land before the men.
The shroud of night had descended almost wholly upon the forest by now. The moon still had not risen. Their lamp had been snuffed out. The only pinpricks of light came from two disembodied, glowing green eyes hanging in mid-air above their heads, glancing wildly at each man spread out below as though it could see them as clear as day.
The monster’s eyes vanished momentarily as it issued a roar of rage and pain which shook the earth and the trees, sending startled birds fleeing into the night. Out of nowhere, a fan of orange flames blasted towards them. The men threw themselves to the ground for dear life, feeling the heat scorching the tips of their hair as it grazed pass.
The inferno collided with the trees behind them, which instantly caught fire and flooded the whole area with much-needed light, but the sight that awaited them as they raised their faces was something straight out of a myth they would never choose to bring to life.
A reptilian creature covered in glinting, metallic scales towered over them, trees trampled like hay under its gigantic silver claws. Luminous, acid-green eyes blazed above a long, narrow muzzle, tendrils of smoke trickling out between silver fangs.
Its claws carved deep welts into the tree trunks as it spread its leathery wings wide before dashing forth, snatching the stunned young boy between its talons and soaring off towards the West, trailing the boy’s pathetic screams behind it as it disappeared into the night sky.