The sun had disappeared behind the castle’s hill. Tonight, Crosset prayed, would mark the end of the famine.
Darkness chased them, swallowing the men in the rear. They wound their way between leafless trees. Batted away low-hanging branches. Sloshed through muddied, half-melted snow. Crossbows and pitchforks jostled on their backs, falling loose from makeshift rope harnesses.
Bailiff Johnsy’s plan was straightforward: Get the boy, and they would get food.
He didn’t give any directions for everything in between.
The lasts of their oil had kept Draken’s lamp alive. He was supposed to lead them. Yet, he had burned most of that away running in circles. Perhaps it would be wiser to pour what remained onto kindling and wait out the night, but 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, he set his lamp on the log and prepared for the climb. He’d swung one leg up over the curve of the trunk when a commotion broke out down the line.
“Move it, pig! Or I’ll snap your neck-bone in half.”
The large, bald man 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 contorted in pain as the leash’s noose tightened against his windpipe. Once he had regained balance and breath, he rearranged his features into a sneer.
“Spare me your empty threats. You need me alive to bargain with my father.”
The boy’s silvery eyes flickered with bravado, but he couldn’t suppress the tremors leaking into his voice. Smirking, the man hunkered down so he came eye-to-eye with his hostage.
“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 marched over as the pudgy boy flinched and blanched in horror. Krulstaff spun around. Draken told himself to stand firm as he locked eyes with the giant.
“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!” He reminded his troublesome neighbor for what he felt was the umpteenth time. Krulstaff rolled his eyes at the heavens.
“Why don’t you give me that, Armorheim?” He spat, his spade-like hand swiping for the lamp. “Unlike your son-of-a-whore in Meriton, my children are dying as we’re wasting time in this godforsaken forest!”
Draken was livid. All attempts to keep peace abandoned, he seized Krulstaff by the collar.
“Don’t you dare—”
Before Krulstaff could retaliate, the other men hauled Draken away.
“He’s got a point, Draken.” Brodel the Butcher chimed in from the shadows, indicating the sniffling boy with his pig-butchering knife. “We don’t need him awake. We could move faster with this manure sack on our backs than oozing down here.”
Draken glanced at Brodel, 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, he barked at the remaining men, “Move out!”
Before Brodel could even take one step towards the squealing captive, the sharp crack of a breaking branch shot through the silence.
The men turned as one to stare into the dense wall of trees. Crossbows raised and pointed, they slowly backed away—then an arrow shot forth from Krulstaff’s bow.
“For the love of—!”
Draken’s feverish swear was drowned out by the scream of a young girl. It sounded undeniably familiar. He dashed in to see to the poor lass—but 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. The moon still had not risen. Their lamp was lost. The only pinpricks of light came from two disembodied, glowing green eyes, hanging in mid-air above their heads.
The eyes ricocheted in unseen sockets, glaring at each man spread out below as though the being could see them as clear as day, then vanished as the being issued a roar of rage and pain.
The ground shook and the trees shuddered. Startled birds fled into the night. Out of the black, a fan of orange flames blasted towards them. The kidnappers flattened themselves to the snowdrift for dear life. The heat scorched the tips of their hair as it grazed past.
The inferno collided with the trees behind. Dying branches erupted in flames, flooding the clearing with much-needed light. The men resurfaced to a sight that just as soon made them wish they were thrown back into the dark.
A reptilian creature armored in glinting, metallic scales towered above, trees trampled like hay under gigantic silver claws. Acid-green eyes blazed above a long, narrow muzzle, tendrils of smoke trickling out between silver fangs.
Its claws carved deep welts into the earth 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.