It watched them from the shadows.
Unlike the rest, Teyrnon’s group was made of close-knit friends of about the same age.
His companions, Hefeydd and Viri, were far too lax with preparations and all three of them were short on weapons.
“Do you see the signal yet?”
Teyrnon huffed, “For the thousandth time, no!”
“Just how much farther do we have to go?”
Hefeydd checked his torch. “This torch is almost done, I’ll fire up a new one.”
“Well then, hurry up or we won’t see a thing.”
“I’ll tell you what I want to see,” Viri smirked, “the brunette, bathing naked in a shallow stream.”
They booed. “Oh, for Veles’ sake!”
“Here he goes again!”
“Now hold on, let me finish, just imagine: she’s in water just above her ankles, her skin is all wet and she’s carefully washing her small tits, just slowly moving her hands in circles, you know, teasing herself, and you got perfect snow on either side of the stream banks, and her hair is—”
“Who in their right mind will bathe in an ice-cold stream?” Teyrnon interrupted.
“Two men just died, and you still have room in your head for these things? You’re sick, Viri, you know that?”
“You want me to cry or something? It’s not like I really knew them.”
“And if the stream is so stupidly shallow, why would she be standing in the first place?”
“She would be seating her butt on a stone or something, stupid. She needs to reach the water. What do you want her to do, kick water on herself?”
Viri shrugged. “It’s just a dream.”
“Fuck your dreams.”
“Look, it’s been days since I had any, all right? It’s either her that I dream of or your ugly faces.”
“Do me a favor and keep my face out of your sick head.”
Hefeydd said, “You realize that she’s a slave, right?”
Viri defended the heroine of his fantasy, “So? What’s wrong with doing a slave?”
“It doesn’t feel the same as real sex, that’s what’s wrong with it, and who knows who just had her a moment ago.”
“Okay, look, I want you to listen carefully to me, you virgins. Forget what others told you. I’ve been with free women, and I’ve been with slaves, and I assure you that there’s very little difference between the two, you won’t even notice it’s there.”
“Oh, curses!” Teyrnon yelled, his face to Gull’s group. “Is that the signal?”
They saw the light of four torches in the distance.
“Curse you, Viri, look what you did! We must have missed it.”
“The torch is dying.”
“Hurry up, fire your torches and let’s go.”
They reached for the torches in their saddles when they heard a noise from behind that made them freeze and look back.
Viri whispered, “Did you hear something?”
“I’m not sure.”
There was a movement behind the bushes and the horses began to get anxious.
The men drew their weapons and Hefeydd carefully approached it on the back of his horse, raising a spear to his side.
Suddenly, they heard the blood-curdling growl and saw the gaping jaws spring out of the dark towards them.
* * *
Gull and his company turned towards the shouts coming from the direction of Teyrnon’s group.
The light of the torch moved about in the dark, and then it was gone.
“It’s there,” one man said.
Another rushed to his horse. “Hurry to them.”
“Slow down,” Gull told him. “We’ll lose it if we do that.”
“But it’s right there.”
Gull said, “Yes, for now.”
“You’ll leave them on their own?”
“Every Toic can look after himself,” Gull raised his voice. He then motioned to one of the men. “Send them a signal, keep waving your torch and maybe they’ll find their way to us. The rest of you hurry up and set those traps. This way either they will lead it to us,” he turned towards the hill of flesh, “or it will eventually come to us on its own. This is its stash, and it is not going to leave it unguarded for long.”
* * *
Natir was cut loose from her tether after he was done with her.
She dropped on her arms and knees, panting for air and spitting on the ground, feeling her stomach churn with disgust.
“Nice noises your throat makes,” he said, buckling his belt. “Tomorrow, I’ll try the rest of your sex holes. Make sure you wash them well.”
Face close to the ground and spit coating her chin, she hissed in a weak, stuttering voice, “I’ll kill you for this.”
He turned to her. “What did you say, slave?”
She shouted with hate, as loud as her coughing voice can go, “I said I’ll kill you. I swear it. I’LL MURDER YOU IN YOUR SLEEP.”
He hissed, “So that’s how you want this to end?”
Natir turned to look at him, and shock sent the hair on the back of her neck rising.
Milos had drawn out his dagger.
“You’ve just crossed a line you should never have. Blame no one but yourself.”
She fell on her back when he came her way and crawled backwards. The realization of what was happening had struck her like lightning. He wasn’t bluffing. He was seriously going to kill her for what she said.
Her palm was to a rock, and just as he was two steps away, Natir suddenly looked up over his shoulder with panic.
Alerted by her reflex, Milos quickly spun on his heel, following her gaze and raising his dagger in the air, and Natir immediately took the chance.
She seized the rock and jumped Milos with it from behind, shouting like a mad woman as she struck his side, breaking one of his ribs and sending him reeling sideways.
Milos spun, swinging his dagger in the air and hoping for her throat, but his blade slashed nothing but the air as Natir had already taken off running after landing her hit.
Natir snatched her spear and torch as she ran and escaped into the woods.
Filled with rage, Milos chased after her. “I’ll kill you for this. I’ll cut your tits and feed them to you, whore. Where can you run? Where can you run?”
* * *
Gull and his men lay low behind bushes, ready to ambush whatever that was coming their way.
They heard it approach, but they could not see it.
The usual signs, the grunting and glowing eyes of night-dwelling carnivores, were not there to warn them. Gull couldn’t even make out the ghostly figure of their target until it was at the middle of the ambush.
It behaved far differently from most animals he had hunted.
It walked on two legs, almost like a man, and like a beast it hunched its back low and swung its long arms close to the ground.
The beast stopped and dropped what it was dragging in its jaws then with a strange ticking noise emitting from its throat, it turned its head, looking about in every direction.
Gull tightened his grip on his spear, realizing that it was alerted to their presence. He started to get anxious. The man who was supposed to start the fire was taking too long.
Laying face-down with snow and twigs disguising his cloak from above, the man struggled to make the torch catch fire from the embers’ fragments he kept in a tiny iron pot, as the heat had lost its intensity.
He blew onto the embers and whispered, “Come on, come on.”
The beast pinpointed his location and slowly headed towards him, tilting its head from side to side.
The man began to sweat as the beast crept closer. The oil caught fire.
“YES!” The man threw the torch.
The beast emitted a shocked noise and swiftly turned its head, following the torch as it landed on a prepared pile of wood covered with oil.
It spun round and round itself, growling with surprise as fire spread swiftly from one pile to the next all around it, and the four men jumped from their hideouts, weapons at hand and raising a great and dire shout.
The element of surprise was short-lived as shock of what was revealed before them took them aback.
On the ground there lay the sad corpse of Hefeydd, torn in half, and next to it was a creature unlike anything they had ever seen before.
It was surrounded by flames, but the fire did not cause it to panic and run in the direction they had anticipated, as an animal would have.
It stood over five feet tall. Its face had incomprehensible shape like the melted skin of a leper; its jaw was large and full of fangs, almost like a fish, with each an inch long, and its body was covered with dark brown scale-like features, coated with mucus.
The creature emitted a low and spine-tingling grunt as it looked their way then it suddenly revolted, waving its claws and growling at them.
Gull and another man were the first to snap out of their shock; he took his stance and bellowed as loud as ten men’s cries as he hurled the long javelin at the beast whilst his warrior, who was closer to the beast, ran mad with excitement, holding his spear with both hands, and stretched out his arms towards the creature, aiming for its head.
Without a tremor, the beast moved sideways so fast, it couldn’t have possibly been real. Gull’s spear whooshed by its side and in the twinkle of an eye the beast leapt at its other attacker, one claw smashing down on the man’s arm whilst the jaws buried themselves in his shoulder.
The next moment, they roll together on red snow, resounding screams coming from the man as the creature bit harder and attempted to draw him alive to the hill of flesh.
The other three were quickly on them with shouts and spears and axes rising in the air.
In a messy fight, a spear deflected off the hard scales, the beast let go of the struggling man to fend off an axe with its claw and growl in the face of its assailants, and less than a moment later, it bit him again in the same place and tried to jump away with him in its jaw.
A spear intercepted its way and made the beast abandon its prey and flee, snarling irascibly into the dark of the woods.
The men attempted to chase after it, but they stopped right away and spun around themselves, following the noises and the movement in the bushes the beast was causing as they realized it was no longer where it should be.
Again, it did not run away like an animal would have but circled around them instead, stalking them from the dark and moving quickly from one spot to the next.
Tense silence fell upon them, save for their injured friend’s cries, with random rattling in the bushes and low grunts revealing the beast’s location every now and then, keeping the men on their toes.
The swift attack had left their friend streaming blood, but he had sustained no fatal injury, and one of them hastened to bandage the nearly-senseless man.
His arm was mauled and broken and his left shoulder had pieces of flesh dangling from it by the skin, whilst his chest bore open wounds like cuts from a knife which he had sustained when the beast had attempted to snatch him away.
“Where is it?”
Gull whispered back as he slowly bent down to retrieve a spear, “A heartbeat away from biting your head off.”
Gull glanced over his shoulder at the injured man. “How is he?”
“Alive, but barely.”
The man whispered, “Nothing can do this to a man so quickly.”
Gull said, “I’ve seen the boars do worse and just as fast. But I’ve never seen something that looks like that. Keep your eyes open.”
The firelight aided him, and Gull was able to perceive the location of the beast. He nudged his friend and pointed it out for him.
Gull then signaled his friend and they split up, closing in steadily on the creature from either side.
They kept each other in sight, communicating with their motions as they approached it very carefully with tension poisoning their blood. Just as they got close enough, they shouted and jumped on it, but their spears stabbed nothing but the ground.
Almost instantly, a shriek rose from behind and the two of them quickly returned.
Their friend had suffered such a surprising attack on the rapacious beast’s part that he had been hurled into the air, crashed over the fire and rolled on the snow, screaming with panic as he threw the burning cloak off himself.
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
Gull looked around, unable to locate their wounded friend, then the beast’s grunts guided him.
His chest heaved before the hideous sight: the beast, on all fours, had towered over the hill of corpses with their friend’s bloody neck caught in its jaw as he gasped his last breath.
Gull was overwhelmed with rage; his shout resounded into the night as he threw his spear at the beast, eighty yards away.
The weapon struck its shoulder and deflected off the scales before it could escape, causing the beast to drop the corpse, which rolled halfway down the hill and settled among the dead.
The beast looked at Gull, provoked, and grunted murderously with drool dripping down its fangs.
Immune from fear, Gull let out a mad roar and rushed towards the hill, dropping his axe and cloak and ripping off his shirt as he went.
“I AM THE MADNESS OF THE NIGHT,” he shouted and banged his fist to his chest. “I AM THE DEATH OF BEASTS AND MEN. COME FACE ME. WEIGH YOUR LIFE AGAINST MINE. COME FACE MEEE!”
The enraged beast returned the challenge with a magnificent roar and rushed down the hill on all fours like a bear racing into the fight.
Gull ran towards it, unleashing a great war cry as he took the monster head-on with his bare hands, and just as the two foes met, the beast launched on its rear legs, claws slashing into the air.
Gull handled it like lightning. He struck its arm off with his left and, with his right fist, he delivered it with a punch that knocked the beast twenty feet away.
It crashed onto the ground like a rock and then against a tree.
Gull chased after it and, before it could get up, he sent his joined fists hammering down on the top of the beast’s head from above with such power that it echoed from the force of impact. He then rained his overwhelmed foe with fists of steel that sent it reeling sideways and onto the ground. So vicious was his attack, it terrified his own men and made them wonder: Is this a man or a demon fighting alongside us?
The beast roared as it sustained its footing at last and returned the hits with a mighty strike that knocked Gull’s feet off the ground, and another hit swiftly followed to send Gull’s blood splattering into the air from the depth of the wounds. Almost immediately, it jumped at Gull and got a hold of him, aiming to rip his neck open with its jaw.
They fell together with Gull holding the beast’s head back as the jaws bit the air just inches from his face.
His two friends were on them as soon as Gull’s back hit the ground, thrusting their weapons at the creature.
One of the spears broke against the beast’s body while the other deflected against its skull but cut into its shoulder instead, causing the beast to let go of Gull. It took a blind hit at one of the assailants but missed him while Gull sent his fist at the beast’s jaw from below.
Entrapped between the three fighters, the beast suddenly howled with madness and spun around, waving its claws in the air, and knocked them away from itself before it escaped to the side.
It moved about on all fours, watching them, but it didn’t attack. Instead, it turned its head between them and the woods.
Soon it stood on two legs, emitting a ticking noise as it looked the other way.
The beast abandoned the fight before the men could have another go at it and jumped into the dark.
Gull growled deep in his throat and called for the beast to face him, but all he was met with was silence.
* * *
Natir ran as fast as her legs could carry her, barely evading the countless trees and obstacles in her way.
Her torch threatened to go out at any moment for how hard it shook in her hand, and it was drawing her foe to her location, but she could not afford to lose it and fall into the dark.
Suddenly something got in her way and she slammed into it at full speed.
She fell backwards with the torch and the spear slipping from her hands from the force of the impact.
A single thought flashed in the back of her mind: she had slammed into a tree head-on. But before she could even feel the ground against her back, she received a hit to her side that stole her breath away and sent her rolling over the snow.