O n e
❝A woman made a mistake;
brought on by a fiery stake.❞
LYDIA’S BODY WAS IN A TATTERED MESS when I came upon it. Her dress was hardly visible from being torn apart and had it not been for the engagement ring on what looked to be her finger, I wouldn’t have suspected it was her.
Lydia’s right leg had been severed from her body. The lycanthropes that had attacked her had probably overheard people coming and took the limb as a sort of snack for the road. Not that they would have needed a snack; with the shape of which Lydia’s body was in, I highly doubted any of the savage beasts were still hungry.
“That is it!” someone shouted from somewhere in the crowd. Across from me a man stepped out from his position behind two tall men and stepped into the space next to Lydia’s damaged body that we had all unconsciously cleared.
I recognized the man who had shouted instantly as our town’s drunk. He didn’t look drunk right now, but with his reputation, he soon would. Perhaps it was his status and the lack of authority in his tone that had the rest of the crowd ignoring his yells.
Although I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to what he was saying, I could hear him. “We need to fight back!” he told everyone. “We shouldn’t let these stupid wolves kill our families and friends.” Someone apparently had been listening to what the drunkard was saying, because another voice spoke out.
“That is where you’re wrong, son,” this time it was an Irishman. I’d never talked to this particular person before, but I had noticed him around the kingdom when I was sent to go to the market. The Irishman was a large man and had a beard down to his collar, I noticed. His accent was thick, but understandable. “These creatures are neither stupid nor wolves.” The Irishman’s voice held the superiority that the drunkard’s had not, gaining him an audience. “They are just as wise, if not more, than us. They are smart and cunning, and they are hungry for blood. They do not hold inhibitions within them and will stop at nothing to kill. We all know they are lycanthropes by now, do we not?”
Soundlessly, I nodded along with many other people. We’d all suspected that the murders had been because of lycanthropes, although no one had ever proclaimed it with such dignity before. At first we’d figured it to be a bear’s doing, but after the first five kills witnesses had said the creatures were more wolf-like. Ten kills and rumors of lycanthropy had spread like wildfire across the kingdom. And now, on the twenty-something killing, I hadn’t a second thought about the slaughterer being a lycanthrope.
The Irishman was now also in the space that the rest of us had deemed forbidden. The drunkard stepped back into the crowd, letting the wiser man take over. “We need hunters,” he said, his eyes narrowly blazing as he looked around at the crowd. “Lycanthrope hunters,” he specified. “People need to step up. I will be at my cottage, and whoever has the guts to join may do so by visiting me there.”
The man then turned and left. The crowd split apart like the red sea for him as he departed before forming back together again.
Anguished sobs could be heard from all around the group. I hadn’t seen Lydia’s family yet, thank God, and from a distance I could make out the doctors coming our way. There was no need for them in the traditional sense, but now that Lydia had passed they would roll her up in some cloth and carry her on a wooden platform to her family’s home where they would present her and ask where the family would like her to be buried.
I felt empty. I hadn’t cried yet, although I wanted to. Crying in front of Lydia’s tortured body felt belittling somehow. Lydia hadn’t been one for crying. She had been strong and brave and far more courageous than anyone I had ever met. Lydia had been my best friend ever since we had been born. She had always been by my side; she had been there next to me through all of the previous lycanthrope attacks and had lent a shoulder to cry on. She had been an avid supporter for all the Irishman had just said, and I was positive that had she been alive to hear his speech, she would have been the first at the step of the man’s cottage.
“Lydia!” this tormented voice was easily recognizable as its owner treaded through the crowd of people and stopped when he’d reached the front. Lydia’s fiancé, Oliver Ackerman, stood in shock at Lydia’s lifeless body. His shoulders drooped, soon followed by his body as he fell to his knees on the chilling ground.
Oliver’s head fell as his shoulders racked. The sight of him pulled and squeezed at my heart, and I wanted to go try and comfort him, but I didn’t know Oliver very well. Lydia and I had only met him a few months ago. He was the son to a friend of Lydia’s family, and their engagement had been planned a little more than four months prior. Although they’d only met a short time ago, Oliver’s desolated cries let me know he had at least begun to love her.
Someone else, fortunately, took the role of his comforter.
I could no longer hold in what I had tucked deep down inside of me. Turning away from the scene before me, I rushed through the crowd until I was a good twenty feet away. I bent over, my hands on my knees, and let my tears warm my face.
She was dead.
Voices were running through my head. Our voices from when we’d first met, to the time when I had last seen her. I was remembering everything and anything that I could about her; memorizing them so they were imprinted in my mind. In my heart.
My heart was breaking. It felt incredulous; unbelievable. Like it was a dream. A nightmare. But I knew that it wasn’t. Because even if it seemed fake, it was real. It was reality.
Time seemed to stop as my stomach lurched and tightened, making me feel sick. Arms were wrapped around me; my father’s voice was saying soft words in my ear. But, yet, I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t focus on anything, really. I was dizzy, my mind was spinning uncontrollably.
Lydia, the one person who knew me completely, the closest person to me...She was gone.
I turned around slowly and let my father pull me into an embrace. I buried my head into his shoulder, the tears drained out of me. Father ran a hand down my hair, smoothing it out comfortingly. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. His voice sounded clenched, swollen. I nodded as I pulled away from him.
Father gave me a soft, reassuring smile as he ran his hands up and down my arms. “Are you ready to head home?”
Lydia’s body had been found on the outskirts of our small town, just barely hidden by a few trees. I was one of the first people to hear of it because I was the main person people would think about after hearing of Lydia’s death. I had been led to her death spot after being found walking to the market place to buy some food. I didn’t believe them at first, but after three people came up to me with forlorn faces to break the news, I dropped everything I had been holding and ran out here to see if it was true.
I nodded mutely. My father guided me away from the death scene with his arm wrapped around my shoulders. We walked silently through town before I questioned, “What have people been saying about the lycanthropes?”
Father scoffed and rolled his eyes. “They’re not lycanthropes. I wish you and your mother would stop calling them that. It’s probably just an angry pack of wolves, perhaps wanting revenge because we’re cutting down their trees for winter.” My father wasn’t a believer, but he did want the beasts found and killed. Most everyone in our kingdom and nearby villages wanted the lycanthropes gone.
“I’m sorry, Father,” I nodded. I didn’t want to get in a fight with him, not while in the shape I was in. I would start crying if I did. “Has there been any new word of hunters?”
Father shrugged. “People make promises they aren’t able to keep.” Father would hunt the beasts himself, but a few years back a bone in his leg snapped and he hadn’t been able to walk quite the same way again. He had a permanent limp and he could no longer walk for long periods of time or run. If he signed up as a hunter, it would be a death wish.
As we passed by our town’s crowded tavern, I could hear men shouting about going after the lycanthropes and bringing back their heads. Lydia was a well-known girl around town. She was extraordinarily intelligent and very kind. Everyone knew and loved her probably just as much as I did.
She would’ve done wonders.
Tears welled up in my eyes again, but I pushed them back and took a deep, calming breath.
My father shook his head at what some of the people were saying at the bar, mumbling, “A bunch of ignoramus fools they are.” My father had strong opinions and was never afraid to voice them, even in the presence of others much bigger and stronger. Mother said that this was a flaw of his, but it didn’t seem to be. People respected Father for his intellect. He had a high-ranking job in our town.
He worked with the royals.
Sadly, this meant that he often travelled, so Mother and I didn’t see him that often.
Finally, we had come to a stop in front of our home. Father turned to me, a pitying expression on his tired face. “Are you going to be well?”
I nodded slowly.
He smiled warmly at me, nodded, and left. He was most likely going to do the chore I’d set off on before hearing the news about Lydia’s death. That, or he was simply returning to his job.
I went into my house to find my mother swaying on her rocking chair and knitting in a calming manner. She was leaned back in the chair in what a stranger would think to be total relaxation, but I knew better. Mother only knitted and rocked like this when she had something on her mind.
In this case, I was betting Lydia was on her mind.
I took off the black coat I was wearing and draped it over a nearby chair. Upon seeing my actions, Mother said, “Get that off of the chair, Cerise, and hang it up nicely. Your poor old grandmother would have a heart attack if she saw you flinging the cloak she’d made you from scratch around like that.” I did as I was told and hung it up on the coat hanger.
“Sorry, Mother,” I knelt my head. Moving closer, I stood next to her rocking chair and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Are you well?”
Mother stopped rocking and knitting to look up at me all at the same moment. Her face was drawn downwards. The look of her preceded her actual age, but I knew this was only because of how upset she was. Father must have told her the news, or someone looking for me.
Without a word, Mother set her knitting work aside and tugged me down to her. “Oh, Cerise,” she whispered, holding me tight to her. “I can’t even imagine the pain you’re in.” We cried together in this awkward position, murmuring our favorite memories of Lydia until Mother pushed me back by my shoulders and ran a hand through my hair. “I need you to do me a favor, dear.”
I nodded, pulling myself into a proper stand. Mother grabbed her knitting again. She began to rock. I wiped my cheeks and eyes before nodding for her to go on. “Your grandmother has some wool. Would you please go out and get it?”
“Right now?” My stomach clenched uncomfortably and my skin prickled all over. I would rather just go lie down in my bed.
Mother nodded. “Yes, please. I need it.” Mother gestured to the wool she was currently using. “I don’t have enough.”
She wanted to be alone, to be rid of me for right now. I knew she didn’t mean harm; my mother was like a parent to Lydia as well, so this probably felt like losing her own child.
I grabbed my cloak from where I placed it and wrapped it about myself. It was autumn, so it was a bit chilly, but not cold enough yet for a coat.
With my cloak around me and one last look back at my mother, I traipsed out of my home towards the thick forest.
It would be a long walk.