First Place

IN FALL

by Frank Binda

Night had descended and been met by a rising mist. The wood was quiet even for mid-Autumn, when most living things have found slumber. A sound began to float through the silence – it was a quivering, sniffling sound – a sound that betrayed the otherwise peaceful air of the tree-shrouded knoll.

The boy was terrified. His thoughts were scattered about in a tangle of confusion mingled with despair. He tried to recall the circumstances of his peril as he uncontrollably trembled. The cows… there was something with the cows. His brother came to mind, several years his senior and on the verge of manhood. Yes, the lost cows! But why was he here? Oh it was coming back, the scattered livestock, the failed returning of much of the herd from the fields, all caused by his brother’s ill-timed dalliance with that young lady from a neighboring hamlet. It wasn’t my fault! His brother pleading with him that because he had so many prior infractions, the punishment he would receive would be severe. Could the young lad take the blame for him, just
this once? The boy had been exemplary in his young life, and being such a model son, he would get off much more lightly. If he could grant this one small favor, he would be eternally grateful and would make it up to him many times over. Whatever he wanted, whatever he needed. Just ask! Just do it for your brother, your kin, your blood. Why yes, yes he would! He loved his brother. Although he had made countless mistakes his heart had always been in the right place. Yes. Yes, of course. And so he confessed.

What his brother had failed to tell him was the magnitude of the issue. The cattle were a mixed lot from several families and therefore the penalty was not under the sole judgment of his father, who would of course be lenient to his boy. The arguments swelled. The loss was bad. This
could affect how they survived winter. The penalty was set. He would have to spend a night alone in the Dark Wood on one of the holiest nights of the year. He would be judged by the spirit world, those that could mingle with the living when the space between the two realms was briefly sundered, as it was to be this eve. It would be by those that came before, his ancestors…and also perhaps other things… Those that one would not dare mention by name, the kind of things that may breeze by your dreams and curdle it into a nightmare, the kinds of things that would whispers in the corner of your mind and impart dreadful suggestions, the kinds of things that could cause utter ruin should you ever have the misfortune to encounter them. Things best left alone.

And here he was. He had no concept of how long he had been out here. He had traveled at dusk, led there by a contingent of elders to a spot supposedly containing great power, and then abandoned. He was ordered to stay put no matter what transpired. They would return to collect
him in the morning. They wished him well! Would morning ever come? The night felt endless, its weight pressing on him as if he were deep under the sea. He became angry at his brother. He had set him up! How could love be used to twist things so? He would never forget this treachery. Never! Just survive the night and then he could plot his revenge. Cows…. Cows!

Really? All this…. A human being considered before stupid animals! Yes, they are important, but an entire field of them is not the equal to one human life. A sacrifice – that is what this is!

They are throwing him away over their precious herd. Oh that herd will pay – he would show them what one determined boy can accomplish! But first he had to survive the night and its stifling gloom. It had gone well so far – just him and his thoughts. He worried about what might
come but so far it… or they… had not arrived. Maybe he would be all right?

And just then a sound arrived. Shuffling, crunching, scraping- all of it feeling unnatural and heading in his direction. They were coming for him now! What to do! He was supposed to stay in the grove. Did it offer safety? He could not remember. He had to get away! He leapt up and
dashed away from the horrifying sound. It did not seem to diminish. Where were they- everywhere? He ducked down the side of an embankment where a small pool of water had collected. He curled up at the edge and tried to stay silent. The snapping and what sounded like dragging continued unabated. He was beyond scared. He began to weep. This was it. He was just a child. An innocent one! He longed to be in his mother’s embrace. She who had kept him safe all the other times he had been afraid. This was the love he needed now but it felt worlds away. But he was alone now. A moaning sound arose, a high deep howl – was that his doom calling out? No, it was himself, crying for his mother, he had become so lost in his terror he had
given himself away! Indeed all other sounds had stopped. This was it then; the last tears he would ever shed were streaming over his cheeks, plopping into the puddle below.

He opened his eyes. The fog had parted. The moon’s brightness enlightened him and stripped away the glamour that had been protecting him… for staring back from the water was a visage somehow containing both horror and comfort. It had massive curved fangs at the end of a
pointed snout above which peered deep set glowing red eyes. It possessed long curved claws and leather-stretched wings that had begun to unfurl. It also possessed a cleared memory. Yes.

Yes, of course. And so he complied.

He launched himself skyward, silently gliding up the hill and above the forest undergrowth. He then hastily descended upon the boy in the grove. He made sure to slaughter him slowly as the terror would help reap his soul. As his talons tore through skin, then sinew and then bone, and his teeth bathed in the delightful fresh blood, and his ears treated to the unhallowed cacophony of dying screams, he felt complete again. Yes, misguided hill-folk your precious cattle will survive another year. I accept your offering – for now. Your holy day present has bought you some time.

Blessed Samhain!

 

***

Frank Binda is a current resident of Woodstock Valley, Connecticut, having settled there after falling in love with the peaceful ‘Quiet Corner’ (NE section) of the state a decade ago. He grew up in the suburbs south of Boston.  He has two cats who guard his garden and a dog who is his hiking partner.  He also enjoys attending live music shows, sampling craft beer, and participating in fantasy role-playing games.

***