High Hill was the sort of place you sink into and never leave. Perched on a mound elevated above the plains by a matter of perspective, the village seemed idyllic; the image of a simple life with simple joys. And though the farming families there had experienced terrible storms in the last year, they welcomed us into their homes with the eager warmth of a generous people.
We repaid their kindness by making ourselves useful. Simeon was more than happy to lend a hand in the fields, and once the farmers discovered how strong he was despite his thin arms, they were more than happy to accept the help. Molly was a born messenger, her little feet tearing over fields and roads like a rabbit, and I helped the elder women as they gathered herbs from their gardens and sat around kitchens preserving every edible thing into jars and tins, trading stories like gifts.
Much of the women’s tales were little more than gossip, and time had a way of flattening for them that I found confusing. It took me a while before I realized that Thevra, who’d run off against her father Rutgar’s wishes thinking herself the heartsick love of a faerie prince, had done so at least three generations before. She’d returned in disgrace, as they told it, belly swollen with child and mute from that day forward. Her son, Clem, was one of the white haired men who kept the fire at the village’s heart, and though not mute, he spared few words. This many years later, they still spoke of him as an outsider, though he’d never lived anywhere else.
“I think he’s over a hundred years old,” Molly announced to me one day, watching quiet old Clem rearrange his chair.
“He doesn’t look more than seventy,” I countered. But he had children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren living in Low Hill, a village three days to the south by the Old Road.
Then there was the other kind of story that rose in those kitchens. The kind that grows as it’s told. Vivid and wild, escalating according to whim, these tales wove fantastic adventures with cautionary tales. Mythical heroes and beasts traversed alongside villagers living and dead in a patchwork of time and place pieced together like their intricate quilts. These stories were my favorite. I guessed that there were rules in the forming and telling of the tales, but they weren’t apparent to me. Many times the women spoke over one another, their competing tales overlapping until one rose triumphant over the other by the sole merit of having the larger audience. Those days were exciting, and I’d dream vivid, colorful dreams on the nights that followed.
Molly, Simeon and I had each been adopted by families whose sons had left in search of larger prospects. I had a room all to myself. The walls were adorned with carved wooden swords and shields, and the windowsills lined with rough figurines. Fighters and monsters hovered against each other in perpetual snarls. Under the mattress I discovered a worn copy of ‘Myths and Beasts of the Upper Plain,’ which I devoured in stolen moments. I liked this room. I liked my new family, Mamsa, Papsa and young Ritten. I liked High Hill.
Molly’s room was even better. That boy had actual knives and a real shield on his walls. He’d left, we learned, to study under the infamous sword masters of Azminan. I bit my tongue, not wishing to cause his family the pain of worry by telling them that the great City of Spheres was no more. If their son was good with swords, surely he’d be fine. He was likely on his way back home already with news of the wars.
Simeon’s room was bare, so he filled it with bunches of flowers that he hung to dry, and then presented them with chivalrous ceremony to Nania, a girl perpetually surrounded by a cluster of giggling friends. She only ever laughed, day after day as he presented his carefully crafted bouquets, but Simeon persisted nonetheless. The whole village had taken notice, of course, and found a way to be nearby to watch the exchange day after day. Even Nania’s father, Aben, could be seen smiling from the back of the not-looking onlookers. The tales around the kitchens began to involve Simeon as if he’d lived in High Hill for as long as old Clem.
On a night when we’d been in High Hill long enough for Molly’s cheeks to grow plump again from good meals, and Nania had finally begun to blush when she spotted Simeon, Molly’s cries woke most of the village around the time of the deep night when things are most still. Moonlight lit my sprint to her house. I pushed through the already growing crowd to find her crying into her new mother’s embrace. Glass littered the bed and floor of her small room, shards still stuck to the window frame like the sharp teeth of a hungry beast. The darkness outside looked limitless and predatory through that hole. I found Simeon in the yard with a handful of men studying deep gouges that streaked the walls up to Molly’s window.
“Whatever it was, it wanted your Molly something fierce,” said old man Roth, nodding with knowing.
“Speeg here was sleeping on the bench over there,” said Samoth, nudging a man swaying beside him. “If it were a beast looking for a meal, Speeg’d be missing by morning. Seems targeted to me.”
“Agmonus leaves marks like this,” said old man Clem, nodding grimly. There was a silence in the surprise that followed his decision to speak.
“Bah!” spat Samoth. “That’s a bed story to keep the children in at night.”
“My memory stretches farther than yours, young man,” said Clem, stiffening.
“Now fellows,” injected Aben, patting the shoulders of both men and stepping between them. “Something did this, and I think we can all agree that it roams our village now. From here forth we travel together, and after dark not at all.”
Reluctantly, tempers and men disbursed. The people of High Hill were shooed back to our homes and to bed, though I’d wager no one slept. Dawn arrived as a subtle thing. The sky outside my windows faded into day gradually, and when I heard the bustle of village life, I rose to join it. The kitchens swelled that day with the scent of jam and the tales of beasts and wild things mostly forgotten, and had I been more rested I’d have loved this day most of all.
I slept soundly, and rose the next morning to a collection of murmurs in the alley beneath my window. The whole village were clustered there when I peered out, and when I made it to the street I could see why. Long gashes marred the walls leading to my windows.
“Ma’s chickens are missing,” grumbled Samoth.
“Agmonus,” declared old Clem. This time no one argued. A single black scale was trapped in a crack between boards. “I know where he lives,” added old Clem.
“I guess we’d better go hunting,” said Aben.
Ancient, seldom used swords were pulled down from cupboards and run across sharpening stones. Tools used in the field transformed into sinister weapons. Simeon sharpened a scythe to a menacing edge. At last, the men stood assembled at the edge of the village, bristling with gleaming metal. No one moved. Each man glanced at the next with uncertainty.
Nania separated from her knot of friends suddenly, and with all eyes upon her, planted a kiss on Simeon’s cheek. Simeon’s face turned scarlet, but his smile could have lit the world. Without a word, he launched forth, and the men of High Hill followed after him.
It was nearly a week before they returned, dusty but all accounted for, and each night we listened more than slept. There was something moving through the town. Any livestock not kept indoors met unenviable fates. There were no stories told in the kitchens after the third day. On the sixth day, when the men strode in tired and hungry, the collective sigh of relief from the lips of their women nearly kicked up a wind.
“We found Agmonus,” announced Aben. “Dead, for a while now.” He held up a long dagger and Molly’s new mother stifled a sob. “We found no evidence that your son came to harm, Lanice,” Aben assured quickly.
Molly’s mother took the dagger with tearful reverence. “My Leidan killed Agmonus?” she asked breathlessly.
“It looks like it,” answered Aben.
“Then what’s haunting this town? Why did it come for our Molly?” she asked.
The men exchanged an uneasy glance. “We don’t think she was after Molly,” said Aben. “We think…” he heaved a sigh. “We think Admonus had a mate. Your Leidan slew Admonus, Lanice. And your Arnin,” he added to my Mamsa. “Arnin left not long after Leidan. He may have helped, or come through after. The mate followed their scents back here.”
“It’s been roaming our streets at night,” cried old Wyna. “It’s eaten all my animals, and what livestock not kept inside!”
“We know how to kill her,” said Aben. “Her heart is in her foot. Tonight, she dies.”
We spent the day in preparation. Everyone helped to dig a huge pit into the village’s road. A house could have fit within it by evening. Thin saplings were stretched across the opening and then straw. We retreated to our homes and to our windows as the men took positions throughout the town.
Bird calls started at the edge of the village, and then closer, and closer, and then we could see a deep shadow moving between the buildings. It kept moving though, past the trap, and the bird calls of the watching men followed it through to the other side of the village. Speeg was missing the next morning.
“Walked around our trap like she watched us set it,” muttered Samoth.
“We make it wider,” decided Aben.
And so we did. We dug through the day until the pit stretched from one front porch to another, and covered it more carefully. Straw was littered across the length of the main road until you had to know where the trap was in order to see signs of it. But that night Agmonus’ mate managed to avoid the trap again, and in the morning, no one could locate old man Roth.
Without many other ideas, and mindful that much remained in the fields to harvest before winter, we tried to pick up the rhythms of daily life. I sat in old Wyna’s kitchen only half listening to a tale of Marra the milk girl who ate a mushroom that made her glisten from head to toe for the rest of her days. Even old Wyna seemed half interested in her story. We were all thinking of Agmonus’ mate.
“I have a book,” I announced. “Of beasts on the upper plain.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” smiled old Amna. “Run and fetch it for us.”
I dashed home, nearly colliding with Molly on her message run and taking the stairs two at a time. I grabbed the book and was turning to leave when I stopped. Something had been not quite right. It was outside the window, I realized. The end of a tail, flicking.
Agmonus’ mate was on the roof.
I crept downstairs and opened the front door, too terrified to run for it. Villagers passed by, though, and she didn’t pounce. Finally, I saw Simeon and waved him over.
“It’s on the roof,” I whispered.
Simeon’s face fell and his eyes stretched upward as he took a few cautious steps backward. Slowly, he returned to me at the front door.
“Sleeping,” he whispered.
Quietly, pulling a long dagger from his belt, Simeon went to the next house. I held my breath and waited. I saw Simeon at last, creeping through an attic window, and stifled a cry when I saw him leap from that roof to mine. There was a scrambling sound, and when I raced into the street I could see Simeon wrestling with a monster five times his size. The scales on its tail were black, but most of the creature was tan, like the roves. It had spent its days watching us from atop our homes!
Simeon was nearly engulfed by the massive beast, though managing to keep its sizable jaws from clamping shut. Nania let out a cry from beside me and I saw Simeon turn. The beast lunged, and in that horrible moment when it was clear that our Simeon was lost, he plunged his dagger into the beast’s foot. A roar like none I’ve ever heard before or since shook the village of High Hill, and together, Agmonus’ mate and our thin, strong, brave Simeon slid to the ground.
It was Nania who reached the mass of scales and claws first, though the rest of us were only a step behind. Moving each limb took several men and as minutes ticked by my hope for finding Simeon alive dwindled. The beast was enormous, and seemingly everywhere. Nania’s cry brought us to the right spot, and even as the men were lifting the gigantic leg away she dove in under it.
Men began to clear their throats and turn away, and I pushed forward, climbing over tail and belly with tears spreading. I could hear Molly calling Simeon’s name from behind me. When I found him though, he was sitting upright, Nania covering him with kisses. He managed to lift his goofy smile at me in a moment between, and it was broader than I’d ever seen it.
Simeon and Nania’s wedding was held a few days later, and the dancing lasted late into the night. In the kitchens, he was the new hero in all of the tales. Part of me wondered whose names he’d replaced, but I figured I’d never learn. It could be that the story tellers didn’t know, themselves, for some of the stories had an old feel to them. The names had likely been replaced many times through the generations in the patchwork that was their memory of this place and the people in it. Someday, I’d be woven in, too. And Molly. And someday our names would be replaced. And I realized, as I separated leaves from stems and laughed with the others, that I liked the thought.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!