30 July 2020

My Dream

Hunger woke me up in the middle of the night. Again.

I slipped out of my bed and quickly, silently dressed. Father was still sound asleep and hopefully will remain so until dawn. I couldn't explain myself if he asked where I was going, so I'd better get back soon and secretly. I caused him enough trouble already.

The whole winter was a blur for me. I had been delirious from fever and my father tended to me the whole time, just like he had had to my mother all the years back. I got better where she didn't and I knew he was all the more happy for that, but it did cost him. He had to neglect the farmstead for me, and though the neighbours helped where they could, it will be a tough year to get through yet.

Even without my rumbling stomach.

I left the cottage and ran up across the garden and hayfield, to the forest above. The sky was clear and the Moon was large, casting deep shadows but also enough light to go by. There was a spring a short walk into the woods where I knew many a critter would come to drink from, so I laid some snares around it.

I caught a rabbit. It was scared, poor thing. Half-choked on the snare, it still tried to shy away from me as I came closer. In a way, I was happy that the other traps were empty. One will have to be enough.

I grabbed it and snapped its neck.

"Look what we have here!" a voice cried out.

"We caught ourselves a poacher," another joined in with a chuckle, and the light of a hooded lantern ran over me and my catch.

I nearly dropped the rabbit, scrambling to my feet. Three men were approaching from deeper in the forest, reins of their horses in hand. They were all wearing red cloaks and had swords on their belts.

A patrol from Rudohrad, the Red Baron's men.

"But a pretty one, for once!" the loud one exclaimed.

"If dirty feet and ruffled hair are your thing, I guess. But wait, I forgot about your wife! Of course you're into that," the tall one nudged him.

I started to speak, but I stuttered, not knowing what to say. I was backing away step by step, but they were already too close and starting to flank me. The forest brook and bramble bushes cut off the rest of my escape routes.

"What shall we do with a pretty poacher, early in the morning," the last one intoned. He wrapped his reins around a tree branch. He didn't smile, just stared at me.

"Please forgive me, Masters. I didn't mean to-"

"Pretty face talks after all! Does she also know how much trouble she's in? Who's woods are we in?" the last one interrupted me, his voice cold and dangerous.

"Let me go, I beg-"

"Who's woods are we in?!"

"The baron's."

"And what didn't you mean to be doing in the Red Baron's woods?"

I felt their stares even as I unwittingly lowered my eyes. "...poaching," I couldn't stifle a whimper, and the loud and tall one laughed at that, hard.

The cold one suddenly drew his sword, one smooth sound of sharp steel on well-oiled leather. I stumbled back and he blocked my way with the blade, forcing me to a tree. He drew close and his sword slipped under my chin.

"Poachers loose their hand, you surely knew that." His breath was surprisingly odourless, but his eyes felt like fire on my skin.

"You wouldn't want that, right?" He let the blade down.

"But it doesn't have to end-" he started to speak, but as he groped me, I punched him, without thinking and hard.

He took a step back and his mates suddenly stopped laughing. There was a droplet of blood on his lower lip. He didn't even say anything, just struck me with the pommel.

There was a split second of numbness, and then my hands slammed into the ground and I was blinking spots out of my eyes. He kicked me in the side, knocking the wind out of me and pushing me over, then kicked me again and again.

"I like it more when they cooperate. This is frankly a bit of a turn-off," I heard the loud one saying over the blood thrumming in my head.

"This time it really was her fault, though," the tall one shrugged.

I felt another kick in my stomach, and it rumbled much harder than ever before.

Then everything went black.

***

I stumbled from the forest half-blinded by tears. Everything was so calm and quiet as I ran towards the village, struggling for breath and suppressing grunts of pain.

Behind the first house, I flung myself at a rainwater barrel. The face staring at me from the dark water was caked in mud and blood. My hands trembled as I started scrubbing and scraping away all the grime, clawing at my own face. I felt nauseous, but no matter how much I wanted to puke myself clean, I could only retch and shiver.

My stomach felt so full and satisfied.

I curled up in the shadow behind the barrel, thinking about my father's serene sleep.

I had to get away.

The soldiers will be missed when they don't return from their patrol in the morning, and others will come to investigate. If I stayed here, they would find out, find me and burn me at the stake, or even worse, claim my father or the whole village was complicit, burn me at the stake and send them away for hard labour. We all knew better than to expect mercy from the Red Baron's men.

But if I disappeared, they would have a culprit to chase and no time to spare for harassing the villagers. Everyone knows I was ill for a long time and weird ever since then, yet my father can still truthfully say he never suspected a thing.

I had to get up, had to get moving.

I went hobbling down the back alleys towards the road, where it encircled the inn and took off over the hills. There was still light and babble pouring out of the windows, though thankfully nobody was outside. Parked at the side of the street, I saw a nomadic wagon like those that comedians and gypsies often used. The horses were still harnessed, as if ready to set out in an instant.

I could barely stand already. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I dashed across the street and climbed into the wagon, waiting for someone to shout out or grab me. But nothing happened.

The inside of the wagon was cramped and dark, full of things I couldn't see that bumped painfully into my head and legs and hips. I found a heap of some clothes or cloth and collapsed on it, burying myself where a chest shielded me from casual glance.

I didn't notice when I dozed off.
 
***

Light was streaming through a tiny window in the side of the wagon, tickling me on the nose. I startled, but then caught myself before I made any noise.

We weren't moving.

Careful, I peaked from behind the chest. The half-open curtain at the back of the wagon was looking out on a snowy forest meadow. I shivered and had to borrow one of the big scarves I was lying on to wrap myself in. I climbed out of the wagon and saw my breath turning to mist. The snow was just a sprinkle, but it had no right to be there, anyway.

The wagon was parked under a massive oak standing alone in the middle of a meadow, with no sign of the horses or the driver, nor any road for that matter. There was just the wind whistling through the branches.

I didn't understand. The solstice was already drawing close and no way could I be asleep for long enough to get up into the mountains.

Then I felt something squishy and wet under my feet, and flinched back. It was a heap of viscera and a dead, disembowelled horse.

My stomach rumbled, painfully, like an empty hole was punched right through my middle. I nearly doubled over, and as my head went closer to the carrion, I could smell its raw flesh and drying blood. Nothing ever smelled so good.

I couldn't help it. Fighting revulsion, I reached for a chunk of its meat and gulped it down, then another and one more. It tasted like solstice sweets dipped in shit and gore. Then I heard footsteps.

I turned, startled, and saw an old, robed man, somehow familiar, though I couldn't recall ever seeing him before.

"Are you the wagon driver? I'm sorry I sneaked into your wagon. I had to get away from the village, quick," I managed to say in a strained voice, nervously wiping at my mouth.

The man looked right past me. "I had a bad dream," he said simply.

He seemed not really there in the head, and I couldn't stop myself from stumbling over words as my mind raced in growing fear: "What do you mean? Where were you, where are we? Why is there all the snow?"

The man turned and looked at the snow, as if seeing it for the first time. "A bad dream," he repeated.

"What happened, what do you remember?"

"A bad dream. I've had the same dream for three days."

This must be my fault. He went into some kind of a shock and I didn't know how to help him.

"People screaming," he said. "They scream my name. They scream in pain. Then I scream. Then I wake up."

He finally looked at me. His eyes were entirely black, like my eyes when my stomach rumbles. He turned and I inadvertently followed his gaze up the oak tree.

It was bedecked with bodies. They were hanging from the branches, upside-down, their ankles bound and their bellies slashed open. Their intestines had uncoiled over their chests and around their faces, framing the frozen expressions of agony and horror.

Then I recognized Kaija and Aidan and Drust and Brynn and Tam. It was the villagers, all of them, all my friends and neighbours. They were swaying slightly in the whistling wind and another body turned towards me. My father, who unlike the others had a wide grin plastered on his corpse-white face.

"A bad dream," I heard behind me. I whirled around, panicking, and it was me, another me, lying on the snowbank. She was heavily pregnant and her eyes were solid black. She stared and I stared back, unable to move or look away, and then a contraction scrunched her face in a mixture of pleasure and pain, she groaned and a flood of black gunk went splashing from between her spread legs.

I was screaming now: "Who are you? What are you?!"
  
***

I was roused by violent shaking.

I opened my eyes to find myself in an unfamiliar place. Small and cramped, with light streaming through a tiny window and someone breathing down on me, holding my shoulders.

No, it was the wagon and the driver was shaking me awake. I let go where I gripped his wrists and he took his hands off me, stepping back and folding his arms.

"I wanted to let you sleep, but you started to scream."

He was rather young, not the man from the dream. He was frowning, but it was a general frown, not a hostile one or directed at me.

"I'm so sorry. I had to get away and I saw your wagon and I thought... I don't know what I was thinking."

"Yeah," he said. "Sometimes you do have to get away. You can come with."

"Thank you," I said to his back as he turned and jumped off the wagon.

I followed him to the front bench and then sat there in silence for some time. I had too many thoughts flying through my head to talk and he seemed content to just stare at the road in front of us.

"Where are you going?" I asked, eventually.

"Nowhere, really. Anywhere."

"Oh." Anywhere was good. Maybe he would let me stay at least for a while, until I can figure out what am I supposed to do.

He looked at me, studying my face, and I had to fix my eyes on the horizon to suppress a sudden flush of anxiety. There was a group of people ahead of us, women and children with a man here and there, accompanied by ox-drawn wagons full of furniture.

"The highlanders," he followed my gaze.

"They left the outposts? I didn't know it was that bad up in the hills. I know the last winter was harsh," or so I heard when I finally pulled through in the early spring, "even we didn't have much to spare back in the village, but we could make do. I imagine it must be hard, giving up on a land that you worked so hard to make your own."

"It wasn't just the winter," he muttered. He was hunching over, gripping the reins much harder than necessary. It was my turn to look at him, askance.

"The sinners," he eventually volunteered.

I felt my heart flutter. "No."

He was staring at the group of refugees and barely whispering: "Three days ago, a large number of them came down from the hills where my people camped. They found us at breakfast. Killed our dogs, killed our horses. My family and friends."

"What about my village? Do they know?"

He clenched his teeth, drawn himself up and sighed. "I told them. They laughed in my face. Called me out on my tall tales. Something about a horse-loving gypsy was also mentioned, I think."

If there really were sinners in the hills, the whole village had to prepare. I could go directly to the mayor, persuade her to send a message to the baron, maybe request soldiers or something!

But I would have to go back and then even more of the baron's soldiers would mill through the woods around the village...

"The Red Baron has patrols up in the hills. They would come across the sinners. They will stop them," I said without much conviction.

"Yeah," he replied.

"How far to the next town? Maybe I could send a word of warning back home?"

He thought for a moment. "Rudohrad is not that far off. Not down this way, but we could take a turn at the next crossroads and be there in the afternoon."

The image of the baron's dungeons flickered before my mind's eye, even though his people had no way of already being aware of and investigating the death of their fellows. I could try and push my luck to speak with some official, then run.

"The baron might send help."

"If you hadn't noticed, the patrols were getting smaller and scarcer for some time. The baron is broke. He has just enough soldiers to keep himself safe. Not worth the risk to save a small village."

I didn't have an answer. Of course I noticed. We all did, in addition to the growing taxes and number of bandit attacks. The soldiers really wouldn't come.

I must have been sitting in silence for a long time before he spoke up again.

"So, what's your name?"

"Gilda," I replied and smiled automatically. Nobody would help.

"I'm Milosh," he smiled in earnest.

"I have to go back," I started in a weak voice.

"I don't know why you ran, but there probably was a reason," Milosh said. "The villagers won't listen, the sinners will eat you."

"I don't care. I have to try."

"It's not worth it, Gilda. Nothing is worth sacrificing your life for."

"My father's still there."

He slowed down, then stopped the wagon and I got off.

"Thank you for the ride. And the talk. It was nice meeting you."

He just sat there, staring ahead until I turned to go.

"Don't," I thought I heard him say.

"You could come with," I replied and at that, he spurred the horses to motion. Off and away.
  
***

I ran most of the way back. Every time I was short on breath, every time my body would protest with pangs of pain and bleeding blisters, the memory of my dead father's grin would make me quicken my pace again.

At first, I was racking my brain about what to do once I arrive. Then as the hours dragged on, I just focused on the deserted road ahead, on the very next step.

It was already past nightfall when I approached the first houses. I was feeling feeble and dead tired. I haven't eaten anything since the yesterday's supper and my stomach was rumbling angrily.

It took me a second to register the shadow crouching behind a wood shed. I froze, eyes darting for anything that I could defend myself with. A cracked spade shaft was discarded in some nettles, good enough as a makeshift club, or perhaps the fist-sized rock lying further down the alley between the cottages?

The shadow straightened and slowly came closer. A child, holding some small animal in its hands. It was Tam, staying outside well past her curfew once again.

I let my breath out. "Tam! What are you doing out here? It's already dark, your mum will be mad."

She stepped into moonlight, her eyes completely black. "Maybe she will even go mad," she giggled. "If I'm lucky enough to get her before the others do."

I stumbled back, but she was now advancing quickly. She dropped into a conspiratorial whisper: "Everyone you know is as good as dead. You're alone. You failed. What did you even think, that you could help? You never helped anyone."

She flung the partly-eaten rat at my face, then lunged. I reflexively slapped at the tiny carcass, opening myself for a quick kick to the shins and knees. My legs buckled and I fell hard. She was already on me, straddling my chest and scraping her nails over my face. Disoriented, I could barely fend off her attempts at clawing my eyes out, let alone stop her when she changed position and kicked me in the loins.

"I would say that you're fighting like a girl but no, your fighting is a disgrace to every girl ever. You really thought you could stop us? You?"

Somehow, I got one leg between us and pushed back, crawling away and kicking to keep her at bay. Desperate, I reached into the nettles and swung the shaft when she next came for me.

It struck true but broke, leaving nothing but a dark bruise on her unnaturally pale skin. She chuckled: "My hungry siblings are everywhere and yet the people are none the wiser. They are as stupid as the sheep they herd. And sheep are for the eating."

When she pounced again, I didn't try to evade or escape. I moved towards her, stabbing with the sharp fragment of wood I still gripped. Halfway through the air, she flailed and contorted and failed to change her course enough. The wood pierced her chest and I let her fall on the ground, then grabbed the rock I saw earlier and cracked her head when she tried to rise, and again and again, until she stopped snarling and my hands were slick with blood.

I was left staring at the body of a brutally murdered child I knew since she was a babe in a crib. When I was younger, I used to babysit her.

I scampered off to the side and dry-heaved, my hands shaking enough that I could have fallen over. Somehow, nobody heard the commotion and came to see me and my little victim.

Of course Tam was already dead even before I found her, but... I couldn't stop now. The sinners were here and ready to strike. I had to raise alarm.

I dragged myself afoot and ran down the alley to the main street, because I didn't trust myself to walk without collapsing. Everybody was inside, dining or preparing for sleep.

"The sinners!" I screamed, "They are here!"

No sooner have I raised my voice when the village came alive. People began to appear from their homes and crowded the street. They gawked at me as I staggered in place.

"What is it?" someone asked.

"Gilda! Oh my poor dear, what in the world happened to you?" That was Brynn, Tam's mother. She ran up to me, distress over my well-being etched into her face.

I stumbled back as if she had struck me. I couldn't let myself break down crying. "The sinners. They came from the hills," I managed to say over the lump in my throat.

She came to a confused halt, doing a double take on my torn face and filthy clothes. Her husband, Drust, touched her shoulder and nudged her away from me, glaring disapprovingly. The people were talking now, arguing.

"They're right outside," I added. Somebody started to cackle.

The crowd shifted and Dugal swaggered out, laughing like a madman. The little shit.

"That's what the fucking gypsy was saying yesterday! You were with the gypsy! He fucked your brains out and then made you scare these good people with the same stupid tales he was trying to make us believe."

I might have lashed out, struck him with the rock I still gripped. The people slowly went from confused and panicked to either shaking their heads and turning to go back home, or staring me down, irate and mocking.

"Hey Fergus, your daughter's back and she is crazy!" Dugal bellowed.

Past the crowd, I could see my father making his way down here from the other end of the village. He looked angry and worried. Very angry and very, very worried.

I could also see a black-eyed figure up on the roof of the mayor's house. It raised its head and howled. A hundred other nearby howls joined it.

Every pair of eyes in the whole village was suddenly fixed on the monster, and the other sinners used the distraction to emerge from the alleys and get between the crowd and their houses. We were mostly surrounded. People started to scream as dead arms reached for them and hungry teeth sunk into their flesh. Some fought back and others tried to flee, making it much harder for each other.

My father broke into a sprint, coming for me.

The black-eyed beast leaped off the roof, landing on Drust down on the street. Its taloned feet bit into his back, and his body convulsed and sagged. I could see him gasping for breath.

The beast was tall, head and shoulders above even my father. Its skin was stretched tight over bulging muscles, its hands and feet distorted into oversized claws. Its head was flayed, the skin hanging loosely around its neck and shoulders, with long blonde hair stretching down to the ragged remains of a skirt and apron it wore around its hips.

Aidan came barging at it, his smithing hammer swinging wide. The beast swatted away his attack and lazily dragged a claw over his body, spilling his guts on the ground and cracking his ribs.

My father wasn't more than a few paces away, drawing a knife from his belt, and I knew it will just tear him apart. I hurled the rock, praying to Sol and every saint that was listening.

The stone bonked off the beast's head and it turned to glare at me with its empty eye sockets in the same moment that my father stabbed it. It seized his arm and broke it without ever taking its gaze off of me. Nearly paralysed with horror, I watched as it effortlessly lifted him off the ground.

I shrieked, incoherent, and charged at it. My stomach rumbled with rage and hunger, and my vision went black.
  
***

I awakened in cold sweat. My body ached all over, every piece of me either hurting or completely numb. Only my belly felt worryingly full and content. I struggled to open my eyes.

It was dark, too dark to see. I could still smell, though. A sweet, metallic, revolting smell, like in a slaughterhouse.

And also fresh bread.

A door cracked open, bringing bright light into the room. I fumbled and failed to sit up, until a few quick steps later, my father was standing next to the bed, gripping my arm.

I looked at him, bracing for the disgust or horror on his face. He must have seen me feed.

But he was smiling and propped me up until I could sit, leaning against the wall. I saw him wince a little as his injured arm moved too quickly, but it was properly bandaged and in a sling.

"I'm so glad you're already awake," he said. "I was so worried that you will relapse, lying unconscious and feverish for another month."

Some of my fear and confusion must have shown on my face, because he sat down beside me and put his good hand on my shoulder.

"You saved the village. Scared the sinners off."

"But I was..."

"You were brave. You saved lives. Many lives, including my own. I'm proud of you," he said, then frowned: "But don't be surprised if you get some weird looks from the other folk. They're thankful, just a bit tense. Now come on."

I let him help me stand up and walk me to the laundry chest, then dressed, slow and unsteady, as he waited outside of my room. He supported me as we walked outside and down the main street to the mayor's house. A small gathering of people was talking at the front steps, finding comfort and consolation in the company. They parted as we approached and let us through to their midst.

Sitting on a bench next to the steps was Brynn, rocking back and forth, wiping at her eyes and sniffling. On the other end of the bench, Dugal was kneeling next to a tearful Gerda, whispering to her ear, one arm around her shoulders, the other on her knee.

"Listen, everyone," my father hopped up on the first step and waited until all the people turned to look at him. "We all know what happened last night. We all saw. We all live because of my daughter, so we all keep quiet. Understood?"

My eyes flicked from face to face. I saw a lot of fear, but also the occasional slight and sombre nod.

"For those who haven't heard yet," he continued, "Kaija also died last night. Sorry, Gerda," he added as the girl started to weep aloud. "We will choose the next mayor as soon as possible, but for now, you can ask Moryn or me if you need or want to help. Leigh will see to anyone who needs to be patched up."

"Also, I sent Ewyn and Nyle to Rudohrad. They will make sure that the baron knows, and that he listens to us. He wants our taxes? He has to give something in return!"

There were much more vigorous nods all around.

But my father was looking somewhere past the crowd. "Speaking of the devil..."

Following his gaze, I noticed a group of red-armoured horsemen coming our way. The Red Baron's soldiers, and not just a small patrol. I tensed, making every single scrape and bruise throb and twinge.

My father briefly touched my clenched fists. "I'll be right back," he said. "I should have a chat with them real quick."

He headed towards the soldiers, and I found myself completely surrounded by a grim-faced crowd. Half of the people were watching the baron's men, the other half was staring at me with fear, with awe, with distrust and disgust.

"Thank you," somebody uttered into the silence.

The soldiers seemed to grow agitated as my father talked. He gestured towards the forest and the soldiers started to quarrel between themselves. Suddenly, the leader turned his horse around and spurred it back the way they came.

My father returned and promising to the villagers that he will be back in a minute, lead me back home.

"You should go have some more rest. I never thought I'd see you as battered as you are, and I hope I never will again."

"What about the soldiers?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.

He hugged me tight around the shoulders. "One of their patrols didn't return. They came to investigate, then saw the pile of undead we burnt behind the village. I told them about the attack in the night, told them we managed to fight them off, barely. They realized their patrol is probably dead and they should better inform the baron about all this."

He looked at me and added: "It's a pity the patrol was killed by some sinners."

"Now, there's some fresh bread that Moryn gave me, get yourself milk or cheese and go to bed, okay?"

"Okay," I breathed.

My stomach was rumbling, but for once, it was just and only my own hunger.


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