The beast arrived in the darkness before dawn, sweeping down out of the mountains, flying fast, and leaving a trail of smoke and steam in its wake. Loth stood on a hilltop, watching as it came. He was both fascinated and horrified by the spectacle, frozen in place, unable to look away. He had heard tell of the monster while traveling through the city of Linheath and the story had piqued his curiosity. So much so that he had decided to see for himself if the tale was true, and now there could be no doubt.
The beast appeared to be a chimera, a nightmarish combination of a lion, a wyvern, a ram, and an eagle, but one of epic proportions. The massive body was hump-backed and covered in both scales and tawny fur, with leathery wings that measured fifty feet across. It had a long segmented tail that ended in a spiked, mace-like appendage. Its head was like nothing Loth had ever seen, vaguely feline, with enormous tapered ears, an eagle’s beak, and a pair of ram’s horns curving back from the top of its skull. Its eyes were two points of baleful light and tendrils of smoke trailed from its nostrils.
The beast flew past the hill, came around in a wide arc, and suddenly dropped toward the valley below. Its powerful wings beat out a rhythm that caused the massive body to jerk and bob. The mouth yawned as it strafed a field of wheat, a furnace blast issuing from between its jaws. Flames rose up in the night, devouring the long stalks and driving back the darkness.
Loth’s view was obscured for several minutes as billowing clouds of smoke rose into the air. Then he saw that the monster had come to ground. It crouched there, beside a cottage at the far end of the field. This was no cotter’s farmhouse, but a grand estate. The cottage was a tall, meticulously cared for structure of wood and plaster with a thatched roof. The doors stood open and he heard shouting–terrified voices and shrill cries of desperation. The sounds chilled his blood, breaking the spell that had held him immobile.
Loth cursed himself for a dullard and a fool. He leapt down the hill, plunging through the trees, running swiftly over the uneven ground, dodging dark trunks and grasping branches. He reached the base of the hill, emerging at the edge of the field. The air was thick with sulfurous fumes and the heat of the fire took his breath away. Loth veered to the right, keeping low, and made his way toward the cottage, moving fast, but knowing he was already too late.
The beast rose from the ground, the thrum of its wings pushing back the flames and causing the smoke to swirl. Loth, his eyes tearing and blinded by smoke, unslung his bow and fit an arrow to the string, drawing and firing in one swift motion. A second arrow followed the first, both finding their mark, striking the beast’s belly with a sound like a hammer on wood. But the monster did not slow or even seem to notice.
Loth stumbled, tripping over a prone figure on the grass. He paused to look at the body. The man was dead, his yellow hair spread out around his head, eyes staring at nothing. His torso had been slashed from shoulder to belly. The wound looked as if it had been made by a sword. A claw perhaps? He had no time to ponder it, for at that moment a scream burst from inside the cottage.
The monster wheeled above him, emitting a roar that reverberated off the surrounding hills. The jaws gaped once more as a second burst of flame struck the cottage, bathing it in crimson. Loth was thrown to the ground by the force of the blast. The walls of the cottage collapsed and the thatched roof went up like a torch. There was another scream, a wail of pain and terror that quickly faded.
Loth climbed to his feet, shaken and unsteady. He scrambled over the pile of burning rubble, lifting a charred beam and glimpsing a figure beneath. He pulled up boards twisted by the heat and tossed them aside. The flames gnawed hungrily at the wood and he feared the remaining structure might collapse.
He found her at the very bottom, bloodied and slashed, her clothing torn and body shaking. One arm was twisted at a terrible angle and blood pulsed from an open wound in her leg. He lifted her as gently as he could, but still she cried out, sobbing and whimpering like a wounded animal.
Cradling her to him Loth turned, moving slowly lest he stumble and fall back into the fiery ruin. When he reached the safety of the grass, he laid her gently on the ground, in a little square of green among the blackened patches of scorched earth. The woman clutched at him, gripping the front of his tunic with desperate strength.
“You… you’re an elf.” Her eyes fixed on him.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me. You’re safe.” Loth looked up at the sky, but there was no sign of the beast. It had gone as swiftly as it had appeared.
“They took…” the woman gritted her teeth, her breath coming short and quick. She was not young, probably middle-aged for a human, but pretty in an ordinary sort of way, with golden hair like her husband. “They took them,” she said at last, her voice cracking.
“They? Who are you talking about?”
“Demons,” the woman whispered, her breathing ragged.
“Demons?” Loth’s mind was spinning. The woman was delirious, talking nonsense. Certainly, the beast he had seen could be called a demon, but there had been only the one, gods be praised.
“They killed my husband,” the woman said, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes, “and took my children. Three strong boys. Good boys, all of them.”
“Who took your children? Who was it that did this thing?”
“I told you!” A spasm shook the woman’s frame and she retched, coughing up blood. “The demons took them, demons out of Isod. They–“ The woman clutched at her chest with her good arm, her eyes wincing in pain.
“Easy now. I can help.” Loth had allowed the woman’s words to distract him but there was more he could do.
“Be still.” Loth placed a hand on her shoulder. He said a small prayer to Issondenarion and to Orroden, then began reciting a spell of healing, whispering words in the language of the ancient Lunovarions. A warm glow spread out from beneath his fingers, creeping over the woman’s skin like water across sand. But instead of easing her pain his efforts only seemed to increase it. A spasm shook her body and she screamed in agony.
Loth withdrew his hand, tightening his fingers into a fist. Her wounds were beyond his skill. The arm or the leg he might have healed, but something was broken inside her, something he could not see.
“Find them,” the woman pleaded, lifting her head. “Swear to me that you will find them. Please.”
“I will. You have my word.”
The woman gave a little sigh. Her eyes fluttered closed and she settled back, her body relaxing as life drained from her tortured frame. She would speak no more. Loth stood and took a step back. He was covered in ash, his clothing smeared with the woman’s blood. He swore softly. He had come too late.
Find the children. Three boys taken. But to where and by whom? Demons, the woman said. Could it really have been devils that killed her husband and took her children? If so, why had he not seen them? And what of the beast? Why did it attack this cottage on this night? Too many questions without answers. Regardless, he would find the woman’s children. He could still do that much.
* * *
Loth stood over the woman’s body for a long time, until the sun rose and the fire began to dwindle. No one had come, and that was strange. Surely there were neighbors, other cottages and farms close by. He had seen many from his perch on the hilltop. Were they all afraid? Another question he had no answer for.
Loth lifted the woman and carried her behind the cottage, to a spot in the shade of a great oak tree. He laid her there, as gently as if she were a sleeping child. Then he went to fetch the body of her husband, carrying the man to the tree and placing him beside his wife. The two had likely spent a lifetime together. He would make sure they remained together in death.
To one side of the ruined cottage was a small walled garden with a shed beside it. The shed had been knocked down and partially burned, but inside Loth located a well-used spade. He set aside his jerkin and his cloak, leaving his sword, his bow, and his quiver of arrows next to them. He returned to the spot beneath the tree, striking the spade into the dirt. He dug, making a hole that was wide enough and deep enough to hold the man and his wife.
Elves burned their dead on pyres, placing the ashes in ornately carved urns, which then decorated the shelves of vast halls and mausoleums. But humans preferred the earth, so Loth placed the couple in the ground with the tree above them and a gentle breeze rustling through the leaves.
* * *
The sound of horses drew Loth’s attention and he looked up to see five mounted men coming along the road toward the cottage. Four of the men were soldiers, clad in leather and mail with short swords at their waists. Two carried crossbows, and each man had a round shield emblazoned with the swan of Elddon hanging from his saddle.
The fifth man appeared to be a knight. He wore a green tabard, trimmed in gold, over chain mail, with a conical helm on his head and a long sword hanging from his belt. The soldiers halted at the edge of the yard while the knight rode forward several more paces, pausing within a few feet of where Loth stood.
“Who are you?” demanded the knight leaning forward in his saddle. He was a tall man, as tall as Loth even.
Loth inclined his head, keeping his eyes on the newcomers. “I am Lothanarion Tharthian Filanderan Aquillean of Ellyldan.”
“That’s a mouthful.” The knight stared at Loth, taking in his tall, lean frame, pale skin, and long white gold hair. “I do believe you’re an elf. We don’t see many of your kind in this part of the world.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
The knight sat watching him for several moments, as if expecting him to say more. For some reason, Loth took an almost immediate dislike to the man. There was something in his voice that set Loth’s teeth on edge. The man was not to be trusted.
“I am Sir Egan Stroud, steward to Baron Leofrick an Elddon and keeper of his peace. We came searching for a beast and we find you here instead. What business do you have on this farm?”
“The farm is gone,” Loth said, a hint of anger creeping into his voice. “You’ve come too late to do more than mourn, and the beast you mention is long since departed.”
“So it would seem, but you haven’t answered my question.” Sir Egan’s demeanor grew serious. “Why are you here? Did you know these people?”
“No,” Loth admitted. “I am but a traveler who was passing this way and happened to witness the beast’s attack. I found a woman, still alive, buried in the rubble of her burning house. She told me that demons had killed her husband and taken her three sons. I did what I could, but she died soon after.”
“That is a sad tale, if it is true, and not the first I have heard this morning.”
“What reason have I to lie?” Loth gave the knight a sharp look. “I tried to help…” He was suddenly aware that he did not even know who the woman was or what her sons were called. “I do not know their names.”
“Her name was Ella, and her husband was called Hodge. I knew them both, since I was a boy in fact.” The knight leaned back and laid a hand on the pommel of his sword. “They were rich, to be sure, and favored by our goodly lord. He will be saddened by their passing.”
The knight considered Loth, rubbing at his chin. “The truth of your words is not for me to say. I am no judge of these matters. You’ll have to come with us now and explain yourself to Baron Leofrick. He’ll want the story from your own lips.”
“I have done nothing wrong, and you have no right to detain me.” Loth glanced to the place where his sword and long bow lay.
Sir Egan followed his gaze, that faint smile curling his lips. “Call it an invitation then, but one I strongly suggest you accept. Consider my point of view. I find you here, a stranger to these lands and an elf besides. You have blood on your hands and you’re standing over the freshly dug grave of a man and woman I’ve known my whole life. Does that not seem to warrant some explanation?”
“I have given you explanation.”
“Come now, friend. Don’t make me do something I might feel bad about later. You’re one man, alone, unarmed, and there are five of us. Be reasonable.”
Loth looked again to his weapons. There was no way he could reach them without the knight or his soldiers intervening. Foolish of him to leave them so far out of reach, but there was nothing for it now.
The soldiers drew closer, sensing trouble. “If you run, we will ride you down,” Sir Egan said. “If you resist we will be forced to kill you.”
“Oh, I mean to resist,” Loth said, his cool eyes turning glacial. “I am no man and even without a sword I am far from helpless. Let’s see what you make of the Winds of Prathos.”
Loth took a step back, reciting words in ancient Lunovarion. He lifted his hands, his fingers weaving a pattern in the air. The wind rose around him, a moaning sound that grew into a howl. The sudden tempest stripped leaves from the trees and sent them spinning about like a thousand tiny razors. The whirlwind swirled about the soldiers, kicking up voluminous clouds of dust and causing their mounts to shy and dance. Two of the panicked horses reared, dumping the riders from their saddles, including the knight who slid off the back of his horse and struck the ground with a thunderous crunch of metal. One soldier fired his crossbow, but was blinded by flying debris so that his shot went wild, sailing off into the trees. A fourth man’s horse bolted, the soldier clinging desperately to the saddle as his mount sped off along the road in the direction from whence they had come.
Loth darted to one side, intent on snatching up his possessions and disappearing into the woods. He was a master at woodcraft and these fools would never be able to catch him. But somehow the remaining soldier managed to keep his wits and his aim. He loosed his bolt squarely and the bolt struck Loth in the back of the leg. He slammed into the ground with a cry of pain and the howling winds subsided all at once.
The three soldiers rushed at him. Loth struck one man and knocked him to the ground, but the other two fell on him, raining blows on his head and torso. The next few minutes were a blind confusion of snarling, biting, kicking, and punching.
At last, Sir Egan, having regained his feet, swept his sword from its sheath and struck Loth on the side of his skull with the pommel. Stars danced before Loth’s eyes and the world faded for a moment, only to return in a red haze of pain. A wad of cloth was thrust into his mouth and he was slammed facedown onto the ground while someone tied his hands with a length of rope. In the confusion, the bolt in his leg snapped, sending another white hot surge of pain through his brain. Loth groaned as he was hauled roughly to his feet.
The missing soldier returned a short time later, his mount now under control and leading the other two horses behind him. Loth was dragged unceremoniously toward the horses and flung over a saddle. He hung there like a slain deer, his head reeling and agony assailing him from every direction.
“Well now,” Sir Egan said, breathing heavily, “that was a truly rash and foolish thing to do. And what good did it accomplish? Better for you if you had listened to me.”
Perhaps, Loth thought, but listening to good advice was not his strong suit, and being reasonable had seldom gotten him anywhere useful or interesting. Headstrong and willful his father had called him more than once, but those same traits had kept him alive for several lifetimes of men. He wasn’t likely to change now.
Loth turned his head so that he could see the grave of Ella and Hodge. They were strangers to him, it was true, but neither of them deserved to die in such a heinous manner. Loth swore a silent oath to himself that he would avenge their deaths. And he would find their missing sons. Just as soon as he figured a way out of his current situation.
The story continues in The Fabled Beast of Elddon, now available on Amazon.