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The Village
By
ZMahnke

The Village

A village in early medieval England is terrorized by a weird entity.

Why do humans feel at ease within the confines of a group? Be it our own tribal nature, reminding us that our survival depends upon the vigilance, labor, and protection of others? That the higher the populace, the more social interaction, and thus, the lower the chance of a slow and solitary drift into madness? The lower the chance of utter starvation? The lower the chance of being hunted and killed by some predator of nature? Indeed, this simple idea of several individuals forming an interdependent society fulfills many needs for all involved; physical, emotional, and psychological alike.

But, what if there is a danger so great, so deadly, so demoralizing, that the needs a society fulfills for an individual are rendered moot? Could it be that our societal safety is so fragile, much like the fragile nature of our psyche or body, that it can be so easily snapped and broken? Be it the will of men, nature, or a God?

The night’s rain brought about a dense, rolling fog over the small rural village in southwest Britannia, along the River Teign, miles from the sea. The small, stone homes with thatch roofs, crumbled with age, as beige mushrooms bloomed within the cracks, and the gardens beside each of the houses were filled with slow-growing onions, cabbage, leeks, and garlic; each plant was soaking up as much rainwater as they could. Some sheep huddled together in a shack similarly constructed as the homes, still shielding themselves from what was left of the storm, and trying to keep warm. The makeshift roads between every structure rotted in sludgy muck. The old water well in the center of the village nearly overflowing from the remnants of the storm that had passed.

A girl, of no more than fourteen years, knelt before the river, her knees and wool dress sinking into the sandy mud. She watched the water move south, and touched it with the very tips of her fingers. Cold, like the harshest nights of winter. I wish I could go with you, she thought. To the sea; to the big and beautiful sea. The wind picked up, bringing forth more white fog that blinded her sight to the other side of the river. It brushed through her blonde hair, covering half of her face for only a moment. Although she could not see the trees on the other side of the river, she could hear them; the clusters of branches and leaves rubbed against one another as the wind pushed northward, like a natural orchestra. She loved it. She loved every sound she heard, as it resonated from the land, the water, and the air. One day, very soon, I will see it. I will see the ocean and all its glory.

“Lucy!” A feminine voice called from further into the village. “Lucy! Where did you go? Come home, immediately!”

The girl glanced over her shoulder and saw a shrouded silhouette of a woman hidden within the fog. The girl stood up and brushed the mud from her clothes. “Coming, Mother!” she returned. The woman became visible as Lucy moved toward her; she waited with her arms crossed just above her breasts, her brown eyes beaming down upon Lucy. It was as though the both of them were standing in a void of white, as nothing else within the entire village could be seen, besides the mud beneath their feet.

“Do you not remember what your father told you last night? The first thing you were to do upon your rising out of bed this morning was to clip the mushrooms in the cellar. Those awful parasites are still growing down there and could infest our stores of food. Do you want your family to starve?”

Lucy’s head sank until she saw nothing but the filthy muck at her feet. “Not at all, Mother. I am sorry.”

“You can apologize by removing the parasites before your father leaves to check the traps in the forest.”

“I will do that now,” Lucy said and nodded as she walked past her mother to return home. Even blinded by the fog, it was instinctual for her to find the way home. Having been born and raised within the village, never straying more than half a mile away, she could find her way around in the pitch blackness of a moonless night. Her mother had paused to speak with a fellow villager of the thundering storm that had come and gone.

As Lucy opened the old wooden door to the crude hut, she saw her father tending to the young flames within the fireplace at the opposite end. There were three single-sized beds at three corners of the space, with the trapdoor to the root cellar in the empty corner. A few storage shelves, crates, and barrels lined the walls, and the rounded wood dining table sat in the center of the hut. The floors were more wood, covered in a thin layer of grime and dust. The windows were small, barely wide enough to fit Lucy’s head, and kept locked shut from the fog and wind of the outside. Lucy closed the door behind her, and went straight to her father to ask for a knife.

He turned to look at her, and said with a foul stench in his breath, “You’ll ‘ave to start doin’ this every morning. The bastards grow back quick. No leavin’ the house ‘til you’re done, understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

The whiskers of his beard curled into a smile, as he then handed her a small knife. Lucy took it, and opened the trapdoor to the root cellar. Darkness waited within, as she tiptoed down each dusty step. The dirt beneath her feet was hard and dry, with the squishy sensation of fungi sprouting from the soil. She could see nothing but gold rays of light that emanated from the fireplace above her, as streaks of light between the floorboards. Cloves of garlic dangled from the floorboards, and the dwindling supply of vegetables were cradled in the shelves on either side of the short passage. Lucy had to feel the ground with her hand to find most of the mushrooms within the darkness. The crackling of a fire echoed through the cellar, as well as her father’s footsteps from above. She had clipped a handful of mushrooms, and then heard the front door open.

It was her mother’s voice that echoed through the passage, faint and muffled, but still audible. “Some of our crops are ruined from this night’s storm. What are we going to do if it isn’t enough?”

“You know what we can do,” Lucy’s father said. “Some within the aristocracy would pay good for her. Not to mention getting her out of this rut of a village.”

“No,” her mother said. “No, that is not an option.”

Lucy looked up, pushing away a couple of cloves of garlic, and between the small slits in the floorboards where the golden light of the fire emanated. She could see her parents standing near each other as they spoke, not realizing that she could overhear their every word. Are they talking about me? She thought. What do they mean “pay” for me?

“But why not?” her father asked. “She’ll get to live in some big manor, at the top of a hill, looking down at all the peasants in the fields. You don’t think that life’ll be better for her?”

“No! Of course not! Don’t you understand? She won’t join the aristocracy like you so boldly think. She’ll be made a concubine, and any children she bears will be illegitimate. Do you want bastardized grandchildren? They’ll be left with nothing. Only to join the peasantry once more!”

“If we can’t feed ourselves, she won’t be bearin’ any children, to begin with,” her father said. “At the very least if we sell her off, we’ll know she’ll be fed.”

“Fine then, whore your own daughter to the barons for a few extra coins. When she’s gone, you’ll regret it!” Lucy’s mother rushed out of the house, slamming the wooden door behind her. Her father sighed and waited half a minute until he followed her outside.

When the door slammed that second time, dust from the floorboards above Lucy fell into her eyes. She wiped it away, and clipped as many mushrooms as she could in her time alone. They wouldn’t do that, she thought, as she clipped one after another. Father would never force me to live with a stranger. . . . I wouldn’t allow it. I would run away, and disappear aboard a ship to the sea. Start a new life in some distant land . . . anything to get away from what might be. What if I left now? What if I follow the river south to the sea, and make these thoughts a reality? Lucy paused, and erected herself to stand motionless in the darkness. Could she really bring herself to abandon the life she has always known? What if there is no town at the point where the river meets the sea? What if her father chooses to reject his thought, and she is already gone? No, she thought, I will not yet runaway from this life.

She finished clipping whatever mushrooms she could see within the dim passage, and then returned to the upper floor of the hut. She placed the mushrooms within a small sack and carried it outside. The wooden door closed behind her, and there she paused and stood within the white fog. Although she could not see it, she could hear the rushing water from the river. A craving to touch the icy cold water grew within her, and within that moment of soaking up the sounds she heard, believed now would be the best time to follow the flow of the river, to go to the sea and start a new life. But she broke her train of thoughts and walked behind to the back of the hut to enter the forest that surrounded the whole village.

There was no way of seeing the tops of the trees, but only the low hanging limbs and branches that curled like skinny fingers from the fog. She dumped the mushrooms behind a small rock several meters into the woods, to avoid the neighbor’s sheep from finding and eating them. There was a rush that came over Lucy, a sort of sense, that she was no longer alone. When she looked up from dumping the mushrooms, behind a large rock further into the woods, she saw a shadowy human figure. She could only make out a head and shoulders, the rest of the figure was hidden behind the boulder. Blinded by the fog, she could not distinguish any unique features of the person, only that he or she was much taller than her; perhaps taller than her own father. It’s one of my neighbors, she thought. That’s the only explanation. The shrouded figure did not move, but Lucy knew whoever it was, was watching her. There was a feeling from deep inside of her that boiled to the surface, some instinctual intuition stretched from the most primal parts of her mind. It begged her to flee, to escape whomever lurked within the fog, somehow knowing that shadowy figure would harm her. It’s one of my neighbors, she repeated to herself. It’s one of my neighbors. It’s one of my neighbors. Lucy turned around, her back now toward the figure, as she then walked in the direction from which she came. The sensation of being watched doubled in its intensity, as terror crept up her spine to the back of her neck. It was right behind her—she could feel it. Her lip quivered, her hands trembled and sweat, the sound of her heartbeat in her ears. She could glance over her shoulder at any moment, and see who it truly was. But she kept walking, goosebumps forming on her arms and thighs, she could almost hear it breathe as it drew nearer and nearer.

The moment she caught sight of her home, the feeling of being stalked vanished completely. When she was able to touch the stone that made up the hut, only then did she glance over her shoulder to see if the figure was anywhere near.

Gone. Nothing but fog, and the curled branches of the trees.

For the rest of the day, Lucy remained indoors. The frightening experience with the figure in the woods put her in a state of unease. She did not eat, nor could she willingly rest, and kept busy by dusting the floors and shelves of the hut, and scrubbing the cooking pans. Her parents did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary, and went on with whatever daily routines. When night arrived, and the family was home together, then could Lucy allow herself to rest and sleep. She had convinced her mind that it was nothing more than a trick played upon her vision from the fog. There was no other explanation than that. This realization gave her the courage to close her eyes and drift off to dreamland, even though that piece of her—that primal core—still shuddered in fear.

However, the next morning came as a quite the surprise. Lucy had awakened very lightly when she heard her father leave. Probably off to check the traps she had told herself, and not having thought much more of it, closed her eyes once more to catch a few more minutes of sleep. But it had not been more than a couple minutes, until the wooden door of the hut swung open with such a forceful swing that it shook Lucy’s makeshift bed. She shot up from the bed, and saw her father standing in the doorway. “You must come and look at this,” he said, gazing at his wife. “Something horrible has happened.” Without asking anything, Lucy’s mother ran out of the hut, and followed her husband.

Curious, and somewhat alarmed, Lucy rose out of bed to investigate the commotion. By the time she opened the door, she saw her parents disappear into the fog (it was as strong as it had been since the day before), and further into the village toward the neighbor’s sheep shack. She slipped on her shoes and headed in that direction as well.

She passed a few huts and gardens, hearing voices from the fog further ahead. They were recognizable, as she had grown up with her neighbors, and the other villagers. But to her, the most distinct voice of them all sounded distressed, as though he was sobbing or angry. As she neared the shack, several mutilated remains of sheep began to appear. Wool was everywhere, as though it had snowed the night before, mixed with the crimson gleam of blood. So much blood. Some of them lay dead with no more than their throats ripped out. Others, the most unfortunate of the bunch, were far from in one piece. Limbs had been torn from their shaggy bodies, or they were decapitated; others had their stomach ripped open, with the rib cage snapped, and the heart forcefully removed. Lucy covered her mouth, gagging from the sight so horrific by nature. The owner of the sheep, an experienced man of middle age, knelt in the dirt and mud, covering his face with his hands as he spoke muffled words. “What on God’s Earth would do such a thing?”

Lucy’s father stood beside the man and put a hand upon his shoulder. “It had to’ve been some wolves. They must’ve come in the night while everyone slept, and with this fog, they would’ve been impossible to spot. . . . Tell you what, my friend, I’ll set up a hunting party. We’ll go into the woods and search for signs of a den.”

“I would be most grateful,” the owner said. “I want vengeance. I want their furs strung up about my home.”

“And you will have them,” Lucy’s father said. “When we find them.”

Soon after, a call to arms was sent throughout the village, informing all able-bodied men young and old to acquire weapons or tools, and join in the hunt for the suspected pack of wolves. A party of nine men was formed, most of them of middle age and a couple of adolescences. The weapons they acquired were not much more than gardening tools such as pitchforks and sickles, and other tools such as work hammers, hatchets, and basic kitchen knives. The men split up into several small groups to cover more ground when tracking the beasts within the forest. Before long, the groups of men disappeared into the woods and had been gone for several hours throughout much of the day and into the evening.

Lucy spent that time helping to clean up the remains of the sheep, moving whatever remnants of the bodies to the center of the village to be cremated in an open fire. She would not dare touch the corpses so mutilated that they barely resembled an animal. She could hardly look at them. To unwind from the tragedy that struck the villagers, Lucy once again found herself by the River Teign. She played with the water by placing a long stick into the stream and feeling the strength of the current pull upon her hand. The icy cold purified her hands after touching the horrors of slaughter.

When the parties of men returned to the village, it came as a sudden shock that no signs of wolves had been found. No tracks, no dens, not even the carcasses of prey. This led some in the village to question if it was indeed wolves that mercilessly killed the sheep, or if perhaps it was something—or someone—else that had done it. But could this be?—The rumor that spread like wildfire throughout the settlement.—Could someone from the village be so violent? So cruel as to destroy the livelihood of a simple shearer? So disturbed as to end the lives of peaceful animals? The once interdependent neighbors were now suspicious of one another, and each family silently returned to their own homes to protect from any possible hostilities.

Lucy had hardly slept that night, and rather, pretended to sleep as she watched her father guard the door to their hut. He sat at the rounded dining table and stared at the door, with an unbreaking gaze as he stroked his scruffy beard and a hatchet at his side. He trusted no one in the village, worried for the safety of his family and property. Lucy knew this—what was to stop the villagers from storming the house, killing the family, and taking what food they had? With the slaughter of those innocent sheep, and the lack of growing crops, societal norms had broken down, and thus the seeds of hysteria had been planted.

A few hours before dawn pierced the horizon, Lucy and her parents managed to capture some sleep; her father was drifting off at the table. However, it was to be short-lived, as there came a crashing and smashing from outside. Lucy’s father awoke first and grabbed the hatchet before he went straight to the door to investigate. Then came the screaming, the horrible muffled screaming from men and women alike, that awakened Lucy and her mother. “What is that?” her mother asked.

“I don’t know,” her father replied, as he swung the door open. “But I’m goin’ to check.”

The moment her father stepped out of the house, Lucy pulled the fur blanket up to her face. Just beyond the crumbling stone wall that separated her from the outside, were the cries of suffering and pleading, the screams of death and destruction, the music of cracking and splashing. Lucy’s mother jumped out of bed and grabbed her daughter by the arm to pull her toward the cellar door. “Mother, what’s happening?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, as she opened the trapdoor, and forced Lucy to climb down the steps. “But you must remain quiet. I’ll go find your father, and see if it’s safe.”

She closed the door, and Lucy entered the grimy passage between the shelves of dwindling food. The sprouting mushrooms within the dirt tickled her feet. Looking up between the hanging cloves of garlic, and the small space between each of the floorboards, she saw her mother walking toward the front door. But just as she passed directly above Lucy, she paused.

What are you?!” her mother said. “Demon!

Lucy had blinked, and in that brief moment, while her eyes were closed, a human figure had descended upon her mother, wearing black clothes and a hood over its head. It slammed her mother to the floor, which sprayed dust down upon Lucy’s eyes, blinding her. As she wiped the dirt away to regain her vision, she began to feel a warm and wet sensation on her hands, forehead, and shoulders. When she could see again, there were thick drops of hot red liquid along her hands and all over her clothes. She looked up and saw blood raining down between the floorboards from her mother’s body, as the hooded figure kneeled and gorged upon her mother’s neck.

Lucy covered her mouth to avoid being discovered, as the hooded figure fed upon the essence of her mother’s life. That sensational fear, what she had felt the day before in the woods, she experienced once more. The primal need to escape whatever was attacking her mother. She clenched her jaw, as her body began to shudder and weaken. An agent of death was a few feet above her, and everything from the hairs on the back of her neck, to the most instinctual and animalistic parts of her core, knew that if she was spotted, she would be killed.

When it had its fill, the hooded figure stood up and moved toward the front door. But it paused, just before it stepped out the doorway, and sniffed the air. Lucy thought it could smell her, and so she held her mouth even tighter.

It left the house.

The young Lucy breathed a sigh of relief, not yet realizing just how lucky she was to be alive. When the air calmed and the noises ended, only then did she climb up out of the cellar, and approach her mother’s body. The eyes were open, the deep brown that Lucy now could not recognize, as if the corpse was not her mother. Guilt struck her, but not for the sake of her own survival. No, she felt guilty because she felt nothing. She looked upon the body, and the gory hole that was etched into her mother’s throat. The red streams exiting the wound continued to seep through the floorboards. The scent of iron filled her youthful lungs.

The front door was wide open, but there was not a sound to be heard—not even the wind. Lucy knew there were no other survivors, and saw nothing beyond the doorway other than dense white fog. The moment she stepped outside, she found the body of her father. His throat similarly torn; though his beard had soaked up much of his blood. His right arm had been ripped from the torso, with the hatchet still clenched in the hand of the limb. Again, Lucy felt nothing.

Some weird force drew her to the village square, passed several other villager’s homes. The fog-shrouded most of the aftermath, but from what Lucy could see within the few feet around her, bodies were everywhere. Ripped asunder, and tossed into the mud and dirt that mixed so well with their blood. Legs and arms were scattered about, with trails of red flowing from each open door of the huts. She felt nothing as she gazed upon the mutilated remains; corpses torn apart at the belly, with intestines and lungs and livers throughout the pools of filth and blood. She had not gagged at these sights, nor was she afraid any longer.

At the water well in the center of the village stood the hooded figure. It watched her approach, and she looked upon it. The figure was a man, or maybe, what used to be a man. He towered over her, standing at least six feet. Although on the younger side, no later than his mid-twenties. Attractive with a rugged jawline (even if it was painted in blood), with such pale skin. His cold, white, dead eyes unmoved, and glared upon her own.

“Do it, then,” Lucy said. “Kill me. Take my blood—as you have done with the rest.”

“. . . No,” he replied, his voice smooth and elegant. He caressed her cheek with a cold, pale hand, and on that hand, she noticed a large ring on the middle finger. A red gem sat upon the crown, with the letter ‘S’ engraved within it. “I cannot.”

Lucy blinked, and the man was gone. She looked all around, and saw nothing but a white foggy void; except for the ground, as an invasion of deep red blood slithered its way through the dirt and toward Lucy’s feet. The rhythmic beats of her heart clogged her ears. She sank to her hands and knees, her skin touching the dry dirt and the wet blood.

She vomited, as tears streamed down her face.

 

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © 2017 ― Zachary W Mahnke

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author.

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