During the reign of King Edward II
They’d been warned as children never to go into the depths of the river moor. In the late afternoon amid the creeping shadows it was said demons began their prowl along the thicketed banks and strange creatures seeking prey lurked among the treacherous marshes. The swamp they said thrived with ghosts. If these spirits’ places were violated one would be captured and swept away to be imprisoned in the land of the dead.
Chores were done and now Daniel and Beth could spend a little time at play. They weren’t children anymore. He was fifteen and Beth fourteen. She was the daughter of Olan the hay farmer and he, who served as woodcutter, was the son of James the carpenter. Brackenwood, where they lived, was a quiet and peaceful somewhat large village. Nothing ever went awry in Brackenwood. Baron Bryanwho lived in the castle on Bracken Hill treated everyone well.
As the dying sun peeked between the trees they ventured together hand in hand where Beth had the week before slipped away alone. He wore his bow over his shoulder and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back.
“I want to show you something,” Beth said with a grin. Her voice chimed with a honeyed melody. Golden hair adorned her shoulders. Her oval face was smooth and creamy having rosy, bowed lips andsparkling blue eyes framed with long silky lashes. She wore a plain tan-gray tunic with a narrow circle of lace round the neckline and a hemp braid tied tightly round her waist.
“It was dangerous and not smart of you,” he said stepping though groves of heather that wanted to trip him, “to come here by yourself.”
Beth laughed. It made his heart dance to hear her. “Silly. There’s nothing here but acres of wasteland.” She tugged his arm. “This way.”
He didn’t budge.
He was having second thoughts about this journey.
“What’s the matter?” Beth narrowed her eyes at him.
“Naught,” he copied her grim expression. “Just mayhap we shouldn’t test the moor.”
She let go his arm. “There’s nothing whatsoever to be leery of,” she assured him then grinned. “Unless you believe the goblin tales.”
He felt like a scared fool. Had to prove he wasn’tone. Be a man and not a boy he told himself. “Alright,” he mustered the nerve, “but we tarry no longer than an hour or we’ll be missed.”
They’d lied to their parents. He was supposed to be with his friends and her with hers. This was the first time they’d managed to get alone. Her father Olan, a strong man and known for his bad temper, sheltered his only daughter overmuch. He was a mite wary of Olan. So he knew he must be on guard. Beth could get him into a bushel oftrouble if he weren’t careful. Mayhap this little escapade was the beginning of that. Lots of girls her age were married. Some carried babes in their bellies.
Beth took his hand again. Gently. She drew nigh, seized the midsection of his sleeveless brown shirt and stroked the muscles of his left upper arm. Their gazes locked.
With parted mouth and hungry eyes, she whispered, “Would that we had until forever.” Brushing against him, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him softly on the cheek.
Now he didn’t feel like a boy. Delightful ripples rushed through him. Primitive urges started a hefty pull. Beth had never done anything like this to him before. He liked the effect she’d stirred up. All refusals of her wishes that tried to linger melted away. He reached for her but with a start she eluded his grasp nimbly sidestepping as if she thought he’d snatch her and take her down. That idea tempted him.
They wove through acopse of trees. It was darker here. The early spring sun hid behind the forest veil and a gossamer umber haze pressed them. The further they trod to gloomy realms unknown, to places forbidden, he could not help but harbor an eerie sense of dread. Beth gave him no clue she felt as he. Was she braver than he or just numb to the mysterious sinister presence that seemed to crawl on him? The scent in the damp air reeked of dirty water. Odd how this bewitching world of trees, brush, peculiar plants andbog was so silent. He heard no birds, frogs or small animals rustle through the greenery, only their own footsteps and breathing.
She led him onto a patch of glade having high grass. Ahead stood a wall of thick trees. The bases of their wide trunks flourished with heather. Beth let go his hand. He wiped his brow and rubbed the sweat on his dark trousers. He was getting sticky, itchy. It was so muggy today, the air heavy. He felt as if he breathed under water.
Beth took two steps forward then turned, lifting a hand. “Stay here,” her lip curled.
“But where you going?”
She back peddled with her hands behind her. “We’re here.”
“Where’s here?” he drawled with a trace of annoyance.
“It’s a surprise.” She wore mischief on her face. He had no inkling what she was about. It nettled him a bit. He stepped toward her.
She thrust out both hands toward him palms up.“Don’t follow until I call you,” she pleaded and continued back peddling.
She wrinkled her brow and made a sour face. “Swear you won’t or it’ll ruin the fun.”
“Ahhh,” he groaned.
At a halt she put fists to her hips and said firmly, “Swear.”
“Alright,” he raised his voice slightly, “I swear.”
Her hair blowing in the breeze she beamed at him, turned and ran disappearing into theveil of trees.
They’d been like close cousins as children. And until a few months ago he’d thought her nothing more. But since, they seemed to have been magically drawn together. Their likings for each other seemed to increase with each passing day. They were all smiles, giggles and chuckles when with one another. To see her ever brightened his grotesquely dull days. She of perfect size had grown to almost full height and nigh filled out her developing bosom.
The forest south of the village was where the baron hunted and wood was harvested. There, glinting streams branching from the river thrived with fish that were taken to market whose monies the baron required a piece of. Here only frogs, snakes and infernal insects inhabited the river’s murky tributaries. Nothing could be reaped here in this useless north swamp-woods.
He tired of waiting. What? Had Beth fallen into a hole? Wading through the high grass, he stepped up the easy slopethat fronted the timberline. Leaning against a large oak, he peered into the thicket shadows unable to see anything as yet save more trees and brush. Then after an anxious spell of silence, he heard a gentle splash. Beth called to him.
Into the dense barrier of woods he entered following the sound of her voice. Within six trudging paces the dark green cover thinned and daylight shown through the cracks. He pushed past tall ferns that obstructed his vision and to his left on a lowstretching limb hung Beth’s tunic and sheer kirtle. His heart ran. He swallowed hard. Her slippers and stockings lay on the ground a step further. Piercing the leafy veil he came to Beth’s surprise. There in front of him lay a small pond clear as a shiny mirror surrounded tightly by a half-circle of close-knit trees. Beyond the opposite bank a stone’s throw away, a segmented horizontal row of trees guarded the broad midsection of a rocky hillock having a warped shelf. Beth was in the water about forty feet away. She sat with her back to him twirling a strand of her hair in her fingers.
At his call she rose and turned to face him. He stood frozen in his boots as he beheld her naked glory. Every inch of him cried out to touch that lovely flesh. She was bold with her appearance yet shy with her words. She, with that alluring little girl grin of hers curled her right arm toward him. “Daniel. Join me? Take your clothes off?”
Without hesitation he started unshouldering his bow and to do as she bid. But then a dark gray mass emerged from behind the guardian trees and with a screeching roar that sent hoarfrost through his soul the shadowy creature leaped down from the hillock’s shelf. Stunning bolts of ice stampeded along his spine as the large four-legged scaly demon of fierce snout and lofty orange dual-fins atop its back rocked side to side and whipped out its black tongue. On its belly the hellish creature stormedfor the water.
“BETH!” He cried out in death-gripping terror. “RUN!”
She turned about, screamed and tried to flee but the beast opened a cavernous maw of dagger teeth and shot out a torrent of yellowish-brown spittle that once it struck Beth set her aflame. Beth’s squall of anguish split his heart.
Too terrified to move he watched as the thorny fiend bore down on her. It swallowed her from head to waist and bit her in two. Dipping its gruesome head into the pond it scooped up her remains with its mouth. Head risen, it chewed on her until she’d been devoured utterly. His breath ragged and legs shaking, slowly he stepped back.
But an ounce of courage surfaced him. His weight on his back foot, he took a stand, gritted his teeth and reached back into his quiver for an arrow. He nocked it, drew back his bow and fired striking the blood-drooling giant lizard below the neck. The beast growled and picked the arrow outeasily with a deft claw. Then when the monster glared at him with its menacing red eyes and snapped its mighty jaws, cold fear seized him. His heart pounded like a rapid sledgehammer beating an anvil.
He turned and ran. Through the cover of trees he sped. With a loud rustle giant footsteps thudded in his wake.