The man-beast closes his eyes and inventories his world.
There are deer in the forest ahead, and beyond the forest there are sheep on the slope leading up the mountain. Although he cannot see them, he smells each one in great detail. He knows each creature better by smell than he ever could by sight: the young and old, the small and large, the sick and well, the male and female. And while he has no words to describe this ability — he has traded his words for claws — he knows just as surely who has poisoned him, what creature has shot him in the back.
With one knee on the ground, he reaches over his shoulder and tears loose the sleeve of his tunic, searching for the thing that stung him. He lets out a soft growl that is still more man than beast as he removes the dart, half the size of a crossbow bolt, point dripping black with poison, a pungent, wicked slime. The fletchings, feathers from a male turkey… they reek of lavender and wine and sweat — and something else… someone else… someone familiar.
Under the moon’s incessant glow, the man struggles to focus his eyes on the world around him. The light shines down on the field, almost as bright as day, revealing every detail, from small toadstools to bunches of crabgrass, yet he has to concentrate with great effort to see anything clearly. The poison has already begun to cloud his brain. Squinting, he turns back to the castle.
Atop the castle wall, he sees the silhouette of the woman, just a glimpse as she flees. All shadow and blur, but he knows her. More by nose than eyes, but he knows her. The woman has killed him time and time again, and she is killing him again tonight. He doesn’t know how he knows this primal tale. It is an age-old drama that he knows by heart and reads in the eddies of the breeze.
He casts the dart aside and sets his sights on the gatehouse of the castle. He expects a hailstorm of arrows when he arrives, but finds the drawbridge down and the portcullis raised. There are no arrows; there are no men. There had been, only hours ago, but they are gone now. He fears this is a trap, but knows that he must not stop until he reaches the woman, until he takes his revenge.
This woman is both damnation and salvation in his mind, unknowable yet unforgettable, a Gordian knot tied at the center of his being. He almost knows her name. Even as his eyelids grow heavy, even as his feet stumble, as if walking through mud, he knows that he must make haste, for the poison is taking hold.
Beyond the gate is the courtyard, empty of life yet full of the signs of life. It was recently inhabited, but now everything is abandoned. The blacksmith’s coals are still warm. Baskets of apples, pears, and plums lay on the ground near the castle wall. All is dark, except for the moonlight and an orange glow in one high window of the keep, flickering like a dying bonfire.
The thick wooden doors leading to the great hall are open, wide open, held by large, smooth stones. A long table and a great number of chairs are empty, illuminated only by the light of the moon coming through the side windows. At the other end of the great room the man sees torchlight glowing in a stairwell. Even his beast’s mind knows that this is the way.
Up one, two, three flights, before he stops, lunging forward, stumbling, almost falling, clawing at rabbits in the shadows only to see them vanish in the torchlight. Then farther up, he cringes at the sight of peasants armed with pitchforks and flame only to realize they are an illusion, a product of the woman’s magic. Slowing in mind and body, he continues upward running his hand along the stone wall for balance. At the top of the staircase, he sees a lighted room at the end of a long hall.
On hands and knees, he finally makes his way through the open door into the orange light. His nose tells him that he has arrived, but he smells no fear. How can she not fear him? Is it because he is so weak?
His eyes see a blur wearing a long white gown slowly approaching. His arms are weak, and he feels warmth growing in his chest and moving to his face. He eases down to the floor, on his side, lying on a thick woven rug. The woman speaks — at least, he thinks she makes word sounds — not growling or barking or howling sounds; it sounds like purring.
“My Lord, my husband,” she says, as he rolls over on his back, exhausted.
“We have made it through another accursed night.” The darkness rises over him, shrinking his view of the world to a speck.
“Sleep now, my love,” she whispers, kneeling, touching his shoulder.
He closes his eyes and surrenders to the unseen tide that rocks him.
Rollin T. Gentry lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, Shelly. A software engineer by day, he can be found reading and writing lots of speculative fiction during his spare time. He’s had stories appear in publications such as Liquid Imagination, Every Day Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, and 50-Word Stories.