Everybody in our village knew that Old Bones had abandoned Mogilëv. They also knew that no mere wolf or human marauder, however wanton or depraved, had crushed Cyril’s new chicken coup last week or bashed Michael Bilìbin’s litter of black pigs into piles of bloody wreckage.
At last, it seemed, Old Bones had found our tiny village.
I told my wife, Irina, that I would set out to confront him. My only companion on this dreadful hunt would be my friend, Peter Ivánovich.
“Another old man!” she complained. “Why him of all people? Why you?”
But Irina already knew why. Old Bones was not the first hill demon to slake his thirst on the blood of our farms. Fifteen years ago we hunted down a verminous cretin called the Toe-Eater, and the reasons for our selection remain true to the current task: we’re competent woodsman, not given to drink, not easy to quit, and amiable companions. We’re not ones to rush headlong into the forest with fantasies of vengeance or fame, yet we’re sturdy enough to endure the rigors of camping.
All those years ago we ventured into the forest and successfully returned with the Toe-Eater’s head…that blighted hill demon who nightly burrowed into our family graves in search of food, who supped on stray cats and blind, old hounds, and who—on a bleak December night—snatched the newborn daughter of my neighbor from her cradle and boiled her in a small, iron stewpot.
Bah! The foul devil! Indeed, the Toe-Eater! Even now I can barely write your name without my hands shaking!
We entered the grey forest on foot, for no horse or even sure-footed mule could hope to travail the jumbled course of a hill demon. Old Bones’s ponderous footprints led us to his entry point as clearly as a posted sign.
Earlier, I said goodbye to Irina while Peter stood outside my home, waiting patiently for our departure. The morning sun painted the sky with violent, rose-bellied clouds. The few neighbors we passed bid us luck and stocked us with potatoes and cured meat such as they could provide.
Although rifles were said to be in common use by Alexander’s soldiers, I had yet to actually see one. We walked into the forest armed only with slung bows and loaded quivers. I also had my grandfather’s sword, called Ghul-Rostóv and last used to behead the Toe-Eater, buckled at my hip.
Earlier, I called the forest “grey” and so it was.
The autumn leaves had long since shriveled into a dense carpet of tawny shells. Trees layered the hills with their ashen trunks, naked branches jutting out like squibbles of black ink.
My boots splashed through streams, hefted my body over tangled deadfalls, and sank into pools of mud left by the sun-melted frost. Our breaths puffed like smoke and a blustery wind made the foliage rustle like a dying animal. All nature’s lush bounty buckled beneath fast-approaching winter!
Yet, I found myself enjoying our careful walk. The trill of queer birds, the satisfying crunch of ice as I stepped onto shallow puddles. Fresh air untouched by cattle or pig, the weight of a scabbard filled with sharpened steel at my hip, the glittering brilliance of the sun reflected back on me by a thousand icy eyes pebbled through the landscape—from these I took an oft undernourished joy that was sadly absent from my farming life.
We ate supper while squatting on rocks warmed by our campfire. Pine cones hissed and spat at our mud-caked boots. A tin bowl lay over the fire, housing our meal of bacon and cubed potatoes. We speared our food with hunting knives and chewed in silence, staring into the fire. The forest faded to black and the fire etched what remained of our world from the darkness.
I sipped water and cleared my throat before speaking.
“He made this,” I said, holding a wooden amulet in my hand. Peter discovered it dangling from a branch while we made camp. This patch of forest was hillier than most and fraught with roots; a difficult place to camp, but the setting sun gave us little alternative. This small clearing provided enough room to make a fire and lay out to sleep in shifts, and we were happy to find it…until Peter’s discovery.
“A threat?” he asked, lighting his pipe with a twig recovered from the fire.
“Best to protect our camp with snares and trip-wires,” he said. “I’ll make them after I finish my smoke.”
I studied the amulet in my hand. A crude object, just six broken twigs tied together with a knot of leather to form a wooden asterisk.
“I’ll set out Julie,” I said.
Peter nodded silently. He did not chuckle as he did fifteen years ago when I found our little stowaway hidden in my rucksack. Julie is a doll my wife made from an old dress and two wooden buttons. Sonya had smuggled the doll into my rucksack before my departure and on my return informed me that Julie was meant as a token of protection; an extra set of eyes to keep watch at night.
The doll smelled sweetly of my daughter, no coincidence as she was made from Sonya’s old clothes and spent every night smothered in her embrace except for those three lonely evenings spent in my rucksack. I could smell her on the doll even now, many years after Sonya’s death. On those nights while we hunted the Toe-Eater, she was treated less as a trifle and more as a powerful totem of protection.
Certainly Peter regarded her “magic" in a serious light and seemed more relaxed when I placed her near my bedroll where her button eyes could stare unblinking into the darkness.
Peter slept as I took first watch. We had collected plenty of branches to feed the campfire and the moon was bright and full. I held my daughter’s rag doll under my nose from time to time to sniff her sweet scent on the fabric.
In the darkness, I heard a twig snap. A tree shook and a murder of crows took flight, squawking angrily. Though winter was soon approaching, those sounds could still be the midnight rovings of a hungry bear searching for a last meal before hibernation, or an owl hunting for prey.
But I distinctly felt intelligent eyes staring at me. Malignant eyes. The eyes of an unnatural animal. They seemed to watch my every move, just as they watched the gentle rise of Peter’s chest under the midnight moon. They looked at Ghul-Rostóv, sheathed and leaning against a tree, and studied Peter’s massive yew bow and his red-fletched arrows with calculating appraisal.
I caught the barest glimmer of large eyes, like two polished coins, floating several feet above the ground not far from the campfire. They vanished before I could do anything but clasp Julie to my chest and utter a foolish prayer.
The night, I now reflect, is no time for hunting giants!
Morning found Peter’s snares and tripwires unsprung. I found no tracks, no broken branches, no evidence that Old Bones had been grousing near our camp.
While Peter boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, I wandered through the woods, searching for signs of the Devil’s presence. Perhaps the amulet was not meant for us, I reasoned. Perhaps it was a marker that Old Bones left for himself; something to indicate a haven for rest. When at last I found a partial track, it was a long distance from our camp and heading in the same direction as our initial pursuit.
After a light breakfast we each smoked a pipe to warm our lungs.
“The night passed badly for me,” I admitted. “The morning air feels safer, although I have no reason for this. Old Bones could easily strike during the day. The sun offers us no real protection.”
“The Toe-Eater only struck at night,” Peter said, spitting between his feet. “Coward that he was.”
“Old Bones is much bigger. And stouter. I knew this by rumor…but the depth of his footprint is impressive. He must be seven, even eight feet tall.”
“Still flesh and blood.”
“True,” I said. “He is still flesh and blood. Tell me: is that the same bow you used to kill Vsevolöd?”
I already knew the answer, but Peter humored me anyway. “Same bow. Same arrows, too. I only changed their fletching.”
Vsevolöd was a rogue bear who terrorized our village more than twenty years ago, back when Peter and I were still young, robust men; before even our excursion to find the Toe-Eater. He tracked that fearsome animal alone (I was tending to my wife, who was in breeched labor with our daughter) and slew the bear with a single arrow shot through its neck. Vsevolöd’s shaggy hide became a fine rug in Peter’s cabin, measuring ten feet from tail to snout…but he was old, grey-backed, and nearing the end of his natural life.
“We have your grandfather’s sword,” Peter added. “How many Turks did your father slay with that ancient blade? Was it six?”
I smiled around my pipe. “Seven. Eight if you count their Greek servant. He was a catamite, I believe.”
“I do,” Peter said. “Eight men, then, and I’ve slain a bear larger than Old Bones with this very bow.”
“Will it be so easy?”
“No,” he replied. Peter tapped the ashes from his pipe. “We can overcome him…but it will not be easy.”
Around midday Peter made a disturbing discovery. We had been weaving through a maze of game trails, easily tracking our prey by way of broken and bent branches, footprints, and piles of green scat.
I held my hand over the scat and remarked, “Still warm."
“Look there,” Peter said, pointing off the trail, into a crowded thicket where two crows circled above something hidden behind a screen of trees.
I unsheathed Ghul-Rostóv. The ancient steel glinted in the clear winter sunlight. Peter knocked an arrow.
We crept toward the thicket and found a half-finished bit of butchery hanging from a birch tree. A sheep hung from a rusty nail that had been punched through its hind ankle. From the abundant scuffs and scratches left on the bark near the poor creature’s legs, I did not believe the sheep was dead when Old Bones pressed it against the trunk and began his grisly work. The poor creature's throat had been torn out by a massive hand, its blood splattered on the white trunk and puddled within a bowl of gnarled roots. A hole had been dug in the frozen earth near the tree by the same large fingers, torn from the ground in great chunks and tossed aside. The finger gouges in both beast and earth ran a shudder through me—such large digits!
“He left in haste,” Peter said, pointing at the hand-gouged hole in the ground. “He meant to bury this calf, but we interrupted him. He’s close—and he knows we’re coming.”
“Where did he find a sheep in these wilds?”
Peter shrugged. “Cyril has a ranch east of these hills. Old Bones may have snatched it from there...or perhaps it came from one of our farms and he smuggled it into this thicket on his back, bleating and bucking and all. Either is possible.”
“Let us make haste,” I said. “Maybe we can run the devil down before sunset!”
We happened upon Old Bones not long after finding the sheep, during an uneventful trek through a slippery riverbed. The unlikely sighting froze all participants in place.
Old Bones was crouched upon a wide, flat rock under a veil of branches, close enough for us to loose our hastily drawn arrows, but far enough away that rushing to engage him in hand-to-hand melee would be impossible unless one of our arrows hobbled his flight. Frost puffed from his mouth in great, rolling clouds.
Hardly had I lifted my bow when Peter loosed his arrow. The White Devil quickly withdrew behind a tree. Branches snapped and rattled in the path of my friend’s arrow, and—Lo!—did the awful hill demon roar when Peter’s iron tip struck home. Old Bones vanished from sight, but his cry was unmistakable. I loosed my own shaft and heard a second report: another strangled cry!
Old Bones resembled the Toe-Eater in many ways. They both had simian arms topped with fingers that touched their knees and stooped, narrow shoulders. They also shared an oval-shaped head with fleshy lips and a neanderthal’s brow—a mixture of primitive man and the worst birth defects of his modern cousin.
There the similarities ended. Toe-Eater had barely reached my chest, whereas Old Bones seemed to tower over us even when standing at such a distance. His brethren had mottled, olive skin like a well-used oil rag. Old Bones had skin the color of salt. His hair was a shock of cotton, tied in a strange top-knot that sat on his head like a peeled onion. Dirt streaked and splattered his naked skin, making the clean patches of flesh seem all the more disturbingly white by contrast, and he wore little in the way of clothes; bits and scraps of animal hide and a dirty bear skin cape with a raw belly.
His massive feet thumped onto rocks and piled leaves. We heard branches snap and saw the ink-drawn tops of many trees shudder in the path of his retreat.
“On him!” snarled Peter. “Let this be the end of the White Devil! Nicholas, draw your blade and let us take him! Hear ye the misshapen fool? The coward? He blubbers for mercy! Hah! Damn his head and spend not a moment in consideration of mercy!”
I did not hear Old Bones call for mercy—only his thumping, retreating steps growing faint as we slipped and stubbled across the river bed in our hurry to catch him—but the thought of the White Devil asking to be spared, whether real or imagined, seemed to incense Peter beyond all reason. I’d never seen him so furious!
“On him! On the pale devil! The outcast albino!” he cried. “ON HIM!”
All the rest of the day we pursued Old Bones. Though we came close to catching him a few times, he managed to stay out of reach of Peter’s massive bow. His trail was simple enough to follow; if not a muddy print, then a broken sapling, if not a broken sapling, then blood splattered on a rock.
We came upon a birch tree leaning against its fellows, roots pulled from the ground, with a gigantic red handprint stamped on the bark. More blood had fallen onto the ground below the tree, forming a cold puddle in the valley of several large rocks.
“He used this tree for support,” Peter said, then pointed at the red, mirror-like puddle between the rocks. “His blood dripped here while he struggled to catch his flagging breath.”
“He’s leaving a clear enough trail,” I said. “Why doesn’t he conceal himself?”
“He has an arrow in his lung or perhaps deep in his belly,” Peter said.
“Perhaps,” I said, unconvinced.
Although Peter wanted badly to pursue Old Bones with the reckless vigor of a young man, his knees and aching feet slowed him down…much to my relief. He called for occasional breaks to sit on rocks and massage his swollen knees, and during these breaks I was able to express my growing fear that Old Bones—that crafty devil, who I heard by rumor was more seasoned and sly than all others of his brood—may be leading us into a trap.
Between the cold seeping through his clothes, the throbbing ache in his knees (which crunched like old leather when he rose from sitting), the hollow pangs in his grumbling gut, and the bone-deep fatigue from our constant movement up and down hills and scrambling over tall rocks, Peter’s bloodlust subsided and he began to think again as the competent woodsman whose partnership and insight I needed on this bitter quest.
When the sun sank behind the tree line, Peter said we should camp well away from the creature’s trail and keep a small fire in case Old Bones was faking the severity of his injuries and planned to double-back and sneak into our camp under the cover of night.
We found a suitable place in a nest of trees surrounded on all sides by bald patches of land scorched by an ancient fire. Easy enough to see the lumbering brute approach. Peter lit a fire close to the trees using hardwood that would not smoke and built a small rock oven to hide the flickering light. Younger men might have attempted a cold camp, maybe eaten cold food, and relied on their bodies and blankets to see them through the frigid night. Not so with us—not if we intended to pursue Old Bones in the morning. Peter’s knees hurt so he could barely straighten them. I brought a liniment oil that I rubbed into his aching joints.
We drank tea and ate a stew that I mixed from turnips, cured beef, onions, and other odds and ends. Bland fare, I must admit. Peter nodded as he ate and commented, “It’s warm if nothing else.”
We smoked our pipes before Peter settled for sleep and I assumed first watch. Julie sat beside me, our little rag doll guardian.
“Thank you,” he said, hidden in the depths of his blankets and bedroll.
“Whether he intends to spring a trap or not, we must still pursue him,” I said.
A long silence drew between us and I assumed Peter had fallen asleep. He startled me by saying, “His woodcraft is impressive. He scares me, Nicholas.”
“His speed may be nothing but the stride of his long legs.”
“Aye...his size and speed are something to be wary, but think also of what we haven’t seen. Old Bones has mortal needs same as us. He must eat—his piles of scat prove as much. He must sleep at times, he must shelter himself from the cold. His clothing is taken from the forest; the bearskin cloak he wore was fresh and dripping. So where are the snares he uses to catch his food and clothes? Where are the remains of his cook fires, or—if he needs not cooked food—where are the carcasses of the things he eats? The mice and birds we find in his scat can’t be more than snacks for a creature of his size. Where are his shelters? The places where he finds rest? Either I’m wrong and he needs none of these things—a scary enough thought as it makes him many times tougher than any foe I’ve ever pursued—or his woodcraft is such that he can hide all traces of it from us…and we are indeed inside a maze of his own making, which scares me even more.”
More words had he just spoken, I must remark, than I’ve heard spoken from old Peter in all the last year combined!
“Your thoughts are darkened by the night. You’ll feel differently in the morning,” I assured him.
“My bloodlust earlier today was folly. What foolishness! I think now that you saved our lives.”
“Sooner or later—“
“—we must confront him. I know. And we’ll do so rested and well-fed, our bones warmed by a fire and softened with liniment, thanks all to you. Still, Nicholas…I fear him.”
For a long while I watched my friend’s frosted breath puff from under his covers. “He’s stronger than us,” Peter said. ”Faster than us. His woodcraft gives him mastery of the forest, allows him to move like a ghost. Your suspicions seem all the more reasonable in the dark of night: he’s leading us into a trap…a trap we will not see until it has sprung.”
“What about our arrows embedded in his guts? Surely that gives us an advantage?”
“I pray, Nicholas…” he said, his voice becoming old and weak, filled with a hopelessness that chilled my bones. “I pray you are right.”
Peter did not speak of his nighttime fears in the morning; we broke our camp in typical fashion, silently smoked our pipes, ate a warm breakfast of cinnamon oatmeal and bits of dried fruit, and rejoined the trail left by Old Bones.
The morning sun brought us little comfort, although the sky had at last broken its lead belly of clouds. The sun, however, appeared sickly and green-hued; it looked like a lump of poison, and would have sent less superstitious men heading home. A dark thought slipped into my mind like an oily serpent: maybe turning around at this point would not spare us from the indomitable woodsman of Peter’s midnight fears.
Be that as it may, these two old men would continue in their own way; moving with a renewed slow and cautious approach, all the hot blood from yesterday boiled away, eyes studying every rock and tree for portents of a trap, arrows laid across our bows, and Ghul-Rostóv loose in its scabbard.
“A dread sun,” I remarked when I could hold my silence no longer.
“Maybe Julie will cancel even so ill an omen,” Peter said. “I see that she watches us now from your carriage.”
Indeed, I deliberately left the rag doll’s head slightly outside the side-pocket of my rucksack—and was glad to hear the steel returned in my friend’s voice.
“Maybe,” I said.
On a patch of land with no significant features—a few birch trees that looked no different than the leafless thousands we passed over the previous two days; a mottled bit of flat ground that held a mixture of frosted dirt and grass and a few white-dusted shrubs—we stepped at last into Old Bones’s trap.
This happened when the sickly, green sun had risen to its noon position and the whole sky seemed poisoned and yellow by its presence. We still had our bows ready, we still walked with quiet caution, stopping often to investigate a suspicious loop of vine or a disturbed ring of dirt always to discover nothing. We crept forward as though we pursued Satan himself.
I remember the sound of a distant bird trill, the crunch of soft steps on the hoar frost—then Peter tripped forward as though pushed by a pair of invisible hands and was lifted by his ankle several feet into the air. He had been passing a tall tree and now dangled from a simple snare no more complicated than what a child would lay to catch rabbits or groundhogs but placed with such deceptive skill that neither of us spotted the contraption until Peter was ripped off his feet and hung upside down before me. He somehow managed to keep hold of his bow despite the savage pull of the snare’s noose. My friend spun in a slow, struggling circle while I watched him, stunned.
He cried out, “Watch yourself! He approaches you from behind!”
I moved with awful slowness; wholly uncoordinated, a useless, frightened old man whose heart seemed to flop in his chest like a fish dropped in an oak barrel.
I dropped my bow, dropped the arrow that had been knocked in its rest, and was lucky not to impale the top of my foot with its stone-sharpened tip. Frozen grass crunched behind me as a massive shadow draped my fallen bow.
I grabbed Ghul-Rostóv and drew the ringing blade, spinning on my left heel and putting all my weight into a pinwheel slash aimed at the creator of the shadow behind me.
Old Bones had emerged from some hiding place that neither of us had noticed. His arm was raised over his head. The knotted club held in his hand looked to weight at least fifty pounds—a single blow to the head or chest would result in certain death, nor could I hope to parry such devastating weight should it bear upon me.
My slashing blade clove Old Bones to his ribs. I grabbed Ghul-Rostóv’s pommel and tried to drive the tip into his chest, but the hill demon swiped aside my sword with his free hand and stepped away.
I was left reeling and unbalanced.
Old Bones looked at his seeping chest wound, then looked at me with the wisp of a smile on his fleshy lips.
Oh, Lord—to describe the horror of the albino devil before me! His eerie pink eyes! His stench like the spilled organs of a dead pig! At once demon and primate and man, a sloppy, haphazard construct, surely made in haste or drunkenness by the rudimentary hands of a lesser god—or perhaps an older god than He who built man and heaven.
The whispered stories I’ve heard of Old Bones matched his appearance; stories that drifted from Bialystok and the Pripet marshes, up through Dünaberg and through bustling cities like Nóvgorod from the lips of his many victims.
Seeing him stand before me…I believe them all.
I grabbed Ghul-Rostóv with both hands and launched forward, intending to skewer the demon’s chest, but the creature managed to hold his massive palm before him like a shield. My grandfather’s sword lanced his hand until the hilt struck his palm-flesh and the tip hovered inches from his nose. Old Bones curled his fingers around the hilt and pulled the blade from my trembling hands.
He dropped his club and pulled the steel from his hand, his pink eyes never leaving mine. I tried to grab a rabbit-knife sheathed in my belt, but my hands fumbled on my jacket folds. My desperate gaze jumped all over the clearing, searching for some kind of advantage. I saw that Peter had knocked another arrow while hanging upside down and drew his large bow. He swayed from an arched branch, snared fast by a ghastly ligature made of sheep’s intestines.
Please, God in Heaven, I thought. Let his aim be true!
Peter loosed his arrow and it whistled across the demon’s face, coming so close that his white hair blustered as though swept by a wild breeze. The arrow disappeared into the grey woods where it clattered into some branches. Old Bones did not appear to notice the near-miss.
He placed Ghul-Rostóv on the ground and planted one giant foot on the blade. I looked upon his gnarled feet, topped with toenails so encrusted with fungus they resembled dollops of dried custard. He grabbed the pommel and pulled upward; the sword snapped in twain.
Old Bones tossed the grip over his shoulder and kicked the blade into the trees.
He jabbed me in the chest with his club while I fumbled for my hidden rabbit-knife. A blow delivered by a smithy’s hammer would have the same kind of impact. I fell backward and lay sprawled on the ground. My heart stopped beating for a few seconds and pain shivered down my limbs. Then the flopping fish in my chest began to flop again and the pain eased enough for me to crawl upon my hands and knees.
Old Bones swung another retrained blow at poor, dangling Peter, who had knocked another arrow while I lay incapacitated. His heavy club could have shattered Peter’s skull; could have crushed his brains to jelly. Instead, Old Bones merely struck the bow from Peter’s hands.
Now we were effectively unarmed and at his mercy.
Old Bones, I believe, was trying to communicate with me. Whether he could speak any verbal language, even among his own people, I’m not certain. With us, he spoke through gesture. After disarming Peter, Old Bones revealed a pumpkin that he carried at his waist in a netting of frayed rope. He pulled off the stem cap and upended the pumpkin.
Blood poured from the hollowed gourd, splattering the ground by his feet.
I understood his message clear enough. Old Bones bore no injuries other than the two sword blows incurred by Ghul-Rostóv (and even those bled no more than a crimson trickle). Neither of our previous arrows had struck him—nor did we find those arrows in the thicket where he had crouched when we first came upon him.
Old Bones had faked his cries of pain, gathered our arrows, and left the thicket to lead us to this clearing. On the day previous, he had killed a sheep taken from Cyril’s farm, drained its blood into a hollowed pumpkin and harvested the sheep’s intestines to make the snare that would later grab Peter’s ankle. He daubed the sheep’s blood on the rocks and trees to both make a trail and to convince us that he was injured and perhaps dying.
Surprising Old Bones and forcing him to abandon the eviscerated sheep before he could bury its carcass may have been the only part of our hunt that did not go exactlyas our foe had planned. Our only success was more a matter of ill-timing than skill.
The White Devil dropped his club and drew a long knife carved from a human femur—likely some poor victim from Moghilëv.
He tested the knife’s keen edge with a calloused thumb and approached Peter.
Old Bones paused and looked at me. When I did not move, he resumed his slow gait. Then he stopped and looked at me again.
What do you want, O terrible Lord of the Forest? I thought.
He sliced the snare with a lazy swipe. Peter fell to the ground, dazed and winded. Old Bones planted his foot on Peter’s chest just as he planted his foot on Ghul-Rostóv. He knelt low, pressing his weight on Peter’s lungs. Peter screamed and grabbed at the massive foot.
Old Bones raised the bone knife over my friend’s face. The bleached devil turned his head and looked at me again. For a moment his eyes caught the reflected light of the green sun and flashed like rusted coins.
I knew instantly what he wanted. He had been stalking our campfire that first night. He had studied us…studied our weaknesses, the things we coveted, the things we hoped would protect us. Like Peter’s monstrous bow. Like Ghul-Rostóv. Like Julie.
I shouted, “Wait! Please, wait!” and pulled my daughter’s rag doll from the side-pocket of my rucksack. I held the doll before me, offered it—our first sacrifice—to Old Bones, catching one final wisp of my daughter’s sweet scent.
Old Bones nodded. He lifted his foot from Peter’s chest and slid the Satanic bone-knife into his jumbled belt. He snatched the doll from my hands and dropped it into the netting which formerly held a hollowed pumpkin filled with sheep’s blood.
A final surprise yet awaited me, a lesson likely taught to the citizens of Mogilëv over many painful sessions. I had learned much about power and domination from Old Bones.
Now comes my first lesson in malice.
He retrieved his club and turned to leave. He had us defeated; our weapons were broken, our spirits crushed. His plan to break us was a triumph. He could have walked away and carried with him everything he sought when he first laid eyes on our farms, but in Old Bones’ corrupted spirit dwelled a perverse sense of humor.
He turned to leave, then paused. His broad, mongoloid grin peeled back to reveal his blackened gums and dark, wooden teeth.
He turned back upon me and swung his dreadful club.
My right knee collapsed with a wretched crunch.
I screamed and fell onto my back, blessedly losing consciousness as I watched Old Bones fade into the forest.
The journey back to our village took twice as long as our departure. Peter splinted my shattered knee and assembled a pair of wooden crutches from the branches around us—simple implements that saved my life as much as sacrificing Julie had saved his. Without them to increase my mobility, I would have starved in this unforgiving forest. Peter made our fires and cooked our food for five nights as we hobbled home. He also made a splint for his own foot; the snare had dislocated his ankle, but nary a word of complaint did he utter.
Each night Old Bones watched us camp. We heard his footsteps and his shaggy, hoarse laughter, heard the squawk of nettled crows, and many times saw polished coins flashing in the darkness.
Once I awoke with the smell of my daughter clinging to my nostrils and imagined that Old Bones had somehow slipped through Peter’s guard and wiped the tiny rag doll across my sleeping face.
And—in my imagination—he did so with the same leering grin that he wore while cloving in my knee.
The others farmers did not readily accept our tale of defeat. Nor, I believe, did the stout citizens of Mogilëv accept their domination without some initial struggle.
Michael Bilíbin, that hulking farmer-smithy, stronger and bigger than any man in our village, and his three lusty boys armed themselves with bows and hammers and pitchforks (and bottles of vodka) and marched into the woods with great clamor and applause, vowing to bring back Old Bones’s head.
They did not possess the woodcraft of myself or quiet Peter, but believed they made up for this lacking with large, slabby muscles, hairy chests, and youthful bloodlust.
The next night, I found four severed heads lined outside my cottage door beside four penises coated in beeswax and used as candles to light the agonized faces of the Bilíbin lads.
Judging by the expression on their frosted faces, I had no doubt which body parts had been dismembered first.
Then came the morning that Peter found an amulet made of twigs and shaped like an asterisk hanging from his door on a cord made of tanned Bilíbin flesh.
You may imagine a gathering of proud fathers and powerful men at this next juncture; surely there was a meeting held in someone’s living quarters beside a roaring hearth, or in the rectory of our solemn church. In your imagination you may hear loud arguments, proclamations accented by fists striking into palms. But none of this happened.
As we knew that Peter and I (and no others) had to be the ones to hunt Old Bones, so we knew that Peter and I had to be the ones who would chop down a birch tree and plane the wood to fashion a hitching post. Peter painted the post a deep, crimson color. We picked the fattest sheep from Peter’s farm—he had been delivered the amulet, so in the albino’s language he had been selected to give the next sacrifice, or so we believed—and led the poor sheep into a flat, frost-covered onion field near the edge of the forest.
We hammered the post deep in the frozen earth, lashed Peter’s bleating sheep, and left it there to await what untold horrors the night would later bring.
©March, 2016 Andrew Muff
Andrew Muff's work has appeared recently in Perihelion Science Fiction and is upcoming in Bête Noire Magazine. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.