The distinct advantage of hunting for herbs—compared to hunting for deer, antelope, or ostriches, for example—is that they are unable to run away. When one comes upon them, just as I came upon that rich glade bursting with Widow’s-Gown in the forests outside Tudwana, one knows that one’s business is done and one may relish the harvesting without undue exertion of the body or mind, and without affronting one’s conscience with the suffering of innocent creatures.

It is for this latter reason that I limit my consumption, like the rest of my people, to leaves, fruits, roots, grains, and other vegetables, as well as shunning all violence and martial pursuits. The Book of Laws instructs us never to raise a hand against a fellow creature, be they man, beast, or demon. The streets of our own city are thus unsullied by abattoirs and fetid swine-yards, and we walk unencumbered by the swords, knives, and cudgels that the pagans so frequently carry to hack and beat each other to a bloody pulp at a moment’s notice.

I digress. After weeks of searching the hills in vain for a crop of value, the glade of Widow’s-Gown was a most pleasing discovery. I harvested a full three cotyles and made my way back to Tudwana with my pack full, praying dearly that the herbs would fetch a decent sum.

At the bazaar, I called upon many traders, inquiring as to their price. That city was still strange to me, and I did not know how they valued Widow’s-Gown. Alas, Tudwanans are vulgar even for heathens, and I was sent away from their kiosks with indifferent tutting. My three cotyles pleased me less by the moment. I had hoped that they might earn me six obols; I began to despair at seeing even one.

Money, it must be said, weighed heavily on my mind. Do not think from my profession that I am of lowly birth; I am a scion of the House of Nesh, a descendant of philosopher-kings. I am the sixth, however, of six brothers, so that on the expiry of my father I was heir to nothing but a miserable three stremmata of moorland filled with rocks and ragwort, barely fit for a jackal’s latrine. It was thus that I was apprenticed to herbalism.

In the bazaar of Tudwana, I began to doubt my choice of profession, wondering if I might not have been better off as a silversmith or scribe. Moreover, having spent many days in fragrant forests of oak and beech, I was vexed by the hazards of the city, dodging the advances of courtesans, flinching from the rabid growls of vagrant dogs, and hurrying past gathered devotees of one pagan god or another, who no doubt would find the slightest excuse to sacrifice me at some barbarous altar.

It was with joy, then, that I identified the carved heraldry of a fellow adherent of my religion: the Lady-Merchant Alessa of Lobar.

“May Heaven turn its face to you, countrywoman,” I said, bowing as I entered her house, allowing her time to veil herself and avoid either of us polluting the other.

“And on you,” she said, sending a servant-girl for tea.

“Fate has brought me to your door,” I said. “I have spent all day refusing offers for my goods, so many have been the bidders. I was just about to sell when I saw your shop. How could I ever look to Heaven again if I refused my custom to a believer in favour of some devil-worshipper?”

By my birth-right, I should have been above this lowly bargaining, but such were my circumstances. I did not seek wealth for its own sake. My only purpose in life was to wed my cousin Halime. I adored her, and our marriage was Heaven’s design; I had been told as such by the great sage Karbek, when I encountered him in Benezar. The task of amassing her bride-price, however, continued to elude me, and I no longer had the luxury of time. There were rumours of another suitor sniffing around, a dull-witted stonemason from Kessir, and I feared that if I did not find the money—some twenty obols—before the Moon Festival, I would be beaten to the post. Instead of being proudly installed as my noble uncle’s son-in-law, I would be forced into a loveless union unfavoured by Heaven, or worse still, condemned to the miserable existence of a childless bachelor.

Alessa sipped her tea and studied me, unwilling to concede any indication of interest. I took the initiative and laid out the three cotyles of Widow’s-Gown with a flourish. My eyes, long-practiced, remained on hers, and for a single moment as I unloaded the herbs, I saw an unmistakeable glint of desire.

“How much?” she said.

I studied her expression through the veil.

“Fifty obols,” I said.

“Ten,” she replied.

It was my face that must then have twitched with avarice. Ten obols were not enough to put Halime’s hand in mine, but they would take me halfway. Optimism brimmed in my heart. Still, I recovered quickly, improvising a pained groan; I could surely improve even further on her starting price.

“Good Lady, perhaps you are not familiar with this plant, prized by all kingdoms under Heaven. Crushed, it renders a unique and wholesome flavour, capable of elevating the humblest broth. It can be burnt to render an intoxicating scent, used by the Borlumesians in their mystic rites. It is prescribed by physicians to cure baldness, impotence, gout, insanity...”

“Ten is already far too much. It pains me even to utter such a sum. Do yourself a worthy deed and take it.”

Alessa plucked a pastry from the tray proffered by her servant. I declined, due to my sensitive appetite. I was at the point of raising my hand in agreement to the deal, but caution stopped me. I recalled the story of King Tulpa accepting a great gold statue from his vassals in tribute, only discovering that the monument was coated with treacherous poison after it had killed his wife and seven children.

Alessa was right. Ten obols were more than I could have expected.

“The hour draws on, brother,” she said. “Let us conclude this business.”

My skull ached with thought. Why did she have such an urgent need for Widow’s-Gown?

“Perhaps I need to talk to a few more customers,” I said, “and we will discuss this again tomorrow.”

“I’m afraid I depart for Multzep tomorrow.”

Multzep. Of course. I had been a fool. Everyone knew that the Satrap of Multzep was soon to marry off his daughter. Multzeppi weddings were of unparalleled extravagance, and Widow’s-Gown is a vital ingredient in many of the festive pilafs and stews favoured in that land. If Alessa was offering ten obols in Tudwana, she would be hoping for double that in Multzep. I could sell them there myself, perhaps even directly to the Satrap’s seneschal, and obtain my entire dower in a single trade.

At that moment I experienced nothing less than a revelation, a moment at which Heaven’s intentions, normally concealed from humankind, are laid bare and perceptible. It was, undoubtedly, the divine that had guided me to that glade of Widow’s-Gown, and from there to Alessa’s house, and would lead me hence to Multzep, where I would fulfill my destiny.

I began to roll up my wares. The wedding would take place on first full moon after the vernal equinox; a propitious date in the pagans’ calendar. That would fall in roughly three days’ time. I could not tarry.

“It has been a pleasure, Good Lady, but I must decline your offer. May Heaven be generous to you.”

“Look, let’s make it eleven. You’d be a fool to say no.”

“Then let me be one. As it happens, I also travel to Multzep tomorrow.”

She gave a laugh, muffled by her veil. “You? Alone? In these times? Heaven has withdrawn its protection from the Multzep road, my dear brother.” An arch note entered her voice. “Untold numbers have met their doom by the wayside. Just two weeks ago, my own suppliers of cedar-resin were slain. Some say that a devil or a djinn has emerged from the Underworld to stalk the highway. I would not dare to travel myself, did I not go with a guarded caravan. Now come, let me unburden you of your wares and bear the risk of the journey.”

I smiled. I had been subject to ploys like this before. She would not deter me so easily.

“Your concern is worthy of Heaven’s own guardians,” I said, “but I could not allow you to face such peril alone, even with your stout caravan. We shall travel together.”

Alessa scowled, clearly unused to being outwitted by a simple herbalist.

I congratulated myself on my acumen. Soon, I would be a respectable man, with a station in life worthy of my intellect.

I awaited Alessa at the city gates, arriving before dawn so as to deny her any chance to slip past me. She was accompanied by her servant-girl in a litter carried by two hulking Efereans; a third pulled a cart filled with crates, sacks, and amphorae. Four Alheshi soldiers formed our guard, dressed in silk armour and bearing fearsome glaives. I joined step with them, a respectful distance behind, and I felt quite safe. The guards jeered but did not drive me away. Alessa must have instructed them not to. She was a fellow Hukkite, after all, and so could not rightly do me any harm. Indeed, there were some doctors of our faith who would regard even the employment of armed guards as a violation of the Law. I took a somewhat more lenient approach. Besides, having not paid for the guards myself, I could not be a party to the sin.

    I remembered the road, having come along it many years before whilst still an apprentice. Then, the verges had been lush in sorrel, meadow-nard, and fools-willow, and the hillsides flecked with ranging flocks of sheep. Now the roadside was nothing but tangled scrub, and no living creature could be seen except for the occasional lizard, flickering out of sight as soon as my shadow crossed it.

At dusk, we made our camp, a day’s travel happily concluded without the appearance of any cutpurse or evil spirit. The Alheshi guards elected to carouse around the campfire, their rough speech growing louder with every swig of wine. Unable to sleep, I performed prayers, hoping to acquire some surplus merit; I was not foolhardy enough to entreat them for quiet.

After a while they beckoned me over, offering me their jug of palm wine with hearty slaps to the back. Since I could not sleep in any case, and there is nothing in our Law that forbids partaking, I partook. In the end I found them to be reasonable fellows, for pagans; good-humoured and vivacious. When I eventually returned to my bed, it was in a much more generous mood. In another two days I would be safely in Multzep, where my long-sought twenty obols awaited me. I slept with my arms around my herbs, dreaming of how gentle Halime would yield to me once we were committed in wedlock, her sweet brows knotted in pleasure, her body as soft as wet clay.

I awoke to three catastrophes. Firstly, the Alheshi wine had loosened my brain inside my skull, and the slightest movement caused me intolerable agony. Secondly, I had slept past the caravan’s departure, and there was no trace of Alessa and her men but for a smouldering fire. Thirdly, and most gravely of all, my reveries over Halime had led me to defile myself in the night, shaming myself in the eyes of Heaven and causing an unpleasant stain on my robes. Until I found fresh water with which to purify myself, my every word and action would be cursed.

I set out immediately, veering from one side of the highway to the other. The clear open plains outside Tudwana had turned to sloping scrub forest, tree branches obscuring the path ahead as it meandered between hills. Around every corner I found nothing but empty road, the sunlight stinging my eyes. I was in a dire predicament. Either I had fallen too far behind the caravan to catch up with them, or I would find them whilst I was still unclean, the shame of which I could not bear.

It was with great relief, then, that I came upon a stone bridge, under which ran a small river. I eagerly approached the water, taking the sanctified wooden ladle from my pack. Offering thanks to Heaven, I pressed my hands together, clapped three times, then began spooning water onto my head whilst murmuring the words of ablution. The water was delightfully cool, and I continued to splash myself with it for longer than required, lifting the ladle to my lips so that I might also refresh my mouth.

I stopped. There was something in the ladle: a pale, wrinkled thing. Believing it to be some grub or newt, I recoiled. When I saw what it really was, I dropped the ladle into the mud, fell to my knees, and retched.

It was a human finger, severed at the knuckle, bleached and bloodless in the cold river water.

I now became aware of other floating objects caught on rocks or branches: more fingers; a shred of scalp, still bearing strands of hair; a booted foot; nameless scraps of bloodied skin and gore.

I retched again. This time it was productive, although I fortunately avoided my feet and the need to purify myself once more. I felt myself dragged along by a dread compulsion to follow the river upstream.

It was one of the jolly Alheshi guards that I found first, his polearm snapped at his side, his eyes staring at Heaven. His right arm was missing, and his legs were mangled, bent back on themselves with their bones protruding through his body as if he had fallen from a great height. Not far from him, splayed across the riverbank, was the second. This one was less complete. The entire right side of his body had been separated, as if he had been torn in two, leaving only a single eyeball, his skull split to reveal his brain and lolling tongue, his lungs, spleen, intestine, and liver all exposed to the open air.

I wrapped my hands around my bundles of herbs, as if they might protect me from evil. I did not wish to approach whatever had done this, but I wished even less to turn my back to it.

For a moment, I thought that the Eferean litter-bearers had survived, as they were leaning upright against a tree. Their heads, however, were missing. I almost tripped over their companion, the cart-puller, causing myself again to gag; this man had been deprived of all four limbs but retained his head, on which he bore a peaceful smile. I held out some hope for the two remaining Alheshis, but I soon found them as well, in a condition no more favourable than the others.

I rounded a bend in the stream and came to a clearing. At the centre of it sat Alessa’s litter. From it, my gaze followed a trail of ichor and blood until I sighted two nondescript shapes slumped by the edge of the trees. I shielded my eyes; even in death, I could pollute myself by the sight of the Lady’s body, or that of her servant-girl.

“She was strong, that one. Almost got away,” said a voice.

A man stood behind me. He was thrice my width at the shoulder, of sufficient bearing to look a warhorse in the eye. He wore a heavy apron, so coated in filth that its original colouring was a mystery. On his head was a white skullcap, and bronze bracelets girded his thick wrists. I could not guess at his country or religion. Into his belt was tucked a massive knife, which appeared to be covered with blood.

“What?” I said.

“She almost got away, the older lady. Gave a good chase, for one of her age. She fared better than the Alheshis. I’ve never thought their renown was well-earned.”

Even if my faith had permitted me to fight, I could offer no defence against such a man. Instead, I fell to my knees and clenched my fingers together in the manner of the pagans. “Please, spare my life. I am a poor man, who has only ever tried to do good.”

He chuckled. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m simply making observations, based on the shape of the wounds. I’ve an eye for it, due to my trade. I’m a slaughterman. I was on my way to Multzep.”

I rose, still trembling, to my feet.

“You’re a Hukkite,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“So was she.” He pointed at Alessa.


“You travelled together?”

“I... yes. In a way.”

“You were lucky, then,” he said. He pulled his knife from his belt and wiped it.

I stepped back. I had, however, recovered some portion of my rational capability. This man, whoever he was, could easily have slain me from behind. Perhaps he was indeed just a travelling tradesman.   

“Who did this?” I asked. I attempted to inject some virility into my voice, but it came out as a childish whimper.

“Good question,” he said. “Not Arzawis. They are bowmen, and I mark no arrow-shafts buried in your unfortunate companions. Urudduns are capable of such savagery, but they would have burnt the bodies as a war offering. And local bandits would have made off with the trader’s goods, which still sit idly in her cart. There are no lions in these parts, nor leopards, nor bears. That only leaves one thing. A demon.”

“A demon?”

He nodded gravely. I tried to recall the passages from the Songs of Mesha, about the many demons that could assume human and animal forms, performing all manner of villainy.

“I must continue my journey,” I said, attempting to move away from the massacre. The slaughterman did not block my way but followed me. His footsteps fell heavily, and I could smell the repellent odour of death on him.

Whatever it was that had slain Alessa, the slaughterman himself presented a peril. He was unclean by his very nature, just as a tanner, undertaker, or night-soil carrier. Any undue contact with him could have grave consequences for my soul.

“You also go to Multzep?” he asked. “We should travel together.”

“I would prefer to be alone. Because of my... religion.”

He nodded. “You Hukkites are squeamish about my profession. Don’t worry. I’ll stay clear, at whatever distance your law requires. Just close enough to keep an eye on you.”

We had reached the path. The cart was indeed still there. A wheel had come loose, rendering it quite immobile, but Alessa’s goods were undisturbed. My stomach rumbled at the smell of the olives, spices, and dried fruits contained within. The attackers, whoever they had been, did not suffer from any human appetites.

Despite his wretched nature, I felt suddenly glad to be in the slaughterman’s company.

“Very well,” I said, “let us travel together.”

“We should depart in haste.”

I inhaled deeply. This was a setback, but I was still on the right path. I had, by Heaven’s grace, survived, and I still held my precious three cotyles of Widow’s gown. I needed only to survive for a day and a half without meeting the fate of my travelling companions. I suddenly felt an urgent pressure in my bladder.

“Allow me first to attend to a matter.”

“Make sure it is a small one,” he said. “Then we go.”

Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go to conduct my business other than back in the direction of the massacre. I found a broad beech at a respectable distance from the road and I relieved myself on its trunk.

My pleasure in doing so was interrupted by a noise; a low, quivering murmur. Fear, once more, trickled down my back. I clung to the tree, trying in vain to avoid stepping in my own urine, and peered furtively around it.

Alessa’s body had moved. It had previously been lying in the open but was now slumped against a clump of ferns, a stone’s throw away from me.

Her arm twitched, then was still again. I froze, trying to hold my breath still in my lungs.

Then she let out a low groan, flailed both arms, and opened her eyes.

I was far too shocked to cover my gaze.

“Help me...” Her voice was faint, as if it were coming from somewhere deep underground, and her features clenched. Her black, begging eyes met mine.

“Help me, brother,” she repeated.

I have always been a charitable man, donating freely to the construction of orphanages and temples, ever eager to pass alms to a wandering mystic. At that moment, therefore, my instinct was to kneel at Alessa’s side, to bring her food and water, to inspect her wounds.

And yet I did not.

As a righteous man my first regard was not merely to the instincts of my heart but to the Law of Heaven. Were I to approach Alessa, even were with the intentions of delivering Heaven’s mercy, I would pollute myself severely by close sight and touch of her body. In such a situation, she should rightly have been attended to by a properly sanctified female physician. I looked around, as if I might discover such an individual in the woods. I did not.

She moaned again.

My feet threatened to draw me towards her, but I resisted. Beyond the risk of pollution, the obligations of her care would scupper my chances of arriving in Multzep before the great wedding. My plan to secure Halime’s dower—itself a fulfilment of Heaven’s intentions – would be in ruins. Besides, what help could I offer, in truth? I was not a healer; indeed, my clumsy ministrations might only make the situation worse.

“Help me,” said Alessa again.

If the eyes of others had been on me, perhaps I would have done differently, feeling the imperfect, instinctive judgement of mankind at my back. But we were alone.

I slowly turned, closed my eyes, and walked away, hearing the soft rustle of leaves beneath my feet and Alessa’s heavy, laboured breathing impossibly loud, as if she were somehow right next to me, until I felt the smooth clay of the road beneath my feet and silence filled my ears.

The slaughterman and I made good progress over the remainder of the day. Given my insistence on maintaining a proper distance between us, we exchanged little by way of conversation. For my part, I was quite content to put one foot in front of the other, filling my mind with thoughts of Halime, running my hand over the firm stems and supple leaves of my Widow’s-Gown. Such actions helped to dispel the memory of Alessa’s begging eyes and my reckless imaginings that conjured every small sound of the forest into a bloodthirsty demon.

At the day’s end, we were still alive. Indeed, we had crested the low range of hills, and in the distance I could faintly make out the street torches and temple-fires of Multzep, no more than a half-day away. Whatever beast it was that had done away with my former travelling companions seemed not to have followed us. Perhaps it had sated its hunger.

The slaughterman laid and lit a fire, unhooked a large cauldron from his pack, and set to cooking, filling the pot with hunks of flesh at whose provenance I dared not wonder. He beckoned me to join him, spooning some of the stew into a bowl and holding it out to me.

“My faith forbids it,” I said.

“Don’t be so polite! I’ve travelled with many Hukkites, and I know the Dietary Law is relaxed for those who are travelling or wounded.”

He was indeed correct. But after what had happened with Alessa, I dared not risk the wrath of Heaven any further.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

The slaughterman shrugged. “More for me, then. I only follow one law in such matters: the Law of Sustenance.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That we all must eat,” he said. “And lucky are those who can choose what.”

He took up the bowl and tipped the contents into his mouth like a brickmaker pouring sand into a clay-mould. He swallowed, gave a hearty belch, then repeated the exercise. My stomach jabbed at me. I took a few Hamaphor leaves from my pouch and chewed them, hoping that their juices would do something to suppress my appetite. With his own supper apparently finished, the slaughterman slumped on the ground and stared at the sky in contemplation.

“You were right to leave her,” he said. “There was nothing that could be done.”

The wad of leaves in my mouth suddenly acquired an acidic, bilious taste, and I choked.

“I would have done the same,” he said. “To be honest, I was worried you might take pity on her. You’d have slowed us down no end.”

A hot panic flushed my skin. He had known that she was still alive.

I suddenly felt like a plaintiff facing a judge and ten witnesses all swearing to my guilt. “I... well, of course, in such matters, one must weigh up all sorts of considerations...”

“Indeed. And it is a matter of urgency for you to reach Multzep, is it not? Don’t let it trouble you.”

I rehearsed the excuses I had been preparing in some dark cellar of my mind. And yet, as the words rose to my tongue, ready to invoke the pragmatist teaching of the Kendevar doctors, I was unable to give them voice.

I wanted to rebuke the slaughterman. But he was a pagan, sullied to the marrow already. And I, a man who supposedly walked the righteous path, had done exactly the same as he.

I lowered my head, hiding my face from Heaven. I had acted shamefully, and it was too late now for any remedy. Alessa must surely be dead, lying unburied at the roadside. Her body would be sullied by contact with the earth, with no rite performed, and so she would be unable to attain Heaven, instead forever trapped in the Great Cavern of Arshet, where there is no food but dust and no drink but viscous tar.

There was nothing now that could be done but to ask Heaven’s forgiveness and to press ahead. I forced my eyes closed, willing myself to sleep.

But in the darkness, I saw her eyes, fearful at the beckoning of death’s lonely void, and her last vain entreaties to me as her blood drained from her on the forest floor. I saw the leering, grinning face of the slaughterman. “Don’t let it trouble you,” he said.

I suddenly sat upright, quite awake.

A low moan escaped my mouth. What I had done would stalk me until my dying day. Whatever earthly happiness I was able to secure, Alessa’s unburied carcass would pursue me. I needed to go back, perform the rites, and ensure that she was correctly buried.

I stood. The slaughterman was asleep, his great chest rising and falling like a bellmaker’s bellows. Above me, the waxing moon seeped through pine-fronds. Moving as softly as a mountain-cat, I took up my sickle, my pack, and my bundle of precious Widow’s Gown. I thought of my dear Halime, distant in her bower and quite unaware of the travails I suffered in her name. Still, I was thankful. Heaven had granted me the vision to recognise my sin and put the will in my heart to rectify it. Under the protection of the almighty, I could surely correct my error and still return to arrive in Multzep on time. I turned my eyes to the stars and set off into the dark forest.

Without the sun heating my back, I was able to strike a better pace. As the night deepened, however, the sureness left my step. Clouds passed over the moon, and suddenly the forest that had seemed to shimmer with a silver glow became a black mass of tangled trunks and branches, from which emanated a chorus of menacing hoots and growls.

I came to a fork in the road that I could not at all remember; one always notices one’s path branching, but never joining. There was nothing to do but to entrust my destiny, once again, to Heaven. I took the left path.

Soon the road began to narrow, the bushes and trees encroaching along the way, until eventually, to my horror, it vanished entirely, and I found myself trampling over dead branches and stands of moss, twigs and leaves whipping my face as a walked. I had already come too far, and I could only keep pressing forwards.

I sensed movements in the shadows, as if some creature was stalking me, but every time I stopped and listened there was only an utter stillness, such that I fancied I could hear the squirming of the earthworms beneath my feet.

As I continued, the ground became more and more uneven, littered with stones and bulging roots, and I was reduced to grappling my way forward on all fours, like some cringing badger or marmot.

A terrible possibility began to dawn. Perhaps Heaven had already judged me and found me wanting, with no redemption to be had, and perhaps had already led me into the darkness of the underworld, a fell grove of twisted misery from which I would never emerge. I continued forward, losing all sense of time and space, relying on nothing but the momentum of hand pushing forward after foot, fearing that if I were to stop, I might never rise again.

Finally, the moment came when the first strands of Heaven’s light began to shine through the tangled branches. Not long after, I found myself emerging from the undergrowth. I imagine that there are few who have been more thankful to see that rough and winding road as I was then.

I halted at the roadside, resting on a stone, and for a moment I relished the goodness of creation, content to let the sun’s warmth tickle my face and to hear the pleasant murmur of the gentle breeze among the treetops.

Then I stopped. Someone was approaching in the opposite direction, alone, on foot, cloaked and hooded. I offered a weary hand in greeting, which was not returned. Still, I resolved to yield the path, little desiring any conflict or misunderstanding.

As the figure drew closer, I realised that it was a woman. She wore dirty, ragged robes whose design seemed somehow familiar to me, and she stepped with a hunched, awkward gait. I supposed her to be some itinerant wanderer or medicine-woman of the forest. Still, in deference to her gender, I lowered my gaze modestly to the ground.

As I recalled where I had seen robes of that design before, a cold sickness rose in my throat.

The woman did not pass me. On reaching my position, she stopped. I had no option but to raise some portion of my gaze to meet her. She reached up silently and pulled back her hood and scarf.

I felt my heart shrink like a wrung cloth, and my legs collapsed beneath me.

It was, undoubtedly, the face of the merchant Alessa.

Although were it not for the traditional nose-ring and brow-tattooing of a noble Hukkite woman, I would not have known. Her jaw had distended into a horrific set of mandibles, and her hair hung in thick bloody strands; her eyes had blackened, pupil and iris congealed together. Flies escaped from within her robes, and her skin was marred with a mass of gleaming sores.

“You,” she said, the words seeming to seep up through the Earth. She extended a hand towards me, fingers ending in cruel talons.

A mass of babbling, senseless words gathered in my throat. What monstrosity was this, what twisted species of devilry?

She took another step towards me, and I knew that I was doomed.

I had nowhere to run, and the Law did not permit me to fight. My fate was destruction; I would never look again on the face of my beloved. I closed my eyes and commended my soul to eternity.

She slashed me squarely across the chest. I felt talons tearing through flesh and was flung backwards, my head bouncing against some tree-root or stone before I flopped onto the mud. I was grateful, as the shock of it dulled the pain from the wound.

I prayed that the demon would offer me a quick end.

But the end did not come.

A large shape rushed over me, and through the ringing in my head I heard the clamour of fighting.

With my senses still dulled, I ran my hands across my torso. To my surprise, I did not feel the warm bloody wetness that I had dreaded.

Slowly, I stood and beheld the spectacle before me.

It was the slaughterman that did battle with what had been Alessa. He moved with a speed that seemed quite impossible for a man of his size and bulk. In one hand he wielded a huge cleaving knife and in the other a barbed hook, slashing fiercely with both.

From his every blow, however, the creature twisted away, her body bending at an impossible angle before lashing back in turn. In such a manner the two exchanged strokes, circling each other like a pair of Uruddun whirl-dancers. Each swipe of the creature’s claws held the promise of death, seeming to part the very air before it, but the slaughterman evaded her at every turn.

Then, with a feint, he embedded his hook into her side and so pulled her towards him for a finishing knife-blow. She had, however, drawn too close for his reach and scrabbled at his face and body with her own claws. With a devilish pivot she eluded him, and the two grappled at length, each remaining stubbornly clear of the other’s attempts to gain a superior position.

What manner of man the slaughterman was, and what manner of demon or hellish apparition had become of Alessa, I did not know. I knew, however, that I could make very little difference now, even if my faith had permitted me to join the fight. Heaven had seen fit to spare me so far; it would be better to leave before the combat was resolved. Multzep was still within reach, and I still had my precious three cotyles of Widow’s-Gown.

I laid a hand against the herbs.

My fist came away with nothing but a few crumpled stems.

It was then that I realised, with utter misery, how I had been saved from Alessa’s talons. Instead of rending my flesh, they had torn through the thick stems of the Widow’s Gown, scattering their leaves and tainting them with a greenish demonic ichor.

The herbs were now quite valueless.

I was swallowed by darkness. I felt like a husk, a being of clay that had cracked in the kiln. My destiny was out of reach.

The slaughterman let out a sharp curse. The demon now appeared to have gained the advantage, pinning him to the ground, and its claws had taken a chunk from his shoulder. His brow was bent in grim concentration as he fended off her further strikes.

The violence of their struggle repelled me. All the advantage I had ever sought was to obtain the modest means that are surely deserved of any righteous man. By what cruel design had I been dragged into this loathsome situation and denied my one chance at fulfilling my destiny?

I felt the darkness in my heart turn to anger; a brimming, burning anger, a rage against everything above and below the Earth.

For all that I, in the course of my life, had fallen short of Heaven’s prescriptions, I had never once broken our commandment against violence. But what did righteousness serve me now? I looked at the creature that had been Alessa, and I felt a hatred that I could not suppress.

I advanced across the forest floor, straightening my shoulders in what I assumed to be a warrior’s posture and holding my breath against her demonic stench. Grasping my sickle with two hands, I summoned all my anger and sank its blade into her back.

She screamed, black blood bursting forth from the wound, and twisted toward me, raising her talons for an attack against which I had no protection.

Then the slaughterman rose to his feet, brandished his great knife, and struck her head from her shoulders.

The slaughterman was stirring his pot, from which emanated a rich savoury smell that caused my gut to groan. His face was covered in welts and bruises, with a bandage over his shoulder. In the broad daylight, I noticed that his arms were laced with scars, running like some grim embroidery from his neck to his wrists.

In the centre of the road was a glimmering pile of embers, the last remains of what had been Alessa.

My entire body was racked with pain. I had broken the most sacred law of my faith. I had no possessions of any value. I had lost all hope of marrying my beloved. In truth, although I still drew breath and Alessa was reduced to a pile of ashes, I barely felt like I was the fortunate one.

“A plaguewife,” said the slaughterman, spooning out a bowl of stew. “A demon that kills without restraint, its essence ever shifting into the bodies of its victims.”

He supped at a spoonful of his stew.

“Can you believe, I thought it was you who was the demon, when we met at the river? I know, it sounds absurd now, but you never know with these ones—demons from the pestilent realm, I mean. And you were acting strange. Still, we got her in the end.”

“Who are you?” I said, wincing with each word that rasped from my throat.

“Like I said, I’m a slaughterman,” he replied. “But I do the odd job like this, on the side.”

I shifted away from him, remembering the risk of impurity. It would make little difference. Tears fought their way to the backs of my eyes.

“I am cursed,” I said. “I am doomed to forever walk under an evil star.”

He set down his bowl and scratched at his chin. “I’m not so sure. The paths of fate are always shifting.”

“You don’t understand!” I snapped. “I have lost my only chance of happiness. And, by my violent act, I have defiled myself. I have denied myself Heaven.” I put my head in my hands and moaned.

“I have travelled this world long enough, Hukkite, that I have learned to see when the unearthly powers—Heaven, as you have it, or the Gods, or the Ancestors, as others have it—reach across the threshold. Make no mistake that you were led to me, and I to you. And should you have chosen to follow your law, I should likely be dead, and the demon still at large. Would that have been the righteous path?”   

“That is the Law.”

The slaughterman produced a small pouch and tossed it at my feet. It landed with the heavy jangle of coins.

“They paid me an advance, back in Tudwana. You earned your share—you struck a decent blow at the end, and I was glad of your companionship, until you slipped off on me. That’s half of the purse. Twenty obols.”

I stared at the bag, but I could not bring my hands to touch it. “Twenty obols?”

“Alright, it’s a third,” he said, “but let’s be honest, I did the lion’s share of the work.”

I cradled the pouch in my hands, running my fingers over the bulging ridges of the coins within. It seemed so small a thing. I had for so long imagined the joy that the money would bring me, as proof of my righteousness and my passage to a worthy life. Now, I felt something else. A dull echo of that dream of happiness; a ghost of the past, my heart hobbled and flinching at the hurdle.

“Of course, there is another explanation, that some prefer,” he continued. “That there is no design, no higher power guiding our actions. No Heaven, no Gods. That we are adrift amongst the storms of fate, and our every petty fortune the product of nothing more than chance.”

My throat was dry, and my palms wet as they clenched the purse.

“And what is the truth?” I asked.

The slaughterman laughed and held out a bowl of the stew.

“That we all must eat,” he said, “and lucky are those who can choose what.”

A fragrant steam wafted from the bowl’s contents, spiced and heavy. With a quivering hand, I took it.

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Matt Hornsby lives in Dublin, Ireland. When not writing, he works in public policy, after previous lives as a scrap metal dealer and English teacher. He has published work in Metaphorosis, StarshipSofa, and Electric Spec and is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

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