Dusk, the dreaded dusk. Already affected by it, labourers staggered home from stone-picking in winter fields, their eyelids heavy despite the stinging cold; children, quarrelling over their toys, abandoned them, abandoned each other and sat dully by the fireside, fighting sleep to the last. Goodwives fought it, determined to finish the sweeping, or that bit of sewing, but it was useless. Dusk seeped into them, overcame them all. They dreaded it, for they knew what to expect: in the morning, blood on the snow. Another family – sometimes two families – vanished. Sometimes a finger, sometimes a tooth or a severed hand, but mostly – only blood.
Once more the Feeders.
Sleep crept up on Gimli too, and as always he noted it’s slow progress with meticulous care. It seemed to start from the feet and work up, he noted. Pins and needles, then a general lassitude. No matter how you fought it, as you jerked awake next morning you would have forgotten – where, how, the exact moment you lost consciousness. Gimli suspected the body might continue on until it reached it’s destination. There seemed always to be a gap in time. However tardy you were in returning, in that eerie gap, your body sleepwalked to the kin-hall.
Except tonight. He and Edil Wisewife had been experimenting with herbs from one of the far valleys. She had noted the effect of her herb concoction on larbils. Administering the drug to the creature as dusk fell, she slept, but in the morning examined its cage. The sand in the bottom was churned up. She had designed a clever exercise wheel to record the number of rotations it made as the little creature ran inside it. In the morning, the larbil was exhausted and wheel showed evidence of vigorous use.
Now it was Gimli’s turn. Swiftly, before it was too late, he drew the green glass vial from his pocket and drank the bitter liquid therein.
It worked. He hid in bushes on the outskirts of the village and watched sister moons Menem and Fley, rising in tandem, bright disks in the night sky. It was beautiful – and something he had never expected to witness. It worked! Now, at last, he would see what the Feeders looked like, what monsters they were.
He had hidden his father’s broadsword under the straw. It was within arm’s reach. If the worst came to the worst and they discovered his hiding place, he would fight them. The sword was heavy, but he knew that he could lift it. His arms itched and burned for a fight. Rage coursed in his veins as he thought of his countrymen – all the lost kin. The blood on the snow every morning. Hot rage churned in his guts. He felt… strange. He felt… he was frightened of how he felt. He seemed to be growing both in height and width, splitting and breaking, growing a bony carapace. Looking down at his hands, Gimli drew a shuddering breath as he saw them elongating, changing colour, growing an extra set of finger joints and long, scimitar claws…
Overnight the snows melted. Spring was in the air, but blood was smeared on wet grass, and daubed on the door of Gimli’s kin-hall. All five of them had been taken – the father, the mother, the little sister and the baby, and of course Gimli himself, a well-liked, intrepid boy. A wooden talisman – the one Gimli had carved for his sister – was discovered cast aside at the foot of the door, it’s ties broken and bloody with shreds of flesh attached. The ties were made of leather, and cut wide to resist loss or breakage. Creature or creatures must have ripped it from her neck.
“In a way, it’s a mercy,” said the goodwives as they clustered around the wash-trough. “If he’d been spared the boy would have been in torment. How could he have lived on alone?”
Had the snow remained they might would have seen footsteps leading away from the village, footsteps which changed as they ran – from long, clawed and bony to those of a young man, barefooted.
Had the snow remained they might have tracked those footsteps all the way to the sea, and to the cliff’s edge, and they might have looked over and seen, already bleaching clean in the cold light of Spring, a young man’s splintered bones.