“You did not see me and you will never talk of me. You will keep my secrets until the end of time.” whispered the Shadow.
Lilya stopped screaming, nodded and closed her eyes to the chaos around her. She couched in the corner, perfectly still as the blood dried on her skin. Bit by bit she withdrew from the reality she could neither accept nor understand and wrapped herself up in a small dark space, deep inside.
Two days passed before anyone came looking for Brenath Grain and his family. Tham Gillis could tell something was wrong before he even opened the garden gate. The front door of the cottage was wide open and the smell of decay filled the air. Inside the cottage it was dark, the curtains were drawn and the fire nothing but cold ash. He couldn’t bring himself to pass through the door. He turned and ran, as fast as his arthritic knees would allow him, back to the village.
Barely half an hour later, Tham returned with his sons, Cairn and Jesmire. Cairn let a torch and walked through the open door. He gazed in shock at what had once been a warm and friendly family room. He swallowed back the bile that was rapidly rising in his gullet and walked back outside.
“Jes, go back to the village and get more help, it’s been some kind of attack, there’s blood and …” he swallowed again, “I can’t even tell who is who or how many were in there. Get the Hunters, whatever did that may still be around. Da, we’ll wait here.” he leant against the wall, breathing deeply, while Jesmire took off at a run, face white and eyes wild.
Tham took the torch off his eldest son and cautiously peered inside. A sob burst forth from his tightened throat. He took a deep shuddering breath and stepped inside. Even the drapes on the windows were stained with blood. His hands shook as he stepped carefully around the room, pulling back the curtains to allow the morning sunlight to slant in through the trees outside. The warm glow through the windows did not detract from the horror that cast a dark brown blanket over the room . Every wall was covered in blood and flesh hung in strips from the surfaces as if shredded piece by piece and scattered like confetti. Five skulls sat on the table facing the far corner of the room, one of them clearly the skull of a baby.
As he started to go back outside, he realised there was a skull missing. Only five sat on the table, there were six in the family, he turned back and looked around once more, only five.
“Cairn, one of them is missing. As soon as the hunters arrive we’ll need to check the back rooms and the outhouse.
“I can go check now, da.”
“No, we don’t know what is out there, wait until we have weapons.” The old man threw the torch into the fire and closed his eyes. Cairn put a hand on his father’s shoulder as he joined him inside and stared with empty eyes at the room he had often spent time in, laughing with Brenath whom he had grown up with and flirting with Kaia, Brenath’s beautiful wife from the nearby village of Coren Vale. He looked at the skulls on the table and tears began trickling slowly down his cheeks while father and son waited together in silent mourning.
Jesmire ran straight to the house of Brou Bower and found Brou and Col Goodman, the innkeeper stood talking at the door.
“Come! Quick! Bring weapons.” shouted Jesmire, the panic evident in his voice. The two men turned in surprise to face the normally calm young man.
“What’s up lad?” asked Brou, in his deep gravelly voice.
“The Grains, something has hurt them, we don’t know what, please come.” The young man bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, face flushed and wet from his run.
The two older men looked at each other and nodded grimly. Col quickly ran over the road to the Inn, shouting, “Marin, we need you and your potions, you luscious old witch, the Grains need help.”
Brou ran inside grabbing his bow from the hook by the door. As he filled his quiver, he called in to the kitchen. “Kaela, fetch you brothers and your weapons, quick as you can lass.”
It only took minutes to get everyone together. The all jumped into Brou’s wagon which was already hitched and ready for a day out hunting.
Brou glanced at Jes, who sat at his side, skin flushed red and sweat running down his temples. “What did you see lad?”
Jes tried to slow his panicked breathing as he answered, “I didn’t see anything, but Cairn and Da are there, Cairn said there was blood. “ He tried to fight back the tears that threatened to overcome him. He was a man now, 17, men don’t cry. He took a slow deep breath.
They arrived at the cottage in the woods to find Tham standing alert outside the front door, watching all around him with his sharp blue eyes. Cairn was crouched in the doorway, over come with grief. He jumped up as he heard the cart pull up and rubbed at his tear streaked face.
“Please, all of you stay there until Brou has had a look inside, he’ll know best what we’re dealing with here.”, said Tham.
“If there’s any need attending, I need to get to them quick.” Marin glared at Tham, jumping neatly from the back of the wagon.
“Marin, m’dear, it’s probably too late for any help you can give, but one of them is missing, so keep that bag of tricks handy and let’s hope.”
Marin nodded sadly, “Aye Tham, let’s hope.”
Brou jumped from the cart and walked towards the door, he already knew that death lay within, the smell was enough to tell him that about two days had passed since it had happened. Tham grabbed him by the arm as he drew near and whispered, “It’s bad Brou. I heard of a murder like this many years ago in Fareach, the bodies completely destroyed, blood everywhere, just the skulls left on display, picked clean.”
Brou nodded, preparing himself for what lay within. He pulled his big hunting knife from his belt and stepped inside.
Brou was no stranger to death, he hunted and killed almost every day and traded his kills with the other villagers. There were no natural predators other than humans, though occasionally bones, claws and teeth were found showing that once they had existed. Yet there were stories of cruel creatures that lived in the shadows and killed for fun. The kind of stories told to children to make them behave. These were just tales though. As he looked at the skulls lined up on the table, he knew that no animal could have ever done this, Tham was right, this was the act of humans and that made his job much harder. He detached himself from the obvious horror of the scene and looked at it with calm and professional eyes. There was blood on ever single surface along with globules of flesh and chuncks of bone. Everything had been shredded apart, there were no clean cuts. How could a human do this, their teeth and claws were not sharp enough for this kind of mutilation, and the cuts were too messy to have been inflicted with a weapon.
There were foot prints in the blood, five sets, all different sizes. The baby hadn’t yet been walking, so that made sense. The missing skull worried him. He gazed carefully at the path the footprints took around the room, there must have been complete panic, one set stopped near the door in a larger pool of blood and flesh and another seemed to head under the table before being dragged back out the other side. A large smear covered the door to the back room but there was none on the door handle, so it was likely no-one had left by that door. A small set lead towards a pile of blankets in the far corner, but other than splatters, there was no extra blood there, he went over and looked closer, a small bloody handprint was visible on the edge of the top blanket. Knife at the ready, he carefully nudged the pile of fabric with his foot and met resistance. He grabbed the sheets and pulled them back, quickly jumping back into a crouch, knife ready.
A small blood covered child was curled up in a ball, face hidden and her back to the room. “Lilya?” He reached down and spun her round to face him, she gazed up at him with an expressionless face, eyes completely blank, the only movement was her chest, slowly rising and falling as she breathed. He bundled the child up and carried her out, calling for Marin Goodman, but as he passed through the door the child went rigid and began to scream.