Fear gripped me.
I knew it was behind me somewhere, but I dared not turn to look, lest it catch me. I could sense more than hear or feel its presence, a shadowy, malignant darkness loping through the shadows behind me. It was getting closer.
What had begun as an evening walk down near the mill turned suddenly terrifying. I know not when it happened, only that, suddenly, looming ahead of me, a giant, hulking creature that was more monster than man appeared. In the wan light of the moon, I saw it unfold itself from the shadows on the bridge before me, like a flag being unfurled in the wind. Piercing red eyes caught me in their diabolic gaze, held me transfixed as my own eyes widened, my heart raced, and my stomach dropped. An overwhelming fear held me as it stood, taller than a man erect, unsheathing talon-like claws from its pumpkin-sized fists. I wanted to scream my terror, but no sound would come from a throat that had been forced closed by pure, unadulterated dread. My mouth pulled back in a silent rictus of fear and terror. Tears came unbidden to my eyes.
I was going to die. This beast would be my end. I knew this.
But I did not accept it readily.
It lunged forward, slavering jaws snapping at me as it came. Somehow, through the fear-induced stupor, I was able to throw myself aside. As I rolled in the dirt at the side of the path, I felt a rock under my ribcage. I grabbed it, and, as the beast came at me again, I heaved it. It uttered some sort of cry that was half yelp, half whimper, confirming that the missile had found its target. For a second, the beast stood at the edge of the road dazed; I took my chance to escape.
Running, I did not care in which direction, I fled the scene. I willed my legs to cover longer distances with each stride. I somehow found myself in the trees to the south of the road, the mountains in the distance disappearing as I sought some shelter in the darkness beneath the boughs. Enough moonlight filtered through the canopy that I could pick my way quickly through the glades and up and over hills.
I heard the beast howl once, a lonely, plaintive cry filled with animal desire. A second cry erased the loneliness of the beast, and told me that it meant to hunt me. It meant to kill me. The rock was only a delay of the inevitable. All this was conveyed on the single note as it rolled over the hills and through the trees.
If another heard it, I knew not. I was running for my life, too terrified to look for another, too filled with dread to call for help lest it attract my pursuant's attention.
Fear gripped me. I knew it was behind me somewhere, but I dared not turn to look, lest it catch me. I could sense more than hear or feel its presence, a shadowy, malignant darkness loping through the shadows behind me. It was getting closer.
Suddenly, a root caught my boot, and I pitched forward. Laying in the loam, I panted, trying to catch my breath. The adrenaline had drained from my body when I tumbled to the earth, and, though I tried, I could not push myself to my feet. I vainly attempted crawling away, hoping that my emotions would organize and arrange themselves, allowing me to flee once again, but it was hopeless. My legs would barely move, and my arms held no strength. I lay there, vulnerable, awaiting my fate.
The beast suddenly burst up the side of the hill. Seeing me, it instantly appeared at my feet. I rolled over onto the my back so that I could at least see my fate falling upon me. The monster stood over me, it's malicious, burning eyes boring holes into my soul. I felt my heart quail. It seemed as if all the emotion drained out of my body. Even if I could have run, I would not have had the heart.
The beast rocked its head back to howl once more when it was suddenly silenced. Another form had entered the clearing. This one was smaller, lither. A hood was pulled up over the figure's face and the rest of its body was concealed within the long, billowing folds of a cloak as black as the shadows around us. From beneath the bottom hem of the garment, I could see black leather boots, but I could not deduce the person's identity.
Forgetting me entirely, the monster lunged toward the new arrival with a fierce growl, but the person was too quick. It flowed out of the way of the beast's attack rather than dodged. When the monster came again, the figure held its ground, blocking the monster's swipes with with its forearms. The creature's deadly talons were rendered useless as the figure anticipated the monster's every move. The mysterious arrival placed a well-timed boot in the middle of the monster's chest, sending the creature sprawling. The figure grabbed a fallen branch and brought the bough down across the beast's shoulders. Again, the creature cried out.
Reaching out, it grabbed its attacker by the ankle and upended the fighter. The figure quickly regained control, but the monster was back on its feet and coming at the new arrival. For a second, the shadowy black form seemed dazed, and I tried to yell, but the monster quickly grabbed the figure by the throat and slammed it against a tree. The hood fell away and the cloak flew open, such was the force of the attack, and I could see for the first time that my defender was a woman. She was pinned against the tree, the monster's enormous, hairy paw wrapped around her throat and pressing her against the scaly wood of the trunk.
The monster roared in her face, spittle and blood flecking its lips and her cheeks. It was a cry of victory, as if this was not the first battle the two had shared, and now the beast was fully enjoying his triumph over an old adversary. The monster held its head as if it awaited a response from the woman pinned against the tree's trunk.
Her lips turned into a wry smile. "So predictable," she cooed at the beast. It might have slackened its hold just a bit at her words. "Your kind always forget to pin my arms."
In the pale light of the moon, I saw two long, thin spikes glimmer silvery as she produced them from the folds of her cloak. With a lightning quick, violent motion, she slammed the points of the blades into the monster's throat. Black blood welled from the wound, spurting in great gouts over her face and the bark of the tree. The monster dropped her, its own form falling to the ground, its great hands clawing at the silvery weapons sticking from the side of its neck. As it struggled, its lifeblood continued to run freely from the wound. The creature's wheezing, choking cries confirmed that it was, in fact dying, and a few seconds later, it slowed its movements. Finally, it shuddered its last, and then lay still and silent.
The woman stood over the monster's corpse, watching with an impassive eye as the beast bled to death. She wiped absently at the trail of blood the wound had thrown on her face. I knew then that I had been saved by the legendary Erin Oliverosetree--Lady Erin of Humphrey, Erin the Slayer, Erin of the Silver Needles, Erin Demonsbane--and I was awed by her mere presence. I struggled to push myself into a sitting position. The movement attracted her attention.
"Are you unhurt?" she asked me, her cool eyes falling on my frame for perhaps the first time. My heart rattled within my chest. I nodded dumbly. I could no more summon words to speak to her than I could have forced myself to flee from the beast after I had fallen.
"Good," she said, her words carrying a mysterious, exotic accent. "You should return to your home. There will be more of them this night." She bent and retrieved her famous--notorious!--silver needles from the beast's throat. She wiped the black blood from them on the monster's chest. "They always like to run with the full moon's light." As if to punctuate her words, another threatening howl echoed over the hills. Erin Oliverosetree's face snapped up, her attention riveted on that distant howl. "I must be off," she said, without looking to me.
"Wait," I said, finally finding my voice again. "How...how did you manage to best that thing?" I asked. I was ashamed immediately. Her prowess with slaying demons and monsters was renowned. My words were foolish.
She paused, turning to look at me with a bemused smile upon her lips. She spun her silvery needles around her palm and then slammed them into a scabbard on her hip. With a wink, she said:
With that, she was gone, disappearing into the shadows as quickly and quietly as she had arrived.
Sitting back, I pulled a long drag through the carved stem of my pipe. The fire of the inn's hearth warming my old bones. Letting the smoke slowly pass over my lips, I smiled.
"And that, lads, is the story of the night Erin the Slayer saved my life."
They hay and haw and call and accuse me of being a liar. I laugh and I wink at them as the party breaks apart and the men and boys go back to their individual tables, some to discuss the tale I told, some to accuse me of being soft in the head, some to discuss events happening outside the walls of the old inn.
But I know, every time I tell the tale, I am only able to due to the bravery of Erin Oliverosetree and her magnificent, silver knitting needles.
pronounced "Takes-oh, air-goh soom."