They crept through an autumnal wood. Two men in green coats and stalker's caps tugged over black hair. One young, the other old, bearded. They carried lever guns in the crooks of their sleeves, stepped lightly round dry stands of elderberry and the musty detritus of fallen leaves.
A hound walked before them, nose whuffling eagerly at the earth. A flop-eared cocker with a blotchy coat and thick collar. It held close and obedient to the younger man's leg.
"I've been thinking about the wedding," said the man, softly, kept his eyes low, scanning the brush.
"Ai?" said the elder. "What about?"
"Whether it should be, well, postponed."
That earned him a sideways glance. "Hm? Why, Alphons? I do hope the two of you are getting on."
"Lasuli is… fine Papa," saidAlphons. "It's just, well." He pursed his lips. "The disappearances. In the village. The folk say something's been taking people all year, especially after festivals. It's killed five, now. The reception is at risk."
"Ai, Alphons," bemoaned Papa.
"Please. I know you don't truck much with Northern superstition, but, well–" He quieted, for Papa had raised a finger to his lips, gestured to the surrounding wood.
"Sorry." He whispered. "Forgive me, but it's as Mama says: You married a Northerner. You must know how many of their superstitions have more than a little tru–" *
At that moment, they both quieted, for the cocker had frozen, set its nose in a definite point. Its brown, wide-set eyes fixed on a bramble some fifty meters ahead. Alphons produced a hunter's glass, dialed its focus on the brush. Within, near obscured, milled a flight of fat, long-billed woodcocks. They poked at the earth, drawing up pink worms and sour elderberry seeds. He passed the glass to Papa, who squinted through, nodded, readied his leverette. **
Both men crouched low, leveled their guns, set a bird each in their sights. "Uno, dos," whispered Papa. On "tres," the birds dropped in a puff of feathers. The remaining woodcocks flushed in a flutter and a panic, dispersed with the fading ring of shots.
They grinned at their successful kills. "Go on, Blotto. Find them up," said Papa, patting the dog. It shot off, tongue lolling, under the low thorns of the bramble.
"You were saying?" said Papa. He recocked the leverette, stowed it back in his elbow, raised his eyebrows to Alphons.
"There are many of their myths which are true."
"I am certain many are." Papa knelt to pat the hound as it returned, a bird clasped gently in its jaws. He turned the feathered lump in his hands. "But this tale, I do not believe as one of them."
Alphons frowned. "You are husband to the Earl. *** I can't understand how, after all these years, you've never come to trust her, your, people."
"Because, hijo, for every myth that is true, there is another that is a lie." He smiled encouragingly at the hound as it returned again, trotting happily with a limp bird in tow. "Willfully or not, they are a mask for crime, or disease." He took the bird, rubbed the cocker's ear. "Or sin." The dog yipped once, scampered away.
The bearded man rose, both birds in hand. "The killings were committed by that mad hermit they hung last season, if you recall. I am certain." He turned to go, whistled for Blotto. "Come." Alphons followed, diffident.
A wind came up. Brown leaves tumbled around them. "I want to see you without worry, Alphons. You are soon to be wed." Papa turned to him; eyes crinkled. "Ai?"
"I try, Papa. I hope you are right."
"Good." He looked ahead, idly strung the birds onto a cord on his belt. "Shall we try the back range, now? I am sure they are roosting, there."
"Bien." He clicked his tongue for the dog. "Come, Blotto. Vamos."
The dog's trotting footsteps gained behind. It bumped his leg, whined. "Eh?" said Papa. Both men looked down, froze.
In Blotto's mouth, limp like a bird, there were bit the skeletal remnants of a human hand. Red stings of flesh joining white, wet bones. Blotto proffered it obediently. The men recoiled.
Alphons met his father's wide eyes, spoke.
"It would seem that lie has killed again."
"Let me get this straight, Master Saddleback," said Alphons, overlooking a long table of beer glasses, breads, and linkwurst. "To do this, you really needed two crowns of…" He waved a hand at the spread, set up in a flower-strewn field beside the looming wood. "Celebration?"
"Precisely," said the cutter beside him, a hard-bitten, scruffy man with bushy eyebrows. He tugged the collar of his jerkin, scratched his rough neck. "If'n the beast is what we think, it'll hate a celebration. Song, laughter, firelight. It'll hate 'em all. Best way to draw it out. It'll come after we bed down te sleep, but we shan't sleep. We'll be waiting. "
"I see." He watched a pair of cutters, both long-haired and strapped with blades, carry a keg to the table. "My father is dubious, but I've faith of your record. And I've convinced the Earl."
"Ta. They'll see."
"And, " said Alphons, running a hand through his hair. "What did you call the monster?"
"A barghest," nodded Saddleback. He sniffed, spat on the grass. "'Bear-geist,' so goes the old Awnish. When they believed such things as spirits."
Alphons nodded, too, but still he frowned. He turned to behold the nearby wood. A shrub-choked reach of waving trees, just turning to brown, with an evening shadow within. They rustled in unceasing movement. He gulped. A hand twitched at his side. "H…how did it come to prey here?"
Saddleback raised his eyebrows, shrugged. "Well, me more academic compatriots suspect it's the fault of that logging camp upriver." He turned a pointed gaze to Alphons.
"Ah," said the nobleman's son, lowly. "The one owned by my family."
"Indeed," Saddleback said, wry. "Your woodcutters've gone and depleted the territory, and all manor of ill shite's come wanderin' down to these parts instead." He raised his eyebrows at Alphons. "Can't give ye family too much sass, though. Been makin' fine coin. Banks n' governors've had us cleanin' up the result for the past month. It's a rich life, for a cutter."
"A rich life," trailed Alphons. He watched a one-eared mouse hop by with a fiddle, followed by a bald woman with a bundle of pikes. The orange of leaves and declining sun glowed in their burnished points. Both of them carried about with gleeful step, and not a glance to the gloaming wood.
Some dour tension grew between Alphons' eyes. "What an interesting life you and yours lead, Saddleback."
Saddleback focused on him, furrowed his brows. "Got something on ye mind, mate?"
Alphons' jaw worked, undecidedly. "You know, I am arranged to be married, soon."
"Marry, make a family, groom the land, prepare to pass this world on to my heir. Like my mother to me."
Saddleback remained impassive. "Woss wrong with tha'? S' a better life than mos' get."
"For me, it has been, certainly." He tilted his head. "Only, I've been thinking. About Parousia, in the South. And awful things I've learned at the Academy. And barghest at our door." He stopped a moment, beheld the looming wood. "I feel we're fighting against other worlds, and we're losing. I fear there won't be anything left of my world to pass on, soon enough, and it'll be my kind's fault, to boot.
He looked to the cutter, all scars and scruff and leather. "It's a world for your kind, now, Saddleback. And I'm almost jealous." He turned away. "Suppose that's what's on my mind."
Saddleback scoffed. "Ye only just realize tha'?" He raised his eyebrows.
"What?" said Alphons. Surprise widened his eyes.
"Dinnae take no academy te tell ye the world's split in pieces, Lordlin'." He raised his chin, sneered. "I'll beg ye forgive me, but ye're playin' catch-up. We cutters've known it a long time. Been plenty of us cleanin' up for decades, all so the rest o' ye can pretend things is alright." He gave a snort, poked a finger at Alphons. "And don' say yer jealous of us, for there ain't a cutter among my posse who'd not trade lives with you."
Alphons blinked a moment. "My apologies, Master Saddleback. I am embarrassed for my blindness."
"Och, well," said the cutter, simmering down. "At least ye've got one eye out of the sand." He narrowed his eyes. "Jus' remember: Ain't no one's known the damage done this world who's not worn a cutter's boots."
"I suspect you're right," said the heir, dourly, squinted at the setting sun. "It grows late." He turned for the road, which wound towards a great, crenelated country house atop a nearby hill.
"Thank you, Saddleback. Good luck"
"Ta. We'll need it."
Alphons watched from the safety of a distant balcony. He leaned, hunting glass set to eye, elbows on a rail midst planters filled with dead begonia pixies. Autumn wind brought the dry petals to shiver, carried the sawing of a fiddle and the hum of a solemn tune: the celebration of the cutters, feasting and reciting mythic lays down and a darkened hillrise away.
O'er the hills,
Across the plain,
Ride chevaliers from Even Fane.
Raised high and plain,
All to war, to war in vain
They had sung with energy, before the sun set. Jigs and reels, trotted out on the trampled, sweet grass. Alphons had watched them all the while, watched them feast and pour beer, a flask of whiskey at his own side. But as the night grew, and the shadow of the wood overcame their firelit camp, and the flask emptied, the cutters grew quiet. They sang airs of solemn antiquity, instead. Tales of älves, and serpents, and dead heroes.
Now, Alphons watched them turn to sleep. The smoke of their shortening fire reached him even there, mingled with the ashen dregs of whiskey. He watched the fire fade, nodding many a time. Eventually, the hunter's glass rolled into a begonia planter, and the heir slumped, hunched under a quilt, quite asleep.
He awoke to distant cries.
Alphons startled. The quilt rolled away. In the distance, screams and flashes of fire emanated from the hill. He scrambled for his hunting glass, looked.
On that hill, the cutters battled a giant. A rawboned, four-meter bear stood up like a great, stooping man. A gaunt behemoth with nubs of deformed bones burst from its taut and mangy hide. With arms thick and twisted as branches, it swiped cutters like pins, whipped weapons from hands and limbs from torsos with equal ease. With every swipe, it pulled, maniacally, fresh meat to the lipless gawp of its gnashing jaws.
The cutter's efforts were fruitless. Pike points were swatted, flashing, away. Firebombs missed or broke with little effect, for the thing ignored all flame consuming its fur, its flesh, so enthralled was it by the act of killing and eating.
A stench of burning hide reached the balcony, strong even on the distant wind. Alphons blanched. He gagged, hung on the rail. There, he clung for some time. Until the ring of slaughter died. Until the barghest, fattened with the meats of men, rose, faded, smoldering, back into the black of the wood.
He slunk from the rail, disappeared into the manor. By candlelight, silent, to avoid waking the house, Alphons gathered a pack, provisions, gear for travel. A knife, a leather duster, his gunspring, and a pair of heavy boots. He saddled a muscled roan, and, laden with the goods of a cutter, rode for the estate's end.
At the road, he turned the roan about, beheld the still-smoldering hill where the cutters had died. Smoke streamed in wisps against the black, cloudless sky
"I'm sorry, Saddleback."
Alphons spurred the roan, rode hard the opposite way.
The word bear comes from old Awnish. It means "beast."
Ancient folklore says is a name given in fear, out of a belief held by mythic Man. Out of their concern that the animal's true name, if uttered, would cause the beast itself to appear.
And though the great brown bear of the North is no small villain of the wood, apt to chase, and maul, and threaten, it yet remains a timid beast, and its name is one given wrongly. For in their mistaken fear, mythic humanity confused the lowly bear for the real and monstrous object of their fear: The barghest. The maneater.
When a bear, driven by rage, or scarcity, or territorial decline, is forced to prey not on its harmless fare of nuts, and berries, and scavenged meat, but on humans, it becomes a barghest. A creature of unceasing hunger and rage, its existence reduced only to the insane pursuit of those two drives.
Forever hungry, for every pound of human flesh it consumes does not satisfy. Rather, it compounds awful, burgeoning bipedalism and ever-expanding gigantism. Monstrous gifts to the barghest's efficiency as a killer, but unrelenting blows to its starving mind.
Forever enraged, for the madness of a barghest's undying famine begins and continues eternal by human contact. No bear is born with the will to eat a man, but it can be given one. By plight and hardship driven by Man's depredation of its environment and kin, a bear will come to test that adversary's easy mettle. Most often, it will win, become a barghest, and, bestially aware of the cause of its mad hunger, be forever consumed by hate for the race that unwittingly forced its unnatural dependance on their own flesh.
It shan't appear because you said its cursed name, but it will come and eat you all the same.
For millennia, Littorans† have known the barghest.
Examples of the monster exist as the chief nemeses in unending recountings of Northern lore; the archetypal devouring giant, harrowed and driven to nightly hunts, attracted by the song and revelry of mythic humanity. A beast motivated by a dyad of drives so simple, so bestial, it could only represent the epitome of nature's black and othersome wiles. Of the always-encroaching gloom of dark forests and the queer creatures of the Other bred within; the servants of an awful and predatory ecology. ††
And still, in modern times, few have come to hold any grasp of the barghest's true nature. Few know it is no servant of the Other. Nor is it, like wicked trollen, a baleful combination of Other and natural world. Not at all.
Rather, by depleting the forests they fear so dearly as homes of the Other, humans activate the ireful defenses of their very world. They create the barghest: A destroyer summoned to reap mankind just as they do the woods. The barghest is no Othersome monster, no product of warring worlds.
It is merely nature.
Here's a simple monster article blown up into something much more bloated with thematic cogitation. A glutted combination of wendigos, the transformative maneater concept I've used before, and the old euphemism of the bear.
* Northerners are typically areligious. Instead, they hold a variety of superstitions and natural myths, most of which religious folk hold as paganism.
** A leverette is a lever-action gunspring. Its launch springs are charged by hand, via a lever mechanism flush with the stock.
*** Northern titles are decidedly gender neutral.
† "Littoran" describes any individual hailing from the Coast, be they human or otherwise.†† The Otherworld is chiefest of the alien realms which interstice the Coast, bleeding their growing influence upon the home realm of Humanity. The home of älves, and trollen, and spriggans.
Fantastique. A wonderful read.