James Brogden is a writer of horror and dark fantasy. A part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and the Cumbrian Borders, he has since escaped to suburbia and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals ranging from The Big Issue to the BFS Award-Winning Alchemy Press. His most recent novel, Hekla’s Children, is due to be published by Titan Books in March 2017. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.
It was a sound with which the villagers were all too familiar: the screaming of a mother for her stolen baby.
Across the hill fort they awoke. The women reached for their children in the dark and held them close, thankful that this time it wasn’t them, while the men found their bronze-bladed hunting spears and lurched out into the night, drunk with sleep. The embers of cooking fires were blown up to kindle torches, and the men met at the centre of the village in a huddle of wide eyes and whitened knuckles.
Drizzle sifted through the flames, and the light scored the lines of ribcages with shadow; these men were starving. Their families were starving. They had all been starving since their own childhoods when, on an island of rock and ice so far across the northern ocean that it existed only as a rumour on the edge of traders’ tales, a mountain of fire exploded, and its anger darkened the skies. Exactly what their forefathers had done to anger the goddess so profoundly was a mystery, but black rain had flooded the land and forest had become fen, driving the animals far away in search of light and warmth. Those who had chosen not to follow – who remained in the Four Valleys hoping for better times amongst the burial mounds of their ancestors – had found nothing but gnawing famine in their absence.
Muttering darkly amongst themselves, the men split into groups of three to search the village and its surroundings, already knowing what they would find.
There were many empty roundhouses to be searched. Once proud homes, the thatch and timber of their steep conical roofs had long since been taken to repair the meagre dwellings of those who remained, leaving only the circular walls open to the elements, pooled with stagnant water and rotting from the inside. Torches and spears held in nervous hands swept from one to another, finding nothing.
And all the while the mother’s keening echoed across the hilltop.
They found the afaugh outside what remained of the palisade wall, halfway down the slope of the hill, as if it hadn’t felt the need to escape, or couldn’t wait to enjoy its prize.
It was a man called Nima, once a farmer, whose farmstead had been one of the last to be swallowed up by the encroaching fen. His family had long since perished and he had taken to sheltering in the broken ruins of the old houses, living on vermin and stealing scraps from his neighbours. They knew, and pitied him, seeing in themselves a gaunt shadow of their own futures. What the spearmen saw now, however, was an abomination. The infant hung from his blood-slicked hands, its viscera looped and slithering between his fingers. His face was red and his jaws still chewing when the light found him.
‘The afaugh,’ whispered the men to each other. ‘The afaugh has him.’
Some said it was the bloodlust of neighbour for neighbour in these dark times that had drawn it out of Un, the spirit world, down through the rivers and streams and into the black peat bogs that saturated the plains. Some said it was a curse upon them by the goddess herself, like the black sky. Regardless, the afaugh was a nightmare of terrible appetites, which inhabited the bodies of those too famished to resist, and through them took what little the people had left, including the lives of their children. They would have fled it long ago, had there been anywhere to flee that was not already guarded by jealous spears.
It leered at them from behind the man’s face, and licked its tongue across sharpened, cannibal teeth.
They beat it out of Nima with the hafts of their spears. It was a pale thing, thin-necked and swollen-bellied with pitiless hunger, and it fled screeching from their shining metal blades back into the forests of Un where they could not follow.
Enough, they told each other. Enough.
A truce was called, and young warriors came from all over the Four Valleys in the depths of that bitter, decades-long winter to compete for the honour of becoming the One From Many who would guard and watch over them. For three days and three nights they fought in a great circle of the lime-whitened poles that the spirit-dancers had built, until the ground was churned with mud and blood. In honour of their ancestors who had escaped the First Ice they fought not with bronze but with spearheads of razor-sharp flint, whilst three times the sun rose and fell, and each time fewer warriors remained until one stood victorious and the howl of his triumph echoed across the land. The spirit-dancers robed their new hero in boar skin and led him to the pools of black water which were called the Mother’s Tears, followed by a joyful crowd who sang and played music on bone flutes and skin drums.
The afaugh heard their celebrations, and knew fear for the first time.
They took their hero to that place where the skin between the world and Un was thin, and there they bound him tightly with many cords and strangled him so that the strength of his spirit would not escape with his breath but remain in his body. He was a mighty man, and though he had fought hard for this honour his spirit would not be tamed, and it took many of them to hold him. This was his first death. Then they pierced his breast with the bronze blade of a mighty spear that had been forged for him, and this was his second death. At last, they slipped him into the icy black water along with a host of treasures for him to take into Un as gifts for the ancestors and weapons to use against the afaugh, and this was the third of his threefold deaths.
Later, when the spirits of land and water had shown their favour by making his skin as black as pitch and as hard as leather, he was buried in a high place above the Four Valleys, to watch over his people, and defend them from the afaugh for eternity.
And it worked. The afaugh was banished from the world. It found its return blocked by the One From Many, and fled from his spear deep into the wild places of Un. But it was content to wait, for it knew that there were always men whose weakness and hunger would give it a way back.
(C) James Brogden 2017
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.