by Kevin Grover
part 1 of 2
Most men fought with imaginary demons, but Lon’s was real. It regarded him with cold eyes as Lon sat atop the cliff, looking out across the rolling ocean. As he watched the moon reflect upon the rough waters, the winged beast stood just in the corner of his vision.
Each time Lon slept, he wondered if the fiend would sneak up and finally kill him. Often he woke with a start, the demon’s hands wrapped around his throat, squeezing the life from him as he sat upon his chest. The demon would retreat with a cruel laugh.
There was only one question Lon had for it: why did it follow him? All his life it had been there, from his early days as a Hillman of the North. Back then it had hardly made itself noticed.
Lon had been eight when the elder had grabbed hold of him, his fingers digging into Lon’s shoulder like claws. His eyes were white and useless, but he stared at Lon through a straggle of white hair. “You have an evil shadow, boy!” he spat at him with foul breath.
Lon had tried to pull away, but the old man kept a firm grip. “Let me go!” Lon shouted.
“Something evil has latched onto you, boy. It moves when you sleep.”
Lon stopped struggling. Back then the demon had begun whispering in his ear to wake him, teasing him with wicked words. “It tells me things,” he whispered.
“One day you will have to face it.”
Lon smiled. “Then it will die by my sword!” He ran away from the old man, but the demon laughed in his ear.
You are mine! it hissed.
Perhaps he was, he mused, looking at the waves as they crashed against the cliff. Now he was thirty years old and had grown accustomed to the demon, though he resisted the temptation to name it.
“You are right not to give it a name,” Windred had told him when they first spoke of the demon. “To give something a name is to give it power. Let it be nameless and ignored!”
Lon could hear its mocking tone, the words of hate that it spewed from its monstrous mouth. No one else could hear or see it, but people spoke of Lon’s shadow. As a child it had overwhelmed him, pushed him to violence until at fifteen he was banished from the village and the elder had pointed an accusing finger at him as he went, shouting, “It will destroy you one day!”
Then Windred had found him hiding in the woods, a common bandit who had killed many for their gold. Over those years Lon had earned a reputation that had put a sizeable bounty upon his head. He would always move on when the locals had decided enough was enough and would gather their men to hunt him down. When he walked into a tavern with his stolen gold, voices became hushed and people avoided his gaze. They called him Shadow Wolf, and people feared the night, for that was when he would hunt side by side with the wolves.
Lon remembered fondly when he was saved by the old man with the strange tattoo upon his face. It had been a hot day and the hunting party was drawing close. Exhausted from running the entire day, he thought he would fight his last and had taken shelter in ancient ruins within the hills.
The old man was kneeling in the centre of the ruins, his sword dug into the ground, his head resting against the hilt. Expecting the demon to whisper death into his ear and urge him to kill, Lon drew his sword and crept towards the centre of the ruins.
But the demon was silent.
The old man looked up and stared ahead. “You do not have to fear me, boy,” he said. “I knew you would come.”
Lon paused, his sword raised above his head and ready to cleave the old man’s skull. “How could you know that?”
The old man got to his feet and turned, looking at Lon with kind eyes beneath the black ink of the swirling pattern over his face. “The gods have told me of your path. Are you not the one who walks with a demon?”
It had sent a shiver through him. Lowering his sword, Lon asked,”What do you know of such things?”
The old man approached him, his hand offered out in friendship. “I know that you are in need of help. The villagers have been running you down all day. The wolf has run out of hiding places.” He nodded across to the nearest stone where two white horses grazed upon grass. “Can you ride?”
“Aye, I can ride. But why would you help me? Do you not know who I am?”
The old man smiled. “They speak your name in fear around here. You are someone who seeks redemption and an end to the demon at your shoulder. I am Windred.” He bowed slightly.
Lon spat. “Those had better be fast horses, old man.”
So they had ridden together that night, down from the ruins and into the valley, leaving the guards far behind. They rode all night and into the morning, away from the hunters and to freedom.
The demon had protested, wanting to go back and kill those who hunted. Over the years, they travelled the land from the Shadow Mountains to the desert lands and beyond to the great sea before returning. In the entire time, Windred had never questioned or judged him but never explained anything about himself.
Lon learned much from the old man as they travelled. At first he frowned when Windred showed mercy to the weak, helping those who had fallen to misfortune. Over time, Lon found satisfaction in this and slowly the old man won him over. Life had been good and the hushed voices of tavern folk were no more. The demon weakened as he denied it death and violence.
But tonight he was nervous. Glancing one more time at the ocean, he turned and went back to the campfire where Windred sat, staring into the flames. “The demon is restless tonight,” Lon said.
Windred looked up at him, his eyes gazing behind. “Yes, I have sensed it growing near. What is it you seek tonight, demon?”
The demon hissed in Lon’s ear. Keep that old fool away from us!
Lon ignored it and crouched by the fire, warming his hands upon it. As he looked up from the flames, he saw a row of lights along the path at the foot of the hill. Staring closely, he realised they were torches held by riders and the sound of hooves hitting ground at a hard gallop sung to him, carried by the wind. They left the road and began to head directly towards them, shouts of men tinged with blood lust.
Windred had seen them. He stood. “They appear to be heading for our fire,” he said, his voice edged with fear.
“Someone back at the last village recognised me. I could see the look of horror in his eyes.”
“Your old life has caught up with you at last.” Windred headed towards the horses.
“Leave them!” Lon snapped. “They will easily outride us, for our horses are old. Set them free.” He looked down the hillside towards the woods. “We can make it to the woods and lose them on foot.”
Windred hesitated. “That is a Pygmy wood, Lon; only a fool would enter.”
Lon smiled. “Then we should be safe.” He ran down the hill towards the forest. Windred followed after releasing the horses into the wild. They neighed and ran to freedom. Lon looked at them go and wished them well; they had been good companions over the years and he would miss them.
They sped down towards the forest. The wind rushed through their hair and the sky let loose with heavy rain that hit them in their faces with unrelenting fury. The army behind them shouted commands to each other and without looking back, Lon knew they were forming a semicircle in order to round them up. They would be lowering their spears, bowmen taking aim as they neared. Only a short distance to the forest now! Suddenly he felt he was being hunted as in the old days, when he was the wolf.
When they kill you, I shall take your soul with me and torment you for eternity!
“Curse you, demon!” Lon shouted as the demon drew close enough to whisper its vile taunts into his ear. Whenever the demon felt Lon’s death was close, it gloated and urged his demise. “It will be I who taunt you!”
Windred called out to him, “The Pygmies will not take kindly to strangers in their forest.”
There was no other choice, and they both knew it. There was a good chance the villagers would follow no further and risk the anger of the Pygmies, who guarded their sacred forest with ferocity. The first of the arrows whistled through the air, narrowly missing.
Lon and Windred reached the cover of the forest, but it was a black night, as the clouds had swooped to cover the moon. The riders were close and they held their flaming torches high. More arrows flew through the air.
Windred dove through bushes, pushing himself through the tightly packed trees. Lon followed. Horses trampled through the bushes after them. The dogs barked and panted, eating away at the night in front of them, sniffing down their prey.
Cursing himself, Lon realised he had lost sight of Windred and he dived on through the dark forest alone. Like a blind man, he stumbled and bit back the rage of being hunted like an animal. The villagers risked entering the Pygmy forest, such was their determination to destroy him. They had thought they had travelled far enough and kept quiet over the years to avoid this day. Windred himself had warned him that one day he would have to face his crimes.
“But I am a different person than in those distant days of blood,” he had argued one day. “It was the demon who pushed me to evil.”
Windred looked at him with sadness. “Aye, but did you have to listen to it? How many criminals will blame a demon for their ill deeds?”
“But you know it is true!”
“I am not the man who judges you.”
If they caught him, he would be humiliated before a painful death. Or worse, he could be given to the sea. Lon would take as many down as he could before dying in battle. Then he would fight the demon on his back, finally face it down and take it screaming to the Dark World.
Lon tripped on a fallen tree and went spiralling down into the damp earth, the air forced from his lungs. A dog was upon him and teeth sank into his leg. He spun around and grabbed the snarling dog by the throat. With both hands he pulled it away from his leg.
Blood sprayed up around him. Ignoring the hot pain in his right leg, he twisted the dog’s head and heard the bone snap. The dog twitched, then became still in his arms. Throwing the carcass away, he got to his feet and limped on through the trees. He dove down a slope, ran on towards a clearing with high grass. Another dog gave a bark at his heels and he drew his sword, sweeping it down in a quick arc and cleaving it in the head. It yelped before falling into a deathly silence.
The grass was head-high and he pushed on, drowning in a sea of green. The shouts of the guards were falling behind as the horses struggled through the forest. His plan was working, but he was on his own, the only man he considered a friend gone.
He’s dead just as you will be soon, the demon whispered in his ear.
Lon slowed to a walk as he realised he had escaped. The grass became thicker and he pressed on, cutting a path with his sword. The pain in his leg was like fire and he cursed under his breath. Not a single man had died by his hand tonight, he thought with despair. At least ten should have fallen, but all he had killed were two dogs. Then he realised he was sinking quickly back into his old ways and the demon laughed. Windred had helped change his path, yet how easy it was to stray.
At last the grass thinned and he was back in the forest, moving through the trees with the rain beating down through the thick canopy of leaves. Thunder rumbled and the forest was lit by the white flash and revealed a gnarly old tree with a strange symbol carved into the trunk. Pausing to study it, he ran his fingers over the jagged illustration. Lon recognised it as a Pygmy mark, a warning that this was a sacred place.
There were more symbols on other trees and Lon listened to the night for screeching Pygmies. There was only the sound of the patter of rain upon leaves. Behind lay death at the hands of men, ahead was death at the claws of beasts. All the time he deliberated, the more his leg bled and shot fire like pain through his entire body.
Lightning lit the forest again and he spied a great tree, free of symbols. He limped over to it and jumped up. With a great forearm of muscle, he caught one branch and hauled himself up. Determined to get higher, Lon worked his way up until he found a thick branch high above the green forest roof. He stretched out on it, his back resting against the body of the tree. The demon settled below, just out of sight. Lon could feel it staring at him.
“One day you and I shall fight, Demon,” he whispered.
Why can’t you just die and let me have what’s left? I shall crush these pathetic mortals you run from!
“You need me,” Lon spat. “Only my back is strong enough to carry one such as you.”
Somehow the dogs had lost his trail and he thanked the gods for his good fortune. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he ripped a strip of his tunic and wrapped it around the wound. The cut was not as deep as he feared and the blood had slowed. Just as in the old days, he relaxed, ready for a long night in the hope that the pursuers would give up the chase. With the rain soaking him and the threat of Pygmies in his mind, Lon drifted asleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Grover