Afraid of the Dark
Tom Lloyd Williams
"Mother, why do you let him do that?" called out the girl as she entered the cramped kitchen. Her mother looked up with a tired look, both hands taken up by the huge plate of food she had just prepared.
"Do what dear? Can you just..." she replied, indicating the shawl that was about to fall from her shoulders. Her daughter obligingly rearranged it but steadfastly remained in her way.
"Scare the children. Grandfather's telling stories again." The girl at thirteen did not think of herself as a child anymore, rather a second mother to her younger siblings. She tossed her hair haughtily, as she had seen the older girls of the village do, and shook out her light woollen dress as she did when she was feeling impatient.
"Mother, are you listening? Why don't you stop him scaring them with his stories?" her insistent voice demanded above the noise from the room behind her.
"Yes Cara, I'm listening. Your Grandfather is head of this homestead and the stories are our heritage."
"But he's telling them how bad we are, how we deserve all our troubles and are traitors. He's scaring them and telling them how we are lower than the other tribes."
Her mother let out an exasperated sigh and handed the girl one of the dishes. That look in her eyes was so much like her father's had been. Now he wore the same tired, defeated looked that they all bore in these lands. It was hard to retain the vigour of youth in such a harsh place, snow for six months of the year and the desperate scrape at the land for the other six. Their hardy crops were only just a match for the conditions and life was a constant strain.
"Take this in and get the others round the table. We've had this conversation before and there is nothing more to say. Keep that temper of yours or your father will put you over his knee." She gave Cara a look that made it clear the subject was closed and turned to retrieve the rest of the food.
Stamping her foot in annoyance Cara returned to the main room, by far the largest in the house with a great roaring fire on one side and an oak table large enough for the whole family on the other. There were eleven of them in total, three generations of noise and bustle. All the children sat around the eldest member of the family, a large, bearded man of sixty years and stout figure. His rough, calloused hands gripped his stick tightly as he leaned forward to stare closely into the eyes of the youngest.
"And now I think I will ask a question," he said in his deep voice to the youngest sitting before him, "Nersa, why do we not leave the village lines at night?" the girl stared back into his eyes, a little fear drying her throat as she tried to reply. Grandfather was the dominant force in the homestead; one to be respected rather than loved.
"Because of the Saljin man," answered the child. She hardly dared to look up as she said it, so strong was her fear. Cara snorted in the background and slammed the dish down onto the table, spilling a small piece of meat onto the table.
"Cara, that meat goes onto your plate and that's all you get tonight. I'll have you learn respect for the food we eat, no matter how hungry you become." Cara turned hurriedly to protest but met her mothers gaze as she did and her eyes dropped. A slap on the behind sent her back into the kitchen to fetch wine and a pitcher of water but it was her pride that was smarting.
Upon returning she found everyone sat at the table bar her grandfather. He stood behind the best chair they had, a solid, carved affair with a high padded back. Only he was allowed to sit in it; more than once Cara had felt the back of his hand when he found her in it.
"Cara, perhaps you should be the one I ask about our history. Are you now a sorceress? Are you so strong and brave that you don't fear the Saljin Man?" an edge of anger creeping into his voice.
"Master Dorne says there is no Saljin man," she mumbled, looking down to the stained wooden flooring to avoid his stony gaze.
"Master Dorne?" roared her grandfather, "Master Dorne is a fool and a sniveling coward. You ignore whatever rubbish he comes out with, the man has never marched even with the army!" There was clear rage in voice now and Cara's parents now watched in concern. "Master Dorne would piss himself if you even suggested leaving the village boundary after dark."
Cara said nothing, her spark of defiance mollified by the sudden outburst. Her father took her arm and shoved her into her seat.
"Cara stop your nonsense now, it's time to eat. Father, please don't work yourself up. She knows not to take Dorne's word over yours."
"Hah! You two are too easy on her. The child needs a firm hand or you'll find her under a tree one morning," the veteran growled, at last taking his seat and opening his hands to issue prayer to the Gods. When he had finished they began to eat in uncomfortable silence, one broken by Cara's younger brother. Hesitantly, in a tone so quiet it would have gone unheard on any other day. Today was not a normal day however. It had been an ill wind that brought filthy rain down onto their little herd that day. It had been a pervasive chill that crept even into the soul and one that even stoking the fires high had not been able to chase out.
"Grandfather, why do we pray to the Gods? You said they cursed us." The hush went beyond normal silence. It was a question rarely spoken but the unusual mood had reached everyone. Now, though the boy was only five it earned a vicious clip round the ear.
"In the name of the Gods what is this? Have I been deaf and dumb all these years? How can such ignorance have come into this home?" he slammed his hand so hard down on the table that every cup jumped and spilt. As sad trails formed and ran to the floor the younger children began to cry under his furious gaze. Cara refused to buckle though and met his gaze, knowing what she risked but her stubborn streak waxed stronger than her fear.
"Well girl, do you wish to defy me? Are you so knowledgeable that the lore should be given to your charge?"
She swallowed gently, clearing the dry feeling that had arrived but determined not to be treated as a child. Before she opened her mouth to speak however her mother spoke up in her defence.
"Torl please, she's only a child, she..."
"Quiet woman, were you taught nothing? For seven thousand years our children have never been too young to learn about life, I think we shall not change now," he snapped with venom, staring her down until her shrank back into her seat.
"Well Cara? Speak."
"I... I don't think the Saljin Man exists. He's just a story that grown-ups make up to keep the children quiet. There's no daemons in the woods, only wolves and bears. You're mean, scaring Nersa and Drel, its not fair."
He regarded her coldly, as if lost for words to express his fury. When he did speak it was in a way she had not heard before; quiet, slow and chilling.
"Then please brave warrior, go and prove me so." At this her mother jumped up, crying out for this to stop but he silenced her with a hand. "I'll not be called a liar by a child of my own line. So, Great Amazon, arm yourself and go to battle." He stretched out his arm in dramatic fashion, pointing towards the drape-covered door. Naturally she made no move but the flicker of defiance kept he back straight.
"Well girl? Go I say, or sit and think of the strapping that comes," he bellowed in a voice to shake to walls of the house. When still she remained he kicked back his chair with venom and stepped towards her to make good on his promise. A shriek escaped her lips and she darted back, rushing to the flimsy safety of the kitchen and slamming the door behind. Torl took one more step and then stopped, having achieved as he wished. He returned with a grunt, matching the gaze of his family with unblinking eyes.
Cara held the door firmly shut, trying to control the tears that welled out from fear and humiliation in equal measures. When she was sure he was not coming for her she crossed the room to be near the stove's warmth, sitting in a miserable pile as she hugged her knees. It was then that she noticed the door sitting ajar, a finger of cold creeping in to tickle at her toes and stubborn will.
I'm not afraid of the dark, there is nothing out there; no wolf is stupid enough to be out in the cold. I'll cross round and enter by the front, that will show grandfather how brave I am, she thought as her courage returned. Taking up her mother's great fur she wrapped it tight around her skinny body, then pausing a moment before yanking open the door.
The cold rushed in around her but she remembered herself enough to close it well behind. The dark was complete outside, no moons could she make out from behind the brooding clouds but the light of the house showed her the fence that served as boundary line for the village. It served as the limits of their world at night, the wooden frame that kept them safe. Then, to her amazement, the greater moon flashed out from behind the rushing clouds and ahead stood a man, beyond the line! Such a thing she had never considered, travelers were scarce and she had never seen one come at night, indeed, no man had ever passed beyond the boundary after dark.
Hooded and cloaked, she could not make out any feature or detail but this was indeed a man, not the daemon said to haunt these parts.
"Ho fair warrior, do the knights sally forth to greet all strangers?" called the figure in a voice that cut through the wind without impairment. Clear and crisp it was certainly foreign but man none the less. She looked down to see that she had her dagger gripped in one hand, having drawn it without thought. Returning it to the sheath she approached the boundary line where he stood ready with questions.
"How are you away from the fireside? Don't you fear the Saljin Man?" A chuckle floated over to her muffled ears. "I've heard your stories and yet I fear nothing out here. But I am old and not of your tribe, how is it you are the bravest of your people?" Cara looked over the boundary at him and gave a nervous smile though he could not see it under her furs.
"I don't believe he exists, he's just a tale my grandfather tells to scare the children. He's going to strap me for thinking different," she replied with an edge of misery.
"Well, that's hardly fair. What say you teach him a lesson?"
She looked up questioningly at the figure and he bowed with a comical air.
"Step over the line here with me, we'll call your grandfather out and he'll see how wrong he is," came the scheme in mischievous tone.
She considered of a while and then imagined grandfather's face. With a grin she hopped over the line and slipped under the cloth wing of the stranger. Calling out with all her strength her little voice gained strength from victory and out rushed both parents and grandfather.
With a scream her mother rushed forward, crying out to the Gods in shrieking tone, only to be held back by her own husband. The girl observed her mother in puzzlement at her rare outburst, then looked up to her new friend for explanation. Only then did she see the face, the ice and teeth. The sharp eyes and dream of the night shrouded her from her calls in the distance. And then there was only snow.
Published by permission of the author.