He smelled it first—a faint whiff of burning on the chill autumn air. His nostrils flared and his scalp prickled—it smelled like the worst day of his life.
Like the smoke of a funeral pyre.
Conrad sniffed the air and scanned the horizon, searching for a source—a bonfire, or a thin trickle of smoke from a friendly cottage. But there were no fires nearby. Even the light of the manor , where he worked as a stable boy, was hidden by the hills behind him, and only the faint glow of starshine lit his way home over the moor.
The night was dark, cold, and still.
A breath of chilly air teased Conrad’s hair, and he shivered and wished he were back by the manor’s roaring hearth, listening to the bard strum his harp and tell tales. The stories had seemed exciting and noble then—Beowulf destroying fierce Grendel! Faraway heroes battling fantastic beasts with their wits and courage. Conrad and his friends had laughed and boasted they could kill a dozen monsters each.
But now the stories filled his mind with images he wanted to shut out: a hairy creature taller than a bear, hungry for blood; a seven-headed snake with poisonous breath; a demon woman with eyes that turned you to stone.
Conrad’s chest began to ache from holding his breath.
Nothing, he told himself, sucking icy night air through his nose. It’s nothing. But he fingered the bow slung over his shoulder. He was a hunter, like his father had been. He knew what tracking—and being tracked—felt like.
In the darkness, a stick cracked.
Conrad wrenched an arrow from his quiver and notched it to his bow. He peered across the hills, but the black night revealed nothing. No yellow gleam of eyes shone through the dense tangle of weeds. No whisper of smooth, powerful haunches crouching to spring—
Yet something darker than darkness slid toward him.
Conrad drew back the bowstring. His fingers itched to send a shaft into the void—but he didn’t shoot. He wasn’t a little kid, panicky, like his brother Eadric. It was foolish to waste an arrow on some nameless, unseen fear. Instead, he relaxed his arm and turned back toward home, pulling his cloak tighter against the autumn cold, walking a bit faster as he headed down the hill.
He did not return his arrow to its quiver.
Down in the valley, tendrils of mist swirled around Conrad’s knees. Mist—or smoke? The bard’s voice echoed in his ears: Beware the fell beast that haunts the moors—the demon hound with breath of fire. It’s made of shadow and fear, that one, smoke and terror in goblin form.
Conrad stopped and looked back up the hill. The slope was black against the star-sprinkled sky; the long moor grasses bent gently in the wind.
And then he saw it: first a gathering and thickening smoke, then a black mass, a shaggy body eating up the stars with its dark silhouette, bigger than a dog, bigger even than a horse.
Conrad stared at the shape. It’s one of the oxen the thane uses to draw the plows—that’s it. Escaped from its pen is all. If Eadric were with him, that’s what Conrad would tell him.
But the thing lifted its muzzle and stared at Conrad, and it snarled, white canines bared against dark lips. Blood-red eyes, each the size of Conrad’s palm, shone from its grotesque and unearthly head.
It was no ox.
It was the grim.
Conrad’s knees grew weak, and his fingers trembled as he fitted his arrow to the bow. The beast raised its nose to the sky and let out a wail that was cold, shrill, and bloodless as earth and stone. The baying of the grim.
It meant his death.
But Conrad would not go down without a fight. The arrow flew from his fingers, straight and true.
It passed through the beast like a wisp of smoke.
Doomed. Doomed. Doomed. Conrad’s heart beat out the death knoll against his chest. His legs shook, but fear pushed him forward up the grassy hill. The tall, tangled weeds snagged at his leather slippers and grabbed at his ankles. His ears strained for the sound of padding paws, the swish of fur through the rushes, the sound of death on his heels.
Something flashed in the corner of his eye, and Conrad glanced left. The beast was loping along beside him, grinning from its hideous goblin face. It veered closer, then away, teasing him. Like a cat with a field mouse. It shook its head and dissipated in a cloud of mist.
Conrad swerved right, but a dark figure pushed him back. The grim was herding him, like a sheepdog herds the dumb wooly beasts. He ran blindly, terror giving his heels speed, senseless of where he was going, smashing through waist-high grasses and billows of chilling mist.
Close behind him, the cold, bloodless wail sounded again. Twice now he’d heard it. If he did not reach home before the third—
Conrad broke out of the fog, splashing ankle-deep in freezing water. It was the mere—how could he have forgotten! He was trapped—water curved around him on a thin peninsula. Before him the water stretched out like polished silver in the starlight, a crescent moon just tipping over the edge of the horizon. The beauty of it hit Conrad like a blow. What a rare place to die, he thought.
He heard footsteps behind him and stepped forward. Water swirled around his calf. Another step. Thick mud sucked at his foot. No, Conrad thought. I can’t go this way! What about Eadric? What will he do without a big brother to teach him? He is only just learning to draw a bow.
Conrad wrenched his foot from the mud and turned. The mist swirled and billowed, and again he tasted the acrid burning in the air. He shut his eyes, wishing he could also shut his nose to the smell—the smell and the memory it brought, the memory he could not shove away.
He was standing beside his mother, her hand—strong and gentle—holding his, her eyes full of tears, but her face set. They were watching his father’s funeral pyre, its smoke rising to the sky.
“How could he leave us?” Conrad had whispered. He’d been young then, Eadric’s age.
“He was afraid,” his mother had said, drawing Conrad close against her side. “Fear ate him up inside.”
Afraid of what? Conrad had wanted to ask, but didn’t, because he knew. There were many things to be afraid of on the moors. The wolves that hunted you even while you hunted. The hunger you felt every day. The lawless men that hid in the hills. The thane himself if you crossed him.
They’d found Father’s lifeless body on the moor. Some said it was the grim that did it.
Running from his fears hadn’t kept him safe.
The grass rustled, and Conrad’s eyes flew open. The mist parted and the grim emerged, its ghastly face and huge shoulders taller than Conrad’s head. The beast did not growl, but its blood-red eyes never wavered from Conrad.
Its mouse. Its sheep. Its prey.
Conrad jerked a foot out of the mud and lurched forward until his feet found solid ground. He felt it beneath him, hard and real.
The grim shook its shaggy head and bared its gleaming fangs. It paced left, then right, each time coming closer, closer, closer. With every step it seemed to grow bigger and more terrible.
Conrad swallowed hard, but he forced his trembling legs forward, one after the other, until he stood nose-to-nose with the beast. His heart hammered in his chest, but he didn’t back away. Not even when the grim opened its mouth and breathed into Conrad’s face.
The smell of burning. Of death.
It’s only a shadow. A thing of the night, Conrad thought, clenching his fists.
But he couldn’t stop shaking.
The beast grinned a long, slow grin. It threw back its head and lifted its muzzle to cast one last wail to the night sky.
“Enough!” Conrad said.
The beast lowered its head and growled. But it did not attack.
“You can’t hurt me,” Conrad said. “You can only frighten and terrify those who let you. Your power is all in fear.” Conrad stood tall and made his voice strong. “I master you,” he said. “I am not your prey. Go away, and never return.”
The grim narrowed its eyes, and the fire drained out of them. Its shaggy coat softened and melted and drifted away into the night air, the burning smell lingering for just a little longer before the wind carried it away.
“So late?” Conrad’s mother asked. She slammed the door shut behind Conrad, and clutched him to her. “I thought—I heard the howl of the grim on the moor, and I feared for you, my son.”
Conrad let her hold him, letting the warmth and solid feel of her soak into his body. “It was only the wind, Mother,” he said. “There is no grim in these parts.”