11. The Shepherd

The howling fills the night, drowning Daniel’s oinking screams. The creature snorts, sending twin plumes of moon dust into the wretched man’s face. The great jaws, snapping together like a steel trap, close a hairsbreadth above his head. The monster’s shoulders, stopped by the small doorway, keep the teeth from reaching that final mortal inch.

Ripping the edge of his tunic where the beast’s paw pins him down, Danial flies, crawling on all fours like a starved cat chased from a kitchen. He shrieks at the pain, his exposed side breaking out in boils, the redlight burning his skin off. Running across the street, he smashes open the first doorway that presents itself.

The beast reaches for him, stretching its clawed arm out the door as far as it will go. From the drooling snout, viscous drops of saliva stretch and fall, the hungry tongue licking the air after the escaped pig farmer. Tachi watches those hind legs rearing up, pushing the gargantuan shoulders into the far too little exit. The lengthy curved nails scrap along the dirt floor, unable to gain traction.

This thing, this changeling, backs up, and then jumps forward, crashing into the wall. Fractures spread out like the spokes in a spider’s web. Shaking itself, the monster rears up again, and shoots through the front of the mud hut. Tachi screams. Throwing the thin sheet over herself, she cowers on the floor, the moon’s deadly light burning the threadbare cloth.

It is like an oven under the torn cot, the suffocating air filling with dirt and pollen. Outside, the howls echo through the town, growing fainter and fainter. Pulling the makeshift cloak around herself, Tachi rises from the floor. Without a shading scarf, one of the veils that allow people sight in the moonlight, she tries to discern the world through the thin cloth.

The remaining straws of hay, sticking to the rough material, poke her incessantly, rubbing against her skin as she walks. Already, the tingling itch of hives spread over Tachi’s shoulders. Stepping her foot out a little too far, she burns her toes in the redlight. Letting out a little cry of shock, she continues. Out of nowhere, a hand touches her back.

“Come with me,” the stranger says. Leading her slowly across the street, he throws a hand over her midsection and whispers harshly, “Stop.” Tachi hears the sound of a boot stomping on a board of wood in front of her. “There’s a step.” Leaning forward a little, she feels the sharp shelf of a sidewalk against her shin. Bringing her leg up, the material stretches just a little too far.

“I can’t reach it,” she whispers.

“Hold on,” he replies, and without further word, two great arms enfold themselves around her. Hoisting her into the air, he sets Tachi down on the splintering boardwalk. With his hand once more on her back, the stranger leads her on. “Here we go. Left,” he says. Turning, Tachi feels the cool shade of a house washing over her. The creaking door closes. “It’s safe now,” he reassures her.

Relaxing her death grip on the old cot, Tachi lets the thin sheet fall to her shoulders. Singing one long high note, she fills the dark room with a soft blue light. Behind her, her rescuer stands, cloaked in the cheap cotton wool of a shepherd. He turns his head back and forth, gawking at the sudden burst of light.

Unraveling his scarf, he stutters, “There’s some clothes over there, Priestess.” Bowing, he turns and faces a corner. Tachi frowns, raising an eyebrow at the shepherd’s back. Relinquishing the cot to gravity, she steps out of it, her white priestly undergarments reflecting the blue light. Rolling her eyes, she looks about the room. Spying a short cloak, scarf, pants, and boots by a little bed, she walks over, and begins wrapping the scarf over her face.

“How did you…” the shepherd begins.

Sighing, she provides no answer.



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