Across the green, a scream shattered the morning stillness. Bayliss’s hand slipped, his blade neatly severing the delicate swan’s leg he had carved out of an oak bole, cutting deep into the meaty part of his left hand.

It was Lysele. She screamed again, a high sobbing sound. Bayliss dropped the wood, jammed his bleeding hand into his rough woolen apron pocket, and ran, across the green, past the blacksmith’s, the well, the taverna.

By the time he arrived, half the village was there, elderly Fran holding Lysele as she sobbed. Lysele’s husband Artos stared blankly at the south-facing window, the cheerful flowers below it trampled and fouled. Bayliss gazed at the line of slime from the garden’s edge down to the undefined beginnings of the swamp a hundred yards or more to the south, where ancient cypress trees draped black branches into the murky waters. For a moment, he did not understand.

Behind him, the village murmured and wept, a single living being at this moment. Rags and scraps of citizenry joined the crowd around Lysele’s home, holding hands and embracing and crying, clutching children to breasts and looking about hopelessly for the missing child.

An owenun had taken Lysele’s baby, the blond happy girl who had just taken her first steps that Gathersun. An owenun had spawned, and now no child was safe.

 

The sword came out that afternoon. Headman Danilo brought out the sword, its curved blade rusted, still fouled with the blood of the last creature whose life it had taken. It was set on a block at the center of the green, where the villagers avoided looking upon it. All save Bayliss. His heart hurt for Lysele, the girl he’d once wanted for himself. But he was just a foundling, and Artos was the blacksmith, rough and blackened but gentle with his young wife.

Bayliss wondered whether Artos would take up the sword and leave forever.

Near dusk, the smith roused himself from within the house where he and Lysele had taken refuge. Bayliss watched from his work bench. Setting his jaw, Artos took the blade to his blacksmith’s block, knocking away the worst of the flaked corrosion. Once the blade was mostly gray again, he oiled and cleaned it til it shone silver, then sharpened it until the edge caught the rising sun’s light like a dewy spider’s web.

Bayliss, the best carver in the village, set about shaping a new handle to the measurements he knew the tang held. The old handle was blackened and splintered, rotting where old blood had soaked into the wood. As was traditional, it had been put away stained with sin, that it would be long and long before the taint arose in this village again. Seventy-seven years, the Aldman in the village told everyone who stopped to hear his quavering voice. Not long enough.

When Artos finished, Bayliss took the blade from him without a word, respecting Artos’s mourning. The man’s face was long and strained, gray with sorrow. Bayliss sat outside his workshop, carefully dismantling the old haft so he could fit the new one to the blade’s tang, then sanding it down. When he finished, the new handle was balanced and beautiful, polished with linseed oil and fitted perfectly to the pitted old blade on both sides. Artos had made new rivets to hold the blade in place, and once the handle was finished, Bayliss carved the pommel to resemble a tiny hand holding a ball. Lysele’s baby would have her vengeance and more.

Danilo took the blade when they were done, holding it high so the fat curved edge caught the sun, then plunging it into the stone in the center of the village green. Others had spent hours that morning clearing away brush and paving the area near the stone with white pebbles. Lysele herself had dripped blood and tears onto the top of the stone, sacrificing her grief to open the magic. When the blade touched it, the stone opened with a snick, and sealed tight around the sword.

None would remove it unless he was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

And this was the first day.

 

The owenun was not dormant. The next day, and the next, and the next, all the village were greeted with wails as woman after woman found an empty cradle, wet footprints staining white sheets and clean walls, windows flung wide open. One woman tried sleeping with her baby; she was discovered by her husband the next morning, her throat ripped open and eyes staring at nothing. The baby was gone.

Four babies and a mother, in a village of perhaps 300. No one came forth to take the sword.

Every morning, Bayliss looked at the sword. He had ceased working after making the haft. His hand was healing, but in the carving his own blood had soaked into the haft. The sword called to him.

Past the sword, there was Lysele. She sat in her yard day after day, doing whatever work was put before her, listlessly sorting beans or churning butter. Her little sister Minna cared for her as well as she could, and her husband Artos scolded her on the second day, shouted on the third. A man needed a wife, even though the wife mourned a child. Babies died. Everyone knew that.

Bayliss looked away when the fighting started, giving them their privacy. But he could not stop watching Lysele as she drooped, her spirit dying before his eyes. He was a child again, a boy, a youth, and he saw her in all her ages, dimpled and laughing, dancing on the green, kissing a boy who was not him.

And on the fifth morning, he walked with purpose to the green. The village saw his step, sighed with one voice and watched. He crunched across the untouched white gravel, placed one boot on the stone in the center. The sword came out as if it had been held in air instead of stone. It glimmered in his hand.

As one, the village turned their backs to him.

He was Dead to them now. He had raised a sword, forbidden by the gods for a thousand years, and his fate was doom. No one would risk sharing it.

Bayliss returned to his home, where he slung a pack of food and dry tinder on his shoulder, a waterskin on his waist, no more possessions than you’d send with a corpse on its long final journey. He would need nothing else. He would not be returning.

Outside he stepped, the sword heavy in his hand. It had no scabbard. He would not sheath it until it had done its duty, and then it would be sheathed in his own body, left there for seven days or more until it was retrieved by the headman once more to be hidden away, filthy with his blood and that of the owenun.

With purpose, he walked across the green one last time, into the swamp where each trail had led. Behind him, he smelled smoke. The village was already burning his home. The wooden handles, fantastical creatures, beautiful pieces of furniture – they were gone, blackening and cracking and finally tumbling into ash.

He stole a last glance toward the blacksmith’s home. Lysele’s face was hidden in her hands, the peas in her lap forgotten.

He walked into the swamp, and the world was different.

 

Soil oozed, slipped, slid. On both sides of the narrow path Bayliss had found, water flowed sluggishly or lapped over soggy earth. He had been walking half the day, and he was already soaked above the waist with stinking water that never dried. Midges pestered him, swarming his sweating brow. His waterskin was half-empty, his last food gone. The signs of the owenun’s passing were still about him, though, the crushed reeds, exposed mud, slime and blood that did not belong.

In most of the swamp, he found land or fallen logs to walk upon; in some parts, though, there was nothing but foul water, often topped with green bubbles or brown filth. The swamp was horribly alive, reptiles sliding into the water near him, birds screeching from trees. Big-eyed rodents blinked from branches, and everywhere there were bugs: water skaters, mosquitoes, beetles, dragonflies, worms, nymphs, spiders.

From time to time he found that tale-tell green slime, smudged on bark where the owenun had slipped past, or dripped on the ground and not yet washed away. Sometimes he found discarded clothing, more heartbreaking by far: a tiny lace bonnet, a sock, a little blanket. Put together, there was too much clothing to belong only to his village; the owenun had been preying upon other villages and cottages nearby as well, those villages unable or unwilling to field a champion. Bayliss tightened his grip on the sword, picking up each tiny garment and stuffing it in his pack. Perhaps those who would fetch his body would open his pack. Perhaps the little things would bring bereaved parents some small comfort. Perhaps he would not be remembered, at least by some, as a monster.

The owenun were said to only exist here, in this small corner of the great swamp. Perhaps a magician had cast a particularly nasty spell once, long ago when magic was more common, or some stray magic had leaked in from where it was locked away, its dangers held in abeyance but under great pressure. However it had happened, the logs of the swamp had come to life, creaking and rising from mossy beds, growing spindly limbs and opening gaping splintered maws. Swamp fire shone through the holes that served them as eyes, and the green slime that had coated them in their birth constantly dripped from their heavy wooden bodies.

They were a horror, but most of the time they were dormant. Only once in several decades did one of the spawn grow to maturity, lurch to life, eyes gleaming with malevolent intelligence that sought only to feed and then to spawn.  They sometimes wore gamtus, barky shrouds that made them look like any other log in the swamp, or they simply floated soggily toward villages, barely under the surface of the water, until they found a vulnerable house.

They could be slain.

But the people of Daenon did not kill.

They did not kill for meat, nor to keep crops safe, nor to save themselves. Cows were kept only for their milk and butter and sweet-breathed company. Ducks and other birds who scavenged the crops were chased away, but respectfully and with love. The king and his nobles killed, sometimes carelessly, sometimes savagely. They were outsiders, and not subject to the laws of the gods.

But killing was not for the common folk, nor forgiveness of the sin of murder. He who killed, sinned. And he who killed was exiled from the village, a non-person to all. He would be shunned, discarded as surely as an old slipper. None would feed him, none would give him drink, none would heal his hurts. Only when his dead body lay upon the green would he be acknowledged, cast into the rubbish fire where his carcass could be consumed.

He who took up the freshened blade was outcast from that moment – for the blade could not be sheathed until it murdered.

Bayliss looked upon the sword with something like hatred. Though it was wet and covered with fetid moss, the well-oiled blade still gleamed. It, too, needed to be fed.

 

It was evening before he found the owenun. It was only luck; the creature was slipping out of its lair when he arrived. An old beaver dam, partly tumbled so the water oozed through its gaps, made a perfect spawning ground for the monster. The owenun opened its pale blinking eyes once it was fully in the water. Leisurely, it swam to shore and stretched its legs.

And then it spotted Bayliss. It rushed at him, growling.

Bayliss stepped aside, remembering what he’d heard as a small child: go at them from the left. They are half-blind on the left side. The monster overcompensated, rushed past him and into the water. Bayliss struck.

First blood. The heavy blade bit into barky skin. Slime oozed out. The owenun screamed, wheeled around. Bayliss dodged. Not quick enough. One skinny arm, more substantial than it appeared, struck him in the temple. His ears rang, and for a moment his vision darkened. Blindly, he swung the sword at nothing.

Luck alone saved him. His wild swing and the slick ground made him overbalance as the monster rushed at him. The blade still moved. Bayliss gasped and pulled it upward, and it caught the owenun mid-body. Its unnaturally sharp edge sliced through woody skin, opening a wide gash from which green slime poured. It screamed and toppled onto him.

The owenun was dead before Bayliss could see again. He felt it gasp once, quiver, go limp.

Bayliss dropped the blade, shocked at his own victory. “Forgive me, o fate, Ehecale, for I only do what I must.” He stumbled back and sat, head in hands, unmindful of the slime coating them and his face.

He had slain another being. The owenun was a creature of intellect. Now its gore stained the ground. The foxfire light of its eyes faded until it was nothing but a log with a peculiarly large gash in its center.

He should feel devastated. He should feel dirty, like a sinner, a monster himself.

But he did not. Instead, a tide rose within him, a strange sort of euphoria. Lysele’s pretty baby had been avenged, she and the other children who were taken. No other children would be taken. He had protected his village. He stood, a man, and picked up the sword.

He had saved them all! Rage grew within him. If he returned, they would know what he had done. They would call him murderer, expect him to turn the blade onto himself, let his own life blood drain away to water the green. It was his duty. And then – then they still would not forgive him. Even Lysele would look upon his white body with contempt, and they would seize him like trash and burn him, not even affording him proper burial with his parents in the stone tomb on the north of town.

He was nothing to those people, the people whose children he had saved. Suddenly, he vomited, the bread and cheese he’d had at midmorning spewing on top of the green slime of the dead monster. He spat and heaved, wiped at his mouth.

He was as one dead to them.

NO!

He would live.

He would violate their unjust law.

But first, he would ensure the safety of the other innocents of the village. It was nearly too dark. The young of the owenun would peer out, come morning, if their parent did not return with food. They would peer out, and then they would scatter, and then they would grow to maturity themselves, scattering throughout the swamp and preying upon the children of the children of his village, too many for a host of champions to destroy.

Worthy or not, he would not let this happen to his people.

He used a long stick to poke the base of the beaver dam, at last finding a place where the stick sank deep in the thick stream. That would be the entrance, he thought. He stepped into the water, held his breath, ducked beneath. By feel, he found the hole, coated with disgusting slime he knew came from the owenun. Sickened, he slithered through the opening, up into an open space, much larger than he expected.

Save for the dozen or more blinking foxfire eyes that surrounded him, it was entirely dark.

He pulled the packet of tinder from his pack, struck a spark and set it on the ground. It caught, blazing forth quick, and he thrust a couple of dry bits of wood in, then pulled some loose wood from overhead. Soon, there was enough fire to illuminate the space around him.

The owenun had been busy. He was surrounded by young, all in different stages. One or two, he noted with a swallow, were nearly old enough to leave the nest even with a living parent still there. Others were infants or toddlers. All stared at him and the fire, blinking. Innocent. They knew no better, Bayliss realized. It was their nature to seek out human children, to eat them and use their life forces to create their own children. It was the way of nature. It would only end one way.

“Forgive me,” he muttered, not really expecting forgiveness, and swung the blade.

THE END

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Photo by Momentmal (Pixabay)