They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon. Tam was much the worse by then.
“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,” Abel decided. “Not tonight, not now.”
Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came. The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south. Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him. They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.
“We’ll rest here.” Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees. His companions understood. The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black. Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.
“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,” The boy said.
Abel patted the boy’s shoulder. “Here’ll do. Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye? We should eat well. It’ll be raw tonight.”
There was their plan, then. The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while Abel gathered wood to make a fire. And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.
The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers. Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long. He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.
Fortune smiled: she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock. The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it. It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.
Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned. In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay. Abel was his father now, if any man was.
The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone. No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence. No birds sang.
It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind. The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox? A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws? A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain. Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.
Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar. Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.
And so it proved. Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth. With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs. A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned: let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam. If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.
Abel and Tam were waiting. They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.
“’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us! Run!”
Abel started to his feet. Tam did not move at all. Could he move? But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them. “The creature will not cross the water. It is as the legend tells it.”
Abel frowned, “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore. There are tales told then, of a worm?”
“Some say it’s a worm,” Tam agreed; “some will have it as a dragon. Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly. No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts. It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”
“You knew of it?” Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”
“I have heard the legend. I did not know the legend was true. Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature. And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”
The two men exchanged glances. The boy could see the fear in their eyes.
Tam shifted himself uneasily. “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye? It pains me.”
Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot. The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.
“Poison.” The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.
“Aye.” Tam caught Abel’s glance. “It’ll serve me long enough!” He snapped. “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”
They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep. For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers. He woke long before the sky returned to light.
Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river. One fit man and himself. If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel. Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.
Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them. Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon. They were in no condition to run.
Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword. As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.
Did he have a clear idea of his intentions? Beyond crossing the river probably not: could he slay the worm? He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.
The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank. It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful. He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns. The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere. His companions would be wakening. They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…
Progress was still painfully slow. The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence. Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.
When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun. Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming. It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot. This glade could be its amphitheatre. With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.
“Greetings,” Said a voice, conversationally. “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think? I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”
‘Be still!’ In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him! Think before you move!’
All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option. However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid. Obviously this was a fellow traveller. Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.
“Who are you?” He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice. “Where are you?”
“Oh, over here!” A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless.
The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then! I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”
“Destination? Well, nowhere, really. Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose. I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”
“Anything!” The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”
The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents. “Thank you. I am so grateful! Do you see the book over there in the grass?”
Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally. This was his first. Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification. It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.
“Aye, I see it” He said, anxious to oblige. “They told me these were dangerous woods. I’m happy to find them otherwise?”
“You heard they were dangerous? Oh, dear!”
“Aye, they say there’s a worm..” The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!” He breathed.
“Isn’t it?” He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him. “A man in a grey husk dropped it there. Would you read from it? That would oblige me awfully.”
“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean. I‘ve never seen the like.”
“Oh, that is a pity!” said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now. “I thought all humans could read books.”
“Humans?” The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped. “You said ‘humans’?”
“I did, didn’t I?” Replied the voice. “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”
Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat. Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected. The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation. Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.
“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered. It just wouldn’t work.”
“You’re the worm!” The boy managed to stammer.
“Worm? My dear child, do I look like a worm?” The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be. The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine. You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”
“Are ye going to kill me?”
“Kill you? Yes. Eat you? Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”
“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”
“Yes. How do you think I got the book?”
“But you’re so … so…”
“Polite? Well-mannered? Of course. The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”
“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason, “why don’t you simply let me go?”
“Why. Why.” The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration. “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me. I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth. I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!” It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth. “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all. The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting. That was what induced me to move away from Persia. I suppose it’s why I’m here. ‘Why’, you see? Your word, your word!”
It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we? I admit to being a little peckish…”
“No!” The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised: “Leave me alone, creature! I don’t want to have to harm ye!”
“Harm me?” The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you! A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it? Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!” It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane. “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see? Are you familiar with pork, at all?”
The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet. “Suppose I could be of use to ye? If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer? It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”
The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound. “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows? I have so many weapons, child. What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”
“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”
“I don’t want them back! I simply grow another set.” The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws. “But this is intriguing. What else can you offer me?”
“I can hunt deer for ye?”
“No! Ah, no. I can do that for myself. I like doing it.”
“I can catch fish!” The boy said. “Basically, you’re a cat. You must like fish!”
The Manticore cocked an eyebrow. “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct. I adore fish!”
“Well, I can catch them for ye.” The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face. “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”
“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat. I loathe the water! I hate the water! I despise it!” In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail. It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.
“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid. Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods? Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour. Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”
“Really? Could you do that? My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”
“Oh, aye!” Said the boy, “We can do that.”
So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river. Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount. When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.
The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health. While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.
By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.
The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.
Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return. They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops. There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.
At least, that is the legend…
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.