Father snagged hold of my shirt and pulled me close, our foreheads almost touching. “You run, boy,” he ordered. “Run to our place, Rudd. You’ll be safe there.” He pushed me away hard and I fell against one of the shop tables, sending tools and unrefined metal rods clattering to the floor.
“I won’t leave you!” I yelled, grabbing one of the crude, unfinished swords off
the ground. “I’ll fight with you.”
“You are the last of my blood,” Father growled, slipping his best silver knives into sheaths and strapping them to his body. “They have taken everything of mine, but I’ll be damned if they take my last son.” He didn’t look at me. The clanging of the village warning bells seeped through the wooden walls, making my own ears ring. Father stepped to the large, barn door of our smithing shop. “Leave through the passage and run as hard as you can. Don’t stop and trust no one.” His eyes remained hard as his voice softened. “And gods be willing… I’ll meet you there.”
His words trailed as he lifted the heavy brace of the door. I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to fight beside him, father and son, but I had to follow his
orders. I had to be the man he’d turned me into.
Father slipped out the door and into the night without looking back; screams and howls from outside thrust through the opening, the weight of their horror making the door seem even heavier as I pushed it closed. My lungs released my captive breath and I began my well practiced drill, sliding the iron brace of the door back into its slot before running across the shop to a pile of barrels resting in the corner. I pulled out my pack of provisions and strapped a single blade to my waist. My hands were shaking, muscles twitching. I had to hurry. It was only a matter of time before the intruders would sense me and come searching for a way inside.
Wolfsbane. I pushed a barrel over, dumping piles of the pungent weed onto the floor. I grabbed handfuls of the freshest bundles and smeared it over my skin and clothes before stuffing clumps into my pack. The juices stung but I ignored the burn and dropped to my knees, grabbing the edge of the flagstone hidden behind the pile of wood. I tugged and pulled, slowly sliding the stone to the side.
A sudden bang against the barn door rattled the iron latch. I jumped, the stone slipping and crushing my fingers. A groan escaped my mouth. Did they hear? I waited; a boulder in my throat. Another bang and a long howl. They knew there was living flesh inside. The wolfsbane hadn’t been enough to cover my presence.
I grasped the stone again and slid it away, revealing the black burrow beneath; the passage my father and I had worked hard to dig. The only hope I had to survive. I grabbed the lantern from its hook and gathered a cluster of older, dried wolfsbane. I pushed the leaves into the flame of the lantern, waiting for them to light as the sound of claws scraping against wood began on the walls around me. The clutch of papery kindling flared in my hand.
I glanced around the shop one last time. The only home I’d known. The place my mother and brothers had once lived. A place of hard work and laughter before the change came. Before they came and took it all.
A splintering noise came from the door. Long claws slid through the new crack, yanking at the wood. I tossed the flame onto the pile of dried plants. It
smoldered and caught. Flames licked the air, crackling and popping as I turned
and slipped myself down into the darkness. I reached up and slid the flagstone
back as far as I could over the entrance before turning and staring down the
long, crepuscular tunnel.
I walked as fast as I could through the tight, dark space. The wolfsbane was
strong and choking. I prayed it would fill the chamber and cover my human
scent. I placed my hand on the earthen wall, concentrating on its curve; tangles
of roots brushing my fingers. Suddenly my forehead struck a stone protruding
from the dirt. I staggered; clamping my hand to the wound and feeling the
sticky wetness beginning to coat my fingers. I couldn’t smell blood, but they could. There was no scent sweeter to them. Wolfsbane would not cover this.
I crouched and hurried; trying to continue on foot, but the tunnel was narrowing. Father and I had been forced to decrease the size so that we could finish the passage before the next moon—this moon.
The walls began to squeeze closer and closer, amplifying the sound of my panting breaths. My back scraped the ceiling until I had no choice but to crawl. The lantern in my hand slowed me and I thought about leaving it. I couldn’t. The fire was the only company I had.
I heard a noise and paused. I listened, wondering if it was only the sound of the muffled screams and howls above me. It came again. The sound of movement, almost like my own footsteps, but softer—faster. Breathing. A low growl. Fear flooded my body until I shook. I frantically clawed forward before suddenly realizing I had to stop. If I went farther I would have no room to move or fight. I took a deep breath and sat the lantern beside me as the salty taste of bile gathered in my mouth. I pulled my blade from its sheath and felt as if the tunnel was a ribcage and I was the heart beating inside it; a steady thud echoing in my ears as I turned to wait for what was coming.