The silence of midnight was broken with a blood-curdling howl. It echoed through the little village, effecting a swift and remarkable reaction. No shouts of surprise were heard, nor was there any scrambling for weapons. Instead, the men of the village left their houses with lamps, moving towards the centre of the village to hold council. Their wives stayed indoors, comforting the children and trying to coax them back to sleep instead of lingering at the door and being fearful for their husbands.
"That's the fourth time in the past hour, and I'll be darned if it ain't from the same place," an elderly fellow remarked.
"Sure enough," someone agreed. "From down the road to Ivard's farm. We'd best go check and see if he's keeping well with his wife and child."
A general murmur of approval followed the suggestion, but no one moved into action. They stood there for a while, rubbing their arms and stamping their feet to ward off the cold. Another howl reached their ears, carried by the wind. Stirring uncomfortably, the old man who first spoke decided to take matters into his own hands.
"Well, c'mon! If there's somewhat wrong, we'd best hurry!"
The men parted and went back to their houses to hastily arm themselves while muttering words of assurance to their wives and children. In a matter of moments they were all back at the village square, most carrying the tools of their trade as weapons. Some were left behind to keep watch on the town and call for help from the city if need be. The rest, with pitchforks, hammers and crude bows at the ready, proceeded down the road feeling more confident now that they had weapons in hand.
The dim outline of the farm slowly came into view. By the light of the full moon, they saw the outline of a woman sitting on the front steps of the house. Upon spotting them, she gave a cry of alarm and rushed back inside, calling out for her husband.
Mystified by this strange behaviour, the village people continued on. Distantly, they heard the sound of a door being slammed shut. As they neared the house itself, they saw that the wheelbarrow used to cart crops around had been hacked to pieces; here and there, long planks of the wood had been stripped off. The offending axe lay nearby, imbedded into the wood of a fence that bore similar signs of vandalism.
"Ivard? Ivard!" The old man stepped up to the door and rapped smartly. "Is somewhat wrong?"
There was no response. Putting an ear to the wood of the door, the old man managed to make out some sort of scuffling sound inside. There was a loud snap that made everyone jump, and a low growling noise was added to the mix of strange sounds. Inside, they heard the unmistakable noise of wood bending under pressure. Another snap made them jump again.
"Ivard, if you don't open up this instant, we'll break the door down!" The old man shouted, banging on the door with the flat of his hand.
"There's naught wrong! Go back to your beds!" A man from inside shouted back. His voice held a trace of fear and panic.
"Pah!" The elder spat on the floor. "If there's naught wrong then I'm a pussycat! I can hear your distress! Open this instant!"
"N-no! Truly! We are well, aren't we, Lisse?"
"Yes, sir, truly!" Ivard's wife called out, although her voice was similarly strained, as if she had just been crying.
A loud growl followed by another snap made everyone jump again, and a soft squeal of fear from Lissie decided the matter. A young farmer stepped forward at the behest of the elder and started ramming the door. A panicked shout came from Ivard and a moment later, the sound of an iron bolt being drawn reached their ears.
"Curse it!" The elder spat again. "Ivard, I'll have you thrown out of the village if you don't open up! Somewhat's wrong, and you're hiding it from us! It could be dangerous! Think of the women in the village!"
"M-my business is my own! Aaron's sick! He's delirious!"
"That ain't no human sound! We heard the howls! Open!"
A sharp smash followed by the tinkling of glass caught everyone's attention. The blacksmith had a sheepish look on his face as he pointed towards the broken window. A slot on his utility belt was suspiciously empty. One of the farmers attempted to climb through, but a pale-faced Lissie appeared at the window with a saucepan and swung it with surprising dexterity. One loud plunk later, the farmer fell back and landed on the dirt looking dazed.
"Lissie!" The elder threatened. "Cease this foolishness, before someone gets hurt!"
"Lissie!" Ivard screamed. "He's breaking out! I can't hold the door!"
The woman disappeared from the window, allowing the blacksmith time to clamber through. The sound of wood snapping once again was accompanied by an inhuman snarl of rage. Sounds of Ivard panting and puffing and Lissie making noises of similar distress joined in the confusion of noises made by the villagers as they called out fearful questions or angry remarks.
A bolt was drawn back and the door opened to reveal the blacksmith. Immediately, several of the more muscular farmers entered the house to survey the scene. Ivard and Lissie had their backs to a door barred with wooden planks that looked like pieces of a fence and a wheelbarrow. Most of the crude bars had been broken, and the door was bent outwards with its timbers straining and threatening to break. The sound of snarling was louder than ever.
Automatically, the farmers sprang to the door and helped in the pushing. After a few minutes of pushing and grunting, with sobs from Lissie and Ivard, the pressure on the door diminished. With a snarl, whatever it was on the other side retreated and turned its attention to the objects in the room. Loud crashes and slams hinted at the bed and cupboards being flung about.
"What's in the room?" The elder demanded.
"Aaron," Ivard croaked.
"Poppycock! Whatever's in there isn't human!" The old man retorted.
"Please," Lissie said. "His illness gives him unnatural strength. In the morning we will have to tend to his injuries. He would be distraught if he knew what was happening. He has no memory of these nights."
"Huh!" The old man paced around the living room. "How long has this been happening?"
Lissie exchanged looks with her husband before replying. "Two months."
"Why didn't you tell us? We could help, bring herbs or…"
"Er, we were going to bring him to a priest in the town," Ivard offered.
The elder glared at both husband and wife for a while before he spoke again. "I don't believe you all one bit. If anything like this happens again, we'll get to the bottom of it! Mark my words!"
He departed, taking the rest of the villagers with him. As he left the house, a low, hacking cough that sounded oddly like a laugh came from the room.
The next night, Lissie brewed a strong sleeping draught with herbs and let her son, Aaron, drink it before going to sleep. Once he drifted off, Ivard gagged him and tied him to the bed. With that done, they left the room and barred the beaten door with more pieces of wood taken from the wheelbarrow and fence. Husband and wife traded looks of sadness bordering on despair. In the morning they were ill and tired from the exertions of the night, and their son nursed them and tended the field in his father's place, despite being only twelve. At night, they bound him and prepared for another gruelling battle. The gag was new; until now, Aaron had never made any noise during the night.
A sharp rapping at the door startled them both. They remained quiet, hoping to deceive however it was that they were asleep. The rapping came again, more insistent than before. Still, the couple kept quiet, thinking that it might be the elder.
"If you do not open the door, mister Ivard," a woman's voice drifted through the broken window. "I shall have to get my servants to break it down. I have a matter of utmost importance to discuss, and I know you are not asleep."
Defeated, Ivard called back. "Who are you to disturb me in such a manner?"
"One who would help you," came the reply.
"My missus and I get on quite well," he said. "We're only farmers, but we make a good life out of it!"
"Indeed?" The woman's voice held a hint of amusement. "And your boy is in perfect health, is he? The poor little Aaron?"
Ivard paled. "Who are you?"
A sigh. "I have already answered that question, mister Ivard. You are wasting time. Persist in this game of cat and mouse and I will be forced to take drastic action. Indeed, if you push me far enough, I will leave you with your canine to play a game of dog and cat." She put a delicate stress on the word 'canine'.
Reluctantly, Ivard crossed the room and opened the door. The speaker was a woman of extraordinary beauty. Her face and skin seemed to glow with an inner radiance, her flesh was tinged just the right colour and her eyes were a disconcerting, piercing blue. A lock of mahogany hair fell across her face while the rest of it was hidden within the darkness of a hood. She wore a rich fur cloak as a defence against the night cold. Behind her was an unusual sort of carriage; behind the passenger cart was another smaller compartment. It was decorated with seals and runes so complex they dazzled the mind.
She had no visible servants save for the cabman who sat at attention with the reins still in his hand. The horses nickered and tossed their heads, displaying their uneasiness, although exactly what they were afraid of was unknown to Ivard.
"Well?" The lady raised an eyebrow. It rose with perfect precision, forming into just the right shape to convey cynicism. "Are you going to invite me inside?"
Finding his voice, Ivard respectfully lowered his eyes and mumbled, "Pray, lady, come into my house. Do not stand in the cold."
As he said that, his eyes went to his fireplace, cold and devoid of any wood. He shifted uncomfortably and adopted a careful manner. His wife did likewise, giving the lady the respect due to nobles.
The lady stepped inside and closed the door gently behind her. Her eyes roamed around the house, passing over the empty fireplace and finally alighting on the door to Aaron's room. "So," she said, turning back to Ivard with a half-smile. "You and your missus get on quite well, do you?"
As if in response to her words, the snapping of ropes came from the other room. Something hit the door hard, causing the already bent timbers to bend further. The makeshift bars cracked once again, falling to the floor in useless halves. Lissie and Ivard made to get up, but the lady stilled them with a gesture.
"Do you know what has happened to your son?" She smiled brightly.
"No, my lady. Please, if you have some medicine, some sure to his ailment…" Lissie started to say.
"He has been inflicted with a rare and interesting disease," she interrupted. "It is also, of course, potentially dangerous." She continued conversationally as another impact hit the door, causing the door itself to crack slightly. Ivard twitched.
"There is, however, no cure."
Lissie burst into tears and Ivard lost his temper. "No cure!" He shouted. "No cure! How can you help us, then? If you mean to kill him, I won't have it! He's our son, our only child and I'll take my own life before I end his!"
The lady's eyes flashed dangerously. "Silence, man, and do not speak when you have no comprehension of the situation. In any case, I do not wish to take his life. I am going to give you a choice."
Lissie stopped crying. "W-what choice?"
In response, the lady walked to the door. Ivard started to warn her against doing anything rash, but she silenced him with a glare. The lady stretched out a thin, gloved hand and grasped the door handle. Then, ever so slowly, she began to twist it open.
"No! Lady!" Ivard shouted.
It was too late. The woman twisted the knob and flung the door wide open. There was a muffled roar as something rushed towards her. Lissie screamed and Ivard darted forwards in an attempt to close the door. However, he was too slow. Aaron flung his father aside and made straight for the main door, only to find the noble woman standing before it. He stopped to consider how much of a threat she was when Lissie saw her son by the moonlight through the broken window. Her screaming stilled, only to begin again, more shrill and panicked than before. Ivard climbed to his feet and saw Aaron, and he, too, let out a scream.
Where both Lissie and Ivard had expected to see their thin, pale and sickly son, perhaps with fevered eyes, they saw an inhuman creature.
Its face was that of a young wolf, mouth open to reveal rows of sharp teeth as it panted for breath. Corded muscles covered in bristling grey fur and a paw with more defined fingers than a canine had replaced the boy's thin arms. The abdomen was humanoid with short, fine fur spread across an impressive physique. Its legs were similarly well formed, except that unlike a human, its weight was based towards the front of the foot with the heel raised, like a digitigrade mammal.
"Aaron!" Lissie squealed. "Aaron! No!"
Aaron turned to his mother, incomprehension in his eyes. He sniffed, scenting fear, and sprang towards the woman who was lying on the floor. Lissie screamed again and backed off. Her hands flew up to cover her face and she closed her eyes, expecting the clamp of teeth around her arms. It never came. Slowly, fearfully, she opened her eyes and gasped.
The creature was in mid-leap towards her, but it was held there in the air. The panicked woman cast her eyes around and spotted the noble lady with finger pointed at the creature. She lowered her arms and got to her feet, skirting around the creature and coming to stand beside her husband.
"Mister Ivard," the lady said with the calm but focused air of one discussing finances. "Your son is a lycanthrope. Every night there is a full moon, he turns into what you might know as a werewolf. When this happens, he loses control over himself and is overcome with the desire to … well… feed."
She stepped around the lycanthrope to come face-to-face with it. Its wild eyes bore into her, but she held its gaze. After a while, it directed its eyes away to avoid her calm stare. "Lycanthropes are not very picky about what kind of flesh they consume. Deer, cow, sheep…" She looked back at Ivard and Lissie. "Human. It makes no difference to them."
"No, my son, my son…" Lissie sobbed into her husband's shoulder.
"This is your choice, Mister Ivard, Madam Lissie. If left with you, he will surely break free. Already it has been three nights since he first started turning, and you are bone weary. When he breaks free, he will rampage across the village and kill everyone, because lycanthropes are only susceptible to silver. No weapons your village possess will harm him for long. Once he is finished here, he will move towards other sources of food. Travellers and foresters will fall prey to him, along with the beasts of the wild. Once night is over, he will turn back into the Aaron you know. He will be lost in the middle of nowhere and he will despair. He will not know what has happened."
She walked over to the door and opened it. The driver was idly examining his nails, completely unconcerned from all the screaming earlier.
"When he eventually understands what is happening, I can only guess what he will do when he comes to the realisation that he has killed everyone he holds dear. This is your choice, Ivard. Lissie. I can take him away, control him and perhaps in time release him back into the world. I will give him the ability to control himself."
"Or I can leave him here with you."
Both husband and wife were crying. They didn't like the prospect of losing their only son, but at the same time they could not bring themselves to endanger their own lives and the lives of all the villagers. A few minutes passed as they poured out their grief, while the noble lady waited patiently.
"Yes," Ivard croaked, his voice choked with tears. "Take him."
The lady nodded and motioned with her hand. The lycanthrope floated out silently. She turned back to the couple, crying in each other's arms and felt a pang of sympathy. It was never easy to separate these people from their children, but if left to their own devices neither parents nor child would prosper, and in the end only sorrow would come of it.
"You made the right choice." She reached into her cloak and took out a small leather pouch, which she set on the dining table that had managed to stay out of all the trouble. "You will need this."
With that, the lady left the house, closing the door behind her. She stowed the lycanthrope in the compartment covered with runes and settled herself back in her own carriage. With a curt nod from the lady, the driver took up the reins and directed the carriage back towards the city.
Inside, Ivard and Lissie continued crying until they fell asleep. When they awoke, they examined the leather pouch to find fifteen gold pieces and a note that read, "Best wishes to Monsieur Ivard and Madame Lissie. Your son is in safe hands. From the Children of the Night"