((AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is written for the entertainment and character/town enhancement for the Guild of St. Helena's at the Southern California Renaissance Faire. We're always talking about our poor cousin, Jon, whom we lost to the bog. But there is a darker side to Jon's story. And it begins with the one line every writer avoids like the plague...))
It was a dark and stormy night.
Chill, Autumn winds howled menacingly through the village of Duckbilled Nippingshire. No business dared open its doors, and no homes dared leave their windows unlocked. The gnarled fingers of twigs scraped against glass and shutters as if begging to be rescued from the gale threatening to tear their tree roots from the ground. The waters of Duckbill Pond spilled onto its banks, and the river had become so choppy, it battered the tethered boats into their moors. Already, the night claimed two fishing vessels, leaving them completely submerged with only their lines clinging desperately to their iron holdings. The deep 'crack!' of thick branches groaned above the thunder as though giants snapped them off to fuel their hell fires.
There had never been a more wicked storm to strike the shire in over a decade.
Unfortunately, this was the night John Yanker had chosen to linger past sundown in Port Deptford from a day of gallivanting at the Bell, and spending his coin on mugs of ale at the Oubliette. Halfway to the village, he found himself caught up squarely in the storm's rage. He kept his head low as he urged his horse onward through the driving wind. His cloak barely protected him from the needles of rain. He knew the break between first and second sleep would be soon, but he highly doubted anyone would venture outside. John clutched at the reins, and yanked back hard when a large, knobby oak came crashing down across the middle of the road. His horse pivoted in the mud, nearly throwing its rider out of the saddle, and bolted into the midst of the Fordatree Woods.
Being a Yanker, John had grown up running through these trees, and knew almost every detail, for the landscape hardly changed. Yet in the darkness, with bolts of lightning illuminating the trunks as bleached skeletons, he missed one very important landmark; an old decaying sign warning 'Mind the Bog' the edge of Evan's Bog.
The horse leapt over a rotten log into a tight clearing, and came to a halt. John took that moment to reorient himself, though it took less than a breath to realize where he'd stopped. His nose wrinkled from a putrid stench bubbling in the distance. If he double backed, he could reach the road, but if he risked the murk and mire, he would be home in half the time. With the storm gaining in strength, and the groan of falling trees filling the wood around him, it left him with little option.
He nudged his horse to tred carefully into the midst of a land quickly filling with water. There were moss-covered paths of solid ground that he kept to. They created a maze that was difficult enough to find in the middle of a clear day, let alone at night beneath the fist of an enraged thunderstorm. One false step and he could tumble into the mud to join past villagers lost to its depths.
He had made it most of the way through, and could make out brief, glorious glimpses of the shire through the downpour when something heavy splashed to his right.
A figure black as tar rose slowly from the bog, bowing upward with globs of murk dripping from it like puss from an open wound. Two soulless, yellow eyes opened and stared unblinking as if seeing through both horse and rider. It made a gurgling sound similar to the waters that birthed it, and snarled with sharp fangs that could tear the hide from a bear.
John's panic coursed through his veins, and his breath stabbed in his throat. His entire sense of direction flushed away with any rational thought as sheer terror shred itself within his gut. The mighty beast of legend shadowed all hope, leaving him with one command owning his being.
The horse reared up in fright. John kicked the stead into a run without care for the treacherous paths. Its hooves sank into the unforgiving ground repeatedly, though he desperately urged it on. He could hear the creature quickly gaining ground and feared he would not see the safety of the shire ever again.
The beast let out a howl like a devil's horn. Its large feet slapped against the ground as it chased its prey. Its lumbering bulk broke through tree limbs, and its great green claws ripped through the sod.
John broke through the treeline into the commons, risking a glance behind him. The creature's jaundiced orbs vanished behind the trees, though he still felt he was being followed. He aimed straight for the safety of the Yanker barn. With unsteady hands, he fumbled for the latch key, shivering and shaking in terror, as he was sure the creature would tear him apart at any moment. He dropped the keys, snatched them the ground, and somehow managed the lock. John pulled his horse inside and slammed the wooden door closed, shutting out the weather and the beast.
The stables were filled with every animal that would normally be grazing on the Commons. All were brought in for the night, making the barn smell of oxen and sheep.
John heaved a sigh of relief. He removed the stallion's saddle and placed it with the tack, then rested his head against the warm neck of his trusted friend. At last, the night's horror had ended.
The silence broke with the frantic whinnies and braying from the animals all stomping their hooves. Something had startled them. John swallowed against a lump in his throat. He turned slowly over his shoulder at the locked barn door banging against its restraints.
Then all was still.
The hairs on his skin prickled at a cold, moist breath on his neck. His heart quickened at the sound of a deep, snarling, guttural growl. It loomed above him, as if manifested from the darkness itself. He stared straight into those demonic eyes, frozen with fright. And in a flash of lightning that muffled his scream, he disappeared.
The storm cleared, and the next morning when the animals were let out to pasture, the villagers discovered the soaked traveling cloak of the farmer's son, and a trail of bloody, three-clawed footprints leading to the door, though it remained locked from the inside.
To this very day, no one knows what became of poor John Yanker.
Let this be a lesson to any who stray beyond the protective light of day: Stay out of the bog.
Now, did the bog beast end the life of poor Jon Yanker, or...is the bog beast none other than poor Jon Yanker?
You decide. :)
Feel free to R&R if you like it.