The monster lived in a cave on the mountain-top. Down in the valley below, the farmers warned their children of what the monster would do if they didn't behave—it would carry them away and eat them, so they had better be quiet and eat their vegetables. It was a long, green pleasant valley, the river wound clear and sparkling along its floor and the villagers' fudge-coloured cows placidly chewed the cud on the banks, flicking their tails to keep off the flies as they dozed knee-deep in the little rocky pools below the willow trees. The farmers had lived for a thousand years or more in that valley, certainly for longer than any of them could remember, and they would have been quite content, for the soil was dark and rich and the land was kind to them, if it weren't for the monster.
No one had ever seen it and lived long enough to tell other people what it looked like. But the villagers knew that it lived in a cave on the mountain-top and sometimes ate deer and cattle.
And once a year it ate people. This was the farmers' tax to the monster. It kept their houses standing, their children alive, their herds from being utterly ravaged—for the monster's appetite was famous. They paid the tax—once a year—because they didn't know what else to do. No need for them all to die.
When the monster first came—fifty years ago or more, only the very old villagers could still remember—a band of young men from the valley had gone up the mountain with spears and burning torches—one of them even had one of the new muskets—to kill the monster and rid their home of this blight. None of them ever came back. Then the archbishop arrived in state on a white charger, flanked by a whole phalanx of monks, to rid the Earth of this demon. None of them were ever seen again either. So the valley resigned itself to its tax.
Not that the monster's victims were at all reluctant. On the contrary, every year there was a fierce competition between the young men of the valley to see who would go to slay the monster—none of them ever had the slightest doubt that they would slay it. No matter how many of their friends went up the mountain never to return, no matter how many mothers sank down sobbing when the next sun-rise there was no sign of her child, every village boy knew with unshakeable certainty that he would be the one who would finally rid the village of this pest and live in glory for ever more.
The monster's victim was chosen by a joust on the village green—the village headman, long ago, expecting reluctance, had proposed drawing lots, but when fist fights and even knife fights broke out between the village boys to get hold of the short straw of eternal glory, a joust was proposed instead.
This year, the popular favourite was Karl. Karl had nearly won last year when he was only fifteen, and in the past year had grown tall and strong and manly. Now the sun-light shone off his lance and his golden hair as he knocked men ten years his senior off their horses like skittles, laughing in surprised joy at his own strength and youthful daring.
Lionel sat under the old oak tree at the side of the village green and sighed as he watched. He had fallen off in the first round—again—and broken his ankle—again. He pressed the cold cloth against it and winced. He looked up as the clang of metal on metal announced that Karl had effortlessly dispatched another opponent. He winced again and looked away. He knew that Karl was an expert with a sword, but he couldn't, as everybody else seemed able to, forget that the monster had killed a dozen men, one with a musket, at once, not to mention every man the village had sent up the mountain since. Did Karl really think he was better than all those others? Did he think a miracle would protect him that hadn't protected them? Lionel watched Karl thunder along the village green, life and youth and joy and fervour in every limb, and couldn't help thinking that his twin brother was already dead.
Not that anyone would think they were twins. Lionel had accepted long before that he would never compare with Karl. Not in jousting, fencing, archery, hunting. Karl could even read. Lionel, despite the village priest's best efforts, had never really got to grips with it.
Another crash, Thomas the blacksmith tumbled from his horse and bounced along the grass. Karl, radiant with joy, dismounted and pulled him to his feet.
The crowd went wild.
Lionel felt he was going to be sick. Karl had won, as everyone had expected him to. And now he was dead, just still walking around and smiling. Everyone shook hands, the other men congratulated Karl on his victory and swallowed any envy they might be feeling that he was going to face the monster in their place.
Lionel tried to compose his breathing and swallow his urge to vomit as Karl sauntered over to him and flung himself down next to him on the grass. His eyes were shining like distant stars.
"Congratulations," Lionel choked out. He tried to sound sincere. It was selfish of him to care about losing his twin when he was dying to protect the whole village.
Karl laughed and stretched out in the shade. "Thanks, kid."
Lionel scowled. He hated Karl calling him kid. Karl was only older than him by five minutes.
"You didn't do too badly yourself," Karl continued.
"I fell off in the first round."
"It's just a question of posture. I'll show you how. When I get back."
"When you get back? Do you honestly think you will?"
Karl shrugged. "I expect so. Nothing's immortal, is it?"
"Including you," Lionel pointed out.
"True," said Karl. "No danger, no fun."
"I wish it could be me instead," blurted Lionel.
Karl raised an eyebrow. "Well, who doesn't want to slay the monster?"
"I don't think I could slay it," said Lionel sheepishly. He just didn't want Karl to die.
Karl looked him in the eye properly for the first time, and mussed up his hair, which Lionel normally hated, but didn't mind so much now. "Thanks, kid. How's the ankle?"
The ankle was extremely painful, but Lionel could barely notice over the pain in his stomach which didn't come from eating too many green apples.
That night the whole village threw a party to celebrate another year without being ravaged by the monster.
It was a day's journey up the mountain. The victim always left at dawn, and when he wasn't back by sun-set, his family finally confronted the fact that, like all the others, he was dead.
The all-night party beforehand was always the high-light of the village social calendar.
So it was this year. The wine flowed in the village inn, the fiddle music got louder and wilder and more discordant as the night wore on and the dancing more and more riotous. Everyone, from toddlers to ancient grandparents, toasted the boy who, like every year, they confidently declared a conquering hero, and danced under the stars. No one would go to bed until Karl set off up the mountain. Lionel sat alone sipping his wine and trying to shake off the feeling that he was being suffocated. The whole world seemed to be falling away from under his feet, leaving him suspended over a black pit and trying not to fall. Karl was going to die. Die for the greater good. Die to save the village from a terrible fate. Lionel knew that. He knew he mustn't be selfish. He certainly mustn't do such as thing as cry. But his heart was being pulled out of his ribs.
Karl was spinning in the arms of Anya, her eyes bright with stunned hero-worship. A gaggle of awe-struck girls, staring with anguished envy at Anya, batted their eye-lashes provocatively at Karl. The boys tugging at their elbows, asking for a dance, were swatted away like midges. They had eyes only for Karl. Anya would tell her grand-children about this, how she had danced all night with Karl the Conqueror. Lionel just hoped Henry wasn't around. Henry wouldn't take kindly to seeing his best girl gazing soupily into the eyes of Karl the Saviour. And now they were… yes, they were definitely snogging. Oh dear, he had his hand under her blouse. And… right on cue Henry, staggering with drink, lurched out of the inn.
"Oi! Whadda Hell you doing?"
Anya flung herself over Karl's neck like a fur stole.
This was the final straw for Henry. He tore Anya off Karl's neck with a roar and threw her to the ground. His knife flashed, Karl lunged for Henry's throat, eyes glazed with jealous rage, Karl's fist smashed into Henry's neck, Henry's knife sank into Karl's heart. They collapsed on top of each other in a little heap on the grass.
Lionel, staring down at Karl's corpse, felt no shock or particular horror. In his mind, Karl had died at the tournament. His fate was sealed by the victor's crown. He was grieving already, he just hadn't expected Karl to die quite in that manner.
A little circle gathered, to mourn the death of Henry and express surprise at the prematurity of the death of Karl. Surprise and definite disappointment. This wasn't how Karl, the chosen one, was supposed to die. This wasn't how this was supposed to end. The murmur ran around, pained, aggrieved.
The inn-keeper pushed aside the crowd and a reverent hush fell. After all, the lawn in front of the inn was technically his premises. He had the right to command the situation.
He looked down at the two corpses on the grass. "Who's going up to the monster now?" he said.
"I'll do it," blurted Lionel.
There was no precedent for this situation. No one had ever won the joust and gone on to die before making it up the mountain.
Lionel was Karl's younger twin, and if anyone had the right to take Karl's place in sacrificing for the village, it was him.
"You didn't win the joust!" Martin scowled over the inn-keeper's shoulder. "It should be me! I came second!" Martin was a big, hard-as-nails seventeen-year-old.
"But I'm Karl's brother. I inherit his duties."
The innkeeper considered. "The death may have taken place on my premises, but I don't think I'm particularly qualified to make this decision. This is a job for the Church."
The village priest, an elderly, amiable man, was routed from his favourite armchair where he had been dozing by the inn fire and produced to give verdict.
He considered, wiping his half-moon spectacles thoughtfully and clearing his throat. Then he piped up. "As the Lord teaches us, when a man dies childless his brother shall inherit his wife. These duties are inherited."
"I don't think…" began Martin, who seemed about the question this theology, but the priest had already begun to drone out a blessing, and it was no good trying to talk over him.
Secretly, Lionel would also question this theology, but he wasn't about to argue. He would go up the mountain in Karl's place, so he wasn't complaining.
And suddenly the whole village was swarming round him, pulling at his arms, clutching his hands to offer their teary congratulations, as if Karl had never existed.
Lionel tried not to shudder and flinch away, feeling sick to his stomach. He knew he had to smile and be gracious and act as if he were wildly excited to be torn to shreds and eaten—hopefully in that order. Gratitude was nice, appreciation was nice. But need they be quite so festive? He just wanted to be alone. He just wanted to lie down by the river and watch the stars. Be glad to be alive while he still was. He was glad to be alive. He couldn't deny it. He knew he was going to do the right thing. He knew it was for the good of his community, it would save a lot of lives. But try as he might, he couldn't conjure up Karl's easy confidence. Couldn't persuade himself that he would get out of this alive. The conquering hero speeches were jarred painfully in his ears. "I'm not a hero!" he wanted to yell. "And I can't conquer anything."
He finally wrenched himself free of the crowd and collapsed by the side of the river. He inhaled, smelling the sweet summer grass, and gazed up at the moon. He had never paid much attention to it before, but he couldn't take his eyes of it now. It was beautiful. So beautiful. He couldn't believe he had never noticed before. Not really noticed. Sometimes he had said "What a beautiful moon!", but this was different. A soft, warm rustling, drowsy cows on a mid-night stroll. Frogs singing on the rocks beside the river. Every blade of grass rustling in the breeze. The currents of air on his skin. Everything he would never see and hear and feel again.
He couldn't deny it. He couldn't lie to himself about his chances of survival.
A herd of wild elephants seemed to be descending upon him, giggling shrilly.
He looked up and was surrounded by a gang of village girls, drunk and starry-eyed. His heart sank. He really didn't want company right now and he wasn't sure how much more congratulation he could endure.
But he mustn't sulk. Self-pity, his grandmother had always said, is a man's least attractive quality. He had volunteered for this, he had no right to whinge.
"Oh, Lionel," cooed Sarah, a blonde girl with large hazel eyes. "I think you're just wonderful."
Lionel was pretty sure she had said that to every man who had gone up to the monster for the past five years.
"Lionel…" It was Gerda. "Dance with me." She was drunk. "Come on! Let's dance…"
He couldn't take her hand. He stared at it stupidly.
They were all around him. He felt his head was going to explode.
"Aw, you're so modest!"
"You're so humble!"
"You're so brave!"
He couldn't stand it. He couldn't breathe.
"Ladies," he said, trying not to sound too cold. "I think I need to go to bed. I have a long day tomorrow."
"Oooohhh!" cooed the ladies, deluging Lionel with barely veiled offers to accompany him bedwards. He ignored them.
He didn't go to bed. He sat at the back of the house, listening to his grandmother, the only person in the village who hadn't joined in the celebrations, snoring through the wall. He watched the stars and tried to burn the sight of them into his head, for when he never saw them again. He didn't sleep a wink. He wasn't the least bit tired.
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he set off up the mountain, laden with a sword he didn't know how to use, a knife that he had only ever used for skinning rabbits and chopping vegetables, and a holy wafer which the priest absentmindedly pressed into his hands—he wasn't sure whether for smiting the monster or for a snack.
The villagers all cried and sang his praises as if they hadn't done it a hundred times before, and he set off up the mountain.
The lower slopes were green, shady, inviting. A herd of deer grazing by a stream raised their heads to watch him pass and blinked slowly with their caramel eyes. He crossed meadows of wildflowers and groves of sweet-smelling pine trees. But the higher he climbed, the colder the wind bit into his face and fingers and the ground got stonier. His ankle, tied clumsily to a wooden stick, was on fire. He found thinking about how much it hurt distracted him from thinking about his impending death.
Still he struggled higher and higher—he was so tired, he should have got more sleep last night, at least death meant a chance to lie down…. He grew thirstier and thirstier and colder and colder.
At the top of the mountain he turned and looked down, on the valley where he had lived all his life. And it was so beautiful he nearly cried. He had never noticed. He was so blessed to have even been alive.
Then he turned to the cave. He wasn't sure what he had expected a monster's cave to look like, but this was disappointingly ordinary. It looked like the caves where he had played as a child, filled with bats and badger droppings.
He peered into the cave. Nothing came out to eat him.
"Hello," he called. No answer.
He clambered up the rocks to the mouth of the cave and called again.
"Hello?" Feeling rather stupid he added. "It's me. The sacrifice. The… tax."
A voice answered. A cold, hard, dead voice. It turned his blood to ice. It spoke human words as if death could speak. Something ancient and merciless and cold and hungry. "Did you ask to come here?"
"Do you ask everybody that?"
He was curious. He couldn't help it. He knew there was no point chatting to a murderous monster. But he wondered why the monster was so curious about him. It was impossible to identify a tone or emotion to the voice. It was as if words had been put in a dead thing's mouth. For a moment he was afraid he might provoke it, but because it was going to kill him anyway, he didn't think the monster being provoked would make it worse.
"Yes," said the monster, with no variation of tone. "Did you ask to come here?"
"Yes." He wondered if this was some kind of ritual question and answer. He hoped it wouldn't take too long. He hated standing on ceremony.
"Leave your clothes at the door."
Well, all right. There was no need to get them covered in blood after all. He folded them up on the rock by the mouth of the cave and left the sword that he didn't know how to use and the knife and the wafer on top of the bundle and approached.
The cave was very dark but when his eyes grew used to the darkness he saw, in the back of the cave, what he had at first taken for part of the rock, an enormous jet-black serpent. He hoped it killed by venom rather than constriction.
"Close your eyes."
Well, all right then. He would have preferred to meet death with his eyes open, but it made no substantive difference.
There was a very long pause. So long he wondered if he was already dead.
Standing before him, stunned and shaking, was a girl. She didn't look any older than he was. She didn't look as old. She certainly didn't look like a giant snake.
"You did it," she whispered, dazed. "You actually did it…"
And she collapsed in a dead faint.
He carried her out of the cave. She stirred faintly when he laid her on the grass, and opened her eyes. "Thank you."
"Are you the giant snake?" he blurted.
"I was." She shuddered.
"I don't know. But you came for me to kill you and you let me free."
Lionel looked at the purple light of sun-set filling the valley.
His head felt as if it were about to explode, but he understood two things—that he was alive and that the monster would never kill anyone again.
"Let's go home," he said. "I'm hungry."
She put her hand in his and let him take her home.