Chapter One - Them
Aodhan was daydreaming.
The dream was a vivid one, starring himself and the plump, red-cheeked girl that lived down the hill. Her name was Mirna, but besides her name and how she looked bouncing down the forest paths, skirts flying, Aodhan didn't know much else, so as one can imagine, there was little conversation in this dream.
There was a note of bitterness in the curve of Aodhan's lips. What he was actually doing was shoveling pig shit. The muck had climbed almost to his knees, despite his efforts to avoid dirtying himself. When he told his uncle he wanted to work, this wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
But, a job was a job. And maybe, if he made enough money, he would gather the courage to ask Mirna on a date.
Thank god all the pigs that this pen used to hold had been slaughtered or sold, or else this job would be unbearable. His uncle wanted to turn the space into a new stable for his horses and thus, with the mention of wanting to make money, Aodhan had accidentally signed up to do his uncle's dirty work - quite literally. He had been at it for half a day now, and sweat dripped from his hairline into his eyes, but he didn't dare wipe it. The scent of sun-warmed pig shit on the ground was already enough to make one faint, having it on his face would probably actually kill him.
The sun was beginning to set, lending a fiery glow to the green hills and fields, but with its descent came a penetrating cold that instantly froze his sweat to his skin. With a shiver, he decided to come back to his task tomorrow, and stepped out of the pen, boots squelching on the grass. However, as he made to close the gate behind him, he felt something snag his ankle and he went down, landing on his ass in a pile of shit.
Through the haze of his embarrassment and anger, Aodhan heard the smallest of snickers and whipped around, looking for whoever dared to trip him, but the yard was empty, not a soul in sight. Aodhan frowned and stood, hurrying to put away his shovel and get back home. He shivered again, but this time, not from the cold.
The path back home was heavily shrouded by trees on either side, almost invisible unless you knew it was there. Aodhan hurried along it like the Devil was at his heels, some sixth sense telling him to get inside, quickly.
Suddenly, he came to a halt, ears perked, heart bouncing around like a rabid dog. Were those footsteps? Leaves crunched abruptly to Aodhan's left and he jumped, now running so fast he was almost flying up the path, black braided hair thumping against his spine like a tail. But Aodhan couldn't keep up such a pace forever, and soon the stitch in his side forced him to slow. As he did, panting heavily, two ice cold fingers brushed up the length of his spine, from his lower back to the center of his shoulder blades.
Aodhan yelped like he had been stung and tripped for the second time that night, landing on his hands and knees. He groaned, feeling the skin on the heels of his hands and under his pants tear like paper. The fingers disappeared abruptly, and the night around him was still once more. Aodhan caught his breath, looking around, but not even a shadow was out of place. The rest of the way home was uninterrupted, but Aodhan still made haste, thoroughly unnerved.
When he showed up at home, covered in pig shit and blood, cheeks flushed like a maiden who had been teased mercilessly, hair coming out of his braid, his mother assumed the worst.
"Aodhan," she gasped, blue eyes wide with the shine of tears, "what brute of a man got the better of my son?" Abruptly, she bared her teeth, "I'll rip him into pieces so small he'll be ant food!"
Aodhan sighed and led his mother to the kitchen table, setting her into a chair. "I just tripped on my way here, that's all. No need to panic." Aodhan's mother lived in eternal fear that her son, pretty as he was, would be taken advantage of by a man. Aodhan thought this was an exceptionally silly thing to fear - not to mention embarrassing - and even less likely to occur when he was smothered in shit. After carefully reassuring his mother repeatedly that his innocence was still intact, he hauled himself back on his stinging legs to his room while his mother boiled water for him to bathe. Once the tub was full, he flung his shit-stained clothes to a far corner and breathed a sigh of relief without that smell following him any longer. He sank into the water blissfully.
Nearly an hour later, freshly scrubbed, he dressed and wandered back out, lured by the smell of roasting meat. His sister, Betha, was setting out the plates, dark hair in the same shade as his rested in a neat plait down her back, only hers was twice as long and shinier, like it had been infused with moonlight. She smiled, watching Aodhan float toward the table like he was in a trance, lured by that tantalizing scent.
"I heard you came home all bloody," she said gently, a small wrinkle appearing between her well-sculpted brows, "what happened? Ma thinks you've been accosted again."
Aodhan rolled his eyes. "It's nothing. It was dark and I tripped."
However, with Betha, this excuse fell disappointingly flat, falling between them like a sack of bricks. She frowned and used a finger to tilt Aodhan's chin toward herself, staring deeply into his eyes. "You and I both know you're too familiar with these forest paths to forget the location of even a single pebble." She paused, glancing toward their mother, who was busy stoking the fire in the other room. She lowered her voice. "It wasn't - it wasn't Them -"
"No," Aodhan blurted, startlingly loud. Their mother looked over.
"What are you two fighting about now? I don't care how old you are, I'll still take you over my knee."
"It's nothing, ma," Aodhan assured, waiting until she went back to her task before speaking again. "It wasn't Them." His voice was soft, but he didn't look at his sister, too afraid she would see the old fear in his eyes.
Unsatisfied, Betha let the topic drop, but her mouth was tightly pursed for the rest of the meal. Aodhan couldn't tell her what had happened. She would take it too seriously and force them to move again. He avoided her eyes for the rest of the evening and snuck off to bed when she wasn't looking.
His room was dark and slightly chilled. The fire he had started when he got back to warm the room while he bathed had sputtered out long ago, leaving the brusque autumn air to seep in through the cracks around the window like ghostly fingers.
Thinking about cold fingers only made him remember what happened earlier and he shivered, hurrying to rekindle the flame. Cold blue moonlight spilled in the window, the glow more than enough to see by. Just as he got a spark to catch, there was a curious sound that made Aodhan pause and perk his ears, going still. He remained that way for several minutes, nerves so tightly strung he could loose arrows from them. When nothing else was heard, he relaxed slightly and slipped into bed, releasing his hair from its restraints.
The house settled into comfortable silence and Aodhan began to drift off, surrounded by a comfortable heat.
An icy finger slid across his cheek. With a start, Aodhan was immediately wide awake, springing up and flinging the covers away like they were a pile of snakes, chest heaving with quick breaths. "Who's there?" he gasped, voice like marsh reeds rubbing together.
His fists clenched, veins standing out like blue rivers against the back of his hands. Suddenly remembering something, he rushed to the desk at his bedside and tugged open the drawers in succession, one after another, sending items flying out. When he couldn't immediately find what he was looking for, he cursed, pushing errant clumps of hair out of his eyes. He searched the whole room over frantically. Where could he have put it?
He froze suddenly, eyes going to twice their original size. Laying on his pillow, innocent as could be, was the green charm he had been so desperately searching for. It definitely hadn't been there before. Aodhan trembled. Obviously, the charm was useless against whatever had put it there, and so Aodhan was defenseless.
The charm, made of delicate green glass, carefully sculpted into the shape of a dragon, was something he had picked up from a foreign merchant last winter. He had been lured by the merchant's assurances that the charm would protect him from evil entities. The man spoke English with a heavy accent, his sharply angled, ink-black eyes full of a sincerity that was strangely calming. Of course, he knew he was probably being swindled. Aodhan wasn't completely blind. But at the time, he had been at his wits end with terror, and so any shred of hope, any chance at finally freeing himself from torment was a rope tossed to the bottom of a well. And, indeed, once he bought the charm, it seemed as if his tormentors had backed off.
But now, either the charm had lost its power, or it had never worked in the first place, and Aodhan didn't know which was worse. He backed himself into the corner by the window, eyes open so wide they were about to fall out of his head. The room was still and silent, filled only with the shaky breaths Aodhan failed to suppress. After a while, the tension in Aodhan's shoulders faded and he stepped cautiously out of the corner. Had it been some sort of lucid dream? He glanced at the bed. The charm was still there, the dark green of the glass contrasting nicely against the white of his pillow. Perhaps, in his sleep, he was the one who moved it?
Somewhat comforted by this thought, Aodhan released the stale breath held in his chest for too long and sat at the edge of the bed, running a slender finger over the graceful dragon shape. Unlike the fierce, four-legged, bulky beast often depicted in local folktales, this dragon was slender, more snakelike. It was an Eastern dragon, seeming to radiate beauty and prosperity, so very unlike the aggressive, blood lusting dragons his ancestors had fought. Even if the charm had lost its power, it was still quite lovely. And so, compelled, he slipped the soft leather cord over his head and the charm settled just below his collarbones.
He couldn't remember just when he had stopped wearing it so religiously. At some point, after months of peace, finally freed from Them, he had decided they were gone for good and stopped needing it. Maybe it needed to be worn to work properly?
Suddenly a wave of exhaustion bled over Aodhan and he resettled himself in the bedsheets, falling asleep within seconds. As such, he didn't see a shadowy figure step out into the moonlight coming from the window. The figure paused by the bedside, seeming to stare at the sweetly sleeping young man for a long moment. The burning gaze flitted to the open collar of the youth's bedclothes, at the pale, delicate collarbones and the green pendant resting against the warm, flawless skin. Abruptly, the figure turned and dissolved into wisps of smoke, leaving behind only the scent of damp forest in its wake.
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