Rachel placed the last few picked wildflowers into her basket, looked up, and froze.
It stood at the edge of the lake, staring at her with eyes as dark as drowning pools. She had not even heard it emerge from the water, so noiseless was its steps, so silent its breath. Even the liquid dripping from its rippled, black body made no sound as it fell, breaking against the grainy soil, merging into glistening discs that mirrored the sky.
From a distant memory, El Gran’s raspy voice rang in Rachel’s ears, recapturing the sensations of campfire smoke, woodwind melodies, and words from an infamous folklore legend. “Beware the Drowner. In rivers and lakes he dwells, where waters are dark and cold and too deep to unveil. A willing touch is all he needs and he has ye; his flesh so viscous ye be unable to pull away, even as he drags ye down into his waters to drown ye before feasting on yer flesh. If he does not drown ye, he bewitches ye and ye be never the same person as ye were before. Mark me now, he has a deadly charm to him, and can trick even the canniest of folk if they fail to take care. And he can take many shapes, sometimes a wolf, sometimes a man, though more often than not he’ll reveal himself at his fiercest–a great black horse.”
An unnatural cold seeped into Rachel, chilling her blood and stealing her breath. In her mind, the smothering dark of the lake’s depths encompassed her in all its imagined horror. Not only was her life in grave peril, but everyone’s in the village.
A Drowner had come to Kelps Lake.
Stiffly, Rachel lowered her basket to the ground. Unbalanced it tipped, spilling flowers onto the grass. The movement did not distract the horse; his eyes never left hers. He dipped the proud carriage of his head. His visage softened. His gaze wooed. Legs trembling, Rachel straightened and angled her shoulders to face him, praying he believed her allured by his legendary guile. He arched his neck and stretched the sculpted sinews of his legs. A beautiful, sensual beast was he, desiring her fascination, wanting of her touch.
Rachel’s heart thrummed in her chest–the fluttering of a stricken bird, caught in a snare. She knew she could not outrun him; her only salvation lay in the threads of El Gran’s tale–a willing touch. If she did not intentionally touch him, there was a chance she could make it back to the village alive.
The moment to contemplate more suitable wisdoms or alternative actions had passed. She spun around and fled. A rumbling cry chased after her, accompanied by the terrifying thrum of hooves.
The trail writhed under Rachel’s feet, tilting, bulging, heaving with the vertigo of terror-driven imaginations. Shadows pressed in, sucking the colour from the greenery, and warmth from the air. Roots reared up, stones slipped loose, tree branches savagely slapped, and brambles tore at both fibre and flesh; the woodlands transformed under fear, bent on foiling her escape. But she did not stop, nor lie yielded to a gruesome fate after every stumbling fall. Dark movements haunted the corners of her vision through the trees, and hollow hoof beats followed her down the hill. She spared a panicked glance over her shoulder. Her predator was nowhere to be seen, and yet he felt everywhere.
She was half-way across the Green before she noticed the rows of timber buildings and startled villagers. She staggered to a stop and dropped to her knees, her emotions reeling. Sodden hoof beats echoed chillingly in the back of her mind, even as her ears filled with shouts of concern and the sound of her own gasping sobs.
Familiar faces crowded around: the farrier, the weaver’s wife, the woodcutter’s cousin, and Marcus.
With his strong arms, Marcus enveloped Rachel in a protective hold, his hazel eyes sharp with concern. His lips moved, but the words came out a foreign muffle, muted under the deafening throbs of her own blood rushing through her head. Without thinking, she opened her mouth, spilling her encounter through shuddering breaths.
The atmosphere grew solemn and tense. The farrier ran toward the village hall, bellowing like a bull. Soon the entire Green writhed with activity. Men held in hand their tools of trade, wielding them as soldiers would weapons of war; pitchforks, hunting knives, and hatchets became pikes, swords, and battle cleavers.
‘The Drowner must be slain!’ cried the fiery-haired Elderman. ‘Lest he claim our lake his own and plague us with death and terror.’
‘Take his heart!’ El Gran shrieked over the raucous crowd. ‘Cut out his heart and his power will be forever destroyed!’
‘To the lake!’ the Elderman hollered, and in one accord the self-proclaimed hunters charged away into the woods.
The protective hold around Rachel withdrew. She gasped, terror flaring, and grabbed firmly onto Marcus’ wrist.
‘I must go with them,’ he said, his eyes flecked with soft sympathy. ‘To have you safe is all I desire. I will return, and show you the monster’s heart myself.’
Rachel released her hold, though her heart screamed not to. ‘Be careful!’ she cried, and watched him gallantly run after his fellow defenders.
The hours passed. The shadows lengthened. An eerie hush wandered through the village. Shut away in her room, Rachel sat by the windowsill, staring blanking at the dying glow of the evening sky. The trees turned into silhouettes. A sickle moon crept into the sky, crooked and gleaming. From a distance, commotion stirred like a slowly waking beehive. Shouts echoed through the village. Rachel started out of her trance.
‘The men have returned!’ cried the blacksmith’s son as he darted through the streets. ‘The Drowner is slain! To the hall! To the hall!’
Rachel dashed from the room, down the stairs, and out into the streets, ignoring the nip of the autumn air and the bite of gravelly stones under her bare feet. Her heart fluttered, fashioned by a relief words could not describe. She reached the threshold of the village hall and squeezed her way inside. The floor was packed with people. The whole village must have gathered.
Slight of frame, Rachel slipped between the pressing bodies until she reached the room’s centre, where folk feverishly assembled around the victorious monster-hunters. Marcus stood beside the Elderman, his clothes damp and bloody, and shoulders the target of praising slaps from all who could get near.
The Elderman’s voice rang out over the din.
‘We chased the creature to the eastern ridges! It sought to scare and scatter us before fleeing into the Gulch. That place, like a blood-soiled maze, had us scrambling in all directions, playing tricks on our eyes with its twists and turns and shadows. Ready we were to deem the devil lost to us, when we heard a most unholy cry. Running to its source, we find Marcus standing over a pool of black blood, dagger in one hand, and the bloody sac of the creature’s heart in the other. Never have I seen the likes of it in my life–one man cutting down so fierce an eldritch beast! But the proof is here in his hand. Marcus, son of Garthrum–Bane of the Drowner!’
A roar when up through the crowd, and Marcus raised the Drowner’s heart above his head in proud display.
Rachel called out to him over the commotion. Those nearest her paused in their acclamations and stepped aside to give her room. Marcus turned, a devilish grin spread across his ruddy face. Rachel’s breath snagged at the back of her throat. Her blood ran cold. The eyes fixed on her were not hazel, but dark as drowning pools.
She backed away, bumping into the bodies crowded behind her, blocking her escape. She glanced around, panic-stricken. Why had no one else realised the deadly deception? Again, El Gran’s raspy voice echoed in her head.
“A willing touch is all he needs and he has ye … If he does not drown ye, he bewitches ye and ye be never the same person as ye were before.”
The dreadful truth struck like the foreboding toll of the Death Keeper’s bell.
All those who had touched Marcus smiled at her with empty expressions. She felt a cold breath on her neck and spun around. Marcus leaned in, an alien presence behind the mask of a loved one, his eyes windows into watery darkness. His fingers loosened around the meaty lump as he held it out to her.
‘For you, Rachel,’ he said.