Andel held tight to the plow. His two sons were working the earth with the stone-headed hoes. Ava, his only daughter, his youngest child, was loading rocks into the cart for her brothers to eventually dump among the trees that bordered the field.
He halted the ox and wiped sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his tunic. Their home sat at the far edge of the little hamlet they called home, Rystock. Smoke rose from the wood and thatch roof structures—elderly women cooking, preparing meals for the men and women who toiled in the fields.
Andel watched his daughter. The stones were high in the cart. “Christoffer, Peter!” he called his sons’ attention. “Rest. Then dump the stones before it becomes too much for you.”
“Too much for us?” said Peter. “We’re strong!” he hoisted a stone up and tossed it on the cart.
Not to be outdone, Christoffer did the same, but with a grunt. “We could carry it up the hill, papa,” he panted.
Andel shielded the sun from his eyes to stare across the way to the hill and the remains of the stone fortress that was planted atop it, seemingly grown from the ground itself, forever staring down Rystock.
“I’m sure you would try,” said Andel.
“We could,” said Peter.
“Lets not have one you crushed beneath a cart of stones,” said Andel, unhitching himself from the plow and walking to his children. “I don’t care to hear your mother crying.”
Ava dusted dirt and grime from her hands on the front of her dress. Andel picked her up in his arms. “Lets get some fresh water,” he said.
They crossed the field to the path in the woods and followed it to the stream. Sunlight danced off the pristine water. The boys ran to answer the beckoning call of the cool water and Ava jumped from her father’s arms to chase after them.
Andel knelt and cleaned his hands. The water was cold, refreshing. He splashed it on his face while his children played. Christoffer and Peter slapped water at each other and Ava jumped from rock to rock to cross the creek, back and forth.
Andel bowed to the water and drank, letting the stream fill his mouth.
Andel gulped a pleasing mouth of water down. “What is it, Peter?”
Christoffer pulled Ava behind Peter and himself. She looked between the boys. A horse was stopped on the other side of the stream, drinking from the water. A wagon was harnessed to it.
“I don’t see anyone,” Christoffer whispered to his father.
Andel motioned for the children to stay in place as he crossed the sparkling stream. He approached the horse slowly. The weary beast looked up from the water as he neared. Andel patted its head; its tail whipped at flies and it began drinking again.
“Papa,” Ava said, trying to not sound scared or trying to disturb the quiet that fallen over them.
Andel smiled, nodded, letting them know all was well. He walked up the bank, holding to the side of the wagon. He looked over the side and saw a woman stretched out, dead. He stepped back, making the sign of the cross.
“Papa?” Christoffer said, feet already in the water.
“No!” Andel told him. “Stay, son.”
“What is it?”
Andel leaned over on the side of the wagon, looking at the body. “It’s a woman, Christoffer. She’s…” he shook his head.
“Is it the sickness, Papa? The plague?” asked Christoffer stepping back onto the bank.
“I don’t know,” said Andel. “God in Heaven,” he held his words as he noticed the woman was still barely breathing.
Abraham ran a hand over his course white beard. The children were all out in the field still. Most of the adults too. Though a good number waited outside Andel’s home, waiting word on what the wisest of them all, old Abraham, could tell them about the woman.
“It’s not the plague,” Abraham said.
Andel and his wife, Katrin, didn’t relax despite the news. “We didn’t think it was, either,” said Andel.
“I should think it’s nothing serious,” said the old man and village leader. “Traumatic events. Look about her wrists, bruises. Same on her neck and cheeks. Scratches. The gash on her head. She has fought off attackers.”
“Andel,” Katrin wrung her hands.
“There,” he hugged his wife. “I wonder how long she was lying in that wagon.”
“And from whence it came,” said Abraham. “The nearest village is two days’ journey North. That must be where she started from.”
“Might I should travel there?”
“Certainly not,” Katrin protested.
“No,” said Abraham. He removed a small clay jar from his satchel. “Mix with water. Get her to drink it. Pour it down her throat. It will help her. And when she wakes, she can tell us why she is far from home.”
“Do you think it was invaders?” Andel asked.
“Possibly.” Abraham mused. “We should not rule it out entirely. Word travels that barbarians have indeed been raiding some of the settlements. If that is what has happened to this poor child, I’m surprised she survived at all.”
“We should stand watch,” said Katrin.
“Yes,” agreed Abraham. “I don’t know what good it would do if it was barbarians. It’s not my intention to scare you, but these are facts. The brutes from the northern mountain ranges, they are sadistic animals. I’m afraid all we can do is pray. Only God can save us from their cruelty.” He glanced at the sleeping woman. “Only God could have saved her.”
Silence and darkness, then screaming. It is a dream. Echoes and fire.
She sprang up, her own scream caught in her throat. Her gown was wet with sweat, the blankets of the bed that was not her own drenched likewise. A man and woman sat on stools looking at her, their faces wide with shock. She trembled. They were still.
She screamed, loud, piercing, and quaking to her very core. The man and woman jumped back, nearly falling from their resting places. The woman dropped the thread and garments she was mending.
Her scream faded. Her energy waned. She cried. The sobs were born of realization.
She told the strangers: “They are all dead.”
“Eat slowly,” Katrin said.
The young woman looked at the slice of bread and bowl of soup before her. She had no appetite.
“What is your name?” the man, Andel, asked.
She looked at their kind faces. The children stood in the corner, Christoffer, Peter, and Ava. The old man, humped over, Abraham, sat by the fireside. The house was warm, too warm, but she felt a chill coursing over her.
“Ilsa,” she said. She sounded barely louder than a field mouse.
“Ilsa,” said the old man, Abraham. “Andel found you in a wagon at the stream.”
“My father’s wagon,” she said.
No spoke. They looked one to the other.
“Did you not find him?” she asked.
Andel shook his head.
“Then he is dead.”
“Not necessarily,” said Katrin.
“Yes,” said Ilsa. “Most certainly.”
“Where is your village?”
“Arborshire, near the river,” Ilsa said.
Abraham nodded to himself as if he had known all along.
“They came from across the river,” said Ilsa. “These, these marauders.”
“Men from the mountains?”
“I do not know,” she said. “They were brutes, big as giants.” Ilsa stared into her soup. “They showed no mercy for who they cut down. Man, woman, child…their blades ran through all alike.”
Katrin gave a worried glimpse to her children. Andel held her hand. She squeezed it tightly.
“They were upon us before we were aware of the attack. They came out of the clear blue skies and struck us down. I saw my mother and sisters fall. My father tried to save them, but he was too late. He took me by the hand and pulled through the slaughter. He fought. He was very brave. When he found the wagon, he tossed me onto it and he pushed the horses as fast as they would go.” She looked at them. “He was not a coward, don’t think that! He fought!”
Abraham assured her, “We judge him not a coward.”
Ilsa touched the wound on her head. “I must have fainted. I know a band of barbarians pursued us, but I fainted.” She tried to stifle a cry. “They must have killed him.”
Katrin put her arms around her. Ilsa cried into her bosom.
“We keep watch again tonight,” said Abraham.
Ilsa slept. In the morning when she woke, Katrin provided her with a bowl of fresh water from the stream to clean her hands and face.
Andel and the children were in the field with the other villagers. Katrin was fanning the flames of a community fire. Women scurried about with a feeble amount of vegetables and dried meats. Ilsa knelt beside Katrin and tossed kindling to the growing flames.
“We prepare the meals for them,” Katrin said, indicating the workers in the field. “It was a harsh winter, and we have planted late. I don’t know if we’ll have enough to survive the winter.”
“It was the same in my village,” said Ilsa. She paused and pushed back her grief.
“I’m sorry,” said Katrin, “I-“
“I’ve never travelled beyond Arborshire,” said Ilsa.
“I’ve never left Rystock,” smiled Katrin.
“Yes.” Katrin motioned around them. “That is what our village is called.”
“I know of Rystock,” said Ilsa. She stood and turned to the leering, crumbling, ruins atop the hill. “I have heard stories.”
“As we all have,” Katrin smiled. “I think every person has been frightened by stories of the Ruins of Rystock as a child. I have told my own children such tales on late midwinter nights.”
Isa asked, “What is the truth of the place?”
“We respect it,” said Katrin. “We tell tales of the ruins so the children will not gather there; it’s old, the walls are falling, they could be hurt. That is why I think all the tales. It has been in ruin for ages upon ages. Collapse is its danger to us.”
“Why not raze it to the ground?”
Katrin said, “Then we would not be able to illustrate our tales.”
Ilsa grinned sheepishly.
“It’s a part of our village,” said Katrin. “Our ancestry. That’s why we really do not destroy it. Its history is before our own.” She blocked the sun from her eyes with her hand. “Sometimes I stare at the ruins, and I know there is nothing there. Other times, though…I know different.”
Ilsa hugged herself, fighting a chill than ran her spine.
“Enough of that,” said Katrin. “We have a meal to prepare.”
Ilsa flinched. The arrow pierced through Katrin’s head. She screamed.
The workers in the field froze, stared. Andel let loose the plow and the ox carried it crooked across the furrows.
A rain of arrows arced across the sky. THOOP! THOOP! THOOP! they stuck the villagers, they struck the soil, they struck the baying ox.
A barrage of intensely monstrous yells, whoops, and hollers rose from the forest and then the marauders broke from hiding. More arrows whistled the sky. Maces swung, swords shimmered as the barbarians charged.
Andel sprinted for his daughter. Christoffer was closer but an arrow through the throat felled him. Ava was screaming and crying at the ragged, burly, invaders.
Andel felt pain and stumbled, rolling over the dry earth. He found an arrow lodged in his knee. His saw Peter stabbed; he watched as Ava was crushed beneath a giant’s foot. Andel wasn’t aware of the blade that severed his own head from his body.
Ilsa was paralyzed. Blood was standing in the fields. Cries, pleas, and prayers accosted her. She ran.
Massacre ruled. Chaos was king. Rystock was burning. Innocents were dying; they pleaded for help as she passed them by. It was each for themselves. Ilsa knew that; if her father had realized that, he might still be alive. She thought of stopping, of letting them take her, letting them have their way with her, death or worse. She would die, eventually. But she ran out of her own greed, for her own will to survive.
She was across the field and weaving among the briars and shrub of the hill before she comprehended where she was going. The ruins.
She was bloody, cut, scraped, mess before she was half way up the hillside. Ilsa heard laughter. A marauder, a foul smelling barbarian (she could smell him, bless her soul, she could smell him), stood at the base of the hill. He was grinning, pointing, laughing, cackling like a lunatic. He called to his comrades, speaking in a language Ilsa was ignorant of, a language foreign and alien.
Ilsa pushed through the shrub, thorns tearing at her hands, snagging her dress. Sweat irritated the wounds.
There were more of them laughing now, more of them gathering to watch her struggle. They belched, hollered, calling out things she knew had to be profane the way they gestured and harangued.
She was beyond the midpoint, closer to the ruins. She felt it was useless, they would hack and slash their way through the thorny obstacles the way they had hacked and slashed their way through the villagers. She felt it was useless until she realized the silence that had befallen them.
At the top, at the foundations of the stone ruins, the crumbling fortress, she stopped. Their laughter, their obscenities, their gesticulating, had all stopped. The moans of the dying occupied the void, cries, tears, death rattles.
Ilsa climbed over the time- and weather-battered wall and disappeared from their sight.
It was quiet and cool. Stones from the walls lay about the courtyard. Was it a courtyard? It was an enclosure, nothing else. No place to hide. Four deteriorating stone walls and the open, overgrown, expanse they contained.
Ilsa shivered. Rich shadows lurked about the place. The sky seemed darker here; was night falling so soon?
The shadows crept. The weeds rustled. She had glimpses, fleeting and unintelligible, in her mind’s eye of blackness, longing, and desire. She wished she had not come here. She wished she had given herself freely to the barbarians. She believed every story she had ever head of the ruins of Rystock.
Ilsa drew her knees to her chest. She rested her head and quickly cried herself to sleep.
The sun was bright, the heat severe. She blinked at the light, at the sweat in her eyes. Her hair was drenched, hanging in long stringy locks, matted with dirt. She stood, stretching the cramps in her back and legs, and loosened the laces of her dress. She opened the collar, but it provided little relief.
The sunlight beat down and there was no shade inside the ruins. She reached for the lip of the wall, but couldn’t reach it. The walls, now that she scanned them, seemed taller than before, than when she clambered over them to safety.
She jumped for the lip of the wall. Her hand barely caught before losing her grip. She tumbled back onto the blanket of brown grass and weeds. Ilsa grunted her frustrations.
The blinding light of day was blotted by the man’s head.
Ilsa rolled, squealing. She crawled in retreat.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. That she understood him did not relieve her fears any. She had thought giving herself to the barbarians wouldn’t her troubles, bring the sweet release of death, but now that she was in here, more or less (probably more) trapped, with one of them, her heart and mind changed.
But this man was different. And it was the differences that compounded her dread.
The man was red haired, pale skinned. His body was defined by muscles. He was naked, golden voiced. He stepped toward her, parting the grass. Fine strawberry hairs, almost invisible, lightly covered his lower body. His feet were hoofed, the point sharp.
“The Beast,” Ilsa breathed. “The Beast, the Beast-“
“Please,” the man, the thing, the Beast, implored with his hands, palms upturned. “I do not want to harm you. I simply want free from this place as I’m sure you do.”
His voice was like honey. Calming. But the sight of him…
“Who banished you here?” he asked.
“Go away in the name of God.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t.” He turned a circle. “I am trapped here as well.” He knelt, his blasphemous, horned, penis curled on the ground. “Who banished you here?”
“I ran,” Ilsa said, backing away further from the Beast until the walls prevented her from enlarging the distance between them. “Them,” she pointed beyond the walls, “more creatures of the depths, they chased me.”
He eyed her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen another person.”
“You defile God’s creations, you are no person, Demon.”
“Please, call me Adom.”
“Adam?” she said. “Like the first.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “But I am the other’s first. I was the first made in his image.” He waved it off. “We didn’t get on very well, though.”
“Were you the first to be banished from the Garden?”
“I was before the Garden,” said Adom. “The Garden was built to protect them from me. My poor cousins.”
“To protect them?” Ilsa’s mind lit with horrors. “So you are-“
“No, no, no,” said Adom, sitting, muscles rippling. “My poor cousins were trapped, much like us, in that Eden. They had no fun. I was the master of fun.”
“But how are you here?” Ilsa found words coming from her mouth when she didn’t want them to; she could not keep from speaking with him, she couldn’t keep from letting her eyes wander about him though she knew it would only invite damnation.
“Well, you know how they eventually were…evicted…from their little paradise?”
“To guard them further from me, to protect them anything that might excite or entice the fires-“ his phallus rose to half erect- “I was put here, in a much more confined home. All to myself. With no…enjoyment.” Adom’s erection went flaccid.
Ilsa found her curiosity stirring. Her eyes still feasted upon him. She felt the urge to touch him, wanting to know how his skin felt, if it felt at all like her own, like a human. She noticed her hand inching forward then quickly drew it back.
“So you’ve been here for-“
“-without another soul?” she asked.
“Solely,” Adom smiled. “There have been stragglers, wanderers, strangers, adventurers, thrill seekers. But, ultimately, none but I remain.”
“Where are they? Did you let them live?”
“OH, my child, I do not kill. I only bring pleasure. Fun. Merriment.”
“Then why banish you?”
“Fun to some. Sin to others.”
Ilsa felt heat kindling in her. It wasn’t the heat of the day, the heat of summer. “I must leave.”
“So soon?” Adom beat her to her feet.
“I cannot stay here.”
“It is wrong. You are an enemy of all that is holy.”
“The Almighty Himself has bound you.”
“Tries,” said Adom, “tries to bind me. But what is one touch-” His hand grabbed hers and it was like the wind blowing across her naked flesh. “-but hopefully the first of many.” He felt all too human.
She jerked her hand free. “Do not do that!” she commanded him. He was so close. She was too close to him. She could sidestep. Even the aroma of him, milk and honey and air and sunshine, pulled at her, encouraged her to touch him in return. “Do not do that,” she said again, softer, wanting to say the complete opposite.
“You want to leave. I want to leave.” He leaned towards her, bending to looking her eye to eye. “But there is no turning back, no turning away. I am all the stories that you’ve heard. I am this place. I am all the warnings to stay away. I am all the danger. The horror and the terror. But what is one little taste? What is the harm?”
“Banishment. Damnation. Hellfire.”
“Mere child’s play. Bedtime stories,” Adom said, looking her up and down. “Do not taste of the forbidden fruit,” he said. “Be the forbidden fruit.”
He kissed her and her juices flowed.
“We leave together,” he said, but she could not hear him. She was lost in ecstasy.
Gerard burst through the door of his home. Laura, his wife, jumped to her feet startled.
“Come! Quickly!” he said, pulling blankets from the bed.
“What is it?” Laura cast her sewing aside.
There was a scream from outside. A woman’s voice rising in pain, scaring the horses.
Gerard and Laura rushed outside. The villagers of Gaylen-on-Sarda were gathering around Gerard’s wagon.
“Water! Boiled water!” someone yelled.
Women were running, fetching, retrieving.
Laura looked in the back of Gerard’s cart.
“I found her on the road,” said Gerard.
The woman was pregnant, ready to give birth.
“Her name is Ilsa.”