Taran pulled the cloak around him. It didn’t stop the shivers but it blocked out some of the biting wind. Feeling sorry for himself, he rubbed his hands. Beside him, the torch flickered; if it went out, he’d be stuffed. It was hours until morning and he daren’t show his face back at the village before dawn.
We all must take out turn, his mother had admonished, although Taran had never seen her hobble up the hills. He caught himself. It was unfair. Of all the people he knew, his mother was the hardest-working member of the community. Everyone was in debt to her for something or other: some balm for a sick child, some potion for a nervous husband…
A rustling sound wrenched him from his thoughts. He tensed. His ears strained to determine the direction… There it was again. Taran swallowed and reached for his staff. The heft of it, and the nails sticking from the end, gave him comfort, made him a little bolder.
The rustling stopped. He could hear the creature’s breath, gargling in the back of its dread throat. It sounded close. Too close.
Taran held his breath. A pair of red eyes glinted, looking at him, looking into him. Low laughter rumbled.
“And so you have come, my boy.” The voice was deep but soft like velvet to the ear. Taran frowned; he hadn’t expected the sheep-killing beast to have the power of speech.
A shadow stepped in front of the torchlight, the silhouette of a man. Tall he was and broad-shouldered. His hair was shaggy, flowing to the small of his back. His hands were claws.
“Do not be afraid,” the shaggy man soothed.
Taran leapt to his feet, brandishing his spiked staff. “I’ll not let you take no more of our sheep,” he vowed.
The man laughed.
“Oh, my boy! The times I have heard that! Do you know, this would be so much easier if they just told you the truth.”
Taran was puzzled. “Are you telling me you do not take our sheep?”
The man stepped closer. Long teeth glinted in the torchlight.
“Put the stick down and let me embrace you.”
“No!” But Taran found he couldn’t move. The man plucked the staff from his grasp and cast it aside. His arms enfolded the youth and the heat of his embrace made Taran swoon and collapse.
He woke at midday, his head pounding. Panicked, he looked around. The torch had burned out and the scene was strewn with bits of wool and patches of gory red.
I have failed! Taran cursed himself. He trudged back to the village, prepared to face the approbation of his elders.
But they cheered when he approached. The whole village was there to welcome him, to celebrate his return.
Taran didn’t understand. “Another sheep –”
His mother rushed forward and silenced him with a hug. She planted kisses on his cheeks and neck.
“My boy, my sweet and lovely boy!” Tears coursed down her face.
The mayor clasped his hand and squeezed it tight. “Well done, my boy,” he grinned. “Now you are truly one of us.”
The mayor encouraged everyone to cheer.
What big teeth he has, Taran noticed for the first time. What big teeth they all have!