The Kingdom of Dandoich lay in the grip of autumn. Frost coated the ground in thick layers every morning and the chill of the night did not fade until the sun was high. Grilled meat for suppers had given way to hot, savory stews. Hollow gourds had faces chiseled into them and were set outside to ward off evil spirits. The last crops were being harvested, numb fingers digging into the frozen dirt with thoughts of when it would all be over. But always, there was a shadow hanging over the kingdom, one which necessitated looking over one’s shoulder more often than in the old days.
Since the fairy’s so-called christening, old-timers agreed around the fires at night, the kingdom had never been the same. The castle had ceased to be a place of solace and refuge and had become a symbol of uncertainty, capable at any point of sweeping down and wreaking havoc upon their simple lives at a whim. The rains came less and the crops were poor, leading many to take on the life of a highwayman to feed their families, roaming the road and preying upon unwary travelers. Violence became the first and only response for many and the number of murders skyrocketed.
Those who had attended the christening hastened to spread the tale of the fairy’s vengeance and the shrieking queen who had ordered them all from the room. None of them had clearly heard what Esemli had screamed at the end, but their imaginations were only too happy to fill in those gaps in their knowledge. They whispered darkly to their neighbors about the supernatural powers possessed by the fae, both real and imagined. Their neighbors, in turn, hastened to spread the stories to their own circles. Gradually, the fairies grew to be feared, then hated, by many in the kingdom. The fact that most of the people in the kingdom had never seen a fairy, and that those who had laid eyes upon one had only done so at Princess Alasin’s christening, did not stop their tongues wagging.
The fairies were not as scarce as they seemed to the peasantry. Some were capable of invisibility, while many had powers of disguise. Still other fairies were bolder, trusting the oblivious nature of human beings to protect their identities. This had been done by the fae for thousands of years, but now, they were angered and insulted by what they heard on the lips and thoughts of the peasantry. Emboldened by Esemli’s act against the royal family, they brought their influence to bear on the peasantry and were driving the kingdom into a darkness inhabited by strange creatures whose minds had snapped.
“’ey, you dere,” screamed the peasant Supik, raising a scythe in a businesslike manner as he stood framed in the door. “Git outta me ‘ouse!”
The target of his ire was a small, skinny man dressed in rags which barely clung to his filthy frame. Ratlike, he sniffed around the floor of the peasant’s main room, ending up under the small table. His nose brushed the small stiff body of a mouse, the latest casualty in the peasant’s constant war against pests. Before the revolted Supik could say another word, the skinny rat-man had opened his mouth and taken a great bite of the carcass, biting it cleanly in two and chewing with relish.
With difficulty, the peasant swallowed his lunch again. “Cor, what th’ bloody ‘ell is wrong wid youse, mate?” He held out the scythe, keeping the heft of the weapon between the two of them. “You c’n eat all th’ mice ’round ‘ere ya can find but ya gotter do it ousside, got it?” He stood out of the doorway, gesturing with his scythe, his unease growing.
The rat-man was not listening. He had finished his horrible meal and continued his search throughout the hovel, sniffing around the hearth where some stew had slopped out of a large kettle when Supik had stirred a little too enthusiastically. The peasant frowned and tightened his grip on the scythe.
“’ere, mate, yew gotter get outta here. Me missus and liddle ‘uns will be back ‘ere any minute an-”
Without warning, the rat-man leapt to his feet and shrieked, no words, just a sound of rage and insanity. He charged at Supik, hands raised like claws. Supik, who was not expecting anything of the sort, fell over himself in his haste to exit the building and landed on his rear at the foot of his stairs. Pain exploded up his spine from his tailbone and he howled. Over his exclamation, he heard the clatter of his scythe and saw it out of reach across the dooryard. His eyes had no sooner absorbed this fact than they flew back to the direction of his front door in time to see the rat-man scuttle down the stairs on all fours and seize his leg.
Supik bellowed in fear and agony as the rat-man sunk his teeth into Supik’s leg, gnawing and shaking his head left and right. Supik’s hands scrabbled around the yard attempting to pull himself away but the rat-man hung on, splintered teeth ripping into the peasant’s flesh and carving out great chunks. The peasant was roaring, bellowing as he thrashed, kicking for all he was worth and attempting to pull himself to safety.
Like a limpet, the rat-man clung doggedly to the peasant’s flailing legs. Just as he could feel the rat-man’s teeth scrape the bone in his leg, Supik felt a bolt of pain crash into his flailing right hand as it connected harshly with a large rock. Seizing it, he leaned up and swung with the same motion, connecting the rock with the skull of the rat-man with all the force he could muster.
The rat man continued gnawing, but his eyes were glazed, his jaws working slower. One bloody eye rolled in its socket, coming to rest on the peasant. Supik screamed and brought the rock down on that eye again, and again, and again, until the thing clutching his legs looked no longer even remotely human and the rock in his hand was reduced to wet gravel.