A/N: I'd like to extend my deepest appreciation to my fellow GrimGrimoire fans at the "Exiled to the Couch" group at AnimeSuki for all their hard work. I first thought up the rough outline of this idea back in 2008 (my big year for GG fics), but didn't get around to actually starting to write it properly (making a number of alterations) until 2010. Thanks to the thread at "Exiled" for the draft chapters of this story, I've been able to benefit from a whole squad of beta-readers, helping me to properly hone the ideas and make sure that what I want to show here is properly displayed. So this story is dedicated to, in alphabetical order:
Dracis Tran (aka spawnofthejudge at "Exiled")
Fuyu no Sora
Thank you so very much for all of your commentary and help! This would never have gotten finished without your enthusiasm and support!
~X X X~
Kendall Jackson muttered under his breath as he stumped along the path leading out of Jacob's Creek's village center. He could walk this path in the dark while blind drunk, and he had several times in the past—but not tonight! No, that night he'd had no more than two ales in him and no liquor at all, before being sent home from the Green Man, and thus the muttering, the scowl, and the ill-temper.
Jackson had always been a God-fearing man, he thought. He went to services every Sunday and read Scripture. All right, yes, he indulged in a bit of profanity now and again and drank more than the proverbs recommended, but he considered himself a good man, and he trusted Father Dubbel well enough to lend an ear when he had troubles, and to talk good sense to him, too—but there were some things a man couldn't be expected to take.
Blast it, Jacob's Creek wasn't some backwater hill-town, was it? It wasn't that he didn't believe in the powers of darkness, but he was a simple man who didn't see sorcery under every bush. Piety was piety, but if one were to ask him, the kind of folk who went about looking for witches weren't so much inspired by faith as they were inspired by lunacy.
Especially when they took to closing down taverns!
"Shame be on you!" the witch-hunter had bellowed into the taproom. "Shame be on you all! The forces of Hell stalk the land with all the Devil's cruelty and cunning, and you sit here, bibbing at your wine like sheep readying yourself to be sheared!"
Some of the patrons had protested. Others had cringed away from Sterling Gervase's forceful personality. Protests were shouted down with a booming voice—or stifled by the cold looks and practiced movements of the witch-hunter's retainers, hard-eyed men who were clearly well-versed in the use of their weapons. Amid cries of "'Wine is a mocker; strong drink is raging!'" and "Why, just look at the tavern's name! The 'Green Man'—a title meaning nothing but pagan superstition. What other influence than the powers of darkness could you take away from a place so called?" the taproom was cleared and the drinkers sent home.
It hadn't been a particularly convivial night anyway—another gift of Gervase's presence in the village—but a man needed his few pleasures, Jackson thought. What would he find at home but a shrill harpy of a wife he wasn't even drunk enough to ignore?
Though, he admitted, maybe it wasn't such a good thing to be drunk on a night like this one. The moon up above was little more than a sliver reluctantly peering out from behind a veil of clouds that went scudding across the night sky. The further Jackson got away from the village, the darker it got. It'd be all too easy for a man whose mind was clouded by ale to take a wrong turn off the path and end up in the stream that gave the village its name, or in the boggy mucklands on the far side of the bridge. Hadn't old Mark West ended up drowned just that way a couple of years past?
He was even out past the lantern Sexton Ommegang kept lit at the rear church-gate and it made a difference, like that light marked the border between civilization and the wild.
Bah! he thought sharply, then "Bah!" again—out loud, this time. "I'm growing as daft as that witch-hunter." Edge of civilization, indeed! Why, he wasn't even to the bridge, which made a better edge-marker in any case, and even beyond it were half-a-dozen or so farmsteads including his own.
No, he was being ridiculous, caught up by Gervase's speech-making, by his wild words and the hard, cruel faces of his henchmen—men who looked as if they'd seen things, fought things spawned by that darkness the witch-finder talked of. They were the ones responsible, riling up the town and the villagers, filling the air with mists and shadows. Shaking his head to clear it, Jackson marched on.
The covered bridge was up ahead, just past the mill; he could see its weathered shape just there. The interior, Jackson realized, was pitch dark, with only a slightly lighter shade of gray at the far end to show the exit.
"Not like I can put a foot wrong here, though," Jackson muttered, and stepped out onto the bridge. As the faint light was swallowed up, it seemed as if sounds were magnified; the rushing of the stream water below, the creak of the timbers as they cooled in the night air, the heavy clunk of Jackson's boots on the planking. Despite himself, he felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, and he gave a genuine sigh of relief when he emerged into the night air again on the other side. There had been something grim and cloying about even the air itself within the bridge, like he'd been walking through the belly of some great beast.
The struggle to see in the pitch-dark, though, made him all the more sensitive to what little light there was, and Jackson easily followed the track where farm-carts traveled to and from the village. It wasn't really a proper road, one of the reasons why people were liable to stumble off it, but at least he wasn't adding to his problems in that way. Even the moon seemed to have decided to cooperate; it emerged from between the clouds and cast what wan light the crescent had to offer, brightening things even more.
Jackson just wished it had waited until he was past the Gallows Tree.
He wasn't sure why it had that name. He wasn't even sure it had ever been used for that purpose. Certainly the village had always had a proper hanging-post at the courthouse for as long as he'd been alive, but even so, with a name like 'Gallows Tree' on a night like this one, he could almost see the shape of a corpse dangling from one of the spreading limbs. It was just another shade in his mind, like the feeling on the bridge, and all because of Gervase stirring things up with his tales, Jackson was sure.
If only that damned witch-hunter would leave! He'd been in town for a week, already. Wasn't that enough time for him to root out any dabblers in black magic and devil-worship? If only Gervase would leave, then Jacob's Creek could return to normal, without shadows in the night and decent folk being harassed.
He was on past the Gallows Tree now. Just two farms to pass by and he'd be home. It wouldn't be early enough to save him the rough edge of his wife's tongue, but he'd still feel good when he got there, good to be out of the night and behind closed doors.
That was when he heard the growl.
Wolf, he thought, or at least it sounded that way. Vaguely canine but with a harsh, feral edge to it. A shiver ran through him as he turned his head. With dogs, a growl was a lot more frightening sound than a bark was. Barking was a warning, but growling was a threat.
Lambent yellow-green eyes shone out of the darkness.
It wasn't a wolf.
The screams went on for a long while before anyone dared to investigate. Kendall Jackson's last coherent thought was that he'd been far too quick to dismiss, like a man whistling in the dark, Sterling Gervase's claims that darkness had a foothold in Jacob's Creek.