The night was dark and moonless.

Maud had been right – the night was dark and moonless, and the stars sparkled more brilliantly but less brightly due to the thin veil of icy clouds that hung before them. 

Sigefrith decided he would let his horse pick his way carefully home along the road rather than trying to save a bit of distance and coming back through Theobald’s fields.

He should have taken a torch. Indeed, he should have stayed the night at Bernwald, but he was sorry about what he had said in the hall, and he didn’t want Maud or the children fearing that he had broken his neck after all. No doubt the children would be in bed, but perhaps Maud would be up, worrying… or no, perhaps not.

Still, he would have to trust Darius to get him home in one piece.

The horse was anxious.

But the horse was anxious, and his ears swiveled furiously, trying to locate a sound that might inform him of just what danger provoked his instinctive fear. 

Sigefrith patted his neck. “Don’t forget I have my sword, you great goose.”

Darius called out a question to Theobald’s horses as they passed the upper farm gate, but there was no answer. He remembered then that the barn was empty now. There would be no one to tell him how the beasts fared until they reached the Ashdown farm, and that was still a good distance away, past the lower gate and close to the crossroads. Darius picked up his pace.

Darius picked up his pace.

“Easy,” he heard his master say, and the bit twitched in his mouth. Darius arched his neck and blew a great cloud of steam, but he slowed.

He hoped the Ashdown horses would be awake and listening. He didn’t like to step into the crossroads unprepared. All the animals knew that the canny dogs were avoiding the crossroads after dark these days, warned off by the Hogge hounds, the canniest of them all.

Sigefrith pushed his hood back for the third time. The air was so still, and the deep snow seemed to muffle all sounds – it gave him the impression that he had wool in his ears. But removing his hood did not make the sounds any clearer. 

Removing his hood did not make the sounds any clearer.

Nor were there any sounds to speak of, beyond the stomp of hooves in the packed snow of the road, and the jingling of the tack, and the breathing of the two of them. Nothing moved and nothing made a sound; not a hare raced across the road, not a dog barked, not a tree shrugged off a load of snow after bowing to a wind that blew not.

Sigefrith wondered how late it was: the entire world was asleep, it seemed. And it was February – the month he thought the deadest month of winter. It was an evil night, and he would be happy to be home. Maud would not have waited for him, but the servants would have kept the fire warm, and there would be a sip of wine before bed.

This time it was Sigefrith that urged the horse on.

This time it was Sigefrith that urged the horse on.

Darius trumpeted his question again as they neared the Ashdown farm.

“Danger ahead!” the great plow horses called in alarm. And then the dread word: “Death!”

Darius stopped in mid-​​stride and locked his knees. “Danger!” he whickered to his master. He hoped the man would understand. Men were strange creatures: they had ways of knowing things, of knowing what would happen, that the animals could not fathom. Sometimes, indeed, they seemed to be able to make things happen with their words. But most of the time they were as blind and deaf as the mewling newborn kittens, and rarely noticed danger until it was too late to be avoided.

'Go on, you.'

“Go on, you,” his master muttered, but he didn’t move his hand on the reins nor coax him forward with his knees. He seemed to be listening too.

Darius sucked desperately at the air, trying to find a scent that would give him a clue. But the night was too still, and nothing blew up from the crossroads where he expected the danger to lie.

He felt a tug on the reins as his master wrapped them around one hand, and then he heard the hiss of the sword being pulled out of its scabbard. He did understand!

He felt a tug on the reins as his master wrapped them around one hand.

Each had the idea to move forward again at the same moment, and they advanced cautiously, the horse lowering each hoof gently so as to make the least noise, as he had been trained to sneak, and the man scanning the road straight ahead of them with his sharp eyes.

As they neared the crossroads, Sigefrith strained his eyes further – there was a dark shape ahead. A shadow? Or had the snow melted in the center of the road, revealing the dark earth? Or…?

There was a dark shape ahead.

Suddenly a pale form passed before the dark shape, momentarily obscuring it, and then moved off again. It was pale, but not as white as the snow. Sigefrith thought he could see it moving away from the center of the crossing, but its shape was quickly lost amid the dim masses of trees.

Just then a breath of air blew up from the south, and Darius sniffed at it eagerly. He knew from the battlefield those twin metallic smells of a man’s blood and a man’s sweat when he was terrified and saw his death coming to him.

He would trust his master now.

The death of men was the domain of men. He would trust his master now.

What was the other smell? It was death, too, but the sweet, stinking death of a creature some while dead. But that smell grew fainter as they drew closer, and the smell of the freshly dead man grew stronger.

'Dear God!'

“Dear God!” his master cried as they came close enough to see the body sprawled in the snow. Darius snorted. Men took a long while to understand, when they did at all.

Sigefrith pulled up his horse and dismounted a few yards from the body. The dark shape he had seen from afar had not been the body – it had been the blood spread all across the snow around it, with the body only a small dark spot in the center of it all.

It had been the blood spread all across the snow.

He tried to identify the man, but other than the fact that he wore a peasant’s rough clothing and that his hair seemed to be dark – or was it only soaked with blood? – he could not see much without a light. 

He leaned closer, trying to make out the face beneath the blood.

He leaned closer, trying to make out the face beneath the blood – but the face was gone, he realized suddenly, and even he, who had seen men’s heads cloven in two by axes, and seen men devoured by ravens and dogs, felt his stomach churn. 

Much of the face had been ripped away.

Much of the face had been ripped away, and it was bits of muscle clinging to bone that he saw. Like the last man, this one had his throat and his belly torn open, but he had not heard that the other man’s face had been chewed off. These were hellhounds – not mere wolves.

Darius let his master inspect the body while he turned his attentions to their surroundings. The body could do no harm! He listened and sniffed for any sign of the animal that had done this thing, but he could find no trace of it in the air. It was neither dog nor bear. 

He listened and sniffed for any sign of the animal that had done this thing.

Perhaps it was a man. But he had never before seen that men killed other men to eat them. Indeed, that was their greatest mystery to the warhorses who carried them into battle. What was this killing, that was meant neither to provide food nor to defend the young? They let the bodies lie untouched, or else, stranger still, buried them in the ground as the dogs did with their scraps, but never returning to dig them up again. And yet the killing made their blood hot, as when he fought another stallion over a mare – and even so, the stallions did not fight to kill.

Darius turned his head to the east – towards home. He could hear another horse coming up the road. “Beware! There is death, but my master is here!” he warned.

The other horse whinnied an acknowledgement.

Darius stamped his hind hoof in annoyance. It was one of his own mares! What were the fool men thinking, taking a mare out on a dangerous night like this? Now he would have to protect her, too.

'Who's coming, boy?'

“Who’s coming, boy?” Sigefrith asked, walking back to him. The horse snorted and butted him with his nose. “I believe I would rather meet whomever it is from your height,” he said, swinging himself back into the saddle. 

They walked around the body and stood between it and the rider who was approaching them at a trot. 

Darius danced in anger – the man had a torch! What fools they were! not only signaling their presence to the predators of the entire world, but also blinding their horses to all but what fell within the ring of light that extended out no farther than a long stride or two.

“Is it Your Majesty?” the page called out as he drew up before them.

“It is I.”

“Her Majesty the Queen sent me to ask whether Your Majesty had decided to rest at Bernwald tonight.”

Maud had sent a servant after him? He truly must have frightened her. But there was no time for wondering about such things now.

“As you can see, I am coming home. But I shall need your help first,” he said as he sent his horse stepping sideways, revealing the body lying behind him on the bloody snow.

He sent his horse stepping sideways, revealing the body lying behind him on the bloody snow.