Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Beast's Bargain
By Imogen Claire Cassidy

The farrier's wife sneered at her. Her husband would have had her flayed for it, once. Now she doubted he knew or cared where she was.
She'd failed at the only thing that mattered.

"I need the mare," she said, not even trying to keep the desperation from her tone.

"Town says you're cursed."

"That is why I need the mare. I have coin."

The woman looked off into the distance, where the hunched figure of the beast moved slowly across the landscape. It always moved slowly. That didn't mean it was safe to go near. "I lost one too, you know. It gets better, with time."

The tears caught in her throat. "Not for me."

The woman sighed then took her to the stables. No special beast, the mare's mane hang lank over bony shoulders and her head drooped with fatigue. It did not matter. She had what Maeve required. Blood from the failed birth stained the back of the mare's dappled legs. The way she bared her teeth when they approached -- wearily, as though it were too much effort to be afraid -- made Maeve's heart ache.

They shared the bond. Maeve only had to cement it with power.

"You know what is required?" the farrier's wife said, voice softened now with some sympathy.

Maeve nodded, then took out her knife.

The ritual required a bond of blood, the mixing of hers and the mare's. The mare shivered as Maeve held the gash on her arm to the cut on the mare's neck. As the magic took hold her head lifted, unnatural strength settling in her muscles. Maeve held the animal's head and looked into the wild eyes for a long moment as the farrier's wife took the knife and washed the floor of the stable with water.

The pain of the gash in her arm was nothing, as she'd known it would not be. Her birthing had been recent enough that even now her gut clenched in anticipation of contractions. The herbalist had believed she would not survive. Her husband still believed the child would not. She knew he had sought the priests to arrange for an annulment. They would take away the very last of her power and throw her back to her family if she could not prove him wrong.

It was only possible to approach the beast on the back of a bound horse. You had to be part animal, consumed by need and fear, before you could even touch the ground of the beast's territory. Anything less and it would devour you. Anything less and you were a suicidal fool.

Maeve was not a fool.

The altar was open to the elements -- it had to be, else the beast would never be able to approach. Maeve led the mare across the stones, the clop of her hooves lost in the depth of the sky, carrying her son in one arm.

When she reached the altar, she knelt, and opened her heart, and the ground shook as the beast moved towards her.

It was not possible to look at it this close. The villagers had lived in its shadow for so long that they almost did not notice it any longer -- off in the distance, out of their minds. A guardian, some said. A curse, said others.

An opportunity.

She could not hear its voice, but she knew what it said. You know what is required?

Maeve placed the bundle on the altar, touching one more time the soft, too still cheek, then stood. The beast shifted, one massive arm reaching down and echoing the touch that Maeve had given the child. A weak wail of protest escaped the tiny mouth -- the first sound he had made in days -- and Maeve's throat closed with grief. She gathered him close to her face as the Beast withdrew, then settled him back in the special saddle she had stitched for him. The mare nudged at her, and she bit her lip, once more leaning her face against the rough fur of the mare's nose.

Then she nodded and drew her husband's sword. There was a looming, overwhelming presence, and she was lifted by hands so hot they almost burned.

It held her up near its eye. She was afraid -- more afraid than she had ever been, but also lost and touched by the liquid warmth of that eye. Pain and understanding swam beneath its surface. Kinship.

Her arm did not shake as she hauled it back, and she plunged the sword into that eye, over and over and over again.

The beast fell, as many before it had fallen.

The contract is sealed.

The baby took a deep breath, and let out a healthy, gusty wail. The mare let out a single, screeching neigh, before turning back towards the town, carrying her burden away from where the magic gathered.

Aidan visited her sometimes, always careful not to step into her territory. Some said the beast was nicer than the last, giving most fools a chance to leave before devouring them, but he thought otherwise. They liked to romanticise her part in his survival -- to tell tales around the fire of the sacrifice she had made so he could live. He would still his tongue when they spoke of it, wondering if the bargain had been worth it.

His father had believed it was, until the day the beast took his hunting party. One single step onto her territory was enough to doom them all. Aidan had been fourteen summers -- old enough to take his father's title and lands without dispute. The timing was almost too convenient.

She always knew when he was there, and she never came close to him. He did not give into temptation and step over the invisible border. She may have been a protection of sorts, but she was still the beast, and he was not a fool.

Not even for his mother.

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Imogen is a 37 year old mother of two from Sydney, Australia. She has a story (What Was and What Can Be) published in Devilfish Review, and another slated for publication in Kzine, some time in 2014.


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