“And then,” Gaergath intoned in a hushed voice, “she creeps out of the woods in the middle of the night, and you turn around and there she is, looking right at you. You stand still as a stone. She’s all in a long black cloak, with a hood over her head, so you cannot see her face save for her eyes, which burn like two coals of red fire. You want to run, but she fixes you with her eyes, and then she starts to move toward you. Her long bony hands come from out of the cloak like two big white spiders. Long fingernails filed razor sharp, just like claws…”
He paused for dramatic effect, looking to the four other boys sitting about the campfire, who were motionless, the smallest one with his mouth and eyes wide open. The largest one, Norui, had been turning a spit with a wild turkey impaled upon it over the fire, but now he just sat there, gawking, waiting for the next part of the story.
“The Woman of the Secret Shadow,” the smallest one, Túruan, whispered. “Thuringwethil—“
“Shhh!!” the bigger boy sitting beside him, his brother Herdir, shushed him. “You’re not supposed to say her name!”
“Aye,” Gaergath said in mock mournfulness. “Now you’ve done it, young ‘un. She’ll come for you now. She’ll drink all your blood. She’ll drain you white, and toss you to the wolves.” He leaned over closer to the lad, making slurping noises. “You’d better run, she’s likely on her way right now….”
Túruan, who was but thirteen and looked closer to eleven, two or three years younger than the others, moved closer to his brother, who shoved him away.
“Herdir, you shouldn’t have brought me out here,” he whimpered.
“Brought you out here!” Herdir scoffed. “You sneaked out, remember? You wanted to come hunting. But Mum said you were too young. You wanted to come out, so you sneaked out—”
“You should have made me go back,” Túruan said, getting sniffly.
“Not to worry, runt,” Norui said. “You’ve not enough blood in you anyway. She’ll likely come for me instead, since I’m the biggest. And I’ll wager my blood tastes better anyway.”
“Eh, Gaergath,” Herdir said, “someone told me the Bat Lady is your mum. What say you to that?”
“Fah!” Gaergath said with outward bravado, flipping a scornful hand, but it seemed his cheeks darkened a trifle in the firelight. “You’ve seen my mum. Does she look like a Bat Lady to you?”
The others laughed all but Túruan, who sat huddled with his arms tight about his drawn-up knees, trying to lose himself in his cloak. Herdir slapped him on the back.
“They say,” Thorodon said, “that the Bat Lady is Sauron’s fancy woman. That ‘twas he that gave her the black cloak and her powers. They say he’s a blood drinker himself. Some say as you are the very image of him, Gaergath.”
“And what if I be?” Gaergath said cheekily. “Mayhap I’ll overthrow him, and be the Dark Lord myself. Then I’d get to tell you all what to do, and if you didn’t obey my every command--ffffft! you die!”
More laughter. Norui remembered the spit, and began turning it again.
“Is that turkey near done?” Herdir asked. “I’m starved.”
“’Twill be a while yet,” Norui said reaching into his cloak pocket. “Here, have a seedcake.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Herdir said catching it with both hands. “Here, Túruan, want to share this with me?”
Túruan shook his head vigorously, retreating further under the hood of his cloak.
“I heard she was the mistress of Draugluin,” Gaergath said after a moment. “The Blue Wolf. Mayhap he’s my dad, instead of Sauron.”
“What say you turn this for a bit,” Norui said to Thorodon. “I need a piss.”
Thorodon laughed as he moved toward the spit. “Watch for the Bat Lady,” he said. “She might be out there…and hungry.”
“I'll squirt her in the eye,” Norui said making a gesture of doing so.
Túruan shivered. “I want to go home,” he said from beneath his cloak.
“What’s the matter with you,” his brother said giving him a little shake. “You’re usually so tough. Big talker, always bragging and swaggering about. Just yesterday you said you could lick a whole pack of orcs with one hand tied behind you.”
“Aye,” Thorodon said. “You’d better run along home, squirt. Better a thrashing from your dad than the Bat Lady drinking you dry. If she shows herself, I'll take my bow to her.”
“I’m not going by myself,” Túruan said.
“What’s that?” Norui called, from behind a nearby tree. “I hear something.”
All the boys pricked up their ears, listening. Gaergath, having better hearing than the others, felt his blood turn to ice. It sounded like a shriek, coming from a great distance. It seemed to go on endlessly, and when finally it stopped, it seemed every sound in the forest fell silent also.
It was a near eternity before anyone spoke.
“Good thing I had it out already,” Norui said at last, just above a whisper, fumbling with the front of his leggings, “or I’d have pissed myself for certain. What was that?”
“Was it……her?” Túruan said. His face looked stark white against his hood, and he had a death grip on his brother’s arm, which Herdir did not seem to notice. Herdir shook his head, speechless, his face as white as his brother’s.
Gaergath and Thorodon just looked at each other, then at the others, not knowing what to make of what they had just heard.
“Mayhap someone had a nightmare,” Gaergath said after a moment. He could remember his mother screaming like that a time or two when a horrifying dream visited her. “Aye…that’s probably all it was.”
He breathed a little easier.
Thorodon nodded. “You’re probably right. I hope.”
“There’s a crescent moon out,” Norui noted. “That’s when nightmares happen. I hope I don’t have aught tonight. Here, Thoro, let me turn the spit now. My hands need something to do.”
“Or Mum noticed Túruan wasn’t in his bed,” Herdir said with a sidelong glance to his brother. “That’s probably what it was. Likely she thinks the Bat Lady got him. You’re going to catch it tomorrow, Squirt, without a doubt.”
His teeth were chattering.
“That’s not how it sounded,” Thorodon said. Gaergath nodded, almost involuntarily.
“Why is it so still now?” Norui said after a moment, his hand pausing at the spit. “No crickets, no owls…nothing stirring at all. It’s…strange.”
“My mum has nightmares sometimes,” Gaergath said. “She said sometimes she dreams she’s trapped inside a box. She can’t see the sides…and she can’t get out. And then it goes all dark…and then….”
Túruan began to shiver uncontrollably.
“Goblins,” Norui said. “My grandmum used to tell of them. She said they peek in your window at night…and give you nightmares. She says they’re all black and furry with yellow eyes and pointy ears and long noses.”
“Orcs,” Herdir said. “My cousin told of them. He said he saw one once. Said it scared him out of ten years' growth. Ugliest thing he ever saw...and the smelliest.”
“I can’t hear aught now,” Norui said. “It’s…strange. Just…damned queer. There's something...evil...out there.”
Gaergath felt a growing terror inside of him....