Short Story: Derein
(Trigger warning, involving some course language, disturbing imagery, and violence.)
The village was a quiet one. The day was perfectly clear for the men to work at the lumber mill and the women to go about their chores. The children too young to help played among themselves. Apistos managed to catch the attention of a brother and sister who were playing with sticks by the river while their mother did the washing.
Apistos sat in the grass with them. The girl had pale hair, almost bleached white. The older boy’s hair was a straw-colored blond.
“So I heard a story,” Apistos said. “A real scary one about the Cannibal of Katesar Woods. I was wondering if you two could tell me about her?"
Children always told stories differently than adults. If it wasn’t a bard telling the tale for entertainment, they usually embellished the details to get the story over with, or exaggerate it. Children liked the details though, when they could be kept on track. It always made for a more colorful tale.
“Why do you want to know about her?” the boy asked.
“It’s for research, and I like stories,” Apistos shrugged. “This one seemed extra-fascinating. And each time, it’s slightly different.”
“Well, they’re all wrong.” The girl shook her head to emphasize the point. “They all say she’s mean, don’t they?”
“Most of them. So what’s the right version then?” he asked her.
Her brother spoke over her, eager to tell the tale. The girl didn’t seem to mind. She curled up against a tree with her knees under her chin.
“There was a lady who lived in a village just through the forest,” the boy began. “She was a healer, and everyone loved her. One night, a couple of travelers came to her village. It was too dark for them to continue, so they went to the inn, but the room was small and expensive. The travelers left and asked around if anyone would let them stay in their homes or a barn to sleep in. They just needed a roof over their heads and some food. Everyone refused, claiming they didn’t have food to share. The last house they tried was the kind lady’s. She didn’t have much either, but she let them in.
“They were so grateful. They offered to go to bed hungry, but she insisted on feeding them, not wanting them to go hungry. The travelers stayed by the fireplace while she went to the kitchen. After a few minutes, they could smell and hear the bacon sizzling. When she came back, she was limping, but she held a plate with bread and bacon. They asked her if she was alright, and she said she bumped into the corner of the table by accident.
“So the two travelers shared the food. The lady ate the bread but turned down the meat. The next morning, they asked if there was any more bacon left because it had been so good. She agreed and shut herself in the kitchen again. It was taking her longer this time, so they went to see if she was alright. They found her bent over her own leg with a knife. There was a bloody gash down her leg where she had been peeling away her own flesh to feed them!
“The travelers grabbed her and threw her outside. They told the entire village what she did. All the proof was cut into her leg. She tried to explain that she didn’t have food to spare, like the rest of them, but she couldn’t turn them away.
“Everyone was horrified. They started throwing rocks at her, and the travelers wanted to hang her. She managed to escape into the forest. She couldn’t escape the gods though. They cursed her to never leave that forest and always crave the taste of man flesh!”
The boy shouted out the last few words making his sister jump then giggle.
“Do you think she’s still there?”
“Oh. Aye,” the girl said. “Mama said if you go in and smell roasting meat, you should run.”
“Elana, Nori, what are you bothering this poor man for?”
Their mother had the same hair as the girl and stood close by now with a basket balanced on her hip.
“They weren’t a bother, ma’am. I had asked them to tell me a story,” Apistos said, gaining his feet.
“He wanted to know about the Cannibal,” the boy said.
The mother’s eyebrows knit together, and she stared at Apistos. “Come here, both of you.”
The little girl clasped her mother’s hand, and the boy stood. He turned as they walked away and waved at Apistos. Apistos waved back, hoping he hadn’t gotten them in trouble.
The storm came down heavy and fast. Apistos clutched his cloak tighter, but it did nothing against the teeth of the cold in his bones. The merchant who sold it described it as durable. How durable could it be when he was practically drowning in the rain?
Apistos caught the light of a lantern bobbing in the wind. Quickening his pace as much as the mud would allow, he reached the lantern’s glow. It lit a swinging sign over the rain-streaked door depicting a beautifully carved dead tree with the words “Bare Tree Inn” carved beneath it. A little morose for his liking, but it didn’t matter. He trudged inside and shook the rain from his light brown hair.
There were only a handful of patrons tonight. The barkeep was the only one to acknowledge his presence with a small nod. There was a thin man passed out in the corner chair and a group with a woman playing cards at another table.
Apistos removed the drenched cloak and hung it on a post next to the door. He then took a stool at the end of the bar.
“Ale, sir, along with whatever meat you have,” Apistos called to the barkeep.
The meat was probably dog for all he knew.
“Coin first. Then food.” The barkeep leered at Apistos.
It grew too warm under the brute’s gaze. Apistos removed a few coppers and put them on the bar, forcing himself to meet that gaze.
The barkeep pocketed the coins; then filled a chipped flagon from the barrel behind him. He spilled some of it onto the bar, handing it to Apistos, then left to the back room.
He returned with a fresh steak and gave it to Apistos. Apistos wondered if it was rat instead of dog. To his surprise, it was actually beef, a little gristly but good. He ate his fill and ordered another drink when it was gone.
“It was good,” he told the barkeep. “You have a special seasoning?”
The man blinked, surprised. “Not exactly. Just salt, butter, and extra pepper if I have it.”
“It was very tasty.” Apistos saluted him with the ale.
“My thanks,” he said, genuinely surprised by the compliment.
In truth, it wasn’t glorious, but it did the job. Working charm on the barkeep avoided one possible pickpocketing tonight.
“Mind if I say the night?” Apistos asked.
“ ’Course. Two extra coppers,” the barkeep replied. “No actual room either, but a solid spot on the floor.”
It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it was a dry floor compared to the storm outside. He tossed the coins and a smile to the barkeep.
He intended to make this ale last. He wasn’t fond of hangovers. There were only a few minutes of peace before the woman from the card table sat next to him.
“Hello there,” she said. Her nose was too large for her face, and her hair looked like it hadn’t seen a brush in weeks. “Where you headed to, city boy?”
“That’s my business,” he replied annoyed. “How did you know I’m from the city?”
“Haircut,” she said after a gulp from her own flagon. “Still curious on what you’re doin’ here. We don’t get visitors often.”
She was rather forward, but he might as well take advantage. “I’m collecting information on the Cannibal of Katesar Woods.”
The sudden silence was like a physical blow. The woman stared like she hadn’t heard right.
“Boy’s chasin’ witches.” A man with a hatchet scoffed, trying to lighten the mood.
“Tell me you ain’t chasin’ ghost stories,” the woman said.
“It ain’t no story!” The thin man wasn’t asleep now, but, judging by his heavy eyes, he wanted to be.
“O’ course it is,” the barkeep protested. “A folktale to keep children out of the woods.”
The barkeep was having a hard time believing the words. This village feared the Cannibal, though no one wanted to admit it.
“I thought so too,” the thin man said, staring at the table. “But I found my brother.”
“You found him?” The woman hopped off the stool and approached the thin man.
The rest of the patrons were instantly wrapped in the thin man’s statement. Apistos felt left out. There was a history here he hadn’t known yet.
“Where was he?” the woman asked softly.
“I knew he hadn’t run off, so I kept lookin’,” he slurred. “He was in those forsaken trees. His . . . his limbs were missin’.”
“By the gods,” the barkeep cursed.
The woman sat next to the thin man with a hand on his back. His breath was painfully hitched.
Trying to be discrete, Apistos asked the barkeep, “What’s the context here?”
The barkeep snapped back to reality with fresh grief and said, “His little brother’s been missin’ for a month. He’s . . . was a good kid. A little rowdy at times, but what seventeen-year-old isn’t? We all looked for him, but eventually people accepted that he’d just left for some adventure. Other’s suspected he was already dead.” He nodded to the thin man. “He never gave up though.”
“What makes you think it was the Cannibal?” Apistos asked the thin man gently.
He swallowed then said, “People who saw him last said he left the market with a lady, but they only saw the back of her. And his body was cut, not torn by animals. Well, it was . . . chewed on, but the stubs were cut with a blade.”
He looked up to Apistos. Tears welled, but the rage was hard to miss. “If you find the bitch, you kill her slow.”
“Actually, I’m trying to prove if she even exists,” Apistos admitted.
The man’s rage deepened at the thought of not being taken seriously.
“I believe you,” Apistos quickly clarified. “And I know the Cannibal is coined from a children’s tale, but there has to be an origin. Your brother’s death is proof enough there is something hurting people.”
Apistos left his seat and took the one across from the thin man. “Back home there was a house that was haunted. Before that, there was a perfectly normal family living inside. There was a man, his wife, and their three children. One night, he snapped. No one knows why. He took a poker from the mantel and murdered his family then killed himself. They weren’t found until the bodies started rotting.
“Ever since then, screams could be heard from there at night. And light would appear in the empty rooms.
“I wanted to know what was in that house. So I spent the night inside. While I was there, I saw candles lit by themselves when I left the room. I heard a child’s screams through the walls.
“And I saw the shadow of a child. I thought it would kill me, but it ran. It disappeared behind a rotten shelf leaning against the wall. I followed it and found a tiny door that led to a crawl space.
“There was a little boy inside, but he wasn’t dead. He was so skinny, I’m surprised he wasn’t. The boy was homeless and moved in after the murders. He played up the haunting stories.
“It took some coaxing, but I got him out and took him to an orphanage. He’s safe and fed.”
Everyone watched him enwrapped in the story. He wished he hadn’t left the ale at the bar. The feel of them staring made his skin crawl.
“Has the boy been adopted yet?” the woman asked.
“Not since I left.”
“So you think the Cannibal is a person?” the thin man asked. “Not a monster?”
“Exactly. You said yourself she’s not a story.”
“But no one’s seen her. Legends say she’s made of rotting flesh.”
“I think she exists, but not as a walking corpse,” Apistos said. “That’s why I asked about her before I move on. When the storm’s done, I’m going to enter the woods.”
“If my brother couldn’t survive why should you?” the thin man accused.
“Because I know what to look for. The myths help with that. You can’t track a deer unless you know the tracks. The variations in the myths are the Cannibal’s tracks.”
“Alright.” The woman caught the barkeep’s attention and ordered more ale for them.
“There’s not a lot to it really,” she said. “A traveler went to her house seekin’ shelter. She let him in, all nice-like and made him tea. But it was spiked, and he fell asleep. When he came to, he was starving and didn’t notice he was tied to a chair. He begged the woman for food. She obliged, having an entire pie for him. He ate the whole thing, and the food cleared the drugged tea from his system. That’s when he noticed the pain in his legs… or where they should have been. She had chopped them off and put them in the pie. The gods cast her out of her home and sent her to the woods. They morphed her into a beast that could only consume human flesh. She’s been there ever since.”
It was similar to the one the children told. Only they painted the woman as kind. The choice she made of serving her own flesh was different too.
“Thank you,” he said to the woman then turned to the thin man. “And I’m sorry about your brother.”
He looked sick. “I don’t know if she can die, but if she can, you kill her.”
He didn’t want to kill anything. He knew how to hunt but never enjoyed it. He wanted to discover the truth. If that led to killing something, he’d deal with that when the time came.
He couldn’t admit the other reasons to them. Some people back home believed he’d planted the boy and made the entire haunting story up. He hadn’t lied, and the occurrences did stop. People started mocking him as the “ghost hunter.” He wanted to prove them wrong, so he vowed to dispute this myth too.
“We should get you home,” the woman said to the thin man. “Your wife will worry.”
He nodded and stumbled while trying to stand. The woman helped him up, and they both entered the storm. They were lost quickly in the gloom.
The rain was still falling the next morning, but the storm’s rage had eased. The ground of the market was wet from being constantly churned up by the life of the village along with the weather. On the surface, the village looked like a friendly place. The blacksmith was talking to a man over horseshoes, and a heavily pregnant woman traded several herbs for tomatoes. The woman’s forwardness last night, though, proved they weren’t fond of strangers.
Apistos took his time gathering food and supplies, hoping the rain would stop. He wanted to explore the trees in the daylight, but that might not happen. He enjoyed people watching anyway.
As the day started to turn into the afternoon, the rain still continued. Apistos paused at the central well to rearrange his pack and think of a new plan.
The pregnant woman from before joined him at the well grinning at him. Her hair was dirty blonde, framing her soft, green eyes. He thought she would look rather pretty if her hair was properly washed.
She set her box of groceries down and eased herself onto the bench. After drinking her fill from the bucket he had pulled up, she stood again.
Apistos watched as she hefted the box onto her hip again and waddled off. That baby had to be due any day now, and the box did not look light.
“Wait.” Apistos caught up to her, throwing his pack over his shoulder. “Let me carry that.”
“I can manage,” she said, timid of a stranger.
“You shouldn’t strain yourself,” he said softly. “I’d like to help.”
She thought it over.
“I would appreciate it,” she admitted smiling again. “What’s your name?”
“Apistos.” He took the groceries. “And yours?”
“Derein.” She held a hand out.
He shook it asking, “So where do you live?”
“A good ways off,” she said. “About an hour’s walk.”
“That’s fine. Lead the way.” He couldn’t help grinning back at her.
Derein led him to the western exit of the market.
“Is this your first child?” Apistos asked to start a conversation. “You and your husband must be excited.”
Derein’s smile died as she stroked her stomach. “It is my first, but my husband is dead.”
Guilt gripped him. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, you didn’t know.”
“Your parents, though, are they around?”
“They’re gone too.”
He didn’t know how to respond.
“What about you?” Derein asked trying to lighten the awkwardness. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
He didn’t want to explain his life story again.
“I’m a hunter,” he replied. “I’ve heard there’s good game here.”
“You kill for sport?” she asked strongly.
“Sport, profit, food,” he explained, shrugging.
Derein looked away, unable to hide the slight disgust.
“Food and profit I understand,” she said. “But killing a creature for fun seems like murder.”
Apistos managed not to roll his eyes. He had no intention of offending her and didn’t want to discuss the philosophy of hunting.
“It’s mostly food. I sell what I don’t use,” he clarified.
Derein fell silent.
It would be a long walk if it was silent.
“So . . . would you rather a boy or a girl?” he asked.
Derein brightened again and gathered her thoughts. “It doesn’t matter, but a daughter might be easier. Either way, I will be relieved when it’s finally born.”
“You must be due soon.”
“Any day the gods will grant me a glorious birth.”
Apistos didn’t know how to respond other than, “Good.”
Derein left the path and headed for the tree line. She walked past the first several trees, heedless of any path.
“Do you live in the Katesar woods?” he asked, trailing behind.
Derein turned to him guiltily. “I know what people say, but it’s not that dangerous.”
Apistos followed Derein into the woods, keeping close in case she stumbled. She continued on steadily with her hands behind her back for support. They fell into a casual chatter as they walked. After some time, a clearing opened surrounded by pine trees. Inside the clearing was a small hut with a stone chimney poking out of the center of the roof and a garden full of herbs, flowers, and mushrooms.
“Nice little place. Do you live here alone?” Apistos asked.
“Yes, I’ve been blessed with safety so far,” Derein replied.
It was an odd way of putting it, but Apistos brushed it aside. Lots of people thanked the gods for safety. He wondered if she used the cannibal stories to feel safe here, as the homeless boy had.
Derein entered the hut and let Apistos in behind her. It was small but warm. The central hearth had an oven built into it, and a bed was tucked in the corner. The bed looked sound enough, but the entire frame appeared to be chewed on.
“You can put that there.” Derein pointed to a long counter covered on jars of herbs.
He set the box down in the free space and examined the bed more closely. It hadn’t been chewed on, but thousands of notches scarred the surface.
“It’s not much, but its home,” Derein said shyly.
“It’s lovely.” He hoped his voice didn’t sound stiff.
Derein sat in the rocking chair next to a large chest. A basket of yarn and needles sat on top with a tiny green sweater poking out.
“Would you like a bite to eat? Some tea maybe?” she asked.
“Food would be wonderful.” He was starved after the walk.
Derein rose to get meat from the cellar and denied Apistos’s help this time. She had been using the cellar stairs while pregnant for a long time, even in the rain. She could handle them. Apistos let her go, and when she returned, they chopped vegetables. She insisted on taking care of the rest, and he obliged. He settled down into the rocking chair and watched her work.
“Could you grab a couple of bowls?” she asked him when it was almost finished. “There in the chest.”
Apistos leaned over and moved the basket of knitting from the chest beside him. Hundreds of baby clothes caught him by surprise when he opened it. Expectant mothers must get excited and make several outfits, but to him, there had to be two hundred here. He started to sift through the clothes, leaving the chair and kneeling on the floor. The ones at the bottom were musty and moth eaten.
“Oh, not that one,” Derein called to him. He glanced back, confused, and saw her point to a smaller chest on the table. “In there.”
“There are a lot of clothes in there,” Apistos commented, closing the larger chest and rising. “Do you sell them?”
He opened the smaller chest and found the wooden bowls and spoons.
“I could sell a few,” Derein replied, shy again.
He handed her the bowls and was about to ask her about the Cannibal. She distracted him unintentionally then. After handing the bowls over, he went back to the chair, and she had turned her back to him. The two bowls of stew sat on the counter, mostly hidden by her, and she added an extra seasoning to one but not the other. She turned, pleasant as ever, and handed him the seasoned bowl.
He stood as he took it, insisting she take the chair. He couldn’t see what she had added to the food. He stood by the window, not wanting to sit anymore.
Apistos tried the meat. It tasted fine, a good chunk of beef. Paranoia told him not to eat it.
He glanced at Derein who was eating heartily. She noticed him looking.
“So where are you from?” she asked.
“The city a week’s walk from here.” He tried to sound pleasant while stirring the stew around.
“What’s it like? I’ve never been to the city.”
They chatted as the sun fell behind the rain clouds. He took another bite while Derein was watching him but pretended the rest of the time.
While by the window, Apistos saw his advantage. A mother deer and her fawn entered the clearing to graze.
“Derein, come here!”
“What is it?” He helped her up and to the window. “They’re beautiful! Now how can anyone kill those creatures for fun?”
While she was distracted, he dumped the stew into the thick foliage of a plotted plant. There were a few spoonful’s left, but he had to ignore them as Derein turned back toward him.
“Did you like it?” she asked, seeing the bowl.
“Yes, it was wonderful,” he lied.
“You must be getting tired. You can stay here for the night if you like, away from the rain,” she offered.
She had jumped on the idea of sleep rather quickly. He decided to play along and see where the situation took him. He was about to fake a yawn but settled for scratching an eye, trying not to overdo it.
“I’ll take you up on that actually. It’s dangerous at night anyway, especially in the rain.”
There wasn’t a lot of room, so she set up a spot on the floor by the counter. She sacrificed her only pillow and a fur pelt to sleep on as well. Taking his own blanket, and hiding his knife in it, he settled down for the night.
“Would you mind if I stay up longer?” she asked, easing herself into the rocking chair again.
“Not at all,” he said, slurring his words.
The fire still burned, but Apistos closed his eyes and forced his breathing to deepen. He listened as the chair creaked almost in time with the needles clicking together. It was rather soothing.
Apistos forced himself to lie still, as if unconscious rather than just asleep. He kept his grip on the knife, and, after what felt like hours, the rocking and clicking stopped. He managed to stay in control, though his heart pounded
The chair creaked once more, followed by soft footsteps. Every instinct told him to move, but he stayed put.
There was a shuffling close by and a small grunt. He felt her hair brush his cheek, and a small hand touched his jaw. Derein rolled his head to one side.
Apistos’s eyes flew open, and he saw her knife poised inches from his ear. He struck Derein with the hilt of his own knife, connecting with her temple before she could do more than shout.
The bitch tried to kill him! He had seen the rage in her eyes before she was knocked out.
Laying there, slumped and senseless, she appeared innocent again. He couldn’t trust it. Apistos held the knife under her nose to make sure he hadn’t killed her. Her breath fogged the steel. Now he could get some answers.
Scrambling through his pack, he pulled out a length of rope. He dragged Derein to the foot of the bed and tied her to the post where it met the floor. As he tied her, he kept glancing at her swollen stomach. He didn’t want to hurt the baby, nor did he want her to go into labor. He knew stress could induce it. He’d probably vomit at the sight if it fell out of her.
He flicked water onto her face from his traveling skin. She stirred away from the water then jerked awake in surprise.
Apistos kept his distance as she awkwardly rose to sit on her hip.
“Why did you tie me up?” she demanded.
“You tried to fucking kill me!” That had been her first question? “Why?” he demanded instead.
“It had to be done for the baby.” She was timid again, scared.
“How does murdering a man help an unborn kid? I was nothing but nice to you.”
“You don’t understand,” she insisted, growing frantic. “You don’t know how long it’s been. How much it hurts to have this thing inside me.”
“Were you going to eat me?” He supposed he should have been surprised, given that he came searching for a cannibal, but he wasn’t expecting this.
“I have to. It’s been too long. So long. It won’t come out,” she kept saying. Apistos could see her fragile mind in her eyes.
He decided on a gentler approach.
“You mean the baby’s been taking too long?”
The way she sat, hunched over, showed more pain than discomfort. He remembered the chest with hundreds of clothes.
“Derein,” he said softly, kneeling beside her. “How long have you been pregnant?”
She took her time thinking. Her mind had cracked a bit, but it hadn’t shattered.
“Five winters,” she replied.
His breath caught. He had been expecting a few weeks, maybe a month, overdue.
“I know it sounds crazy. It’s also impossible for the babe to grow in two months, but that’s what happened.”
She was staring at him, willing him to understand. There had to be a sane explanation.
“Tell me what happened. All of it,” he said.
“Will you untie me first?”
“No. Explanation first.”
Derein slumped more and shifted. “Fine. I lived in one of the villages around the forest with my parents. They were always good to me. Nothing remarkable ever happened. It was rather boring, really.
“I got sick one day. I was nauseous all the time, and there was a horrible pain in my stomach—like a snake was writhing around inside me. And when the snake bit, I would be left doubled over, screaming. My stomach started growing after a week of pain, and in two months, it was this size.
“Father was angry. He demanded to know who I’d been with, but I’d never been with a man. He believed me, and mother was scared. I could hear them talking when I wasn’t in the room. She thought the gods had cursed me with a monster. Father thought so too, but he wanted to keep me safe.
“I wasn’t allowed to leave the house until this little demon was born. The nausea faded, but I still couldn’t eat much. And the pain never stopped. All I could do was wait for it to rip its way out of me.
“One night, a couple of boys crept up to my window to spy on me. Everyone had heard rumors of my sudden illness. They spotted me and ran. All I was worried about at the time was how cross father would be because I left the window open.
“The next morning, I heard a commotion outside. Everyone from the village had come, demanding to see me. Father refused, but I heard fighting; then my door flew open. The blacksmith and his son dragged me outside. Father was begging them to stop. Mother just kept crying.
“They called me a witch and a whore. They wanted to burn me. Mother and father didn’t do anything! They just watched and cried. I get that they were scared too, but they didn’t try to help.
“An old woman spoke up. She said killing one of the god’s creatures, whether it was born or not, would curse the village.
“It was actually father who suggested banishing me. Mother just wailed. The villagers pushed me toward the tree line, and I couldn’t see my parents anymore. The children started to throw rocks at me, like it was a game.”
Derein was crying, staring at the floor but not seeing it. Apistos sat enwrapped in her tale, sitting against the now cold fireplace.
“Running even hurt, and I didn’t know where to go. I knew which plants were safe to eat, but I grew hungry. I kept thinking I was going to lose the baby. I didn’t mind at the time.
“Eventually I found this house. It was abandoned, so I stayed and made my own little life here. I made a notch in the bed for every day I stayed.”
Apistos still didn’t want to believe her. Despite that, he had a feeling that if he stayed for six months, even three, she’d still be pregnant.
“That . . . that’s . . .” He had no idea how to reply. “I’m so sorry.”
Derein didn’t respond.
“But why did you try to kill me? That would have been plain murder. If you were worried about me finding out about the babe, then send me away.”
“I saw how you kept looking at me, how you wanted to help. Were you willing to leave a poor, defenseless woman alone and pregnant?”
He didn’t bother replying. She had basically read his thoughts.
“So why consume human flesh?” he demanded. It felt like his heart had fallen on the floor.
“I would have died in my first winter,” she explained. “I taught myself how to shoot a bow, but I didn’t know how to track animals. I grew hungry again, and the pain was so horrible. I could feel my baby dying. After a blizzard, I found a man in the woods. He was already dead and didn’t have any provisions on him. I did what I had to. I got my ax, and I took his legs. I was just as disgusted as you are, but when I ate it, the pain stopped. Not just the hunger but the pain. My baby was fine. This child may be a monster, but it’s mine. If it wants human meat, then so be it.”
Derein was watching him now, daring him to challenge her. Everything timid about her had gone.
Apistos felt more spent here than he had during his travels.
“The meat in the stew?” he forced himself to ask.
“It was human.”
His stomach churned. He managed to scramble up to the fireplace before retching. His thoughts drifted to the thin man from before. He wondered if the meat had been that man’s brother and vomited again.
“Oh, come now. It wasn’t that bad,” she said.
She was right. The taste had been fine. He was still thinking of the thin man, though. He had promised to kill the Cannibal for him.
He couldn’t kill Derein. Her confession was enough to condemn her, but she had been scared and alone in a bizarre situation. He wanted to hate her but couldn’t.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her voice was endearing, like a mother’s.
Apistos took a breath then asked, “If I untie you, will you attack me again?”
“I won’t.” Hope lit up her voice.
“I need your word.” He turned back to her, needing to see her reactions.
“You have it,” she said meeting his gaze. “I will not hurt you, Apistos.”
He could overpower her if she tried anyway. He took his knife in hand and cut the rope. He backed away, watching as she moved to sit on the bed. Discomfort lined her features as she massaged her side. She made no move against him. Apistos didn’t think she could in her state. She probably always put the men to sleep first.
“I promised a man back at the village I would kill you,” Apistos admitted.
Derein froze. She covered her stomach, watching him with wide eyes.
“I won’t do it,” he promised. “But I have a friend back home who can help you. He’s a physician who’s delivered babies before. And there’s a technique that can get the baby out, without actually pushing it.”
“What technique?” She sounded dubious but hopeful.
“They cut your stomach and gently lift him out.”
“Are you mad?!” Both arms were crossed over her child again.
“I know women who have survived this. And you’re the one who’s eaten people,” he argued.
“Only for my baby’s survival.”
“This would be the same.”
Urgency set Apistos on edge. This was the only way to help her have the baby and stop people from dying.
Derein took a moment then said, “I don’t want to be cut open.”
Apistos sighed but let it go. “At least come to the city with me. You’ll be safe there, with plenty of food.”
“They’ll turn on me when I don’t go into labor,” she said. The hope was leaving her.
“I won’t let them.” He had no idea how to stop an entire city from fearing her, but he’d try.
Derein smiled at him. There was no joy in it, hardly even peace.
“I’m staying here,” she said. “I’ll wait for my baby.”
There was no swaying her. Apistos couldn’t even be mad. She was frightened and for good reason.
“I can’t stay,” he admitted. He couldn’t handle this insanity. “But I’ll come back in a few days with a plan. Can you promise not to kill anyone else?”
“You have my word on that too,” she said solemnly. “I never liked doing it anyway.”
He saw the haunted look in her eyes. His heart went out to her. She had done awful things, but he still wanted to help. He just needed time away to think.
“I’ll come back,” he promised, gathering his pack.
“You don’t have to, but I appreciate it.” She smiled but looked exhausted.
He cast one last glance and tried to smile before stepping into the night.
He found a small, relatively flat space to spend the night in the rain.
Derein wouldn’t leave his thoughts. He could only watch the flames of the fire he’d managed to light and think of her alone in that cabin. What would she do when the labor finally started and she was alone? He saw her on the floor, unable to move, screaming in time with the clenching pain as blood poured out of her.
Guilt clawed at him like an animal. He even saw her when he closed his eyes. He grunted in frustration and stood back up. He went back to the cabin, trying to think of something.
There was a candle lit inside when he entered the clearing. He knocked on the door, but there was only silence on the other side.
“Derein, it’s me. Open the door. We can think of something together,” he called.
He hadn’t expected her to throw herself at him, but at least open the door. He twisted the rusty knob.
His breath was ripped out of his chest when he stepped inside. Derein sat in the rocking chair with blood oozing from a wound on her stomach. Her throat was slit like a twisted, bloody grin where it shouldn’t be. Blood soaked the nightdress, thick enough to reflect the candlelight.
Apistos managed an uneasy step toward her, still unable to breathe right. He couldn’t have been gone for longer than an hour. He touched her hand hanging over the chair. It was still warm.
His legs gave out then, and he collapsed on the bed, unable to look away from the warm corpse. Apistos forced air into his lungs, trying to steady himself. Something thin crumpled under his palm. There was a note beside him that hadn’t been there when he left. He didn’t even know she could write.
“Apistos, I hope you don’t come back, but if you do, I am grateful. I wanted to say goodbye to someone. I’ve been waiting so long for my child. If he doesn’t want to be born in this world, that’s fine. I’ll meet him in the next.”
There wasn’t enough room to sign her name.
The guilt struck harder, and he bent over, doubled on the bed. Tears streaked down, but he didn’t care.
He sat there, next to Derein, clutching her note.
The day was overcast again, but the rain didn’t fall. Weather always did what it wanted, but it fit Apistos’s mood. Sal’s laboratory was damp beneath his house and lit from the gray light outside. The lanterns Sal had lit hadn’t helped much.
Sal stood across the operating table with Apistos. He was a rather tall man with short black hair. Most men preferred their hair in the longer fashion, but Sal found it got in his way.
“Tell me what happened, Apistos,” Sal said calmly over the body that lay between them. “You look awful.”
Apistos told Sal nearly everything. He described meeting Derein, her story of the babe, and how long she said she’d been pregnant for. He didn’t say a word about the cannibalism.
“Five years?! That’s not—”
“I know it’s impossible,” Apistos interrupted. “It doesn’t even sound sane, but I saw how many clothes she’d made.”
He was gripping the table, trying to gain control. The seven-day trek home with a corpse hadn’t been pleasant.
“I have to know what’s inside her,” he admitted.
Sal took a moment to reply then asked, “Are you sure?”
“It’s probably not human.”
“I know that.”
“Alright. Either way, it will be fascinating.”
Apistos didn’t think so.
Sal removed the blankets, uncovering Derein. Apistos had managed to clean most of the blood away, but her dress had dried to a crusty maroon. The slit at her throat exposed the rotting tissue, and the wound of her belly was just as horrid.
Sal gripped the hem of her dress by her knees.
“Wait, no.” Apistos stopped him before he could tear the dress. He didn’t want to see her exposed like that. “Just tear it open over her stomach.”
Sal shrugged and put the dress back. He took a small knife, only about an inch long, and cut the fabric just under her breasts. He used the hole to tear down the dress. The pregnant stomach ballooned above her, gray and cold.
Sal placed a hand on her belly and reached for the knife again. He stopped and looked back at Derein’s stomach, confused.
“What is it?” Apistos asked.
“It’s not right,” Sal said. Using both hands now, he pushed on various points, avoiding the stab wound. “The fetus basically floats in a sack of fluid inside the womb. From the outside, it’s like an overfull wineskin, but with something slightly hard inside: the baby. With this, though, her skin gives way, but then it’s solid. It’s like she swallowed a boulder.”
“Is it because she’s gone?”
“No, the fluid should still be there. It hasn’t been that long.”
Sal gripped the small knife and positioned it as he had to tear the dress. His cut was smooth and precise from practice. The skin didn’t bleed, which was more than unnerving for Apistos, but Sal appeared calm, even curious. The blade followed the curve of Derein’s belly, cut the original wound in half at the top, then down. Sal set the knife aside once he was done and, without bothering with gloves, pulled the skin apart.
A horrid, crimson mass bulged out. Apistos backed away, nearly retching. It was rounded off, but looked like it was made from a patchwork of growths. There were dark red seams where they had met against the skin.
“This . . . what?” Sal said, equally horrified.
“Is that the womb?” Apistos asked, relying on Sal’s medical knowledge.
“No. That’s one solid organ. This is just a mass of . . . tumors.”
Sal took a long knife and cut into the decaying mass. Apistos forced himself to watch, taking shallow breaths.
“There’s no baby in here.”