This story is by Leigh-An Johnson and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
SARA SHIVERED in the autumn air and flinched at every shadow as she was herded along with the other women of her small town into the hallowed ground of the church. Her brother’s arm was tight around her shoulders.
“Don’t do this Jon,” she tried again to appeal to him. “I will not lose you as well.”
“Don’t worry sweet sister.” Jonathan kissed her gently on the temple. “The beast that took your intended will not live past this night.”
He spoke with certainty in the righteousness of their task. He was always so sure. Sara wished she had half his confidence.
Father Joseph called the men to assemble. As her brother stepped away, Sara felt the empty space at her side like a ghost already haunting her.
Mrs. Walker who lived two houses down from them was clutching her grandson’s hand in a grip that belied her age. Sara moved to comfort her, slipping her hand in place of the boy’s. The old widow’s milky, half-blind eyes found the priest as he called the young men to him.
“You pen us in like cattle while you lead our boys to slaughter,” she wailed.
Father Joseph’s face twisted into a nasty scowl at the old woman before he smoothed it out into his familiar assured countenance, so quick Sara almost thought she’d mistaken the glare.
“Fret not, Widow Walker,” the priest’s icy voice made an attempt at being soothing. “We will send this devil in disguise back to hell.”
Since the hound was first sighted, Old Widow Walker had insisted that the dog’s wrath was wrought by their own actions; the creature protected the pure and only feasted on those stained with sin.
The women dismissed her as being touched by age.
The men dismissed her as being a woman.
But Sara knew the Old Widow’s tales had earned Father Joseph’s ire as his son was now among the slain.
Sara straightened as Father Joseph turned his gaze on her. He raised his hand to her cheek, gently tracing the fresh scar that marred her otherwise lovely face.
“Do not fear, sweet child. This beast from hell has taken from us both, but I will see that you are cared for. After all, we were to be family. I know how dearly you loved our Elias.” His thin lips lifted into a smile that did not touch his eyes, grey like his son’s.
Sara held still until he turned away, then clutched her coat more tightly around her. She shivered despite the warmth of the hearth spilling through the open door, the fear in her heart now bone deep.
The crunch of frozen leaves was unnaturally loud underfoot as the clergyman led the townsfolk out, charging farmers, builders and cooks with taking up arms to hunt the beast. The eyes of the stained glass angels looked on and Sara prayed them to watch over her brother.
Sara tasted the bitter falsehoods on her tongue that had set them on this course, yet even now she did not dare speak the truth. She didn’t dare say that it was not the beast who’d harmed her that evening coming home from visiting her parents’ graves. They would call her a witch and say the beast was her familiar to explain why it had left her untouched.
But when the great black dog had loomed over her, its muzzle dripping with her fiancé’s gore and eyes alight with the fires of the pit gazing into her soul, Sara had not seen the devil burning in those eyes.
No, she had seen the devil in the eyes of the man, in the tankard of rum that slurred his speech and turned his hands into fists, in the sharpness of the blade that had sliced her cheek and cut away at her dress.
The women huddled in the church, keeping the fire tended and singing hymns to warm their spirits until the midnight hour came.
A howl rang out as the church bells sang.
Sara thought of her brother and his loving embrace. She thought of Widow Walker’s grandson and his dealings down by the docks, the baker’s kind smiles, and Pastor Joseph’s cold grey eyes.
Sara knew not for whom, only that death had come.